Chapter 8

“Among the Singing Willows”

China, Japan, and Korea

Jen-tzu—fifteenth day of the seventh month: Shen Zhou
paints a mystical experience.

Usually, when he could not sleep, the painter lit his lamp and read. But reading could never bring rest to his mind. One summer’s night in 1492, he fell asleep to the sound of the rain. Suddenly, a cold gust nipped him into wakefulness.

The rain had ceased. He rose and dressed and spread a book, as usual, under the flickering candlelight. But he was too tired to read. So he just sat there in unrelieved silence, under an almost lightless moon, with the shutters drawn back to let in the rain-freshened air. Squatting on a low bench, he spent the rest of the night gazing vaguely into the darkness of the narrow courtyard of his house. He sat, as he recalled the next morning, “calmly doing nothing.”

Gradually, he began to notice sounds. Wind breathed somewhere in clumps of faintly rustling bamboo. Occasionally, dogs growled. The watchmen’s drumbeats marked the passage of hours. As the night lifted and faint daylight spread, the painter heard a distant bell. He became aware of senses he usually repressed, and of little life-enhancing experiences you cannot find in books. He began to get from the world the insights he strove to convey in painting: true perceptions, which penetrate appearances and reach the heart and nature of things. All sounds and colors seemed new to him.

“They strike the ear and eye all at once,” he said, “lucidly, wonderfully, becoming a part of me.”

Not only did he make a written record of the experience. He also painted it, in ink and colors, on a scroll of paper designed to be weighted and hung on a wall. The painting survives. In the center of the composition, the painter is a tiny, hunched figure, wrapped in a thin robe, with a knot of hair gathered on his balding head. His low-burned light is beginning to get smoky on the table beside him. All around, the hazy light of dawn discloses immensities of nature that dwarf the painter and his flimsy house. Tall, great-rooted trees reach up, craggy cliffs rise, with mountains bristling in the background. But all their power seems to flow into the little man in the middle, without disturbing his tranquillity.

When he finished the scroll, he signed it with his name: Shen Zhou. He was sixty-five years old, and one of China’s most celebrated painters. Because he was rich in his own right, he was almost uniquely privileged among the painters of the world in his day. He could resist the lures of patrons, and paint what he wanted.1

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, another individual with mystical inclinations, and a habit of staying up late at night, was struggling to imagine what China was like. Christopher Columbus was on his way there. At least, that was what he hoped. Or at least, that was what he said.

While Shen Zhou strove for calm and meditated in serenity, Columbus could not resist restlessness and operated in a violent and unstable part of the world. Readers of the last chapter will recall his story. Poor but ambitious, of modest means and few prospects, he had tried every available means of escape into a world of wealth and grandeur: he had tried enlisting in war; he had thought of embracing a career in the Church; he had striven unsuccessfully to accumulate a fortune as a small-time merchant, shipping sugar and gum around the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic. We have seen how he had married—lovelessly, it seems—a minor aristocrat’s daughter, without achieving much social elevation as a result. He had modeled his life on fiction, trying to live like the hero of the fifteenth-century equivalent of a dime novel—a seaborne tale of chivalric romance.


Shen Zhou recorded his nocturnal vigil in this sketch, in which he portrays himself dwarfed by nature, as well as a long prose account.
Detail from Shen Zhou, Night Vigil. Hanging scroll, National Museum, Taipei.

At last, in the attempt to get someone rich to back him to undertake a voyage of discovery, he hit on the idea of proposing a shortcut to China, westward, across the ocean, “where,” he said, “as far as we know for certain, no one has ever gone.” Doubts tortured him. No one knew how far away China was, but Europe’s geographers were almost united in the knowledge that the world was too big to be easily encompassed by the feeble ships available at the time, with their limited means of stowing fresh food and water. China was so far away, consensus averred, that Columbus and his crew, if they ever got there, would be dead on arrival. For an escapee from failure and poverty, though, the risk seemed worth taking. The bankers in Seville—Spain’s Atlantic-side boomtown—who backed Columbus did not have to risk much. And if he pulled off the feat he promised, the profits might be dazzling.

One of the inspirers of Columbus’s enterprise, the Florentine geographer Paolo Toscanelli, had pointed out the possibilities: “[T]he number of seagoing merchants in China is so great that in a single noble port city they outnumber all the other merchants of the world…. Westerners should seek a route there, not only because great wealth awaits us from its gold and silver, and all sorts of gems, and spices such as we never obtain, but also for the sake of China’s learned sages, philosophers, and skilled astrologers.” 2

Europeans did not know much about China, but they knew it was the biggest, richest market, the most productive economy, and the most powerful empire in the world. Beyond that, their detailed information was all out-of-date. Until about a hundred years before, contact with China had been fairly extensive. Merchants and missionaries shuttled back and forth along the Silk Roads that crossed the mountains and deserts of central Asia, spreading commodities and ideas through the continent and the world. For a while, in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, it had even been possible to take a fast-track route on horseback across the Eurasian steppe—the great, arid, windswept prairie that arcs from the Hungarian plain, almost without interruption, across Mongolia to the Gobi and the threshold of China. Mongol imperialists united the entire route, conquered China, policed the Silk Roads, and facilitated communications throughout the breadth of the lands they ruled.

But in 1368 a revolution in China expelled the heirs of the Mongols and ruptured the roads. The last recorded European mission to China had made its way through in 1390. Since then, silence had enshrouded the distant empire. The only detailed description still available in Europe was even more antiquated—compiled toward the end of the thirteenth century by Marco Polo. As we have seen, Columbus and his contemporaries still thought of the emperor of China as the Great Khan—a Mongol title no Chinese ruler had borne since the revolution of 1368. Much as they longed for Chinese goods, they knew virtually nothing—yet—of porcelain or tea, the Chinese exports that would transform European taste in succeeding centuries.

They were right, however, about one thing: contact with China could provide unprecedented opportunities for Europeans to get rich. Ever since Roman times, Europeans had longed to break into the world’s wealthiest arena of exchange but had always labored under apparently insuperable disadvantages. Even when they could get to China, or to the other fabulously opulent markets around the Indian Ocean and on the shores of maritime Asia, they had nothing to sell. Their remote, peripheral corner of Eurasia was too poor. As a fourteenth-century Italian guide to the China trade complained, European merchants bound for China had to take silver with them—at the risk of impoverishing Europe further by draining bullion eastward—because the Chinese would accept nothing else. At the frontier, they had to hand the silver over to imperial customs officials and accept paper money in exchange. This, for the backward Europeans, was a novelty that demanded explanation and reassurance.

