Chinese Exploration Research Paper

Chine is the world’s most populous country with more than 1.3 billion people that is twenty percent of the Earth’s population. China is also known to everyone as one of the oldest civilizations as well as one of the strongest countries all through the centuries up to the present time. Today China is the leader of the world in many industries. Many people think that China had achieved the world dominancy in the last couple of decades due to the sudden wave towards the new economy. However, in fact, China, as a country, started to build itself centuries ago, moving step by step closer to the world dominancy. In my paper I would like to talk about the age of exploration in China. The Chinese Exploration is tightly connected with the name of General Zheng He whose life and achievements I would also cover in my paper.

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Chinese exploration was an age of exploratory Chinese travels abroad, on land and by sea, from the second century BC until the fifteenth century. It was in 1405, around six hundred years ago, that the Chinese imperial fleet set out on its first voyage to investigate and trade with the world (Kolesnikov-Jessop).

It is very important to point out that China treated its first voyages with the innovativeness it dominates the high-tech market with now. No fleets, like that Chinese ones, were there in the world before. The crew of the fleet consisted of 30,000 men that were aboard 317 ships. The most impressive vessels were the treasure ships, built of hardwood. These ships were 130 meters long and 50 meters wide. The ships had hulls with multiple waterproof compartments for buoyancy, nine masts, and 12 gigantic sails made of bamboo slats rather than woven cloth; the slats could be angled like venetian blinds, which enabled the ships to sail in strong winds. The ships carried trade and tribute goods, on board was a massive crowd consisting of bureaucrats, merchants, translators, astrologers, ministers, cooks, doctors, and the marines (Dreyer, 31).

The idea of creating a strong fleet in China belonged to the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, who had recently taken over the dragon throne. The new emperor wanted to legitimize his claim, and bring back the prestige and power associated with China in the Tang dynasty, which had been lost during the period when the Mongols invaded and ruled most of China. Zhu Di’s beliefs differed greatly from the ones of his father who had also been an emperor in the past. Zhu Di believed in foreign trade as a fast and very appropriate way to enhance China, and his dynasty, without imposing a heavy tax burden on his subjects. As he had once said: “Let there be mutual trade at the frontier barriers in order to supply the country’s needs and to encourage distant people to come”. For some people in the country the ideas of the new emperor seemed inappropriate because they had found the foreign trade to be more volatile than agriculture that they trusted to be the foundation of the nation (Dreyer, 31).

The foreign policy that was taken up by the emperor was very modern. Basically, this policy sought to turn China into the main power of Asia. However, the emperor and his advisors wanted to raise China on top of all the Asian countries without the expense of establishing colonies. Thus, it was decided to start the exploration of the world and to spread Chinese culture and its customs overseas (Kolesnikov-Jessop).

Though, it has to be mentioned that China had started to claim being a world power even before the first ships left the harbor. Chinese emperors at all times made sure that other countries acknowledged the sovereignty of the Chinese throne. The “acknowledging” had to be done by sending rulers or ambassadors to China where they had to show their respects to the emperor and bring exotic goods as tribute. This was done according to the tribute political system that was flourishing in the country. In its turn, China promised to provide limited support to the countries, but only in case they were externally threatened (Dreyer, 32).

When analyzing the Chinese policy in the age of exploration we see that China’s aim was to stabilize Asia and to make sure that no country becomes powerful threatening in relation to its neighbors. Another very important aim was to ensure that the trade routes, especially maritime routes, are kept at all time open. An additional motive for the maritime expedition was to recruit states in an imperial tribute system that increased the domestic prestige of the emperor, since China considered itself the centre of the world with its emperor the ruler of it (Gavin, 45).

The ships sent by the emperor overseas brought back wonders. They have brought such things as spices, wood, jewels as well as some unusual for the area animals, like giraffe or Arabian horses. In their turn, wherever the Chinese sailors went offshore, they left behind tokens of Chinese culture. These tokens were, in example, calendars listing Ming rituals, and thousands of classic Chinese books (Gavin, 45).

