Long Lost Rulers

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The 15th century was a time of great exploration. The westerner, Marco Polo, was one of the first westerners to explore the Silk Roads of China. Less than a century later, China set sail on a massive naval expedition of its own, commanded by the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Emperor Yongle or Zhu Di, sponsored several maritime fleets led by the eunuch, Zheng He. Zheng He and his crews are recorded as the first explorers to discover the world in 1421. However, their great achievement was never credited beyond history books. The Europeans and Columbus are credited by western civilizations as the first explorers to discover America in 1492. Louise Levathes’ book, China Ruled the Seas, awards much needed credit to the remarkable innovations and technology possessed by China, proceeding the 14th century, which aided to their success among the greatest explorers in history.

Looking at the Ming dynasty before their renowned naval expeditions is necessary in conceptualizing the Empire’s success.

China was once a dominant force in the world, in addition to having an expanding population, innovative technology and extensive wealth, which prevailed among other nations. The Empire continued to rise well into the 16th century, due in part to Emperor Zhu Di, the third acknowledged Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. His goals for success were to take on as many feats in order to gain a reputable regime. His first feat was to construct his “Forbidden City” in a city that is now Beijing. His second was to embed the “grand canal”, a fertile land that stretched thousands of miles, in order for there to be enough rations of food to feed his army. While building canals and lavish cities, it was his duty to guarantee safety within the walls of China, meaning to re-build it (the wall that is). This was an essential task for Zhu Di to complete in order to assure the nation’s protection from intruders of neighboring regions. However, his most predominant feat was the commissioning of the naval expeditions, which constituted China’s discovery of the world in 1421. With Admiral Zheng He leading the maritime fleets beginning in 1405, China’s innovated techniques surpassed that of any contender or successor of its kind.

With the commissioned backing of Emperor Zhu Di, Admiral Zheng He was able to make seven voyages from 1405-1433. The junks were considered the grandeur of all ships. Compared to Spanish galleons of the 16th century, China’s vast junks sailed far beyond the Spaniards, and Columbus’ tiny Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Levathes’ book provides great insight to the actual dimensions of the large Chinese vessels, spanning well over 400 ft., and known to hold up to 2000 tons of cargo on one voyage. The population on the ship reached 28,000 people, a small community even. The junks sailed as far as East Africa, and everywhere in between. Emperor Yongle’s main focus was to broaden Chinese influence through trade, and honor through gifts. China’s influences reached far and wide spreading throughout the South East, and gift giving not only paid homage to other emperors, and deities, but the values of the gifts were priceless. The trade was endless, consisting of mostly necessary items; Zheng He looked for things that would make his country thrive. Seemingly, the first few voyages were to mend the severed ties China had lost 30 years prior. The opening of the trade route through the Indian Ocean on the first Voyage, served a great purpose for future fleets. The trading became extensive, and the profit Zheng He brought back with him helped Emperor Yongle and the Ming Dynasty flourish.

The Ming Dynasty and Zhu Di’s empire did not necessarily stay successful for long, however. Zheng He’s last voyage back from countries East of Africa, was just that, his last. Not because of the change of government diplomacy, but because of his death. Zheng He’s death, the added taxes of trade beyond China’s discretion, and succeeding Emperors, essentially caused the demise of the fleets. After Emperor Yongle’s reign, his successor, Zhu Gaozhi, felt that the fleets were no longer in the best interest of Confucian principles, which was solely to maintain the wellbeing of the people, than to seek profit for the state. The fate of China was in the hands of the successors who sought to uphold Confucius’ ideals, which inevitably led to the isolation and decline of both the Ming Dynasty and country of China.

Levathes’ compelling arguments stem from a 14th century timeline alone. With the Chinese fleets embarking across the globe a half a century before Columbus “founded” America, raises questions all in itself. China’s accreditations are completely overlooked, as seen in the history of western civilization. Before Europeans embarked on voyages across the Indian Ocean, the Chinese had already sailed across the world. This gap in history is disregarded, and still the Europeans are glorified with great achievements, achievements that were already accomplished by the Chinese. While reviewing Levathes’ critical arguments, the understanding of world history employed by historians is greatly compromised. The question of who really founded America, differs, depending on who is being asked. One, who has full knowledge of China’s innovated past, will declare Zheng He and his shipmates the founders of America. On the other hand, the general population having elementary knowledge of history, will sing the song of Columbus sailing the ocean blue, and have no doubts that the Europeans embarked on America first. Levathes’ book embraces the unsung Columbus’, and empowers her readers with knowledge beyond that of western civilization.

Book: "When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne" Louise Levathes