The Chinese Maritime Empire
And some consequences of its dissolution
Not much has been published about the Chinese Maritime Empire, which flourished during what we in Europe call our Middle Ages. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, the Europeans, who created their own maritime empires, were unwilling to acknowledge that a superior civilisation had done it all before. Secondly, the Chinese themselves disavowed their own history. That may seem to be a remarkable thing to do, and the reasons for it have to be found in Chinese internal politics. It would seem that at the beginning of the fifteenth century the Imperial Government overreached itself. It could not sustain the vast expense of world-wide trading and exploratory fleets while at the same time protecting the country against landward
invasion from the west, having also lavished huge resources in building Beijing into what was then easily the biggest city in the world. There was a permanent state of tension between the Emperor and his immediate circle and the Mandarins who had to administer everything and find the means of paying for it. So, immediately in 1421, and definitely after 1434, the Mandarins' view prevailed and China withdrew into its shell. Literature relating to the maritime empire was conveniently lost. In 1644 the Manchus took control, and, because the only effective opposition to them came from the coastal regions, Chinese citizens were even banned from living near the coast. Subsequent Chinese governments tried to resist aggressive European incursions by declaring that the Empire had everything and did not need to trade with anybody outside the Empire. In fact, the only thing that really interested them was bullion, so as to maintain an adequate supply of coinage.
One might ask why the Chinese call themselves “The Middle Kingdom” if it was not in the middle of anything. As the nerve centre of a world-wide empire, that makes sense. While the Chinese were congratulating themselves on their inherent superiority, the Europeans were developing fast. The scientific revolution came about for the bizarre reason that the Murano glassblowers in Venice found a way of making clear glass. Wealthy Europeans prized this glass because vessels made of it were the perfect way of demonstrating the quality of their wine to important visitors. In the mercantile Netherlands, Huyghens made a telescope out of it, and Leeuwenhoek a microscope. In China the wealthy classes tried to impress visitors by the quality of their tea; and tea is best presented in ceramic vessels. Hence the Chinese developed porcelain to a quality that was unmatched in Europe. Additionally, because the geography of Europe favoured a plethora of small states, war (ultima ratio regum, “the final argument of kings”) was a permanent feature of life. Vast resources were put into the development of offensive weapons, based mainly on the Chinese invention of gunpowder. By the nineteenth century, with a combination of science-based technology and massive superiority in weaponry, European powers dominated the planet.
Nowadays, after several revolutions and various setbacks along the way, the Chinese are resuming where they left off. Where European empires have collapsed, the Chinese have been moving in. They have been taking an interest in the exploits of Zhong He, the most famous of their late mediaeval admirals, to the extent of building a replica of the super-junk that he would have used. The great trading empire has been re-established under the name of “Belt and Roads”, and resources are being channelled out of Bolivia, Zimbabwe, the Congo, Zambia, Australia, everywhere, to make goods to be sold in Europe and the United States. A rail link has been established between Chungqing and London. And Chinese successes in space exploration have the serious propaganda value of indicating that they have the means to deter any military opposition by other powers.
Of course, the Chinese are filling in the power vacuum that was left when the European empires collapsed. Perhaps the most important single event was the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. We could also instance the Vietnamese defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1956. Or the failure of the Dutch to recover Indonesia in 1949. What I am interested in for the purposes of this essay is the countervailing question: what happened throughout the world when the Chinese maritime empire ceased to function? The consequences were world-wide, yet as far as I know no historian has actually put the story together. Perhaps this is a start.
Let us look at the Pacific Ocean first. This was for hundreds of years a Chinese lake. The great ships of China were gigantic junks, 300 feet long by 150 feet wide. This sounds as if they were huge tubs, which, since their remains have been found in all sorts of places, is probably a fair assessment. But they had hulls with double skins, made of teak from Vietnam. The rudders were thirty feet tall and operated through a system of gears. The sails on multiple masts were made of silk. The cost of building one must have been enormous. They had the magnetic compass, plus the ability to ascertain longitude which (using different technology) the Royal Navy only acquired in the eighteenth century. A typical voyage might have been a circuit of the Pacific Ocean, following the prevailing winds and tides. They might have called in at San Francisco Bay (where there is some evidence that a Chinatown predates the European settlement). Then Mexico. To this day the Mixtecs sell lacquerwork to tourists that is very similar to Chinese lacquerwork. A proficiency at handling gold and jade also has a parallel with China.
What I am tentatively suggesting is that the rise of the Aztec Empire coincides with the disappearance of the Chinese. The Aztec state started life in 1325, but it did not become independent until 1428 when Itzcoatl was tlatoani (spokesman, or chief official). It took off with the alliance of three city states, Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City), Texcoco, and Tlacopan (modern Tacuba), all based on the great lake. The Spanish conquest of Mexico is usually given as 1519. Thus the Aztec Empire lasted for less than a hundred years. The Spanish were helped by the fact that the natives had certain superstitions that could be exploited. The most important was that a godlike person, Viracocha, who had pale skin and a beard, would return across the ocean. Naturally Cortés encouraged the view that the prophecy related to him. But I suggest that Viracocha was Chinese, and of relatively recent memory.
