Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): Foreign Trade

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Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): Foreign Trade


Tribute System. Over time the Chinese government developed a mechanism known as the “tribute system” to deal with the outside world. Under this system a tribute state accepted its vassal status to the Chinese and was required to exchange envoys and gifts, monitor foreign trade, and handle diplomatic relations. Scholars such as John K. Fairbank have argued that rather than being “an aggressive imperialism,” the tribute system was “a defensive expression of culturalism.” To maintain relations with China, a foreign country had to accept Chinese terms and recognize the supremacy of Chinese civilization and its emperors. Although an asymmetric relationship developed between China and the tribute state, the latter still benefited in terms of increased trade (in the form of gift

exchanges), cultural inspiration, and military protection from the Chinese government in times of need.

Maritime Expeditions. One of the major means under-taken in expanding foreign contacts during the Ming dynasty was a series of seven great maritime expeditions, spanning from 1405 to 1433, led by a Muslim eunuch named Zheng He (Cheng Ho). The first expedition was manned by 28,000 sailors onboard 62 or 63 large ships and 255 smaller vessels. The succeeding voyages were similar in scale; they reached not only the southeastern Asian nations but also the Indian coast, the Persian Gulf, and the east coast of Africa. These unprecedented voyages reveal the advanced development of Chinese shipbuilding and navigational skills. Zheng He’s fleets included ships of more

than one hundred meters in length, with four decks and a dozen watertight compartments. These huge ships were powered by sails hung from multiple masts. Guided by compasses, navigators used accurate sailing directions.

Expeditionary Importance. The initial purposes of these imperial expeditions were to demonstrate the glory and strength of the Ming government and to incorporate the southern and southeastern Asian states into the tribute system. These voyages successfully displayed the military and political vitality of the regime and brought many foreign envoys to the Chinese court. In addition to the traditional tributary states of Vietnam and Siam, about fifty more states were brought into the system. Apart from the diplomatic and political motives, these voyages also served to stimulate significant foreign trade. Ships carried Chinese silk, textiles, chinaware, and copper coins to areas of Asia that had desired these commodities for centuries. In return, exotic objects and animals were imported from these foreign lands. The animals greatly amused the emperor and court officials. For example, giraffes brought to Beijing particularly delighted the ruler. Although the court did not initiate the expeditions for their commercial benefits, these voyages attracted more attention from people of different lands to Chinese products.

Ming Anticommercialism. Scholars have speculated about the causes behind the sudden termination of these voyages. One obvious reason was the great cost, because they were undertaken when the Ming dynasty was still campaigning against the Mongols and building Beijing. Another widely accepted reason focuses on the leadership of the venture. The fact that the voyages were led by a court eunuch antagonized Chinese scholar-officials, who generally opposed the encroachment of Chinese power and influence by such men. The most profound force against the maritime expeditions, however, lay in the traditional anticommercialism of the Chinese, which became Ming official policy. The agrarian economy in China dictated that the Ming government receive more revenues from land taxes than from trade. The dominance of neo-Confucian orthodoxy in the Ming period fortified official contempt of commerce. Furthermore, the defense strategy of the government prioritized Mongols as the chief enemy, and, consequently, the government focused its defense on the northwestern frontier rather than on the southeastern coasts.


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John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Ray Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Charles O. Hucker, The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1978).

Robert B. Marks, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Cambridge 6c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Mote and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 7, The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

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