By the fifteenth century, although Europeans did not yet know it, changes in the economic situation in China, and in East Asia generally, were creating new opportunities, for silver was rising spectacularly in value in China relative to other Asian markets as people’s confidence in paper and copper currency wavered. Anyone who could shift silver from India and Japan, where it was relative cheap, to China, where it could be exchanged for gold or goods on favorable terms, stood to make a fortune. If Europeans could get their ships to Eastern ports, they could profit from the differentials.

These new circumstances created conditions in which the history of the world could unfold in new, unprecedented ways. Columbus’s scheme for reaching China was part of a potentially world-transforming outreach that would, eventually, put the economies of East and West in touch and integrate them into a single, global system. Access to Eastern markets would unlock riches Westerners had formerly only dreamed of and enable them to begin to catch up with the richer economies and more powerful states that, previously, had dominated the world.

Columbus, however, never made it to China. On his first voyage, he stumbled on Caribbean islands where he warped the locals’ name, “Caniba,” into “people of the khan” and fantasized about his presumed proximity to the Orient. When he got home, engravers illustrated his reports of the poor, naked people he encountered with pictures of Chinese traders doing business offshore. When Columbus returned in 1493, he sailed around part of Cuba and made his crew swear that it was no island but a promontory of the Chinese mainland. On subsequent voyages, though he realized he was in “another world,” he continued to hope that China was nearby—through an undiscovered strait, or around some cape that lay just beyond his reach.

If he had got to his objective, what would he have found?

China was the nearest thing to a global superpower the world then knew: bigger and richer than all its possible competitors combined. The disparity of population was decisive. The statistics accumulated at the time were fragmentary and delusive, as millions of people successfully concealed themselves from the state in order to avoid taxes and forced labor. China had the most sophisticated census-making methods in the world, but the figure of less than sixty million people reported by the empire’s statisticians in 1491 is certainly a serious underestimate. China had perhaps one hundred million people, whereas the whole of Europe mustered only about half that number. The size of the market and the scale of production matched the level of population. China’s giant economy dwarfed that of every other state in the world. The empire’s huge surplus of wealth distorted the economies of all the lands that looked to China to generate trade, from Europe, across Asia and the Indian Ocean, to Japan. China produced so much of everything that there was little demand for imported goods. The luxuries China did import, however, especially spices, aromatics, silver, and (more problematically) the warhorses of which China could never get enough, commanded prices that left buyers from elsewhere in the world marginalized.

A snapshot view of China at the time is available—but not, of course, from Western sources. A Korean official shipwrecked on the Chinese coast in 1488, and detained in the country while state officials investigated his status, wrote up his experiences and observations. Contemporaries in Korea disbelieved his account, which he was obliged to defend at court in 1492. His education in the Confucian classics and admiration for Chinese culture certainly influenced him. Still, the diary Ch’oe Pu compiled on his long journey by canal from the coast to the capital, and back to Korea by road, is a unique and vivid record by a keen observer, describing—as a sixteenth-century editor put it—“the ever-changing ocean, mountains, rivers, products, people, and customs all along the way.” 3 The Chinese, he found, recognized Korea as “a land of protocol and morality” 4—a land like theirs, producing people they could deal with. But the unfamiliarity of strangers evoked surprise and suspicion. In almost every encounter Ch’oe Pu had, his hosts began by thinking evil of him: he was, they assumed, a Japanese pirate or a foreign spy. At times during his struggles to prove his identity, “it would have been easier to die at sea.” 5 He clearly did not speak Chinese, but he made himself understood by writing everything down in the characters the Korean language had borrowed from China. Even learned interlocutors found his strangeness puzzling. “Why,” asked one of them in a typical conversation, “when your carriages have the same axle-width and your books the same writings as those of China, is your speech not the same?” 6

Even so, Ch’oe Pu was disposed to admire China and found plenty to justify his admiration. He encountered robbers mild enough to return his saddle. When he displayed his certificates, officials showed due respect for the high place he had attained in Korea’s civil-service examinations.7 As his party trekked northward from the remote spot on the Chekiang coast where his ship came to grief, Chinese officials hustled and hurried them along with extraordinary efficiency, even a touch of officiousness. In eight sedan chairs at first, and then by boat along China’s great network of rivers and canals, with a military escort, they struggled through, regardless of weather. “The laws of China are strict,” the guard commander told Ch’oe Pu, who wanted to halt in the teeth of a storm. “If there is the slightest delay, we will be punished”—and he was right. When they arrived at Hangchow, after less than a fortnight on the road and with only one day’s rest, his zeal was rewarded with a flogging for having made poor time. It was unjust, but it was law. In China, laws served as deterrents, to fulfill a Confucian principle: punishments should be so severely deterrent that they need never be enforced.

Ch’oe Pu approved of this principle, and, in general, of the well-regulated nature of the state. Western historians have long engaged in pointless conflict in an attempt to identify the “first modern state”—some locating it in England, others in France or the Spanish empire, or the Netherlands or even Lithuania. China had already exhibited the key characteristics for centuries: internal sovereignty; central government; centrally appointed administrators; a uniform system of administration; uniform laws, currency, weights, and measures; rapid internal communications; and a bureaucracy, chosen by merit, that made it unnecessary to devolve power locally or regionally into aristocratic hands. Candidates for provincial magistracies—the officials who represented the emperor and dispensed justice, enforced law, collected taxes, and supervised security measures—were selected by examination in knowledge of the Confucian classics, writing essays that tested their powers of marshaling arguments for and against various propositions and choosing between them on moral and practical grounds. In the late fifteenth century, officials had to send in self-evaluations every six years, and the lower ranks were winnowed by inspection by their superiors, who collected complaints from any subject who claimed to have been unfairly treated.

Above all, the wealth of China impressed Ch’oe Pu. Even in the jungly, malarial region he first had to cross, he found that “the people were thriving and the houses splendid.” His description of Suzhou exudes the envy of a goggle-eyed window-shopper, awed by “all the treasures of the land and sea, such as thin silks, gauzes, gold, silver, jewels, crafts, arts, and great and rich merchants.” Markets multiplied like stars; ships billowed like clouds. Life was luxurious. South of the Yangtze, where “towers look out on other towers, and boats ply stem to stern,” Ch’oe Pu found incomparable wealth and a model civilization, where “even village children, ferrymen, and sailors can read.”8 Parts of the north and west of the country seemed less prosperous, with many low, thatched dwellings and thinner settlement. To Ch’oe Pu’s prejudiced eyes, there was more barbarian influence in those zones, detectable in the violent dispositions of some of the inhabitants. Overall, however, China fulfilled the visitor’s hopes: his picture is of a land prospering under the benign rule of an altruistic Confucian elite.

