Posts Tagged ‘Zheng He’

Did China bungle its age of discovery?

April 21, 2014

Voyages_of_Zheng_He_1405-33

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.

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