Silk Roads Trade and Zheng He's Voyages


Up until the European age of exploration, beginning with 15th century Portuguese explorers attempting to find routes around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean and on to the Spice Islands, the southern and eastern hemispheres were alive with land and sea commercial activity. Indians, Arabs, Micronesians, Malays, and Chinese all contributed to a process the Chinese historian Lynda Schaffer called, "Southernization." On land and water this trade, along with the spread of Buddhism, was conducted over the Silk Roads, as the map below illustrates.


Some students of world history wonder why the Chinese did not discover America. (Most Chinese historians discredit the Gavin Menzies hypothesis that the Chinese were in San Francisco about 75 years before Columbus ever sailed.) Truth be told, they did not need to be there. They had already discovered the Spice Islands to their south about 500 years before Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored the Columbian voyages, which as we well know discovered something different. In early 15th century Ming China, the country truly saw itself as the center of the world. The Chinese did not have a need for what other countries had to export, save for exotica like a giraffe. But other peoples desired what China had to offer. And China desired to demonstrate its power and prestige, and the voyages of the Chinese Muslim Admiral, Zheng He, from 1408-1433 did just that.


The voyages were essentially diplomatic in nature displaying China's greatness and receiving tribute from existing "subordinate" countries and adding new tributaries along the way. The size and number of Zheng He's ships and his personnel was astounding. A ship was almost 450 feet in length and carried almost 500 men. The first voyage started with 317 vessels (by comparison the Spanish Armada totaled 132).*


Zheng He


Note the difference in size between one of Zheng He's treasure ships and one of Columbus's vessels:


After Zheng He's seventh and final voyage, Ming naval and maritime power declined, the result of fiscal crises and a Confucian scholar-official led anti-commericalism and xenophobia movement. This withdrawal from ongoing technological and economic development would have consequences during the 19th century when Europeans succeeded in "opening up" China on their own terms.


We would be remiss not to mention the role that China played in 16th-18th century globalization. Inflation during the early Ming rule (the emperor printed too much paper money) caused the Chinese to abandon paper and instead turn to silver. Chinese demand for silver in the 16th century outstripped domestic supply and Japanese imports. Where did the needed silver come from? The "New World" where Spanish control of Central and South America (save for Brazil) meant great wealth from silver mines, especially the mother lode in Potosi (Bolivia). Silver, mined by native Americans and later enslaved Africans when the natives died of disease or tried to rebel, was not only sent to Europe (where the Spanish tried to build a major empire only to lose the Armada to the English) but also to the Philippines and then on to China. China was the world's largest and most productive economy in these two centuries, so really, without China there would have been no Potosi so to speak.