He was right about the power of the bureaucracy. China was already a modern state, with an official class recruited—in theory—from all ranks of society, on merit tested by examination in knowledge of the Confucian classics. The emperor could not do without them. At intervals in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, emperors tried to dispense with them, ignore them, or replace them with rival elites: eunuch courtiers, for instance; army top brass; or Buddhist or Taoist clergy. But the mandarins won every contest for power. Sometimes they went on strike; sometimes they intimidated emperors with their sheer intellectual superiority. They emerged from every crisis with a reinforced sense of their own indispensability.

Despite the power of the bureaucracy, other sources show that the state was not easily able to tax China’s wealth efficiently or turn that wealth into effective military power. No province ever fulfilled its tax quota. In the late fifteenth century, some provinces could not raise enough revenue to pay their garrisons. From 1490 a series of famines struck the tea-producing region of Xenzi, and the farmers devoted their wares to the purchase of grain. By the 1490s, many military units were at less than 15 percent of their nominal strength. While the army wilted for lack of money, shortage of horses rendered it relatively immobile.

By long-standing custom, the state traded tea for horses with herdsmen in central Asia. The finest specimens came from beyond the deserts and mountains, from the land of Fergana, now spread across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan beyond the deserts and mountains. Meanwhile, wars in central Asia for control of Fergana interrupted the horse trade and threatened the security of China itself. In 1492 the Chinese thought they had brokered peace between the warring states, but the Chinese-nominated candidate for Fergana’s disputed throne was kidnapped en route to take up his position. Laboriously, China had to muster strength for a punitive expedition. By 1497 they had installed their candidate, but the warfare rumbled on, and China’s capacity for effective intervention slowly dwindled.

On the southern frontier, too, Ming imperialism faltered: early in the history of the dynasty, China had not hesitated to intervene in the politics of southeastern Asian states to ensure that power stayed in the hands of regimes the Chinese approved of. But in the 1480s, when the ruler of Vietnam launched an effort to turn Southeast Asia into an empire of his own, China did no more than issue a mild admonition to uphold Confucian values, respect countries that paid tribute to China, care for his own people, and “act righteously.” Military show played an important role in compensating for real strength. Ch’oe Pu was treated to “thousands of arms and shields” lining the walls of Yueh-ch’i (Xunjiang) with “masses of pennants” and the rumble of gongs and drums.9

Reading between the lines, moreover, we see that the political system Ch’oe Pu described had glaring imperfections. On the face of it, China looked like an exemplary modern state, with a bureaucracy and judiciary selected by merit, qualified by education and examination, and appointed and salaried by the government. In practice, there was never enough money to finance the system. The imperial family was a terrible burden on the exchequer. Every living descendant of the founder of the dynasty, by wives and official concubines who were often numerous, lived on a pension from the state, and the first Ming emperor had twenty-six sons. The numbers of imperial dependants grew exponentially. One prince had ninety-four children. Officials were paid in grain, and by the time shortfalls and conversion costs turned their appropriations into cash, they rarely received more than a tiny proportion—sometimes as little as 5 percent of their nominal entitlement. Not that the salaries were fixed at generous rates anyway. In practice, officials had to be rich or corrupt or both. Ch’oe Pu sometimes had to bribe his way out of police custody. His diary shows how officials manipulated the reports they transmitted to court in order to spare the emperor from bad news. Data on piracy, banditry, and rural unrest and bureaucratic negligence were all edited out of documents the Korean saw compiled. Some officials deliberately misrepresented castaways as Japanese pirates in order to get the bounty money.

So the Chinese ideal of keeping political power out of the hands of the rich was unrealized in practice. Moreover, although the Confucian elite was supposedly a meritocracy, it had many of the pockmarks with which vices scar aristocracies. The examination system ensured that officials shared the same formation and outlook. The fact that most of them had to ascend through the same categories of service to the throne gave them a strong esprit de corps. They were united in veneration of Confucian values. They shared a conviction that the conduct of state business was their privilege as well as their responsibility. They joined in defense of their traditional social and economic advantages, which the emperors periodically tried to limit—especially exemption for themselves and their families from some forms of taxation. They formed a class, ten thousand strong, with a remarkably uniform set of self-perceptions and a profound jealousy of any outsiders who presumed to contend for power. They particularly resented the religious minorities who contended for power and influence at court: Buddhists, whom they suspected of amassing wealth in order to seize power, and Taoists, whose ancient religion they despised as magical mumbo-jumbo.

There were philosophical issues at stake: For Confucians, the gods were a remote and unintrusive influence, as long as the emperor performed the rites that supposedly kept heaven and earth in harmony. Buddhists and Taoists did not believe that the universe was so easily manageable, struggling for virtue and even for survival against a natural world that teemed with contentious spirits. Islam, which had arrived in China soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad, was still numerically insignificant, but it had a relatively large following among the court eunuchs. Eunuchs rivaled the bureaucratic mandarins for powerful posts at court, because they were dependants of the emperor and had none of the conflicts of interest that posterity brings.

Although eunuchs, Buddhists, and Taoists remained at loggerheads with the Confucian establishment, other parts of the elite were collaborating in exceptional ways. In the past, merchants and mandarins had often been at odds because of the scholars’ contempt for commercial values. Now, however, there were signs of rapprochement. Strictly speaking, merchants were not allowed commemorative inscriptions on their tombs, because they constituted the lowest class of society, below peasants and artisans. “The gentry,” according to a maxim of the early sixteenth century, “know how to orient themselves to study, the peasantry know to devote themselves to agriculture, and the merchants, while adept at trading, do not go beyond their station.” 10

But wealth circumvents conventions, as the case of Wang Zheng shows. He was one of the richest men in China, who inherited a fortune and made another of his own in the grain business. He had the privilege of a long and adulatory—but still informative—epitaph when he died, seventy years old, in 1495. To designate him as a merchant would be opprobrious, so he went down as “unemployed scholar,” since he had studious habits from childhood. “His most cherished matters of heart,” said the tombstone, “were ancient and contemporary calligraphy and paintings in ink.” Though he claimed to detest his calling, and to have deserted it when he could for altruistic duties—philanthropic work or official employment as a magistrate’s clerk—he was deft enough in business to acquire an art collection in which “the top paintings were truly priceless.” His aspirations were focused on his sons, all of whom took civil-service examinations and pursued official careers.11 Similar cases are known among salt merchants in Yangzhou. When one of the most successful of them, Fan Yenfu, retired in the mid-1490s, local officials presented him with a collection of scholarly writings—a sign of equality of eminence in the values that they all thought stamped the elite.

