China Had Explorers, Too

When we talk about the Age of Exploration it’s all focused on the Europeans and the Atlantic World. But China had explored the Pacific world long before the Europeans made it cool. Remember that Shi Huangdi sent Taoist scholars out to explore new lands and discover the elixir of life – they might have ended up colonizing Japan. And during the Tang Dynasty, they expanded their influence over most of East Asia, especially Korea and Japan.

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And 100 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Ming Dynasty was sending out an explorer named Zheng He to assert Chinese dominance across Asia and East Africa. Zheng He traveled on the largest ships in the world, showcasing Ming technology in shipbuilding and navigation – long before the Portuguese Prince Henry set up his Navigation School.

The life of zheng he

Zheng He was born in the Himalayas during the Mongol era. His father served as a minor official in the Mongol government, although he was actually a Persian Muslim. During the Pax Mongolica, land trade along the Silk Road flourished but after Genghis Khan’s death the infighting amongst the different khans made land-based trade more dangerous, encouraging various empire’s to invest in sea-based trading to avoid the Mongol hordes.

When Zheng He was only 10, the new Ming Dynasty – which had taken back control from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty – invaded and took over Zheng He’s homeland, killing his father. Zheng He was castrated and given to the emperor’s son as a servant. He and the prince became very close and when he eventually came to rule as the Yongle Emperor (the emperor of “perpetual happiness”) he made Zheng He his chief of staff.

zheng he’s voyages

This emperor was ambitious, he conquered Vietnam, extended the Great Wall and built a new capital called Beijing, which included a Forbidden City where only the emperor and his servants could go. Side note: a few years ago, a Starbucks was put in the Forbidden City in China to serve all the tourists that visit. So I guess the only thing that’s forbidden now is good coffee. Zing!

The emperor also wanted to control Indian Ocean trade and so he tasked Zheng He with building a fleet and venturing out. For comparison, while Columbus’s Santa Maria was just 85 feet, Zheng He’s main ship was 400 feet long. Zheng He ventured around the Indian Ocean for the next 30 years, bringing back the heads of rebellious pirates, luxury goods from India, and giraffes and zebras from Africa, among other things. Over the course of his seven voyages he made it all the way to the southern tip of Africa, up the Red Sea, into the Persian Gulf, through the Philippines and Indonesia. If he’d only had an Instagram account he could have gotten so many followers.

Zheng He died on his seventh voyage in his 60s and the Ming emperors almost immediately ended all sea exploration. Why? China could have ruled the entire Indian Ocean if they had wanted to, but instead their massive ships were abandoned and left to rot. Craftsmen slowly forgot a lot of the shipbuilding techniques they had learned and China retreated inward.

China retreats

What happened? It looks like there was conflict between the Confucian scholars and the eunuch’s of the emperors court. The eunuchs supported the voyages and were seen as a threat to the Confucian scholars’ supremacy, who believed that China had everything they needed already and wanted to focus on internal issues. Confucians, in general, see merchants as the lowest on the social ladder – unethical, not producing anything of their own, and dealing with outsiders who are not as worthy as the Chinese people.

Also, most of China’s threats lay to the north beyond the Great Wall. It looks like they abandoned ocean exploration in favor of shoring up the north so that another Mongol invasion couldn’t happen. This is also why they never took gunpowder technology to the place the Europeans did – guns were relatively inaccurate and were not as suited for the type of warfare they fought against nomadic horsemen.

The point is that the Europeans weren’t the only ones who were capable of exploring and conquering the world. But the other powers, especially China, had more immediate concerns to deal with and not as much motivation to venture outward. Confucianism focused them on internal issues and they already had everything they needed trade wise. So they closed up shop and let the Europeans dominate the seas. I’m sure it won’t come back to bite them later…

Next up: The Sort-Of Gunpowder Empires