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A Global Mission Refused? A Review of the Literature of the End of the Ming Voyages

William Everdell


Figure 1
    A painting of the giraffe which Zheng He's sailors brought back from east Africa. It was painted by Shen Du (1357-1434), an accomplished artist of the period. The giraffe was called a qilin (ch'i-lin), an auspicious mythical animal. From

     Teachers of World History survey courses often find that their students will profit most by the time they spend not surveying, but instead focusing in tightly on a particular problem or episode in this vast panorama. Several episodes which present themselves naturally for this kind of attention are also historical problems in themselves. Among these are a few questions of the first water which, while remaining "unsolved" and open for the professionals, continue to engage and excite students new to World History. For several years now, I have sent my class of Anglophone American high-school juniors and seniors out in the winter after an explanation of, as some of them put it, "why China didn't conquer the world," or, as I insisted on phrasing it, "Why did the Ming Chinese withdraw from overseas exploration, trade and naval predominance in the 15th century?"

     Answers to the question, all tentative, can focus on any or all of the full range of themes which teachers sometimes summarize as PERSIA, SPRITE, or PERSIA-T, that is, they may be predominantly political, social, economic, religious, intellectual, technological, environmental or even artistic. Any answer, moreover, emphasizing any of these themes, may bring in the entire history of China, and indeed of the whole of East Asia; with the interactive connections, so manifestly dear to world historians, between the East Asian and all of its neighboring regional cultures remaining at the very heart of the question. On the other hand, the question would not be anywhere near as fascinating if it were not for those colossal treasure ships, their long, exotic pre- and possibly proto-Columbian itinerary, and the extraordinary characters of their Muslim eunuch commander Zheng He and his patron Zhu Di (temple name Chengzu), the third or Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty. Nor would it be anywhere near as attractive if it were something they had already heard about or if everything they might read about it had been produced as long ago as the voyages themselves. My students can almost always muster at least a ten-page answer. In the process, they greatly improve their writing abilities, and make use of a great many sources, some of which they will all have read, some which only a few will have read, and some of which will have been digested for them by me in a class or two.

     In all three of those categories I have used Mark Elvin's The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973), one of the real masterpieces of the Anglo-American historiography of China. No book makes better use of the dauntingly voluminous and orderly records of the imperial Chinese bureaucracy (from Han to Qing) to make convincing generalizations about things like landownership, per capita food production, the money supply and—crucial for the economics of the Ming Voyages—capital formation, as they change over time, province and dynasty. It seems to be the first of a series of books whose object has been the wholesale revision of our picture of the relations of the world's different cultures to the great economic change we call the industrial revolution. Elvin's use of the idea of a "high-level equilibrium trap," holding China in labor-intensive agriculture and preventing it from continuing private, and even public, capital formation, may not have been entirely novel in 1973, but it was early, and Elvin's book is notable for the plenitude of evidence and explanations it provides to its readers. As to the treasure ships and overseas trade and how they relate to the development of "high-level equilibrium," Elvin is generous and succinct, summarizing the topic with key events and dates, from the relatively free tariff and trade policies of the Tang, Song and Yuan, to the restrictions imposed by the first of the Ming (Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, whose temple name was Taizu) and most of his many successors, with the stunning exception of the Yongle Emperor, usurping son of the founder, who ordered the treasure fleets built and appointed Zheng He to command them. (pp. 215-225)

     It is true that many students, if not most, will know too little elementary economics to make good use of Elvin. Macroeconomics 101 is not an indispensable prerequisite, but students who have actually taken such a course will have a much easier time. The Ming Voyages were, of course, capitalized by the state, like the U.S. public school and university systems, and like our schools the voyages produced goods, but in both cases very little of that return on capital could be construed as pecuniary profit or even revenue. This situation confuses 21st-century Americans as much as it used to be obvious to 15th-century Confucian bureaucrats. However, for teachers who know how much elementary macroeconomic concepts will be needed for 19th- and 20th-century World History later, Elvin can serve as their excuse to teach economics themselves. Others will use Elvin to teach it TO themselves, waiting until next year to teach it to their students. That will work, too. No student essay in an introductory survey is going to reflect primary source research in the actual Chinese archives; and a good student essay on the fate of the Ming Voyages does not have to be as sophisticated economically as The Pattern of the Chinese Past.

