When China Ruled the Seas

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9780671701581: When China Ruled the Seas

It seems as fantastic as a dream: less than a hundred years before Columbus and the dawn of the great age of European exploration, in the amazingly brief period from 1405 to 1433, China ruled the world's oceans. Under the command of the eunuch admiral Zheng He, fleets of more than three hundred "treasure ships" - some measuring as much as 400 feet long, with crews of 28,000 men - made seven epic voyages through the China Seas and the Indian Ocean. Unrivaled in size until the invasion fleets of World War I, the fleets traveled from Taiwan to the Red Sea, down the east coast of Africa, China's El Dorado, and perhaps even to Australia, three hundred years before Captain Cook's "discovery."
Bearing a costly cargo of the Ming empire's finest silks, porcelains, and lacquerware, the treasure fleets ventured forth ready to trade with all who recognized the authority of the dragon throne, occupied at the time by the ambitious Zhu Di, who also built Beijing's Forbidden City. Far more than mere commercial missions, however, the expeditions churned up political and cultural currents in southeast Asia and precipitated the diaspora of the Chinese throughout the Indian Ocean basin.
Half the world was thus in China's grasp, and the rest could easily have been, had the emperor so wished. But instead China turned inward, resulting in the rapid demise of its navy and the loss of its technological and scientific edge over Europe. As had happened many times before in the country's history - and has happened many times since - the gates that had swung so wide clanged shut, and China's period of greatest expansion was followed by that of its greatest isolation.
When China Ruled the Seas is popular history at its best. Drawing on new translations of eye-witness accounts and official Ming histories, and including dozens of vivid illustrations, this is the first full account of one of the most colorful chapters in China's past and its sudden, enigmatic end.

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About the Author:


Louise Levathes was a staff writer for National Geographic for ten years and writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. In 1990, she was a visiting scholar at The Johns Hopkins Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University, Jiangsu, China. She lives in Washington, D.C.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Levathes, a former staff writer for National Geographic, tells the tale of Chinese emperor Zhu Di and his favorite eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who tried during a 30-year period to break China's isolation with seven major naval expeditions to India, Indonesia, and Africa. Levathes writes popular history and therefore sprinkles her text with scene-setting and little digressions into everyday life in Ming China. The descriptions of the giant naval docks at Longjiang are fascinating, as is her account of the eternal intrigues between the eunuch faction and the Confucian bureaucracy at court. The eunuchs and merchants wanted trade, exploration, and capital venture; the Confucians wanted moderate taxes, isolation, and priority given to agriculture. The struggle between these outlooks dominated--and still dominates--China's dealings with the outside world. Zhu Di was with the merchants, and his fleets were veritable mercantile armadas, with boachuan (treasure boats) 400 feet long. Their principal destination was Calicut in Kerala, the only state that the Chinese did not regard as barbarian. From here they brought back spices, elephants, and the first eyeglasses from Venice. Having established Chinese domination of the Indian Ocean, Zheng seemed to be on the brink of ushering in an era of global Chinese imperialism and openness to the outside world. It was not to be. Zhu Di died in 1424 and was succeeded by his son Gaozhi, a devout Confucian who banned all naval voyages. A hundred years later, China had no navy and anyone caught even sailing on the high seas was summarily put to death. Levathes illuminates a historical crossroads: the century in which Western and Chinese expansion overlapped. She does not fully explain why one continued and the other did not, but she does expose one piece of the historical jigsaw puzzle, namely the root of the Chinese inability to open a door to the outside world. She does this entertainingly and with a minimum of dry analysis. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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