When China Ruled the Seas

In the brief period from 1405 to 1433, a great Chinese fleet, under the command of the eunuch admiral Zheng He, ruled the seas all the way to India and East Africa. Why did the Chinese withdraw from their maritime supremacy and leave the seas to be dominated by the Europeans? (public domain).

In the brief period from 1405 to 1433, a great Chinese fleet, under the command of the eunuch admiral Zheng He (pronounced "Jung Huh"), ruled the seas all the way to India and East Africa. During these years, half the world was in China's grasp.

Zheng He was a Muslim from a rebel family. He had been castrated as a boy and taken into the household of the emperor's son, Zhu Di. He grew up to be a brilliant and tenacious man and a natural leader of imposing physical stature. When Zhu Di conspired to overthrow the emperor, Zheng He proved his loyalty and leadership as one of his military commanders.

China’s Fleet

No one is sure why emperor Zhu Di decided to build such an enormous navy. Some said it was to search the world for the deposed emperor, who had escaped disguised as a Buddhist monk. The great ships, which included enormous junks up to 120 metres long, with nine masts and 12 square sails made of silk, would certainly overawe anyone who saw them and they were packed with valuable trade goods.

Zhu Di chose Zheng He to command the first expedition of 317 ships and 28,000 sailors, which left Nanking harbour in 1405. Before they left, the crew bowed before the compass (a Chinese invention, see Close-Ups: Invention of the Compass), which would be their guide and salvation. It was the largest fleet that the world had ever seen and it would not be surpassed for another 500 years.

Zheng He's fleet sailed into the East China Sea, down the Chinese coast and southward toward Vietnam. It sailed on to Java, Sumatra, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) and the city of Calicut on the Indian coast, trading its silk and porcelains for mahogany, camphor, aloe wood, ebony, frankincense, pearls, pepper and ginger along the way.

Future expeditions made their way to Persia and to the coast of Africa. Zheng He could easily have made his way around Africa to Europe, but that backward part of the world had little interest for the Chinese.

Zheng He’s Final Expedition

Zhu Di died in 1424. His successor Zhu Gaozhi showed no interest in the sea but when he was succeeded only nine months later, the new emperor Zhu Zhanji ordered a final expedition, the largest yet. Zheng He knew it would be his last. In 1431, he died and was buried at sea. Zheng's death marked the end of China's seafaring adventures.

The Chinese emperors turned inward. They saw the Great Wall as their protector, not the sea. They returned to Confucian principles, which decreed that men should stay home, and tend their families. By 1500, it was a crime to go to sea. In 1525, an edict ordered the destruction of all ocean-going ships. Within a generation, the knowledge of how to build the great ships was lost and the Chinese never recovered their technical edge.

Thus China withdrew from the seas at the very moment when European nations were venturing further and further, trying to find a sea route to the very ports abandoned by the Chinese. In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama finally reached Calicut, India. No doubt the local merchants were disappointed in the meagre woollens and trinkets that he offered in trade.