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Customer Review

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating & Thought-Provoking, 27 Nov. 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-33 (Paperback)
China --- both the modern state and especially its imperial predecessor --- is usually portrayed as being isolationist, looking inward, shunning contact with other lands. There is undoubtedly a great deal of accuracy in that view. But China also has a tradition of seafaring and exploration of the outside world that goes back at least 4000 years. These two opposing philosophies --- on the one hand, the Confucian attitude of keeping China self-sufficient and isolated; on the other a desire to reach out for trade, profit, or mere curiosity --- have sometimes clashed throughout Chinese history.
Louise Levathes' book When China Ruled the Seas documents one such clash. Shortly after Emperor Zhu Di seized the throne from his young nephew, he ordered the construction of a vast ocean-going fleet. Possibly rumors that the previous emperor had fled abroad --- his body was never identified with certainty --- motivated a search of neighboring lands. Perhaps too Zhu Di felt the need to announce to his neighbors that he had ascended the Dragon Throne. But probably the major reason for construction of the enormous fleet was trade. After years of civil war, China's treasury was depleted and her economy was in shambles. Nothing would revive things like an influx of tribute from China's nominal vassal states.
So orders went out all over China for the construction of over 1,600 vessels of all types. Most impressive of all were four Treasure Ships, each over 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, designed to carry Chinese products overseas for trade, and to bring back foreign goods in return. Between 1405 and 1433 the "Treasure Fleet" --- usually under command of the eunuch Zhang He --- made seven trips to various ports of call in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Not only was contact re-established with China's traditional vassals in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Siam, and Indonesia, but the Treasure Fleet also reached India, and ultimately went as far as the Persian Gulf, the Arabian peninsula, and East Africa. Levathes even speculates that Chinese ships touched on Australia.
Within a decade China was at the height of its influence, and had become the most advanced sea power at the time. But wealth from the foreign trade went mainly to the imperial court. For the common people the Treasure Fleet brought higher taxes and demanding officials seeking supplies for the fleet. By the last years of Zhu Di's reign China was beset with poor harvests, famine and epidemics at home and rebellion abroad. The emperor began to rethink his extravagant policies and ordered cutbacks in trade and government expenditures. The days of Chinese ascendancy on the seas had passed. The Treasure Fleet was allowed to decay, Zhang He's logs were destroyed, and by 1500 it was a capital crime to build ocean-going vessels. This led to a decline in Chinese technology in general, so that eventually the West surpassed China, and the Middle Kingdom was relegated to the status of a third-class nation.
How different the world today would be if history had taken another course; if the Chinese had discovered America from the East. This might have been possible had the Treasure Fleet been maintained rather than mothballed.
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