China: change of policy in 15th century

The Greek name for the Chinese was Seres, from which the Latin word serica derives, meaning silk.

China has always viewed itself as being at the centre of its world, traditionally. The modern word for the country, Zhong guo (Central Realm), seems to say it all.

Writing materials such as rolls of silk came from the 2nd century BC, and paper from the 2nd century AD (Cai Lun, 105AD). Printing too was a Chinese invention: fixed blocks were cut to print whole pages (Feng Dao, 932AD), and movable type was introduced from the 11th century AD (Bi Sheng, 1041AD). China was the first to establish the enduring institution of public service examination (founded under Sui Dynasty, 605, till its abolition in 1905).

Additionally, Chinese advances in iron and steel manufacture were several hundred years ahead of Europe. Coal was being mined from 8th century and used in furnaces producing high quality iron and steel. Chinese are also credited for inventions of saddle and stirrup (5th century), compass (possibly 20-100AD), gunpowder (Taoist monks in search of “elixir for immortality,” 9th century) and porcelain (under Tang Dynasty, 7th century).

Maritime inventions credited to Chinese also include the anchor, the drop-keel, the capstan, canvas and pivoting sails.

By medieval times, China became the most intellectually sophisticated and technologically advanced country in the world.

Then came the year 1405 under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).  Fleets of hundreds of immense Chinese ships  (28,000 people sailing on 300 ships. It was a fleet whose size and grandeur would not be matched until World War I) headed by admiral Zheng He traversed from the China Sea past Sumatra to Ceylon, India, Arabia and East Africa. Seven epic Chinese naval expeditions from 1405 to 1433 explored and brought under the Chinese tributary system the vast periphery of the Indian Ocean. However, less than a century after this Chinese maritime high water mark, it was a crime to even go to sea from China in a multi-masted ship.

The economic motive for these huge ventures may have been important, and many of the ships had large private cabins for merchants. But the chief aim was probably political, to enroll further states as tributaries and mark the reemergence of the Chinese Empire following nearly a century of barbarian rule. The political character of Zheng He’s voyages indicates the primacy of the political elites. Despite their formidable and unprecedented strength, Zheng He’s voyages, unlike European voyages of exploration later in the fifteenth century, were not intended to extend Chinese sovereignty overseas. The question therefore begs how could such a policy (containing enormous potential for growth and prosperity), started in 1405, come to an abrupt halt and reversal by 1433.

There is no definite answer to that question. However, few possible explanations were postulated.

  1. Political power struggle between two factions of the Chinese Imperial court (between the Confucian courtiers and the palace eunuchs), combined with an overwhelming demand for political centralization and unity.
  2. There was an Imperial decree to decommission decision the great navy over the whole of China, reasoning behind such a decision possibly that renovation turned into stagnation, and that science and philosophy were caught in a tight net of traditions smothering any attempt to venture something new. This decision became irreversible due to the loss of shipyards capable of turning out ships that would prove the folly of that temporary decision.
  3. There was an internal Chinese court policy struggle between competing theories of the commercial and technology benefits of foreign trade, against the benefits in social purity of isolationism. Isolationism won.
  4. The navy had become dependent in the 15th century on a meager set of maritime missions that were overly fragile and thus the Chinese navy was vulnerable to relatively minor changes in the strategic situation. The completion of the Grand Canal as a more efficient and safer means of grain transport became an important factor, which engendered the demise of the Chinese ocean-going navy.
  5. Maritime threats (piracy) were always considered secondary in China to continental or land-based threats, and thus in difficult economic and political times (threat to revival of Mongol power on the northern steppe) during the Ming period, the maritime solutions to national security (navy) lost resources to the continental solutions (army).

Perhaps several factors separately or their combination caused a Chinese rejection of sea trade and seapower in the mid-15th century. We can never know for certain.

What we do know is that traditional ethnocentric and culturally well-cultivated Chinese were ever so anticipative. It is no secret that a following maxim has been a byword of not only Chinese warfare but also other strategic maneuvers throughout the ages.

“Steal the beams, change the pillars” (from  “36 Strategems”).

China is on rise again. Let us see how far it will go this time.