China Withdraws


China is responsible for many of the world’s grand innovations—the Great Wall, the block press, and gunpowder, just to name a few. Although the entire known world has heard of these, the greatest achievement in China’s history was without a doubt the development of Zheng He’s navy. Years before Magellan and Columbus set sail, the majestic fleet made its way to the east coast of Africa and beyond. Unfortunately, its days of glory came and went, leaving only whispers of its existence.

The navy came about in 1403, a year after Zhu Di came into power. This emperor was different from his predecessor. He wanted to create an empire devoted to invention and exploration. He funded great building projects, such as the extension of the Great Wall, and he encouraged invention. To create an air of change, he moved the capital to Peking and founded the Forbidden City. He wanted to spread the gift of knowledge, so he employed scribes to accumulate all the information they could gather. The resulting data was collected and used to compile an 11,000-volume encyclopedia. In addition to these marvelous achievements, he ordered the construction of a massive navy. It became the greatest construction project since the building of the Great Wall.

At the head of this project he appointed the eunuch, Zheng He. Zheng He was the emperor’s confidant and had played a large role in seizing control from the previous leadership. He envisioned a grand navy, the likes of which had never been seen. To see his dream come to fruition, Zheng He hired 20,000 of the finest craftsmen. Not only did they build ships, but they also built the dry docks needed to house the ships. The dry docks were bigger than any used in the past and are still comparable to any in use today. Although Europeans did not use dry docks until around 1495, the Chinese had been using them for 600 years. The craftsmen engineered special features in the dock. When a ship was ready for launch, the bays could be filled with water, allowing the ship to float out into the Yangzi River. And this was just what the craftsmen accomplished in the dry dock area. What they were able to achieve with shipbuilding is nothing short of miraculous.

Upon its completion, the fleet was larger and more powerful than all the combined fleets of Europe during the age of explorers. It consisted of Fuchuan warships, patrol boats, supply ships, troop transporters, water tankers, and, largest of all, the treasure ships. These colossal vessels were a marvel in engineering. They were more than 120 meters long. (That’s longer than a football field.) And, in order to ensure that the ships would still be maneuverable, they were built with a shallow hull. This hull was wide and contained sixteen watertight bulkheads. The use of watertight bulkheads was not perfected in Europe until the nineteenth century.

In addition to being large, the treasure ships had a carrying capacity of 3,600 tons. Two anchors were used to weigh the ship in harbor. Each one measured more than two meters long. Rudders, which could be as long as eleven meters, steered the ship on its journey. So the sailors could make the best use of the wind, craftsmen designed triangular-shaped sails that pivoted around the masts. In the case of the treasure ships, there could be as many as nine masts. Unlike later European ships, Zheng He’s vessels did not lose proficiency if the wind was not at their backs.

Another unique feature of the Chinese fleet was that it was completely self-sufficient. Tankers supplied much-needed water, while cattle ships kept the crews in beef. Poor diet often posed problems for crews. Without vitamin C-enriched foods, crew members suffered from scurvy. Zheng He came up with a solution to the problem. Certain supply ships came equipped with growing beds, which the crews used to raise soy. Not only is soy rich in vitamin C; it also yields a big crop in a small amount of space. Because of the constant supply of sprouts, crew members no longer fell prey to the agonizing effects of scurvy. Zheng He managed to solve the age-old affliction of seafarers, which would continue to plague European sailors until the voyages of Captain Cook some three and a half centuries later.

The fleet itself consisted of 300 ships and 28,000 crew members. Although the ships were large enough to house settlers, the emperor had no interest in colonization. He wanted trade. In particular, the Chinese wanted pepper and frankincense. In exchange for these goods, they offered silk and porcelain. The Silk Road had been closed to them by the Mongols, so the Chinese became masters of the waterways. They raised money for their expeditions by intimidating countries into paying tribute. Most did not refuse because of the great size of the navy. When countries did offer objections, they were met with force and easily defeated by the well-equipped Chinese ships, which used cannons, flame throwers, grenade launchers, water mines, and crossbows that could fire twenty arrows every fifteen seconds. This immense strength coupled with Zheng He’s own diplomatic skill ensured his place as king of the high seas. Zheng He used his powerful position for other things besides trade. He brought back medical cures from the Arabic world as well as exotic animals; the most important of these being the Arabian horse, which proved more maneuverable than the Chinese horse.

Despite the improvements made to society, conservative followers of the teachings of Confucius felt that the navy was becoming too costly. They also believed that tradition was far more important and better for the country than trying to attain knowledge from the outside world. These beliefs spread throughout court. The imperial court split into two separate factions; the traditionalists who wanted isolation and those who wanted all the world could provide. The matter soon settled itself.

In 1424 Emperor Zhu Di died. Conservatives wasted no time seizing control of the throne. The new emperor immediately implemented changes that would ensure China’s centralization. He ordered that all naval voyages to the outside world cease. He also stopped all construction of naval vessels. None were to be built or repaired. Before long, the ships fell into disrepair. By 1503 the navy was one-tenth its former size. Conservatives destroyed the ship logs and any other evidence they could find of the navy’s voyages.

Zheng He did not wish for his greatest work to die without recognition. He erected a monument in honor of the goddess who he claimed protected him during his perilous journeys. Along with praises and exaltation, the monument included detailed accounts of where the navy had traveled. According to the writings, the navy sailed to Sumatra, Taiwan, Java, Ceylon, India, Persia, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, the Red Sea, and the African east coast. There is also modern evidence suggesting that the Chinese navy made it all the way to the Americas.

If this is true, then the Chinese could have easily gone on to be the world’s first superpower. With a strong naval presence in China, it is doubtful that the Portuguese would have established ports on the Chinese coast. The same is true for the rest of the Europeans. They may never have branched out as far as they did had the Chinese already established themselves firmly in India and the Persian Gulf. Centuries later, Japan would have thought twice before invading such a powerful nation. These are mere speculations and it is difficult to gauge what might have happened had the Chinese maintained a strong naval presence. However, one thing is certain: A country that once looked outward and led the world through technology and exploration turned in on itself, leaving only hints of its former glory.

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