Empire in Asia

A New Global History

When China Ruled the Seas

Book Cover

Book Title

When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of The Dragon Throne 1405-1433. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994


Levathes, Louise E.


Levathes discusses, in great detail, the heyday of Chinese maritime trade and exploration during the Ming Dynasty. Focusing on key players such as the eunuch explorer Zheng He, his patron Zhu Di (the Yongle emperor), and Zhu Di’s immediate successors and closest advisors, she chronicles, in a narrative rather than analytical fashion, the domestic factors that led to the fluctuations in Chinese attitudes toward trade and foreign relations. Levathes heavily emphasizes the impressive geographical extent of China’s tributary network and trading endeavors, favorably comparing China to the later European travelers from Portugal and Spain.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Levathes concerns herself primarily with the short 30-year reign of Zhu Di, his son Zhu Gaozhi, and his grandson Zhu Zhanji, although she begins with a historical examination of the origins of Chinese trade and commerce. Zhu Di is an apt starting point for her discussion of the expansion of Ming trade and tributary relations; apart from financing Zheng He’s momentous voyages to Africa and the Middle East, he also sought to establish diplomatic relations with neighbors such as the Mongols and Japanese which favored the Chinese. Zhu Zhanji oversaw the last of Zheng He’s expeditions; after his reign, Chinese tributary relations with subject states deteriorated rapidly, and China withdrew from overseas endeavors just as the European colonists entered the Asian scene.

Even though her subject matter is foreign trade and the expansion of the Chinese kingdom in the form of tribute agreements, Levathes invests heavily in discussions of Chinese internal affairs, focusing on the domestic factors of the peaks and trenches of Chinese overseas outreach. She does however devote chapters to Chinese relationships with places such Calicut, Ceylon, Malacca, and Japan.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Crucially, Levathes argues that the Chinese concept of imperialism was fundamentally different from that of European colonialism. The idea that the Chinese Emperor was the Son of Heaven and thus by definition ruled over all peoples invalidated any perceived need for militant means of ensuring their subordination. Early on into their expansion of tributary relations, the Chinese grasped the notion that maintain garrisons thousands of miles away from the kingdom would be counterproductive, and were disinterested in such investments. The Europeans, on the other hand, employed precisely this strategy. A similarity the Chinese and Europeans shared as “imperialists”, however, was confidence in their cultural superiority. Just like the Europeans saw it as their duty to spread their Christian faith to the pagan peoples of their colonies, the Chinese, including Confucius, justified their imposition of tributary demands by claiming that they were educating the barbarians of foreign lands.

Levathes shows that domestic political, economic and military concerns ultimately defined the strength and character of China’s imperial outreach. The eunuchs, for example, were the protectors of private overseas trade and were in favor of expeditions like Zheng He’s. Conversely, the Confucian scholars, who thought lowly of merchants, argued for tight fiscal policies and the abolition of sponsorship for expensive voyages. The clash of these conflicting interests resulted in either the encouragement or banning of such overseas endeavors: Zhu Zhanji, for instance, completely reversed his predecessor Zhu Gaozhi’s decision to favor domestic agriculture over tribute and trade. Economically, the turn of shipbuilding from ocean travel to river barges and the unfavorable exchange rate rendered foreign trade less appealing, while the threat of the Mongols drew resources away from the sea to land defenses.

Levathes also appears to lament the fact that China did not pursue its vast potentials for overseas expansion. The court’s decision after 1433 to curb the eunuchs’ monopoly over private merchant activity resulted in a grinding halt in naval technology and a withdrawal from the global stage just as the Europeans, led by Vasco da Gama, began their search for a shortcut to the Far East. Had they met the Chinese at the peak of their powers, Levathes seems to suggest, the Portuguese may not have established their foothold in Asia.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip