How can we understand the pre-eminence of the East? For a start, Asian agriculture was considerably more productive than European. In East Asia an acre of land was enough to support a family, such was the efficiency of rice cultivation, whereas in England the average figure was closer to 20 acres. This helps explain why East Asia was already more populous than Western Europe. The more sophisticated Oriental system of rice cultivation could feed many more mouths. No doubt the Ming poet Zhou Shixiu saw the countryside through rose-tinted spectacles; still, the picture here is of a contented rural populace:

Humble doorways loom by the dark path, a crooked lane goes way down to the inlet. Here ten families … have been living side by side for generations. The smoke from their fires intermingles wherever you look; so too, in their routines, the people are cooperative. One man’s son heads the house on the west, while another’s daughter is the western neighbour’s wife. A cold autumn wind blows at the soil god’s shrine; piglets and rice-beer are sacrificed to the Ancestor of the Fields, to whom the old shaman burns paper money, while boys pound on a bronze drum. Mist drapes the sugar cane garden in silence, and drizzling rain falls on the taro fields, as the people come home after the rites, spread mats, and chat, half drunk …10

But such scenes of bucolic equipoise tell only part of the story. Later generations of Westerners tended to think of imperial China as a static society, allergic to innovation. In Confucianism and Taoism (1915) the German sociologist Max Weber defined Confucian rationalism as meaning ‘rational adjustment to the world’, as opposed to the Western concept of ‘rational mastery of the world’. This was a view largely endorsed by the Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan in his History of Chinese Philosophy (1934), as well as by the Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham’s multi-volume history of Science and Civilization in China. Such cultural explanations – always attractive to those, like Feng and Needham, who sympathized with the Maoist regime after 1949 – are hard to square with the evidence that, long before the Ming era, Chinese civilization had consistently sought to master the world through technological innovation.

We do not know for certain who designed the first water clock. It may have been the Egyptians, the Babylonians or the Chinese. But in 1086 Su Song added a gear escapement to create the world’s first mechanical clock, an intricate 40-foot-tall contraption that not only told the time but also charted the movements of the sun, moon and planets. Marco Polo saw a bell tower operated by such a clock when he visited Dadu in northern China, not long after the tower’s construction in 1272. Nothing remotely as accurate existed in England until a century later, when the first astronomical clocks were built for cathedrals in Norwich, St Alban’s and Salisbury.

The printing press with movable type is traditionally credited to fifteenth-century Germany. In reality it was invented in eleventh-century China. Paper too originated in China long before it was introduced in the West. So did paper money, wallpaper and toilet paper.11

It is often asserted that the English agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull discovered the seed drill in 1701. In fact it was invented in China 2,000 years before his time. The Rotherham plough which, with its curved iron mouldboard, was a key tool in the eighteenth-century English Agricultural Revolution, was another innovation anticipated by the Chinese.12 Wang Zhen’s 1313 Treatise on Agriculture was full of implements then unknown in the West.13 The Industrial Revolution was also prefigured in China. The first blast furnace for smelting iron ore was not built in Coalbrookdale in 1709 but in China before 200 BC. The oldest iron suspension bridge in the world is not British but Chinese; dating from as early as AD 65, remains of it can still be seen near Ching-tung in Yunnan province.14 Even as late as 1788 British iron-production levels were still lower than those achieved in China in 1078. It was the Chinese who first revolutionized textile production with innovations like the spinning wheel and the silk reeling frame, imported to Italy in the thirteenth century.15 And it is far from true that the Chinese used their most famous invention, gunpowder, solely for fireworks. Jiao Yu and Liu Ji’s book Huolongjing, published in the late fourteenth century, describes land and sea mines, rockets and hollow cannonballs filled with explosives.

Other Chinese innovations include chemical insecticide, the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow. Everyone knows that golf was invented in Scotland. Yet the Dongxuan Records from the Song dynasty (960–1279) describe a game called chuiwan. It was played with ten clubs, including a cuanbang, pubang and shaobang, which are roughly analogous to our driver, two-wood and three-wood. The clubs were inlaid with jade and gold, suggesting that golf, then as now, was a game for the well-off.

And that was not all. As a new century dawned in 1400, China was poised to achieve another technological breakthrough, one that had the potential to make the Yongle Emperor the master not just of the Middle Kingdom, but of the world itself – literally ‘All under heaven’.