     Or as The Great Divergence. Nearly thirty years after Elvin published The Pattern of the Chinese Past, Kenneth Pomeranz published The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000; Revised paperback edition, 2001). In our own Journal of World History (Volume 12, Number 2, Fall 2001, pp. 495-498), Edward R. Slack, Jr. called it, "exhaustively researched and brilliantly argued . . . undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated and significant pieces of cliometric scholarship […] in the field of world history." ("Cliometric" means argued with statistics.) The late Andre Gunder Frank, author of ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (University of California Press, 1998) wrote in the Journal of Asian Studies (2001) that The Great Divergence made "bar none, the biggest and most important contribution to our new understanding of the causes and mechanisms that brought about the 'great divergence' between the West and the rest of China…" Pomeranz connects all the world's regions, wrote Frank, "in a bold new sweep that should immediately make all previous and most contemporary related work obsolescent." He seems to me to ask no less than Elvin of his readers' education and intelligence, and his book is hardly limited to the economic history of China; but on the whole, I don't think that The Great Divergence has improved on Elvin's Pattern in explaining the new comparative economic history of pre-modern China and the West to non-professionals.

     On the other hand The Great Divergence is an easier book for generalists to read, its graphs fewer, its explanation of statistics fuller, and its reference to the more familiar history of the West built-in and thus more regular. Pomeranz endorses Elvin's concept of Ming "high-level equilibrium" taking the wind out of the sails of Ming commercial capital; but his object was to write a global economic history of the emergence of the capital-intensive industrial economy that later spread so unstoppably over the modern world, explaining why its first great beneficiary seems to have been the 19th-century West rather than, say, Song China six or seven centuries earlier. This involves him in the economic history of several regional civilizations, especially China and the West, up to and including the globalization and merging of regional economies in modern times. The Ming Voyages, for all their glamour, had little to do with this business end of the complex development that peaked in the 19th century with an ever-industrializing West and a de-industrializing China, India and Africa, and they take up little space in The Great Divergence; but it is clear to Pomeranz that the Ming economy and Ming economic policies, including the withdrawal from overseas trade, were a pivotal event leading up to it. I handed this book out one year to about half my students and it proved much more than halfway useful to them. To other classes I have handed out reviews and tried to digest the book.

     One book that I have given all my students to read and which they have consistently found useful is Jonathan Spence's now classic The Death of Woman Wang (1978, paperback, Penguin, 1998). If one is ever to raise the question of what the economic consequences were for China of extending to half the Chinese population a social ideal that productive labor outside the home lost them their rank in society, it is Spence's little book, packed with 17th-century Chinese fantasies about productive, independent women, stories of widows who poured everything they had or could save into their sons' problematical futures, and ending with the real court case around the probable murder of a real woman whose feet had been bound by an ambitious mother in order to free her from a peasant destiny, and who left her abusive husband for a new life but got no further than the next town and for only a few days. Among my students, Woman Wang memorably and permanently stands for perhaps many hundreds of thousands like her who could not escape, or contribute to or benefit from treasure fleets, or from any other change in the economy, whether commercial, industrial or capitalist. This is narrative social history, a commodity which, in the view I share with my students, is precious and much too rare.

     Admitting that younger students nowadays will find the joys of scholarship remote and will, if they read at all for pleasure, find that stories are primarily what makes books worth reading, can we recommend written narrative histories of the treasure fleets and their abandonment? Where is this astonishing tale told in English with attention to action and adventure, character and conflict, love, anger and drama—but using only verifiable facts? The answer seems to be Louise Levathes' fifteen-year old When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (Oxford University Press, 1994, paperback, 1997). Levathes, a qualified sinologist but no longer an academic, came to her task as a staff writer for the National Geographic and she knows how to tell a good story. Here is where a student may find full accounts of the construction of these amazing ships, the advanced technologies they required and the timber shortage they caused. Here is where a student can see dramatized the conflict between emperors and their heirs, between the court officials, "mandarins," and the emperor's most loyal servants, the eunuchs of the imperial household. Finally, here is where it is easiest to see what we might call the "culture war" between Confucians who mistrusted trade, merchants and "barbarian" foreigners, and what might be called a Central Asian tendency looking back to the Tang and favoring an expansionist internationalism.

