International Exploration in the Chinese Empire: Zheng He’s Voyages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

There were so many things that enabled the Chinese empire to maintain itself for centuries, that it is no surprise that they thought themselves self-sufficient. But for many centuries the empire encouraged international exploration, like the treasure voyages that Zheng He embarked on.

The statue of Zheng He.
Zheng He led voyages of exploration during the later Ming dynasty. (Image: Char.Da/Shutterstock)

The Factors that Helped Maintain the Empire

One factor that contributed to the long life of the empire was China’s early mastery of wet-rice cultivation. The second, and closely related factor was the perfection of large-scale water management techniques. The third factor was the creation of an efficient civil service, with recruitment by competitive examination.

The fourth factor was the adoption of a patriarchal value system that emphasized the obedience of wives to their husbands, sons to their fathers, and subjects to their emperor; and which stressed the wellbeing of the entire family over the rights and liberties of its individual members.

The fifth advantage was a well-developed legal code that deterred deviant behavior by prescribing swift and severe punishment for a wide range of crimes and misdemeanors. Sixth was the development of advanced metallurgical techniques that sustained the large-scale manufacture of military armaments.

A seventh advantage was the fortuitous circumstance of being ringed on three sides by smaller, weaker states willing to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in exchange for being left alone to enjoy peace and tranquility.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Habit of Complacency

It is a tragic irony of modern Chinese history that the extraordinary success of Imperial China’s agrarian civilization, extending over such a long period of time and such a broad expanse of territory, bred habits of complacency, insularity, and arrogance.

Believing China to be self-contained and superior in all things, both material and moral, a succession of Chinese emperors shunned all but the most transient and superficial contacts with the outside world.

Basking in the glory of their own moral and institutional supremacy and superiority, they remained blissfully ignorant of the coming of the Renaissance in post-medieval Europe, and the subsequent dawning of the Age of Enlightenment, with its signature revolutions in science and technology. But it was not always thus.

Learn more about the splendor that was China, 600-1700.

A Tradition of Exploration and Trade

For almost 800 years, from the Tang dynasty in the 7th century C.E. to the early Ming of the 15th century, long-distance oceanic trade and maritime exploration flourished in China. By the 8th century, Chinese traders had sailed to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Ceylon, and as far west as the Persian Gulf.

By the end of the 8th century, seafaring Chinese explorers had navigated around the Arabian peninsula to the horn of Africa, reaching Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt via the Red Sea. By the 9th century, three different maritime trade routes had been opened linking China to East Africa.

The lure of trade also brought Middle Eastern and North African merchants and adventurers to China. By the 12th century, southern Chinese seaports in Guangzhou and Quanzhou were playing host to thousands of foreign travelers, including substantial numbers of permanent settlers.

The Explorations of Zheng He

The high point of Chinese maritime exploration was undoubtedly reached in the early 15th century, under the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty. At the outset of that century, seven major oceanic expeditions were mounted by the famous navigator Zheng He.

Seventy-five years before Columbus set sail for the West Indies, Zheng sailed his massive fleet of more than 200 six-masted Chinese ships, manned by 28,000 crewmen, to ports in Southeast Asia, India, Ceylon, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, and East Africa.

Emperor Chengzu of the Ming dynasty, also called the Yongle Emperor.
It was under the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty that Zheng He set off on the greatest maritime Chinese explorations of the empire.(Unknown artist/Public domain)

Zheng He: China’s Goodwill Ambassador

Although Zheng He’s army was formidable, and though he did not shrink from engaging in displays of military force when confronted by hostile local rulers, his fleet of treasure ships went abroad not as conquerors but as cultural goodwill ambassadors.

Wherever he went, Zheng He liberally dispensed gifts of Chinese silk and porcelain, accepting in return valuable native products from his hosts, including a variety of exotic African animals destined for the imperial zoo in Beijing, where their latter-day descendants still reside. He also brought with him back to China, as guests of the imperial court, emissaries from at least 30 princely states from around the world.

Zheng He’s Fall from Grace

Although Zheng He was undoubtedly the most successful maritime explorer and goodwill ambassador in Chinese history, his pioneering journeys ended not in glory but in disgrace. Following the death in 1424 of Zheng He’s patron, the Yongle Emperor, a cabal of conservative court officials decreed an end to Chinese maritime exploration.

Fearing Zheng He’s growing fame and political influence, they burned all of his nautical charts and shipbuilding blueprints, and allowed his decommissioned treasure ships to rot in the harbor. Zheng himself died on his final voyage in 1433 and was buried at sea.

Learn more about the self-strengthening movement, 1860-1890.

Diminishing Trade Contacts of the Empire

A similar process of diminishing exposure to the outside world marked China’s overland trade contacts with the peoples and cultures of Central and Western Asia. Long-distance trade via the Silk Road flourished from 7th century onward. But with the disintegration of the Mongol empire in the 14th century, commercial travel via overland routes toward the west became perilous for Chinese merchants.

By the 1430s, the Ming dynasty had turned almost totally inward, displaying little or no interest in maintaining contact with the societies and civilizations of Central and West Asia.

Consequently, by the middle of the 15th century, China was effectively cut off from the outside world, first by sea, then by land, and then, perhaps most unfortunate of all, by imperial mandate. It was as if a giant curtain of ignorance had been drawn around the Middle Kingdom.

For the next 400 years China’s emperors shunned foreign exploration and contact of any kind. Looking inward, they consigned themselves to an insular, smug self-satisfied existence, an existence that would eventually cost them—and China—dearly.

Common Questions about Exploration and Trade in the Middle Kingdom

Q: What was the idea of patriarchy that made the Chinese empire successful?

The Chinese empire was made successful by a patriarchal value system that emphasized the obedience of wives to their husbands, sons to their fathers, and subjects to their emperor. This system stressed the wellbeing of the entire family over the rights and liberties of its individual members.

Q: What was the state of Chinese exploration in the 8th and 9th centuries?

By the end of the 8th century, seafaring Chinese explorers had navigated around the Arabian Peninsula to the horn of Africa, reaching Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt via the Red Sea. By the 9th century, three different maritime trade routes had been opened linking China to East Africa.

Q: What places did Zheng He explore in his journeys?

In the early 15th century, Zheng He sailed his massive fleet of more than 200 six-masted Chinese ships, manned by 28,000 crewmen, to ports in Southeast Asia, India, Ceylon, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, and East Africa.

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