Did China bungle its age of discovery?


More than 50 years before Columbus, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (aks Cheng Ho) voyaged throughout the Indian Ocean, and down the coast of east Africa.  Some historians think he may have reached the Cape of Good Hope.  But he had no successors.   His voyages were merely a stunt, for the sake of prestige, like the U.S. moon landings.

Some historians have speculated that if the rulers of the Ming dynasty had followed up, there might have been a Chinese age of exploration and discovery, to rival the great European explorers.  Zheng He’s fleet was larger, both in numbers and in the size of the individual ships, than anything the European explorers sent out.

I’m not so sure.  As James C. Scott wrote in The Art of Not Being Governed, Chinese rulers historically have sought to control large numbers of people, not large areas of territory.  I have read a smattering of Chinese philosophy in translation, and it is all about a ruler who is wise and just can increase his wealth and power by encouraging people to migrate to his realm.

In the light of history, this might not have been a bad choice..   The English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread all over the world, and they have millions of descendents in North and South America and other parts of the world, but this no longer adds to the power of the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese nations.

Today China, which did not seek to rule an overseas empire, is much more powerful than any of these countries.  That is not to deny that China is an empire.  Just ask the Uighurs (in what used to be called Chinese Turkestan) or the Tibetans.   It is that China is a more unified and enduring empire.

China never needed a merchant fleet or overseas outposts to participate in the world economy.   Since the days of the Roman Empire, merchants traveled the Silk Road across central Asia to buy Chinese silk, porcelains and other manufactured products.

Spain and Portugal sent out explorers to find routes to China and India so that their merchants could bypass the Muslim countries in between.   The Spanish conquistadors were greedy for gold and silver because it was scarce.  China and India had favorable balances of trade for centuries and a large fraction of the world’s precious metals ended up in those countries.   The Spanish regularly sent out treasure galleons from Mexico to the Philippines to trade with China.


I once read an alternate history novel entitled The Years of Rice and Salt by the brilliant though wordy SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson, in which he postulated a world in which most Europeans had been killed by the Black Death and Asian civilizations flourished unhampered by European colonization.   The story is told through three characters, one rebellious, one peace-loving and one with an inquiring mind, who are reincarnated in various identities through this imaginary history.

In Robinson’s novel, the Muslims colonize the east coast of North America and the Chinese the west coast, but later than the Europeans did in real history, so that the American Indians are able to maintain an independent nation in the interior.   Robinson imagined de-familiarized versions of the scientific and technological revolutions, culminating in a global clash of civilizations and then, in a period corresponding to our future, a time of peace and reconciliation.

But I wonder whether things would have played out that way.  Wouldn’t the Indian Ocean, rather than the Atlantic or Pacific, been the crossroads of civilization?   There were overseas Chinese in southeast Asia, who lived outside the Chinese realm.   They may have pushed south to Australia and then on into the South Sea islands, but they wouldn’t have had a motive to cross the whole Pacific.

The Arabs, who in Robinson’s book settled a depopulated Europe, would have been more likely explorers.  But the trading opportunities of Arab mariners would have been greater along the coast of Africa or the Indian ocean.   The main reason they might have crossed the Atlantic would have been to spread their religion.

My candidate for Asian alternate-history settlers of North America would be Japanese fisherman, working their way up the coast of Siberia (which would be empty of Russians) and then along the Aleutians into Alaska.   Remember, Japan was closed off to foreign contact only because the Shoguns feared that Christian missionaries were an advance guard for European conquest.  If they had never come in contact with Europeans they would have remained open to the world.

All these things are unknowable, but it is good to remember than the world might easily have been different than it is.


Background on Zheng He (who, incidentally, was a Muslim)




Summary of Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history


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2 Responses to “Did China bungle its age of discovery?”

  1. Chloe Rose Jay Says:

    Fascinating read, I had never heard of Zheng He, makes you wonder what might have been.


  2. simonandfinn Says:

    Very interesting piece and thoughts –


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