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China focused mainly on inward expansion throughout much of its history, and most of its seafaring took place in their coastal waters and the Indian Ocean. The most famous Chinese ocean explorer is Admiral Zheng He, who undertook seven expeditions over three decades during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Unlike many European explorations, Chinese exploration was not motivated by Chinese colonial expansion.
Much important exploration has occurred through sea voyages, which were a starting point for a form of globalization in the early modern era of world history. While European and Western explorers more generally have received much attention, the Chinese were also active in exploration. A land-based nation, China is also surrounded by four seas: the Bo Hai Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea, which link China to the Pacific and Indian oceans. Mainland China has favorable conditions for sailing in terms of the climatic patterns: sea and ocean currents, tidal patterns, and inland transportation to the coast.
In addition to maritime exploration, during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) overland Chinese explorers, such as Zhang Qian, made contact with kingdoms in Central Asia, India, Persia, and the Middle East. It is thought that Gan Ying, an emissary of General Ban Chao, might also have ranged as far as Roman-era Syria late in the first century CE. And while the Silk Roads continued to connect China to the outside world and remained a key source of trade, soon China’s exploratory efforts would turn more exclusively towards the seas.
China’s Th ree Early Sea Routes
China’s maritime activities have undergone a long evolution. Although scholars have debated when and how Chinese maritime exploration began, and how just much Chinese sailors achieved in their premodern era (ending around 1840), the extent of China’s maritime undertakings can be seen from the sea routes that Chinese sailors used. There were three types of routes: local short-range routes along China’s own coast; medium-range routes to eastern Asia, southern Asia, and Southeast Asia; and long-range routes to western Asia and eastern Africa.
By the Western Han period (206 BCE–8 CE), it is recorded that Chinese ships reached as far as Simhala (now Sri Lanka). In the Eastern Han period (25–220 CE), Chinese ships went beyond Sri Lanka to reach destinations in western Asia. In 97 CE, Gan Ying, the Chinese envoy designated to the Roman Empire, went as far as the edge of the Persian Gulf. From the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) onward, some of these sea routes were frequently used by the Chinese, the Indians, and Arabs; they formed the so-called Silk Routes (as compared with the overland Silk Roads).
Maritime Growth Begins
By the tenth century, most of the sea routes used by the Chinese followed coastlines. Major maritime progress was made during the Song dynasty (960–1279), when China experienced its medieval economic revolution. For the first time, Chinese ships were able to cross some 2,300 kilometers of open waters in the Indian Ocean from Malacca to Sri Lanka, avoiding the coastal detour in the Bay of Bengal. They even sailed from Sri Lanka to Ghubbat al Qamar, an inlet of the Arabian Sea on the Arabian Peninsula, across another 4,000 kilometers of ocean. This was a huge leap in Chinese maritime advancement.
With ongoing incremental improvements in technology, the Chinese sailed faster and more accurately. As a result, sea voyages became progressively shorter. In Western Han times, a trip to the vicinity of Singapore took some 150 days, but the same journey took only 40 days during the Song dynasty. During the Sui (581–618 CE) and Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties, it took more than a month to travel from Sri Lanka to the Persian Gulf, whereas by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), to cover a similar distance took just twenty or so days.
Central to Chinese progress in sailing were improvements in navigation and shipbuilding. Astronomical navigation became well established in China by the end of the ninth century, and it was enhanced by the invention and use of the compass during the tenth century, which led to the stage of partial dead reckoning, that is, navigating in part without reliance on the stars, using measured travel distance and compass positions instead. In time, sophisticated seaway compass charts became available among Chinese navigators; these contained information on main landmarks, star elevations at chosen locations in different seasons, travel distances, and compass readings for various sea routes. A good example is Zheng He hanghai tu (The Navigation Chart of Zheng He’s Voyages), from the fifteenth century.
In terms of shipbuilding, Chinese technology reached its maturity by the twelfth century with the Fuzhou-type ship (fuchuan), which was used exclusively for sea voyages. Its main features were a ballasted keel and bilge keels together with a low deck length–beam ratio for stability; a V-shaped bottom and multiple sails and jibs (three to twelve as recorded) for speed; multiple stern rudders for steering; and a hull of clinker-arranged planks with multiple holds for a stronger structure. During the same period, the versatile shallow-water ship (shachuan), commonly known as the Chinese junk, was also invented; its distinctive features were a keel-less hull and a U-shaped bottom. The Fuzhou-type was the standard for the Ming fleet.