     If Levathes tells true stories, Gavin Menzies is a true mythmonger. Credit this Royal Navy veteran with almost singlehandedly bringing the Ming Voyages to the forefront of the Western historical imagination. There are now two books, symmetrically titled 1421 and 1434, (1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance was published in 2008), but it is Menzies's first book, 1421, that made the name of Zheng He in the English-speaking world and muddied the documentary waters as exasperatingly as Birth of a Nation. In 1421: The Year China Discovered America (William Morrow, 2003, paperback and PBS video, 2008) Menzies's basic thesis is that in the almost undocumented 1421 expedition Zheng He first led his fleet to Antarctica to take stellar bearings off Palmer Peninsula, and then divided it into at least two squadrons, one of which landed all along the Pacific coast of the Americas, while the other colonized Rhode Island. Menzies's evidence runs all the way from Chinese-descended South American chickens and maps showing as-yet-undiscovered countries (like the portolan of Turkish admiral Piri Re'is) to the enigmatic stone tower of Newport and tales of Chinese ship timbers buried in Sacramento. Menzies set up his own website ( in order to collect an avalanche of additional "evidence" contributed by and commented on by enthusiastic, not very well-informed amateur pot-hunters all over the world. Students of all ages will enjoy this, and may thereby be taught a major lesson in historical skepticism; but if (like one of my students who read 1421 cover to cover) they spend too much time with Menzies they may not take full account of the much more cogent evidence that Zheng He's voyages did indeed take place—repeatedly—in the long-established Indian Ocean trade basin, and that they had a serious impact both on China and on what might or might not be called its "trading partners." Such students may also never get down to the more important question of why the voyages began and why they ended.

     You can find some answers to this question in Edward L. Dreyer's Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433 (Longman paperback, 2006, in Peter Stearns, ed., Library of World Biography), the book for historians and English-speaking students of the Ming Voyages which, at least for now, trumps any other readily available book or website. As a narrative, it can't compare with Levathes's (nor can it possibly be as exciting as Menzies's literally incredible 1421); but this rather short book is where to find the best evidence, intelligently assessed and concisely brought together. Dreyer, a real China scholar, even includes basic documents, translations of 15th-century Chinese texts like the history of the voyages. It is a book that students can read and use as a basis for discussion and for essays long or short. Though Dreyer does not raise the larger economic questions that are answered by Elvin, Pomeranz and Gunder Frank, or expand on the political and intellectual-cultural questions the way Levathes does, he succeeds so well at introducing students to the fascinating events in an intellectually respectable way that it becomes obvious to them what the follow-up questions should be.

     Some of my students, unlike me, are learning or perfecting their Chinese; and for them there has recently been published a bilingual biography of Zheng He for young people, The Great Voyages of Zheng He: English/ Chinese by Song Nan Zhang and Hao Yu Zhang (Pan Asian Publications, 2005). Its publisher recommends it for "ages 9-12" and it is quite short; but it is written without condescension and with enough elegance of expression and attention to accuracy in detail that I don't hesitate to recommend it to high-school seniors as an introduction to the topic. It is much to be preferred over other "ages 9-12" books, including Adventures of the Treasure Fleet: China Discovers the World by author Ann Martin Bowler and Chinese tale illustrator Lak-Khee Tay-Audouard (Tuttle Publishing, 2006) and Cheng Ho (Heroes from the East) by Julia Marshall and Laura De La Mare (Hood Books Ltd, paperback, 1997).

     For the student who begins with geography, there is a travel guide to sites all over the world related to the (actual) Ming Voyages which is a good introduction to the events, as well as their evidence: Paul Rozario's Zheng He and the Treasure Fleet 1405-1433: A Modern Day Traveller's Guide from Antiquity to the Present (paperback, 2005). There is also a book built around pictures and photographs, Zheng He (Discovery) by Michael Yamashita and Gianni Guadalupi (White Star, 2006), which may introduce the topic best among still other, and possibly younger students, though it is not much better than Menzies at distinguishing what we can know from what we can conjecture.

     Distinguishing what we can know from what we can conjecture, insofar as that is possible, must be the beginning of historical wisdom. Especially with a story as extravagant as that of Zhu Di and Zheng He, with its multiple implications for every historical theme, it is good to know that the historians are holding their own against the mythmakers.

William Everdell has been teaching History at Saint Ann's School (co-ed, independent and non-denominational) in Brooklyn, NY, for 38 years.  He is the Book Review editor for World History Connected.



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