From there the Chinese would follow the coast to Guayaquil, where the local museum has various Chinese artefacts under its curation. Further south, in North Peru, the independent state of Chimor held sway. Its language, Chimú, lasted long enough to be recorded in the nineteenth century. Chimor subsisted as a trading organisation. Materials were transported across the Andes from Amazonia, in particular gold. And who does one suppose that they traded with? By the way, the name “Perú” is said to derive from the Chinese for “coastal fog”, which is something that cactus growers know about. If you study the map of Peru you will find place names that look Chinese, such as the State of Ancash. The Inca state came into being on the ruins of Chimor and other coastal states that, I suggest, had lost their raison d'être. The dates match precisely. Thus the Inca state was only a century or so old when Pizarro destroyed it. Chickens that lay blue eggs are characteristic of Peru and Chile. These would seem to have originated in China. Anyway, whatever colour their eggs are, the birds would still have to have been imported across the ocean by some means or other.
Next, the colossal junks would have put in at Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. Here they would have taken on water and fresh vegetables. The locals would have received iron goods in exchange, all the better to dig their vegetable patches. My contention here is that the gigantic statues called maui that face the sea are actually representations of Chinese ships' captains. Many statues still have stylised headdresses. The giveaway is that the statuesque figures are depicted with long fingernails corresponding with the custom of the Chinese upper class. Without the input of the Chinese, the island's economy deteriorated and, after a civil war, they stopped making the maui.
From there, the Chinese would have sailed to Australia's east coast, where a colony had existed from the ninth century onwards. Europeans would not have liked to recognise that, for fear that the Chinese might at some time resurrect their ancient rights. Chinese ironworks may still be seen at Byron Bay. It is interesting that Australia is still supplying iron to China, along with the coal to smelt it with. Aboriginal drawings of persons apparently wearing Chinese robes are still to be found. In the process of loading up with iron ingots and perhaps a “giant pocket rat” to take to Beijing zoo, they might have lost a dog or two. It is very strange that the dingo has only been a menace to native wildlife in recent years. If the aborigines had brought dingoes with them when they crossed the sea or land bridge from New Guinea, why do they not now keep them as pets? Dingoes are obviously not native to Australia, where the mammals are marsupials or, in two cases, monotremes. Here is a question that DNA analysis ought to be able to answer.
The grand circuit would be completed with a visit to the Spice Islands to load up with some high-value pepper, perhaps essential to make the whole journey profitable. My description is of a routine Chinese voyage. It would have taken maybe two years. Navigation skills would have been refined over the centuries. Imported goods would have included: iron; gold and perhaps silver; exotic woods; animals; pepper and nutmeg. Exports would have been: manufactured goods especially ironware; ceramics; chickens; and accidentally dogs and rats. Not much different from nowadays!
Unsurprisingly, the Indian Ocean was also a Chinese lake. The main Chinese ports in Africa were Malindi in Kenya and Sofala in Mozambique. Sofala was the port for Zimbabwe, that was merely ruins when Europeans first saw it. But in its heyday it must have been spectacular. Later white racists said that Africans could not have built such a place. Other visitors have pointed out that as a citadel it is not well designed. Those objections can be answered quite simply. Yes, Africans did build it; and No, it would have provided very good protection against the sort of weapons that its neighbours might have brought to bear against it. Zimbabwe flourished by selling gold to the Chinese; when that market ceased to function, Zimbabwe petered out quite rapidly. The Chinese did not regard Arab traders as competition but as collaborators. There was an Arab quarter of Guangdong, the main port of South China. Sofala petered out, but Malindi kept going, to be overshadowed in later times by Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam. African animals such as giraffes were taken to Beijing zoo, and portrayed in children's reading books along with kangaroos from Australia and mylodons (giant sloths, now believed extinct) from South America.
A route across the southern Indian Ocean to Australia was sometimes employed. Fresh vegetables were obtained en route from Kerguelen. I suggest that the baobabs of north Australia, which have edible seeds, were taken from Madagascar by Chinese sailors; and that the Australian mesembryanthemum Disphyma was taken there from South Africa. Dried Disphyma plant material would have made very good packing material for such things as ostrich eggs. All manner of weird explanations are advanced to explain the disjunct habitats of certain plant species. What these explanations have in common is a refusal to accept that any humans could have been responsible before the golden age of European exploration.
Now that China is back in serious business, the old maritime empire is again inspirational. The Chinese government gave the government of Sri Lanka sufficient weapons to crush the Tamil Eelam insurgency, in exchange for being allowed to build a deep-water port on the island. They are building a new port on the coast of Pakistan. This will presumably ship out the vast quantities of rare minerals that they are digging up in Afghanistan while the Americans, the Taliban, and others are fighting all around them. To secure his position as dictator of Zimbabwe, Emerson Mnangagwa visited China to seek assistance; the deal was that the Chinese should be allowed to excavate the country's chromium without any consideration for people, plants, animals, or archaeology. New railways ship Zambian copper to Dar-es-Salaam. Congolese rare earth minerals find their way to China. It all seems very Victorian, only rücksichtsloser in ihre selbstverständliche Konzequenz (more ruthless in its obvious consequences). When I was in South Africa in 2016, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to visit the country. The Chinese government said “Oh no he isn't”, and, believe it or not, he didn't.
The Chinese have also acquired the rights to the world's biggest lithium deposits, which are in Bolivia. They are planning to build a super-size canal across the Isthmus of Tehuantépec in Mexico. A scheme has been hatched with the Russian government to build a rail tunnel under the Bering Strait. Maybe that is over-ambitious, but it demonstrates the ability of today's Chinese to think big, which puts them on a par with our own Victorians.
Note: For more information, see Gavin Menzies: 1421, Who Discovered America?, and 1434.