By the mid-fifteenth century, the Chinese were among the most knowledgeable, best-equipped, and widest-traveled sailors in the world, having come by 1440 to a total of 153 new places in such geographically dispersed regions as Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the East African coast, and even the Mediterranean region.
Ming Voyages: Glory and Outcome
Undoubtedly, the best-known recorded case of Chinese exploration was that of Admiral Zheng He (1371– 1433). Without Zheng He and his publicized seven voyages to the Indian Ocean, much of Chinese maritime ability and achievements may have been obscured in history, as happened with the Polynesians.
Recruited as a young eunuch to enter the inner circle of the Ming Court, Zheng was appointed in his early thirties to command a long ocean-going voyage in 1405, despite the fact that he had no apparent sailing experience. It appears that Zheng’s constant sailing for the next three decades (until 1433) served the Ming court the purpose of keeping him away from state politics—a dignified way to achieve his exile following his involvement in a court coup. In this context, there was an element of sailing for the sake of sailing associated with Zheng’s journeys, all of which resulted in economic losses for the Ming dynasty. Nor did Zheng He’s voyages lead to greater prosperity in foreign trade, which might have let the court recoup the cost of the voyages.
In reality, the sole purpose of the ill-defined voyages was as a public relations campaign to win friends for China overseas. Indeed, Zheng and his men behaved like philanthropists, distributing gifts wherever they went. Even so, the actual effectiveness of the campaign remains highly questionable. The number of countries that paid tribute to the Ming increased very little during and after Zheng’s voyages. The main evidence that “international peace” was promoted by Zheng’s visits comes from the fact that Zheng set up four regular stopovers in Champa (in present-day southern Vietnam), Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and Guli (Calicut in present-day India) instead of turning these places into China’s colonies.
Spectacular as they were, Zheng He’s multiplelegged trips were by no means unprecedented in Chinese diplomacy: twelve centuries earlier, during the Three Kingdoms period (221–265 CE), Sun Quan, the King of Wu, sent Zhu Ying and Kang Tai overseas for a twenty-year diplomatic mission, during which time they visited Southeast Asia, the south Asian subcontinent, and the Arabian Sea region. Similar efforts were made during Yuan rule (1279–1368). And Zheng He was not alone in his adventuring during the Ming: another navigator, Shi Jinqing (d. 1421), toured Asia as imperial commissioner, traveling at least as far as Sumatra, Java, and Japan.
Due to the unclear motives, extravagant nature, and doubtful impact of Zheng’s voyages, the Confucian literati during the Ming did their very best to ignore them. Zheng’s records survived only in the hands of his closest aides, Ma Huan and Fei Xin, in the form of travelogues entitled Yingya shenglan (Tours to Great Sites Overseas) and Xingcha shenglan (Voyages on Heavenly Rafts), written in 1451 and 1460, respectively. Since then, most of Zheng’s findings have remained unknown to the large majority of the Chinese population.
However, the sheer scale of Zheng’s operation shows China’s organizational skills and accomplishments in the maritime sector: as many as 208 vessels and around 28,000 marines were involved in a single voyage, taking multiple sea routes simultaneously with detachments in order to maximize geographic coverage. It has even been suggested that Zheng’s detachments may have visited Australia and parts of America across the Atlantic Ocean.
In the end, Zheng’s voyages proved to be unsustainable. Cool-headed cost-benefit calculation finally prevailed among Confucian decision makers, and such wasteful voyages were never undertaken again. Chinese sailors during the Qing dynasty (1644– 1911/12) were content to remain within the China seas. In a twist of historical fate, this made Zheng a legend and his journeys the pinnacle of Chinese maritime history; Zheng achieved a worldwide record that was only broken by Europeans with different political and economic institutions and agendas, as seen from the activities of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.
China’s achievements in exploration over the long run (from the beginning of the Han in 206 BCE until the end of Zheng’s journeys in 1433 CE) were significant by premodern standards. But, as in many other areas, upon turning inward the Chinese were surpassed by the post-Renaissance Europeans, who enjoyed the fruits of the scientific revolution, the military revolution and, finally, the Industrial Revolution. All of these revolutions took place after Zheng’s era.
Ironically, during the late nineteenth century when the Chinese took to the sea again in large numbers, they were no longer accomplished mariners on showy Chinese treasure ships. Rather, they were helpless coolie laborers on foreign ships on the way to sell their cheap labor to the West, showing just how poor and weak China had become since Zheng’s time.
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