In some ways, confronting the Confucian establishment, the emperors of the Ming dynasty had long been the foremost outsiders. As they strove to balance the contending religious factions, the ruling dynasty chose to be called “Ming” in defiance of Confucianism, for the name was a Buddhist epithet. It denoted the “Brightness” anticipated in the fabled deity Lord Maitreya, who, according to one strand in Buddhism, would preside over the end of the world. Although successive emperors could hardly escape Confucian values during their education at court, the tension present at the foundation of the Ming dynasty remained. Emperors frequently tried to break the hold of the official class on power, but always failed. At different times, they tried empowering Buddhist or Taoist clergy to offset the influence of the mandarins. By 1486 there were 1,120 monks in official positions at court.

Emperors employed thousands of eunuchs, to the disgust of the official class; there were as many eunuchs as mandarins in the service of the empire by the 1480s. Ch’oe Pu expressed surprise at eunuchs in power; in his country, he protested, they would be allowed only to sweep the palace and carry messages.12 In China, they ran many departments of government, including the dreaded internal security agency, the so-called Western Depot, established in 1477 to seize and punish suspected traitors. But reliance on the mandarins to staff the provincial administration and the courts of law proved inescapable. Generally in the fifteenth century, moreover, emperors tended to be short-lived, and inherited “greybeard” mandarin counselors from their fathers and grandfathers.

In the late fifteenth century, the Chinese imperial court was in the grip of a reaction in favor of the political power of the mandarin class—something like a Confucian revolution. In large part, this was because of a change of power at the top: the accession of an emperor thoroughly educated in Confucian pieties and deep in cahoots with the Confucian elite. Partly, however, it was a reaction against the spectacular growth, in preceding reigns, of the numbers, wealth, and power of the Confucians’ enemies. Confucians traded hatred with Buddhists and Taoists. A judge who denounced the previous emperor’s favorite monk as “a good-for-nothing vagabond from the marketplace” was beaten, demoted, and exiled. Other Confucian critics of the monks got the same treatment. A hundred thousand Buddhist and Taoist clergy were ordained in 1476. The following year, the emperor decreed that in the future, ordination ceremonies would take place only once every twenty years. The government also tried to tighten the qualifications for ordination in the Buddhist and Taoist hierarchies. Scandal broke out over the sale of ordination certificates—ten thousand of them, for instance, to raise money for famine relief in Shaanxi in 1484—inflating the numbers. The certificates were blank; purchasers simply wrote in their names. “Unless we take timely measures,” reported a concerned official in 1479, “in the worst situations they might gather together in the mountains and forests to plan criminal acts; and in less serious situations they might manufacture rumours to alarm people’s minds. In any event, the harm they do is never small.” 13

The inflation of the Buddhist priesthood continued with another two hundred thousand ordinations in 1486. That very year, however, a new emperor came to the throne. Zhu Yutang, the Hongxi emperor, aspired to be a Confucian perfect prince. He ordered the death or expulsion of the sorcerers who thronged the previous emperor, and expelled over a thousand Buddhist and Taoist monks from court. He restored neglected rites, the reading of Confucian texts, the study of law, and the reform of judicial institutions. He embellished the Temple of Confucius in Qufu with a literary pavilion. When fire destroyed some Taoist institutions in Beijing in 1497, one of the emperor’s chief ministers gloated unfeignedly: “If they had possessed numinous power, would they not have been protected by it? Heaven despises such filth.” 14 Qixao, the Buddhist monk who occupied the informal position of favorite in the previous reign, was accused of peculation from state funds and dealing in aphrodisiacs. His head was chopped off in 1488.

In practice, however, the spiritual life of the court was woven of many strands, and it was hard to unwind Taoism and Buddhism from it entirely. The emperor still relied on Taoist magic for medicine. He favored painters who produced celebrations of scholarship, but Confucian heroes never monopolized the artists’ subject matter. The emperor’s personal favorite was—on the face of it—a surprising choice: an eccentric drunkard from Nanjing, called Wu Wei. Wu became a painter, like so many impoverished mandarins, because his family could not afford to complete his scholarly education and get him a job in the imperial bureaucracy. His father had squandered the family fortune on experiments in alchemy—the sort of practice a Taoist might be prey to but which a good Confucian would eschew. Perhaps in recoil from the shame, Wu cultivated a bohemian reputation, snubbing patrons, whoring, and exhibiting crazy virtuosity—painting masterpieces when apparently so drunk that he could hardly stand, sometimes using his hands to paint instead of brushes, or smearing the ink onto the paper or silk with bits of tableware. When he did use a brush, he gripped it tightly and wielded it boldly, stabbing and slashing at the surface with angular strokes. The results were stunningly brilliant. Yet despite these offences against propriety—and despite producing many works of Taoist piety for monastic paymasters—Wu knew how to please a Confucian patron.


In Wu Wei’s painting, a legendary Taoist saint contemplates the sea with, underfoot, the miraculous crutch that will serve as a raft.
Detail from Wu Wei, Two Daoist Immortals. Hanging Scroll, Shanghai Museum.

To understand his appeal, it is worth comparing his work with that of his senior contemporary, Shen Zhou. Shen’s mountains soar, his trees tower; the very air in his works seems to vibrate visibly with cosmic power. Human works and lives are reduced to specks in all this immensity. His most famous work, painted in 1487, now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and known as Rainy Thoughts, recalls the tastes and circumstances revealed in the rain-induced mystical experience with which this chapter began. He realized that experience is incomplete until transformed, by some unseen power, into part of oneself. Until then, the bell and drum may as well be mute and the beauties of the landscape invisible. Sounds and vision die on the air. But when they register in the human mind, memory and art perpetuate them. The painter called this transmuting power “will.”

“Sounds are cut off, colours obliterated; but my will, absorbing these, endures. What is the so-called will? Is it inside me, after all, or outside? Does it exist in external things or does it come into being because of those things?” 15

In the calm of his vigil, in mystical interpenetration with the rest of nature, when his being engaged and fused with the stimuli around him, he sensed the answer.

“How great is the power of sitting up at night! One should purify one’s heart and sit alone, by the light of a newly trimmed, bright candle. Through this practice one can pursue the principles that underlie events and things, and the subtlest workings of one’s own mind…. Through this, we shall surely attain understanding.” 16

On another occasion, he recorded “in a chance moment of exhilaration” a night spent in conversation with a friend on a wet night.

Doing a painting in the rain, I borrow its wet richness.

Writing poems by candlelight, we pass the long night.

Next morning, in sun, we open the gate; the spring freshness has spread.

At the lakeshore you leave me among the singing willows.17

The real subject is the rain-soaked world. The room where the artists sit draws the eye, because it glows with light, but its scale is insignificant and our view of it indistinct. The rain dominates the composition, seeping into the very paper on Shen Zhou’s sopping brush, speckling the air with spongy dabs, dripping from the tall thickets and dense copses that overshadow the painter’s flimsy house, blurring the dark mountains that glower in the background.

