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Chinese Maritime Expansion and Western Navigators


Tang and Overseas Trade. By the Tang era (618-907) there was extensive sea trade with Japan and Korea. The Japanese and Koreans entered China by way of the mouth of either the Huai or Yangzi (Yangtze) rivers at Hangzhou, thence by canal to the capital, Chang’an. They did not use the Yellow River because it was not navigable in its upper reaches. The ordinary crossing from Japan to China took from five to ten days. Many Buddhist monks and pilgrims also traveled on this route, carrying incense and medicines from China to Japan. In addition to Japan, the Tang court had significant connections with Arab and Persian lands. Hangzhou was the principal port, where thousands of Arab and Persian traders lived.

Song Maritime Techniques. Many improvements in seafaring occurred in the Song period. Through experimentation the Song people developed large ships, each with four or six masts, twelve sails, and four decks, capable of carrying about one thousand men. Anchors, rudders, drop-keels, capstans, canvas sails, and watertight compartments had been improved or adopted since the Tang dynasty. Moreover, Song cartography was the most precise and accurate in the world at the time, far surpassing medieval European mapmaking with its religious themes. Song mariners also compiled detailed sounding and current information on the coastlines. More important, the application of the compass, which had been used by geomancers for a long time, to maritime needs made ocean voyages much safer for the Chinese.

Economic Causes. Although progress in navigational techniques made marine expansion possible, the development of the mercantile economy really made the difference. Cut off from access to Central Asia and contained in its expansion toward the North and Northwest by the great empires that were rising on its frontiers, the Song empire turned to the sea. Its economic focus shifted toward the trading and maritime regions of the Southeast where the Yangzi (Yangtze) River had extensive tributaries. The sea routes ran from the Abbasid Empire and connected the Persian Gulf with India, Southeast Asia, and the Chinese coast. Japanese, Javanese, and Korean pirates plagued the lanes, but the Song successfully curbed some of their more-damaging raids.

Yuan Influence. Although the Mongols were not natural sailors, they nevertheless used sea transport to great effect in developing the spice trade between the Indies and Europe, via Persia and Egypt. Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth-century Muslim traveler from Tangiers, left the southern

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Chinese port of Amoy and sailed south, carrying silk, porcelain, tea, and camphor to the Malay Straits, where he picked up spices for the journey farther west to the Persian Gulf. The profits earned in such commerce encouraged European (primarily Portuguese) trading networks in East Asia in the sixteenth century.

Motivations of Ming. Prestige, suzerainty, and trade, rather than territorial acquisition, represented the major motivations of the Ming emperors (1368-1644) for mari-time expansion. Between 1405 and 1433 the Ming court dispatched seven major overseas expeditions under Zheng He, which confirmed the military and political assertiveness of the empire and brought tributary envoys to China. In consequence of the fourth voyage, for example, nineteen kingdoms sent tribute including silk, embroideries, various exotic objects, and animals, particularly giraffes.

Spice Trade. During the fifteenth century, European traders carried spices from the Syrian and Egyptian ports to the rest of Europe. After the conversion of Persia to Islam halted the trade in that region, the Egyptians used their monopoly to raise prices. As a result, Portugal, Spain, England, France, and Holland all sought other routes.

Portuguese. The first Western navigators arrived in China at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In 1511 the Portuguese captured Malacca, the former ally and base city of the Ming expeditions. Within six years Portuguese ships reached the south coast of China, and some of their commanders were sent up to Beijing on a tribute mission. The mission was not a success because the newcomers did not understand their role and behaved disgracefully, at least in Chinese eyes. They were sent off and forbidden to return. Meanwhile the Portuguese, observing the vast

coastline and the absence of effective policing of commerce, decided to establish a colony in China. With the connivance of corrupt local Chinese officials, the Portuguese occupied the island of Macao in 1557 and established factories, warehouses, offices, and living quarters. This event marked the beginning of a new era, which led to the invasion by Western mercantile fleets and to the end of Chinese isolation.

Ships. The Portuguese were successful in establishing a colony in China because of their powerful ships. Portuguese vessels were built to perform on long deep-sea voy-ages. Chinese ships, meanwhile, were smaller, lighter, and designed for short voyages; so were those of Japan. The great ships that Zheng He used were no longer built either by the government or by private merchants. Portuguese ships, however, could be built openly in either government or private yards.

Dutch. In the early seventeenth century the Protestant Dutch began to sail into the South China Sea and thereafter had conflicts with the Catholic Portuguese. With bribery the Portuguese secured a Chinese prohibition of Dutch trade in 1607, and the Dutch, like the Japanese and Portuguese before them, promptly turned to smuggling and piracy. They felt free to prey on everyone, Asian and Portuguese, believing that piracy against pagans was not a sin. Since the Dutch did not receive permission to trade or use any islands near the coast as bases, they occupied the large island of Taiwan in 1623 and made it their colony, although the Portuguese used it earlier and named the island Formosa, which means “beautiful.”

Taiwan. The island had been incorporated into the Chinese empire during the Tang period. By the early seventeenth century, settlers from the mainland had occupied most of the western fertile plains, confining the native inhabitants, a non-Chinese people, to the eastern mountain chain. Taiwan was supposed to be a prefecture of the province of Fujian. Since the Ming government did not have an effective navy, their control over the province was limited before the Dutch took it over. Pirates of all nationalities had long resorted to this safe refuge. After the Dutch occupied it, order was kept, pirates were excluded, and taxation was lighter than in Ming China. Thereafter, Chinese migration rapidly increased. The Dutch occupation of Taiwan was in many ways the model of the later Dutch empire in Southeast Asia.


George H. Dunne, Generation of Giants: The Story of the Jesuits in China in the Last Decades of the Ming Dynasty (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1962).

C. P. Fitzgerald, The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1972).

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1400-1433 (New York: Simon 6c Schuster, 1994).

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Chinese Maritime Expansion and Western Navigators

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