In Nanjing today you can see a full-size replica of the treasure ship of Admiral Zheng He, the most famous sailor in Chinese history. It is 400 feet long – nearly five times the size of the Santa María, in which Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. And this was only part of a fleet of more than 300 huge ocean-going junks. With multiple masts and separate buoyancy chambers to prevent them from sinking in the event of a hole below the waterline, these ships were far larger than anything being built in fifteenth-century Europe. With a combined crew of 28,000, Zheng He’s navy was bigger than anything seen in the West until the First World War.

Their master and commander was an extraordinary man. At the age of eleven, he had been captured on the field of battle by the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. As was customary, the captive was castrated. He was then assigned as a servant to the Emperor’s fourth son, Zhu Di, the man who would seize and ascend the imperial throne as Yongle. In return for Zheng He’s loyal service, Yongle entrusted him with a task that entailed exploring the world’s oceans.

In a series of six epic voyages between 1405 and 1424, Zheng He’s fleet ranged astoundingly far and wide.* The Admiral sailed to Thailand, Sumatra, Java and the once-great port of Calicut (today’s Kozhikode in Kerala); to Temasek (later Singapore), Malacca and Ceylon; to Cuttack in Orissa; to Hormuz, Aden and up the Red Sea to Jeddah.16 Nominally, these voyages were a search for Yongle’s predecessor, who had mysteriously disappeared, as well as for the imperial seal that had vanished with him. (Was Yongle trying to atone for killing his way to the throne, or to cover up for the fact that he had done so?) But to find the lost emperor was not their real motive.

Before his final voyage, Zheng He was ordered ‘on imperial duty to Hormuz and other countries, with ships of different sizes numbering sixty-one … and [to carry] coloured silks … [and] buy hemp-silk’. His officers were also instructed to ‘buy porcelain, iron cauldrons, gifts and ammunition, paper, oil, wax, etc.’.17 This might seem to suggest a commercial rationale, and certainly the Chinese had goods coveted by Indian Ocean merchants (porcelain, silk and musk), as well as commodities they wished to bring back to China (peppers, pearls, precious stones, ivory and supposedly medicinal rhinoceros horns).18 In reality, however, the Emperor was not primarily concerned with trade as Adam Smith later understood it. In the words of a contemporary inscription, the fleet was ‘to go to the [barbarians’] countries and confer presents on them so as to transform them by displaying our power …’. What Yongle wanted in return for these ‘presents’ was for foreign rulers to pay tribute to him the way China’s immediate Asian neighbours did, and thereby to acknowledge his supremacy. And who could refuse to kowtow to an emperor possessed of so mighty a fleet?19


On three of the voyages, ships from Zheng He’s fleet reached the east coast of Africa. They did not stay long. Envoys from some thirty African rulers were invited aboard to acknowledge the ‘cosmic ascendancy’ of the Ming Emperor. The Sultan of Malindi (in present-day Kenya) sent a delegation with exotic gifts, among them a giraffe. Yongle personally received the animal at the gateway of the imperial palace in Nanjing. The giraffe was hailed as the mythical qilin (unicorn) – ‘a symbol of perfect virtue, perfect government and perfect harmony in the empire and the universe’.20

But then, in 1424, this harmony was shattered. Yongle died – and China’s overseas ambitions were buried with him. Zheng He’s voyages were immediately suspended, and only briefly revived with a final Indian Ocean expedition in 1432–3. The haijin decree definitively banned oceanic voyages. From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts was liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime even to go to sea in such a ship.21 The records of Zheng He’s journeys were destroyed. Zheng He himself died and was almost certainly buried at sea.

What lay behind this momentous decision? Was it the result of fiscal problems and political wrangles at the imperial court? Was it because the costs of war in Annam (modern-day Vietnam) were proving unexpectedly high?22 Or was it simply because of Confucian scholars’ suspicion of the ‘odd things’ Zheng He had brought back with him, not least the giraffe? We may never be sure. But the consequences of China’s turn inwards seem clear.

Like the Apollo moon missions, Zheng He’s voyages had been a formidable demonstration of wealth and technological sophistication. Landing a Chinese eunuch on the East African coast in 1416 was in many ways an achievement comparable with landing an American astronaut on the moon in 1969. But by abruptly cancelling oceanic exploration, Yongle’s successors ensured that the economic benefits of this achievement were negligible.

The same could not be said for the voyages that were about to be undertaken by a very different sailor from a diminutive European kingdom at the other end of the Eurasian landmass.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!