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Remarkable new transoceanic maritime reconnaissance occurred between 1450 and 1750. Official Chinese maritime activity expanded into the Indian Ocean region with the naval voyages led by Ming Admiral Zheng He, which enhanced Chinese prestige

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trading empires ming china
Remarkable new transoceanic maritime reconnaissance occurred between 1450 and 1750.

Official Chinese maritime activity expanded into the Indian Ocean region with the naval voyages led by Ming Admiral Zheng He, which enhanced Chinese prestige

Portuguese development of a school for navigation led to increased travel to and trade with West Africa, and resulted in the construction of a global trading-post empire.

Spanish sponsorship of the first Columbian and subsequent voyages across the Atlantic and Pacific dramatically increased European interest in transoceanic travel and trade.

North Atlantic crossings for fishing and settlements continued and spurred European searches for multiple routes to Asia.

Trading Empires: Ming China

Big Picture Question:

Based on these images, which culture do you think would dominate the seas? Explain your reasoning.



Zheng He and the Chinese “Discovery” of the World

Zheng He is wrongly labeled by many as a Chinese Columbus, or as an

explorer. He was not exploring the unknown. Rather, he was on diplomatic & economic voyages to lands that China wished to profit from and add to itssphere of influence. China at this time was ruled by the Ming Dynasty – the lastgreat native Chinese imperial dynasty beginning in the 14th century.


Bringing Tribute to the Ming Court

After their defeat of the Mongols, the Ming wished to reassertChinese traditional cultural and political influence throughout Asia.


The Golden Throne

of the Ming

China expected all

foreign merchants

and rulers to pay

tribute to the golden

throne – thus acknowledging

the superiority of Chinese


Zheng He’s voyages were

one method for the Ming

emperor to exclaim his greatness

and convince others to pay

tribute to China.


In his voyages, Zheng He would give gifts and extracttribute.

Tribute:ZhengHe’s giraffe given by an

East African ruler as tribute. It was

believed to be the mythicalquirin, ki-lin, or ch'i-lin – the “Chinese unicorn.”

Gifts:Chinese porcelain – valued the world over for its quality, relative durability, & beauty.




Extent of Zheng He’s Voyages, 1405-1433


Middle East


East Africa

Current historical debate centers around further voyages

that might have gone to Australia and the Americas.



Why did the Chinese not dominate the world since they seemingly had a 50-100 year head start on European exploration (Columbus & Vasco da Gama are in the 1490s)?


  • Each had different conceptions of the world and each societies’place within it.
  • Each had different attitudes towards merchants, the class thatdrives the enginesof trade and travel.

Early European Conception of the World AD 1030

What do you see in the center of this world that is

critical to the European perception of their heritage?


A duty of

Christianity was to actively spread its message.


travel abroad

and exploration

to spread the faith, among

other things.


heritage also


inquiry into the



Korean Kangnido Map (1402) – Illustrates Chinese worldview

What do you observe about the rest of the world in relation to China?

(hint: it’s in the center)


As the “Middle Kingdom,” China was the cultural and political centerof the world. All outsiders were barbarians. Little of value was seen to exist abroad.


Middle East



“Zhong guo” -

Middle Kingdom



What about the beliefs of Confucius support the conclusions from the previous slides? Recall your knowledge of Confucianism.

Confucius – 5th Century BC

Founder of Confucianism: the belief system that willdominateofficialcircles in China for thousands of years.

Traditional interpretations of hisbeliefs are seen to:

1) Discourage travel/lifeabroad.

2) Stigmatize the career of merchants.


Confucian Beliefs Regarding Merchants –

  • If one is guided by profit in one’s action, one will incur much ill will.
  • The gentleman is versed in what is moral. The small man is versed in what is profitable.
  • Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. ‘Sir,’ said the King. ‘You have come all this distance, thinking nothing of a thousand li. You must surely have some way of profiting my state?’ ‘Your Majesty,’ answered Mencius. ‘What is the point of mentioning the word "profit"? All that matters is that there should be benevolence and rightness. If Your Majesty says, "How can I profit my state?" and the Counselors say, "How can I profit my family?" and the Gentlemen and Commoners say, "How can I profit my person?" then those above and those below will be trying to profit at the expense of one another and the state will be imperiled.
  • Wealth and high station are what men desire, but unless I got them in the right way I would not abide in them.7
  • If one’s aim is wealth, one cannot be benevolent; if one’s aim is benevolence, one cannot be wealthy.8


Chan, Jonathan, “Confucian Business Ethics and the Nature of Business Decisions”, Hong Kong Baptist University,, accessed 6 June, 2003.


England's Treasure by Foreign Trade

Thomas Mun (1571-1641) was one of the directors of the British East India Company, one of the largest companies engaged in colonial trade. His England's Treasure by Foreign Trade, written in the 1630s, but not published until 1664, was a classic statement of the economic doctrine know as mercantilism.

The Qualities Which Are Required In A Perfect Merchant Of Foreign Trade

“The love and service of our Country consisteth not so much in the knowledge of those duties which are to be performed by others, as in the skilful practice of that which is done by our selves; and therefore (my Son) it is now fit that I say something of the Merchant, which I hope in due time shall be thy Vocation: Yet herein are my thoughts free from all Ambition, although I rank thee in a place of so high estimation; for the Merchant is worthily called The Steward of the Kingdoms Stock, by way of Commerce with other Nations; a work of no less Reputation than Trust, which ought to be performed with great skill and conscience, that so the private gain may ever accompany the publique good. And because the nobleness of this Profession may the better stir up thy desires and endeavors to obtain those abilities which may effect it worthily, I will briefly set down the excellent qualities which are required in a perfect Merchant.

1. He ought to be a good Penman, a good Arithmetician, and a good Accomptant, by that noble order of Debtor and Creditor, which is used onely amongst Merchants; also to be expert in the order and form of Charter-parties, Bills of Lading, Invoices, Contracts, Bills of Exchange, and Policies of Insurance.”


1433 – Zheng He dies

Fourth Ming Emperor bans further foreign travel

1492 – Columbus “sails the ocean blue”

1498 – Vasco da Gama reaches India

1511 – the Portuguese seize Malacca, an area that during the

time of Zheng He,paid tribute to the Ming


Europe, due in part to their attitudes towards foreign travel

and trade, and due to the absence of a formidable naval rival in the seas of Asia, quickly begins to build an oceanic empire in areas briefly under the influence of China.