Wu Wei, by contrast, painted people not as fragments of a landscape or specks in an enveloping cosmos. In his work, humankind is nearly always dominant. Even when he located people in large-scale landscapes, he always made them bigger and more active than Shen Zhou’s characteristic figures. When he painted scholars, he made them dominate the composition, as if mastering nature by the power of thought and the resources of knowledge. Typically, his sages are strongly delineated, while the sketchy trees and hills around them seem feeble by comparison.

Although Confucianism never monopolized Chinese values, it did dominate the culture of the late-fifteenth-century court and of the administrative elite throughout the empire. Part of the consensus was that the empire was already big enough for its own purposes. It comprised all that mattered under heaven. It could supply its own wants from its own resources. If the “barbarians” outside its frontiers realized the wisdom of acknowledging Chinese superiority, revering the emperor, paying tribute, and adopting Chinese ways, that was welcome, in the foreigners’ own interests. But the best way to attract them was by example, not by war. The state should defend its frontiers but not waste blood and wealth to enlarge them.

Earlier in the century, when factional squabbles displaced the Confucians from power, China had looked briefly as though it might launch a major effort to found a seaborne empire, reaching out across the Indian Ocean. The Yongle emperor (r. 1402–24) aggressively sought contact with the world beyond the empire. He meddled in the politics of China’s southern neighbors in Vietnam and enticed the Japanese to trade. The most spectacular manifestation of the new outward-looking policy was the career of the Muslim eunuch-admiral Zheng He. In 1405, he led the first of a series of naval expeditions, the purpose of which has been the subject of long and unresolved scholarly debate but which was intended in part, at least, to exert political power around the Indian Ocean’s shores. He replaced unacceptable rulers in Java, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka, founded a puppet state on the commercially important Strait of Malacca, and gathered tribute from Bengal. He displayed Chinese power as far away as Jiddah, on the Red Sea coast of Arabia, and in major ports in East Africa as far south as the island of Zanzibar. “The countries beyond the horizon,” he announced with some exaggeration, “and from the ends of the Earth, have become subjects.” 18 He restocked the imperial zoo with giraffes, ostriches, zebras, and rhinoceroses—all hailed as beasts bringing good luck—and brought Chinese geographical knowledge up to date.

Can Zheng He’s voyages be called an imperial venture? Their official purpose was to pursue a fugitive pretender to the Chinese throne—but that would not have required expeditions on so vast a scale to such distant places. The Chinese called the vessels “treasure ships” and emphasized what they called “tribute gathering.” (In the more distant spots Zheng He’s ships visited, what happened was more like an exchange.) Commercial objectives may have been involved. Almost all the places Zheng He visited had long been important in Chinese trade. In part, the voyages were scientific missions: Ma Huan, Zheng He’s interpreter, called his own book on the subject The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores, and improved maps and data on the plants, animals, and peoples of the regions visited were among the expeditions’ fruits. But flag showing is always, to some extent, about power or, at least, prestige. And the aggressive intervention Zheng He made in some places, together with the tone of his commemorative inscriptions, demonstrates that the extension or reinforcement of China’s image and influence was part of the project.


One of the star charts Ma Huan composed en route with Zheng He between the Persian Gulf and Calicut.
Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan:The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores,” ed. J. V. G. Mills (Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1970). Courtesy of The Hakluyt Society.

It is hard to see how else the huge investment the state made in his enterprise could have been justified. Zheng He’s expeditions were on a crushing scale. His ships were much bigger than anything European navies could float at the time. The first expedition was said to comprise 62 junks of the largest dimensions ever built, 225 support vessels, and 27,780 men. The vessels—to judge from a recently discovered rudder post—justified the awed terms of contemporary assessments, displacing, perhaps, over three thousand tons; this was ten times the size of the largest ships afloat in Europe at the time. The seventh voyage—probably the longest in reach—sailed 12,618 miles. The voyages lasted on average over two years each. Some silly claims have been made forZheng He’s voyages. Ships of his fleet did not sail beyond the limits of the Indian Ocean—much less discover America or Antarctica.

His achievements, however, clearly demonstrated China’s potential to become the center of a maritime empire of enormous reach. Strictly speaking, these were not route-finding voyages. As we have seen, the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, across maritime Asia, and into East Africa had been familiar to Chinese merchants for centuries. In the early thirteenth century, Zhao Rugwa provided a practical handbook for commercial travelers in Southeast Asia and India. There were certainly opportunities to increase commercial openings by backing initiatives with force. The trades of the region were highly lucrative, including spices, fragrant hardwoods, valuable medicinal drugs, and exotic animal products. The motives for dispatching the “treasure ships,” however, transcended commerce. Zheng He was engaged on what would now be called flag-waving missions, impressing the ports he visited with Chinese power and stimulating the awe of the emperor’s home constituency with exotica that the Chinese classified as the tribute of remote peoples.19 The official pretext for his commission—which few believed, then or now—was to search for a fugitive ex-emperor who was supposed to be in hiding abroad. Strategic considerations were clearly involved. Zheng He intervened actively in the politics of some ports in Southeast Asia that were important for China’s trade and security. A potentially hostile empire had recently arisen in central Asia under the Turkic chief Timur, usually known in the West as Tamerlane or Tamberlaine; apprehension may have sent the Chinese sniffing for allies and intelligence around the edges of the new menace. Whatever the motives of the expeditions, part of the effect was to consolidate Chinese knowledge of the routes Zheng He took, and to compile practical maps and sailing directions for them.

The admiral was a Muslim eunuch of Mongol ancestry. Every feature of his background marked him as an outsider to the Confucian scholar-elites that dominated Chinese political life. When the emperor appointed him to lead the first oceangoing task force in 1403, it was a triumph for four linked factions at court, whose interests clashed with Confucian values. First, there was the commercial lobby, which wanted to mobilize naval support for Chinese traders in the Indian Ocean. Alongside the merchants, an imperialist lobby wanted to renew the program of imperial aggression espoused by the previous dynasty but opposed by Confucians, who theorized that the empire should expand, if at all, by peacefully attracting “barbarians” into its orbit. Then there was the always-powerful Buddhist lobby, which wanted to keep state funds out of skeptical or anticlerical Confucian hands by diverting them to other projects, and which perhaps sensed opportunities for spreading the faith under the official aegis of imperial expansion.

The voyages did display China’s potential as the launching bay of a seaborne empire: the capacity and productivity of her shipyards; her ability to mount expeditions of crushing strength and dispatch them over vast distances. Zheng He’s encounters with opponents unequivocally demonstrated Chinese superiority. On the first expedition, he encountered a Chinese pirate chief who had set up a bandit state of his own in the sometime capital of Srivijaya in Sumatra. The pirates were slaughtered and their king sent to China for execution. On the third voyage, the Sinhalese king of Sri Lanka tried to lure Zheng He into a trap and seize the fleet. The Chinese dispersed his forces, captured his capital, deported him to China, and installed a pretender in his place. On the fourth expedition, a Sumatran chief who refused to cooperate in the exchange of gifts for tribute was overwhelmed, abducted, and, eventually, put to death.

Of all Zheng He’s acts of political intervention, perhaps the most significant—in terms of long-term consequences—was his attempt to set up a Chinese puppet kingdom to control the trade of the Strait of Malacca, the vital bottleneck in the normal route between China and India. He chose to elevate Paramesvara, a bandit chief who had been driven from his own kingdom and had established a stronghold in the swamps of what is now known as Melaka, on the Malayan coast. In 1409, Zheng He conferred the seal and robes of kingship upon him. Paramesvara traveled to China to pay tribute in person and established a client relationship with the emperor; Chinese patronage turned his modest stronghold into a great and rich emporium.

Zheng He’s own perception of his role seems to have combined an imperial impulse with the peaceful inspiration of commerce and scholarship. A stela he erected in 1432 began in a jingoistic vein: “In the unifying of the seas and continents the Ming Dynasty even goes beyond the Han and the Tang…. The countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have become subjects.” That was an exaggeration, but he added, more plausibly, in deference to traders and geographers, “However far they may be, their distances and the routes may be calculated.” 20 An “overall survey of the ocean’s shores” was one of the fruits of the voyages. Copies of the charts survive thanks to the fact that they were reproduced in a printed work of 1621. Like European charts of the same period, they are diagrams of sailing directions rather than attempts at scale mapping. Tracks annotated with compass bearings show the routes between major ports and represent in visual form the sailing directions Zheng He recorded, all of which have the form “Follow such-and-such a bearing for such-and-such a number of watches.” Each port is marked with its latitude according to the elevation of the Pole Star above the horizon, which Zheng He verified by means of “guiding star-boards”—ebony strips of various breadths held at a fixed distance from the observer’s face to fill the space exactly between the star and the horizon.

But the Chinese naval effort could not last. Historians have debated why it was abandoned. Part of the answer, at least, is clear. The scholar-elites hated overseas adventures and the factions that favored them so much that, when they recaptured power, the mandarins destroyed almost all Zheng He’s records in an attempt to obliterate his memory. Moreover, China’s land frontiers became insecure as Mongol power revived. China needed to turn away from the sea and toward the new threat. The state never resumed overseas expansion. The growth of trade and of Chinese colonization in Southeast Asia was left to merchants and migrants. China, the empire best equipped for maritime imperialism, opted out. Consequently, lesser powers, including those of Europe, were able to exploit opportunities in seas that Chinese power vacated. It became possible for the Ryukyu Islands to be unified as a thriving emporium for the trade of China and Japan with Southeast Asia. Sho Shin ruled the islands from 1477. He disarmed the warlords, sent bureaucrats to China for education in Confucian principles, and imposed internal peace.

In many ways, it was to the credit of Chinese decision makers that they pulled back from involvement in costly adventures far from home. Most powers that have undertaken such expeditions and attempted to impose their rule on distant countries have had cause to regret it. Confucian values, as we have seen, included giving priority to good government at home. “Barbarians” would submit to Chinese rule if and when they saw the benefits. Attempting to beat or coax them into submission was a waste of resources. By consolidating their landward empire, and refraining from seaborne imperialism, China’s rulers ensured the longevity of their state. All the maritime empires founded in the world in the last five hundred years have crumbled. China is still here.

Ch’oe Pu’s diary reflects the successes and limitations of Chinese Confucians’ “soft power,” as modern political theory would call it. Ch’oe Pu was aware of similar struggles and exchanges of prejudice between Confucians and their Buddhist rivals in Korea. He was such a pious Confucian, so respectful of the rites for the dead, that he refused to doff mourning, even when it might have exempted him from peril of his life, as when his companions were afraid of slaughter—either at the hands of brigands unintimidated by the sight of Ch’oe Pu’s official uniform, or by Chinese peasants who mistook the Koreans for Japanese pirates. He declined to pray at a river shrine, which he regarded as superstitious, despite the advisability of deferring to local customs. His contempt for Buddhism was excoriating. He denounced the futility of monks’ prayers and rejoiced at the news of secularizations of monasteries because “the abolished temples become people’s houses, the destroyed Buddhas become vessels, and the heads that once were bald are now hairy and fill the army’s ranks.” 21

He spoke to his Chinese hosts in terms that were calculated to flatter, but which also reflected two long-standing prejudices among Korea’s elite: willingness to defer to China, and anxiety to imitate the Chinese. “In heaven,” he admitted,

there are not two suns. How under the same heaven can there be two emperors? My king’s one purpose is to serve your country devotedly.22…Though my Korea is beyond the sea, its clothing and culture being the same as China’s, it cannot be considered a foreign country. That is especially so now, with Great Ming’s unification…under one roof. All under Heaven are my brothers; how can we discriminate among people because of distance? That is particularly true of my country, which respectfully serves the celestial court and pays tribute without fail. The Emperor, for his part, treats us punctiliously and tends us benevolently. The feeling of security he imparts is perfect.23

Ch’oe Pu learned to make a water wheel he saw in China because “it will be useful to Koreans for all ages to come.” But when interrogators asked for military intelligence, he was evasive. When they asked the distance to Korea, he exaggerated. When officials asked him how Korea had managed to repel earlier Chinese attempts at conquest, he sidestepped the question and emphasized his country’s strength.24

In his day, Korea was experiencing a Confucian revival parallel to China’s—only more fragile. After a spell, in the previous reign, of royal dependence on Buddhist advisers and lavish patronage of Buddhist temples, Ch’oe’s royal master, Sŏng-jong, who came to the throne in 1470, restored Confucianism, much as the Hongxi emperor did in China. Yet when Chinese dignitaries visited Korea, it struck them as an exotic and barbarous land, more notable for its differences from China than for the continuities Koreans strove to contrive. In 1487 an ambassador arrived in Korea from the court of the new emperor of China. “The ministers,” he reported back, “with pins in their hair, stand like ibises in attendance, while old and young gather on the hills to see…. The stone lions bask in the sun that rises from the sea. In front of the Kwang-wha Gate they sit east and west, high as the towers, wonderfully hammered out.” 25 He watched acrobats masked as lions and elephants in a palace painted red, with green glass windows, in the audience chamber.26 The level of mealtime hospitality impressed him: five layers of honeyed bread, honey and flour cakes piled a foot high, rice soup, pickled relish, soy, rice wine superior in aroma and flavor to Chinese millet wine, beef, mutton, pork, walnuts, dates, mutton sausages, fish, and lotus roots to sweeten the breath.27

He lectured the Koreans on Confucianism, in a way one suspects must have annoyed his hosts: “We proclaim the ceremonies of the Book of Spring and Autumn which says, ‘The various states must first see to the rectitude of the individual man.’” 28 In the long run, the lecture was to little avail. Chong-jik, the minister who put the policy of reviving the ceremonies into effect in Korea, died in 1492. After the king’s death in 1494, his successor reversed the policy, beheaded Chong-jik’s exhumed body, and scourged and exiled other leading Confucians, including Ch’oe Pu.

