Connection to the history of Late Imperial China 06-17-2005 10:13

A giraffe brought from Africa in the twelfth year of Yongle (1414 AD).One popular belief holds that after Zheng He's voyages, China turned away from the seas and underwent a period of technological stagnation. Although historians such as John Fairbank and Joseph Needham popularized this view in the 1950s, most current historians of China question its accuracy. They point out that Chinese maritime commerce did not stop after Zheng He, that Chinese ships continued to dominate Southeast Asian commerce until the 19th century and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng He. The travels of the Chinese junk Keying to the United States and England between 1846 to 1848 testify to the power of Chinese shipping until the 19th century.

Although the Ming Dynasty did ban shipping for a few decades with the Hai jin edict, they eventually lifted this ban. The alternative view cites the fact that by banning ocean going shipping the Ming (and later Qing) dynasties forced countless numbers of people into blackmarket smuggling. This reduced government tax revenue and increased piracy. The lack of an ocean going navy then left China highly vulnerable to the Waku (wakou) pirates that ravaged China in the 16th century.

One thing is certain. State-sponsored Ming naval efforts declined dramatically after Zheng He's voyages. Starting in the early 15th century China experienced increasing pressure from resurgent Mongolian tribes from the north. In recognition of this threat and possibly to move closer to his family's historical geographic power base, in 1421 the emperor Yongle moved the capital north from Nanjing to present-day Beijing. From the new capital he could apply greater imperial supervision to the effort to defend the northern borders. At considerable expense, China launched annual military expeditions from Beijing to weaken the Mongolians. The expenditures necessary for these land campaigns directly competed with the funds necessary to continue naval expeditions.

In 1449 Mongolian cavalry ambushed a land expedition personally led by the emperor Zhengtong less than a day's march from the walls of the capital. In the Battle of Tumu Fortress the Mongolians wiped out the Chinese army and captured the emperor. This battle had two salient effects. First, it demonstrated the clear threat posed by the northern nomads. Second, the Mongols caused a political crisis in China when they released Zhengtong after his half-brother had proclaimed himself the new Jingtai emperor. Not until 1457 did political stability return when Zhengtong recovered the throne. Upon his return to power China abandoned the strategy of annual land expeditions and instead embarked upon a massive and expensive expansion of the Great Wall of China. In this environment, funding for naval expeditions simply did not happen.

More fundamentally, unlike the later naval expeditions conducted by European nations, the Chinese treasure ships appear to have been doomed in the long run (at least in the eyes of economic determinists) because the voyages lacked any economic motive. They were primarily conducted to increase the prestige of the emperor and the costs of the expeditions and of the return gifts provided to foreign royalty and ambassadors more than offset the benefit of any tribute collected. Thus when China's governmental finances came under pressure (which like all medieval governments' finances they eventually did), funding for the naval expeditions melted away. In contrast, by the 16th century, most European missions of exploration made enough profit from the resulting trade and seizure of native land/resources to become self-financing, allowing them to continue regardless of the condition of the state's finances.

Editor:Hu Hang

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