By Louise Levathes
When China Ruled the Seas is an account of a little-known chapter in history, the high era of Chinese sea-going voyages of trade and exploration. Many people are familiar with the drive to reach the ports of the Indies that drove European voyages of exploration in the late 1400s and 1500s. A similar impulse drove Chinese mariners onto the Indian Ocean decades early, leaving us with a fascinating might-have-been scenario: what if China had not left the field to the Europeans?
In the late 1300s the Mongol rulers of China were overthrown and a new dynasty came to rule the Middle Kingdom: the Ming. During the mop-up campaigns a lad from a Muslim Chinese family was captured and castrated. His name was Zheng He. The eunuch lad was a prisoner of the Ming prince Zhu Di, who found Zheng He to be an able servant. Lest anyone picture Zheng as a mincing ninny, the eunuch was a strapping six-footer with a booming voice who followed Zhu Di into battle. When Zhu Di came to power as emperor of China, he did not forget faithful Zheng He. Zhu Di wanted to expand Chinese influence overseas, his method was to send a massive Chinese fleet comprised of some of the biggest ocean-going vessels built to that date on a trans-Indian Ocean trading/diplomatic mission. Zheng He was to be in command.
Levathes gives the reader a swift background on Chinese ships and sailing techniques, just enough for a layman, but not so much that it overwhelms. She also describes the nature of building the fleet. Like any other government programs, it was plagued with cost overruns, contract padding, and some outright corruption. The treasure ships were something like the famous Spanish galleons: massive enough to carry plenty of goods and supplies on an extended voyage, but lean enough to go into battle in the distant waters where they were the only Chinese presence.
The mission was not one of war and it was not exactly trade. It was more like an armed diplomatic mission that carried out elaborate gift exchanges. Zheng He’s fleet had no problem smashing pirates when they found them or intervening militarily to back an ally. However, the Chinese weren’t interested in conquest. Zheng He focussed on establishing relations with local rulers who would pay “tribute” to the Chinese emperor. In exchange the Chinese plied the locals with valuable gifts. The relative value of the gifts may have depended more on diplomatic status than market value.
That seems to have been part of why the voyages were eventually discontinued. The Chinese bureaucracy were superb bean counters and they found the trips were not cost effective. After massive spending on the fleet, they never gathered enough tribute to make it pay. Infighting between the Confucian civil servants and the eunuchs of the emperor’s household doomed the project.
Here’s where I find a fault with When China Ruled the Seas. Where was the Chinese merchant class? How did they react to the expeditions and what did they do when they ended? Did private traders take up where Zheng He left off? Why were the Confucians so hostile to private trade? I felt that some of these areas needed to be better explored.
On the other hand, Levathes is a veteran National Geographic writer and she knows how to lay on the colorful detail. We learn a lot about court intrigues, the founding of Beijing, and Chinese beliefs about sex (Korean women were considered just right). When China Ruled the Seas is a colorful telling of a tale that has been overlooked in the West.