Japan—the other country Columbus hoped to open trade with—was in no condition to contemplate taking the initiative in reaching out to the rest of the world. Ch’oe Pu, who so admired China, had less respect for Japan. The riches of Japan, he thought, would seem to a Korean like “ice to a summer bug.” 29 But the country’s problems were not fundamentally economic. Japanese rice could be harvested two or three times a year. Large amounts of copper, swords, sulfur, and sappanwood were exported to China. Japan used Chinese coins, minted, for reasons no one has ever fully been able to explain, from copper produced in Japan. The size and distribution of cities—concentrated, as usual in Japanese history, in the teeming heartland of southern Honshu and northernKyushu—suggest that rural production was high and the systems of commerce and communications could dispense large amounts of food efficiently. Kyoto had reputedly two hundred thousand inhabitants before ruinous civil war broke out in the late 1460s. Tennoji in Kawachi province and Hakata in northern Kyushu had over thirty thousand people. More than twenty other towns had more than ten thousand.

Japan’s problems were political. Though Japanese statesmen regarded China as their model, in practice the country was very differently managed. The emperor was a sacral, secluded figure, spared the vulgarities of politics by hereditary vicegerents known as shoguns. Control of Kyoto ensured fabulous revenues for the shoguns’ government. They could afford to neglect the rest of the country. Provincial power was delegated to or usurped by the warlords as the price of peace. But peace in the hands of a warrior caste is always precarious. Trying to forget “the trials of this world,” the poet Shinkei described the effects: “Even within the powerful clans selfish quarrels broke out between lord and retainer and among the rank and file, in which men of various stations fell in great numbers. And though they battled day and night, pitting their might against each other in their various territories, nowhere was the outcome ever decisive.” 30

While squabbles of the aristocracy overspilled into violence, members of the military class known as samurai made common cause with peasants oppressed by the warlords’ need of money. Together they formed masterless leagues of self-defense that erupted in rebellion. They were, according to the poet-priest Ikkyu, who was a propagandist for the shogunate, “demons with red faces, their hot blood aroused,…turning the whole city into a den of thieves and striking fear in the people as they endlessly looted for treasures. And thus it came about that the people grew weary, the capital fell into ruin, and of the myriad ways of civilized men nothing remained.” 31 From the late 1430s, the eastern provinces were steeped in constant warfare: “As the months stretched into years, myriads perished, their bodies torn by the sword as men fell upon each other in their madness, and still the strife showed no signs of letting up.” A reforming shogun’s attempts to reassert central authority ended in his assassination in 1441. Fifteen years of effective interregnum followed, while his successors were minors. When the shogun Yoshimasa reached maturity, he struggled to recoup power. In 1482, after the failure of all his efforts, he wrote that the daimyo, or warlords, “do as they please and do not follow orders. That means there can be no government.” 32

Meanwhile, in 1461 drought struck

when not a single tuft of grass grew upon the fields across the land. From the capital and the villages, thousands of starving people, both high and low, wandered out to beg on the wayside, or just sat there till they crumpled over and died. It is impossible to say how many myriads perished in just a single day. The world had turned into a hell of hungry ghosts before my eyes.33

In 1467 the two most powerful warlords came to blows, ostensibly over the succession to the shogunate, and were forced to flee when their armies ravaged the capital. “All, high and low, were thrown into utter confusion and scattered in the four directions, their flight swifter than flowers in a windstorm, red leaves beneath the tree-withering blast. Within the capital, it had become a veritable hell.” The poet Ichijo Kaneyoshi fled devastation so total that “only layers of cloud cover the remains,” while bandits scattered the contents of his library—“the dwellings of hundreds of bookworms…that had been passed down for over ten generations.” 34 The following ten years were the most destructive in Japan’s long history of civil wars.

“How terrible it is,” wrote the poet Shinkei, “to have been born in the last days of such an utterly degenerate age.” The calamities seemed to him “to presage the world’s destruction.” 35 Moralists blamed the indifference and self-indulgence of the ruling classes, or the aloof lifestyle of the shogun, or the supposed influence of women at his court, or the corruption of his ministers.

Yet wars, though they warp morals and wreck lives, can stimulate art. A renaissance was under way,36 with painters and poets who looked back half a millennium for their models and perhaps for escape. In the longueurs of war, fighters competed to write Chinese verses. The shogun Yoshimasa dabbled while Japan burned. His character has puzzled every historian who tried to tackle it fairly. He treated the events of his day as if they were none of his responsibility. In the earliest years of the war, his own poetry expressed optimism amounting to insouciance:

Forlorn though the hope,

Still I believe that somehow

Peace will be restored.

Although it is so confused,

I don’t despair of the world.37

Pessimism followed, amounting to despair, but deeply dyed with egotism.

“What a sad world it is!”

Everyone says the same, but

I’m the only one,

Unable to control it,

Whose grief keeps on growing.38

His life seems a series of evasions. He had an impressive array of virtues: in selecting artists he showed unerring judgment. In organizing poetry competitions he displayed unstinting industry. In identifying the problems of government he showed considerable sagacity. But he turned away from every disagreeable task: curbing his wife’s avarice, reprimanding his son’s prodigality, punishing the warlords’ presumptions. He simply ignored the wars that broke out around him, withdrawing first into a circle of artistic mutual admiration in the capital, then resigning government responsibilities altogether in his country retreat before taking the final step: ordination as a Zen monk.

His profligacy probably helped cause the dissolution of the state by ratcheting up taxation, immiserating peasants, and leaving the central government bereft of an armed force. But at least it can be said to his credit that much of his spending was on the arts. While in power, he was a compulsive builder and redecorator of palaces. When he retired from public life, his hillside villa became like the country retreats of the Medici—a center where artists and literati gathered to perform plays, coin poems, practice the tea ceremony, blend perfumes, paint, and converse. Sometimes, warlords took time out from strife or state building on their own account in nearby provinces to join the soirees. Yoshimasa built a supposedly silver-foil-clad pavilion on the grounds, decorated with “rare plants and curious rocks,” 39 begun in 1482 and completed three years after his death, in 1493. To meet the costs, the government requisitioned labor from the dwindling number of loyal landowners in the provinces. In retirement, Yoshimasa boosted his income by engaging in trade in his own right, sending horses, swords, sulfur, screens, and fans to China and getting cash and books in return.40 This shows both that a merchant life was no derogation, even for a former shogun, and that the troubles did not interrupt the trade.