Though, being involved actively in the foreign trade and trying their best to achieve the world ascendancy, China kept the main principles it had drawn out prior to starting the innovating activities. One of these principles was that China would not trade in weapons. This was because China was claiming to desire to encourage peace and not conflict (Gavin, 49). China, also did not allow foreigners to see Chinese maps or records with details of towns and defenses. The country had also refused cooperating with pirates and was drafted deal with the permanent problem of pirates in the Strait of Malacca.

However, nothing and no one is everlasting. Thus, when the innovating emperor passed away, the situation with the foreign trade had changed drastically. Upon Zhu Di’s death the traditional Confucian scholars gained advantage over the eunuchs who were the executive branch of government. The Confucians thought trade was an evil process and were eager to restrain increases in their power (Kolesnikov-Jessop). At the same time the economical situation in China was also flailing. The taxes had gone up enormously to pay for the stabilization of the empire’s northern regions against the frightening Mongolian confederation. It was also the time when the capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing (Gavin, 49). Obviously, creating a new city took was the first priority for the new emperor. Thus, the previously successful expeditions started.

Moreover, in 1436, the imperial decree was put out that was banning the ocean-going vessels. As some years have passed was an “offence towards the country” to construct a vessel. Ownership of seagoing ships was also prohibited to Chinese citizens. In fact, foreign trade was discouraged no matter if it was by land or sea. Of course, the China’s coastal communities opposed the imperial ban, because for the foreign trading was the only way to earn their living. However, the concern of the costal communities did not interest the emperor, and the ban was lifted only in 1550.

In my opinion, it is important to point out the difference between European and Chinese exploration. This difference is rather simple and evident. First of all, the Chinese explorations were massive government projects with an objective to obtain prestige. It is remarkable that in the course of the age of the exploration there had been no traders or settlers, because the Chinese emperors appreciated control over their subjects’ lives above everything else. Moreover, the Chinese emperors did not believed into individual human rights for property, as well as the Chinese people did not expect to obtain such rights (Levathes, 62). Thus, the base of the exploration was simply to enhance the country. Chinese Exploration Age is a great example of governmental control that can be imposed upon people and that it many cases, brings great results (Kolesnikov-Jessop).

As one could understand from the above information the Chinese Age of Exploration was remarkable in its unusual nature as well as extraordinarily well organized structure. It comes without saying that somebody except for the emperor had to stand behind the Chinese explorations. In the second part of my paper I would like talk about the life of this man, General Zheng He – an extraordinary explorer, who was in command of the Chinese fleet. This figure is equal in importance to such a figure as Columbus. However, while Columbus and other European explorers are overly celebrated Zheng He remains relatively uncelebrated even in his home country.

Such attitude towards the figure of the great explorer is caused by the political and philosophical changes in the life of Chinese people after his voyages. In 1430s the Chinese ruling class went through a major philosophical shift, slowly but surely turning inward to deal with the national problems such as famine, plague, and military threats (Levathes, 63-63). As I have already mentioned, the Confucians closed down ports, forbade sea voyages and suppressed all traces of the Zheng He journeys. According to Chi Wang, who is the head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress “China never even claimed that Zheng He was a great explorer» (Hsu).

The great explorer was born in 1371 in modern-day Yunnan Province. At that time the province was the last stranglehold of the Yuan Dynasty in its resistance to the victorious Ming Dynasty. Like most all the people in the area Zheng He was a Muslim. In 1381, when Zheng He was only ten years old his province was attacked by the emperor’s army and was defeated. Zheng’s father as well as many more other people was killed in the struggle. At that time, there was a custom for the invaders to take the young children of the defeated nations with them, castrate them and send them to various public services in order to work for the wellbeing of the country (Walker).

Zheng He had the same lot. He became a eunuch and was taken as a servant into the household of his enemy – the emperor. He lost his family, however he found his home in the palace of the emperor where he obtained decent education as well as received other privileges that may seem unobvious for the modern people. Being a eunuch at that time equaled to possessing a powerful force in the society of imperial China (Walker) This was because eunuchs had access to influential women and their children. It was often so that child eunuchs often grew up with future princes and emperors (Hsu).
Zheng He grew up to be very strong and intelligent. His physical and intellectual abilities started to attract the attention of the surrounding people as well as the emperor himself. His natural good manners and firmness soon change him from the houseboy to the right-hand man of the emperor. The new tasks of Zheng He included creating political strategies with the emperor, accompanying him in battles, and proving him with useful pieces of advice (Levathes, 68).

