When China Ruled The Seas: The Treasure Fleet Of The Dragon Throne, 1405-1433, by Louise Levathes
This book is essentially 1421 without the claims about the colonization of the Americas. Still, the essential story, for those who have an interest in China’s treasure fleets, is still the same. Throughout most of China’s history there has been a marked ambivalence, if not hostility, to the external trade relations of individual overseas Chinese who have escaped from the territorial mindset of the Chinese emperors, who have been strongly influenced by native Chinese cultural beliefs that have looked down on the merchant and extolled the value of landholders. For a brief period of time, though, there was space for external-thinking Chinese leaders, including the eunuch Zheng He, to throw Chinese weight around in the Pacific and Indian ocean regions, and the author strongly hints that there were quite a few Chinese missions going back hundreds of years, even a couple thousand years, that ended up going as far as the Americas and bringing Buddhism and Chinese symbolism (and even chickens) to Mesoamerica. To be sure, the author does not speculate on the implications of such things are, but less cautious writers would take a book like this as permission to run wild with ideas about the longstanding Chinese influence over Asia and Oceania and even more distant parts, and the author’s sober discussion of the surviving accounts of Zheng He and his associates makes it clear just how ephemeral but how mighty Chinese naval power in the early 15th century was.
This book is about 200 pages long and it is a deeply interesting read. The book begins with a pronunciation guide to major figures, a discussion of Chinese dynasties, and a discussion of the phantom presence of Chinese in the historical memory of the nations of the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. This leads to a discussion of the naval prowess of the southern Chinese Yi peoples (1), as well as the relationship between Confucians and international trade and travel (2). After this comes a discussion of the impulse that led the second Ming emperor to seek out the location of a hiding prince that was a potential threat to his rule (3), and the treasure fleets that were sent out to show Chinese power and expand Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, Eastern Africa, and related regions (4). The author talks about the trip of the Chinese fleet to Calicut (5) as well as to the strange kingdoms of Malacca and Ceylon (6), and the various odd places where the fleet served as emissaries of the dragon throne to shocked and stunned locals who wondered if such impressive seapower would be used against them (7). The book then talks about the appearance of celestial animals, namely giraffes (8), and their sad fate when faced with fires in the forbidden city (8), which augured some instability. After that the author discusses the last voyage of the treasure fleet (8) as well as the identity of the Sultan’s bride (9), about whom there are myths. This leads to an epilogue about the identity of the Baijini people, notes, acknowledgements, and an index.
Although China is making a major push for naval dominance in the seas around China and throwing its weight around at the present day much like it had done during the Ming, the lessons of Zheng He are immensely complex. Although it is by no means impossible for China to have a massive naval force that would make it a world power on the seas, if it should so desire, throughout Chinese history the threat of land attack and internal disorder has typically siphoned off enough resources that spending money on deep-sea ocean forces has seemed to be a luxury, and so managing trade has been left to easily corruptible officials and unofficial smugglers. The concern for those of us who live here and now is not so much as to whether or not China could have or could be a great naval power, but whether the changes in power structure that removed Zheng He and his allies from influence may happen again in China, and whether the navalist factions of China have special weaknesses as a result of China’s continental commitments that hinders them from the sort of naval influence that they could have in other circumstances. So often in life we are presented with choices, and the choice to focus on something means less of a focus can be given to something else. So it is with naval power.