In some ways, the arts of the time seem strangely indifferent to the wars. Kano Masanobu painted Chinese rivers and Buddhist worthies on the walls in styles derived from Chinese models. The critics and painters Shinkei Geiami and his son Soami coaxed great work from the brushes of pupils, such as the dynamic Kenko Shokei. But art was ultimately inseparable from the politics of the wars, because warlords paid for so much of it, and the shogun’s patronage was by no means disinterested.

One suspects that Yoshimasa employed artists because, at least in part, they were cheaper than warriors and more effective as mediators of propaganda. Patronage of Noh theater, for instance, was traditional in the shogunal house, exhibiting heroic themes and aligning the shoguns with exemplars from a sometimes mythic past; it was while watching a play that Yoshimasa’s father had been assassinated. Because Yoshimasa had to maintain links around the kingdom, he commanded a brisk trade in portraits for distribution to provincial shrines, where they could focus loyalties, like fragments or relics of himself.41 But Yoshimasa elevated art to a new rank as the Japanese equivalent of the “rites and music” Confucius had prescribed as essential to the health of the Chinese state.42

Not everyone succumbed to Yoshimasa’s patronage. The painter of landscape in ink Toyo Sesshu visited China in 1467, after years of copying Chinese paintings. He served only provincial houses and declined to paint for Yoshimasa with a characteristically Chinese excuse: it was not right for a mere priest to paint in a “golden palace.” 43 Such dissent or fastidiousness was rare. Yoshimasa’s taste inspired swathes of the elite and of merchants who sought to spend their way to status. Provincial chieftains imitated his practice, inviting poets, painters, and scholars to elevate their own courts with learning and art. A once-popular theory about the origins of the Italian Renaissance ascribed investment in culture to the mood of hard times: when wars curtail opportunities to make money from trade, capitalists sink their money into works of art. Something of the sort seems to have happened in Japan in the long years of civil war from the late 1460s. The fear—often realized—that frequent burnings in the capital would destroy valuable libraries inspired a feverish enthusiasm for copying manuscripts. The flight of sages and artists from the capital helped spread metropolitan tastes around the country. Warlords competed for the services of poets and painters.44 Yamaguchi, for instance, became a “little Kyoto,” graced by the presence of famous artists.

Shinkei’s wanderings are a case in point. In 1468 he left the capital for the east, to use his prestige as a Buddhist sage in the interests of one of the contending parties in the civil wars. He spent most of the next four years responding to invitations from nobles to conduct poetical soirees in their castles and camps, endeavoring, he said, “to soften the hearts of warriors and rude folk and teach the way of human sensibility for all the distant ages.” 45 Spring afflicted him: “Even the flowers are thickets of upturned blades.” 46


Tranquillity, sorrow, and reflection in the midst of civil wars: Sogi, composing verses with fellow literati by a colleague’s grave under the full moon.
Nishikawa Sukenobu, Ehon Yamato Hiji (10 vols.; Osaka, 1742).

The adventures of another renowned poet exemplify the predicament of artists in a time of civil war. Sogi, an equally famous poet, usually traveled between provincial courts in response to invitations from aspiring patrons. In 1492, however, he stayed in the capital, educating aristocrats on the classics of the Heian era of nearly half a millennium before. He was seventy-three years old, and his taste for traveling was waning. In the summer of that year, however, he made an excursion into the countryside to visit Yukawa Masaharu, a minor warlord with literary ambitions. The sequence of poems he wrote for this patron begins with a prayer for the endurance of the house, likening Masaharu’s offspring to a stand of young pines: “[Y]et still more tall may they grow.” But “the law,” he also wrote, “is not what it was.” 47 Piety was past.

Who will hear it?

The temple bell from the hills,

Off in the distance.

Despite Sogi’s prayers for him to be spared in the battle he had to face, Masaharu backed the wrong side in the conflict. Within a year of Sogi’s visit, his fortunes were in ruins. He disappeared from records after 1493.

Amazingly, this renaissance flourished in conditions of insecurity that might have paralyzed the city of Kyoto, where there were never enough loyal soldiers to keep order among the rival gangs who infested the city and the rival armies of warlords who often invested it. After the warlords’ armies withdrew from the wreckage in 1477, marauders took over. Full-scale warfare continued in the east of the country.

As war intensified, Japan dissolved into warring states. A self-made, self-appointed leader who came to be known as Hoso Soun demonstrated the opportunities. Having made his reputation in the service of other warlords, he struck out on his own, attracting followers by his prowess. In 1492 he conquered the peninsula of Izu and turned it into a base from which he proposed to extend his rule over the entire country. In 1494 he secured control of the peninsula by capturing the fortress of Odiwara, which commanded the approach to Izu, by posing as the leader of a party of deer hunters. He was never strong enough to get much farther than the neighboring province of Sagami, but his career was typical of the era, in which scores of new warlords burst onto the scene, established new dynasties, and set up what were in effect small independent states. At the same time, peasant communities organized their own armed forces, sometimes in collaboration with warlords.


One of the earliest editions of Columbus’s first report shows the oriental merchants he expected to find trading with the natives of Hispaniola.
De Insulis Nuper in Mari Indico Repertis (Basle, 1494).

Though China withdrew from imperial ambitions, and Japan, crumbling into political ineffectiveness, had not yet embarked on them, the underlying strength of those countries’ economies remained robust, and the vibrancy and dynamism of cultural life were spectacular.

Elsewhere, in widely separated parts of the world, to which we must now turn, expansion unrolled like springs uncoiling. An age of expansion really did begin, but the phenomenon was of an expanding world, not, as some historians say, of European expansion. The world did not simply wait passively for European outreach to transform it as if touched by a magic wand. Other societies were already working magic of their own, turning states into empires and cultures into civilizations. Some of the most dynamic and rapidly expanding societies of the fifteenth century were in the Americas, southwest and northern Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, in terms of territorial expansion and military effectiveness against opponents, some African and American empires outclassed any state in western Europe.

The Indian Ocean, which China forbore to control—“the seas of milk and butter,” as ancient Indian legends called the seas that lapped maritime Asia—linked the world’s richest economies and carried the world’s richest commerce. It constituted a self-contained zone, united by monsoonal winds and isolated from the rest of the world by zones of storms and untraversable distances. For the future of the history of the planet, the big question was who—if anyone—would control the routes of commerce now that the Chinese had withdrawn. In the 1490s, that issue was unresolved. But the Indian Ocean was also an arena of intense, transmutative cultural exchange, with consequences that the world is still experiencing, and to which we must now turn.

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