The third emperor of the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) sent out the eunuch Zheng He on a mission to the countries of Western Ocean. His seven voyages took him to practically all the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. As a result, all the important trading ports from Japan to the east African coast acknowledged the power of the Ming court. More foreign rulers than ever before, even distant Egypt sending an ambassador accepted Chinese suzerainty. Representatives of sixty-seven overseas states, including seven kings, came bearing tribute to render homage to the emperor. The Chinese knew about Europe but Europe had nothing of interest to offer for them. The power of Zheng He’s fleets was un­precedented in the world, and the grandest of the junks in the fleet were most likely the largest wooden ships ever built anywhere in the world. China could have become the great colonial power, a hundred years before the age of European expansion. But China did not. 

This paper will account for why China didn’t become the colonial power, and rise to global dominance in the same way that Europe did. Three points are worth noting. First, these expeditions were not voyages of exploration in the Vasco da Gaman sense; they followed established routes. Second, the Chinese expeditions were diplomatic, not commercial nor colonizing ventures. Third, once these voyages ceased in 1433 they were never followed up.  

The main motive of the expeditions was surely the demonstration of China’s prestige by obtaining the nominal allegiance (and rich exchange) of faraway princes, and this was exactly what the Confucian-trained scholar-officials thought so unnecessary. The ideological explanation why China retired from the world scene is the Confucian aversion to commerce. The social explanation is the gap between the scholar-bureaucrat and merchant classes. Additionally there might be an economic explanation.  

In accordance with the enlightened Confucian conception of intercultural contact, the Chinese, by contrast with Europeans, set up no factories, demanded no forts, made no slave trades, accomplished no conquests. Their total lack of any proselytizing religion precluded friction from that source. From the maritime point of view China was far ahead Europe. Truly, it was the introduction into Europe of Chinese innovations in nautical technology that had the most far-reaching consequences for the evolution of the European world-economy. As for trade, Europeans always wanted Asian products far more than the Easterners wanted Western ones, and the only means of paying for them was in precious metals. Indeed, the Mediterranean region acted for two millennia as a kind of monstrous centrifugal pump continually piping off towards the East all the gold and silver, which entered into it.  

Zheng He’s voyages clearly demonstrate Ming China’s superior capacity for maritime expansion. However, the emperor listened to the Confucian ’agriculturists’, and the official maritime activities were reduced to the minimum needed. The tribute trade system collapsed and the greatest navy the world had ever known simply fell to pieces. 

The whole episode of these great Chinese navigations was only one engagement in the administrative battle between emperor, bureaucrats and eunuchs that had been going on since the Han at least and would still for many years go on. The expeditions were organized by the court, and not controlled by the Confucian bureaucrats. Expeditions ceased when the traditional anti-militaristic and anti-expansionistic principles were restored.