It is not surprising that upon completing the strategy for Chinese exploration, the emperor granted Zheng He the honor to become the admiral and commander in chief of the huge treasure fleet (Hsu). There are many reasons why Zhen He was given this opportunity. To begin with, he was raised in a devout Muslim family. Both his grandfather and father had made a pilgrimage to Mecca and were well respected by the Muslims. At the same time, though a Muslim by birth, Zheng He was also a Buddhist. Thus he was a perfect candidate to visit Buddhist and Islamic countries in Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Additionally, Zheng He was a clever man talented and experienced in military affairs. Nevertheless, perchance, most important was that Zheng He had the full trust of Zhu Di, thus, he was seen as the ideal commander.

Zheng He set to sail to the West for the first time in early 1400s. Zheng He’s first voyage consisted of a fleet of around 300 ships with almost 28,000 crewmen. On board were many goods including silk, ceramics, gold and silver, copper utensils, and cotton. The fleet visited Java, Sumatra and reached Sri Lanka, on the way back it sailed along the west coast of India. Zheng He’s second and third voyages were taken shortly after the first one and followed more or less the same root. In 1413, Zheng He left wth 30,000 men to Arabia for the fourth and most ambitious voyage. The arrival of Zheng He’s was a sensational event in the life of the region. Nineteen countered had showed their respect by sending ambassadors to board Zheng He’s ships with gifts for the Chinese emperor. The next trip was made to the east coast of Africa, with stops at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar. The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast (Dreyer, 36-38). In 1430 Zheng He was sent to his last voyage. Over the course of the voyage he visited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa. Zheng He died on his way back from his last mission in 1433 in India (Hsu).

Zheng He’s trips collected cultural observations but also used his authority and military strength to manipulate regimes. Zheng He commonly sought to accomplish his goals through diplomacy, and his large army frightened and averted the possible enemies. However, the sources also say that Zheng he did not hesitate to use power when it was needed to astonish foreign people with China’s military strength. Zheng He was also famous for suppressing sea pirates who had long inundated Chinese and southeast Asian waters (Hsu). He also used his power to establish his authority in Ceylon and stopped the national causalities.

Zheng He’s voyages are a supreme accomplishment in the history of exploration. These trips have demonstrated the rising power of China as well as showed the exceptional organizational skills of the Chinese people. However, after the death of the emperor, the new government forbade the voyages and erased all the records of the explorer’s achievements. Such attitude to this past, was one of the first signs of the communist politics that would be applied in China some centuries later (Levathes, 65).
In conclusion I would like to say that the age of exploration in China was a very significant period for China as well as the whole modern world. It is also important to point out that Chinese exploration was so successful because of the tenanted general Zheng He. However, it also has to be mentioned that Zheng He’s figure is rather controversial and has been a topic for fervent debates among Chinese Ming Court officials. There are opinions that Zheng He exploration were baneful for the country, and there those who say that the explorations had a magnificent effect on the economy (Hsu). In my opinion, both groups have their correct arguments, however it cannot be denied that the exploration in the fifteenth century was the first step China made on the way to being a superpower.


“Voyages reflect desire to grow peacefully”, China Daily, Beijing, 12 July 2005.
Dreyer, Edward, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming, 1405-1433, The Library of World Biography, Pearson, 2006, pp. 31-32, 36-40.
Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, Bantam Press, London, 2002, p. 45, 47, 49.
Hsu, Caroline, “The Chinese Columbus?” US News and World Report, 2004. Retrieved from on November 26, 2008.
Kolesnikov-Jessop, Sonia, “Did Chinese beat out Columbus?” International Herald Tribune, 2005. Retrieved from <> on November 26, 2008.
Levathes, Louise, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, pp. 62-68.
Walker, Bill, “Space Exploration: Bureaucracy or Reality?” 1995, retrieved from <> on November 26, 2008.


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