Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Chinese Sea Power

The start of the Olympics this week in Beijing has prompted media attention on a range of Chinese issues including Tibet and the Chinese environment, the inexorable rise of the Chinese economy and the increasing influence of Chinese policy on the global stage.

As a global historian and a student in the Western world’s first graduate course on Asian Sea Power, I’d like to take a longer view in this week of China speculation. This week’s focus on the rise of China as a world power, with a few turns of history could have been a tribute to unrivaled Chinese supremacy in the past millenium.

By the year 1000, and for several hundred years beyond, virtually every useful technology in the world had its origin in China. Economic historians of the era like to point out that in the twelfth century, Song China was within “a hair’s breadth” of industrialization. Per capita iron output in China circa 1100 was higher than that of Great Britain in 1700. The densely populated Yangtse Delta was one of the few, if not the only pre-industrialized society to realize intensive economic growth, that is sustained growth in per capita output (as opposed to growth due only to increased population). Various geographical factors, resource constraints including dry and poorly located coal deposits, and the looming twelfth century Mongol invasions, leave us to speculate what could have been in Song China.

In the first decades of the 15th century, as the Italian peninsula was experiencing its Renaissance and the first Portuguese explorers were testing the waters of the North Atlantic, the early Ming empire was laying claim as the greatest seaborne power in the pre-modern world. Nine decades before Columbus set sail across the Atlantic with 300 men in three modest caravels , the Chinese Admiral Zheng He embarked on a series of seven voyages with the intention to incorporate the known world into the tribute system of the Ming empire. Zheng He’s flotillas dwarfed those of his contemporary Iberian mariners. His largest expedition included over 300 ships and 28,000 men, including at least 63 treasure ships that measured 450 feet long and 150 feet wide, a surface area greater than a football field. The Ming treasure ship was largest wooden vessel ever constructed, as a treasure ship’s hull could have accommodated Columbus’s fist expedition as well as the four vessels Da Gama used on his voyage to India.

Zheng He visited Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa. Though largely discredited, one modern English naval officer and historian Gavin Menzies claims evidence for the eunuch admiral having reached North and South America and even as far as Greenland. In any case, Zheng’s tribute armada must have been an overwhelming site wherever it landed. It helped establish trade routes across the Indian Ocean, and brought the Celestial Empire into the consciousness of most of the known world. Some historians claim that maps from the time of the Zheng expeditions were known to Columbus before he made decision to sail east for China and India.

Then, at the height of Chinese naval supremacy, the Ming court took great pains to cease all Chinese sea trade. At the time of Zheng’s last expedition, a new Emporer decreed a maritime ban in Chinese waters. Sea going trade was punishable with death. All of the empire’s naval records, star charts, route maps, and manuals collected on the imperial expeditions were destroyed by the Chinese minister of war. Some theorize Zheng was considered a threat by the new emperor, others point to the incredible costs of outfitting these expeditions in a time when money was needed to shore up the frontier defenses against the Mongol threat from the north.

Anti-maritime policy was the rule for the next 200 years. In the 1660’s, China’s new Manchu rulers initiated a scorched earth policy along the Chinese coast. They raised coastal towns and villages and forced the seaboard population into the interior. Chinese sea trade persisted in these years only in the southern coastal territories farthest from the Beijing court in the north. The Chinese merchants who established entrepots in Dutch controlled Indonesia and the Spanish dominated Philippines hailed from Fujian and Guangdong (Canton), the two southernmost coastal provinces in China. With this merchant diaspora, Cantonese, and not Mandarin, would become the dominant language of Chinatowns the world over.

By 1840, China had been a dormant naval power for 400 years. When the British East India Company decided to seize ports to distribute its Indian grown opium--the only foreign product it could find with a market demand in China—the Qing state could summon no answer to the steam power and heavy artillery of the British fleet. The Opium Wars humiliated China and began a century of European domination of Asian waters interrupted only by the rise of Japan.

Would China have been so vulnerable if it had not abandoned its sea power? We can only imagine what would have happened if Chinese merchants had been allowed to follow the Zheng expeditions across Indian Ocean, had the Chinese been in a position to rival Portuguese and Muslim traders as the middlemen of the spice trade. The dragon that Napoleon warned the world against had been put to sleep at the height of China’s maritime glory.


Anonymous said...

From a Euro-centric point of view, it's really one of the conundrums of late imperial Chinese history as to why China abandoned its maritime voyages at the cusp of what Felipe Fernandez-Amesto terms its "crushing" superiority. And these voyages were really massive in scale. It is speculated that if the Chinese had continued with these voyages, it would well have been the Chinese "discovering" Europe, rather than Europeans "discovering" Asia, and the history of imperialism would have been very different.
However, it should also be borne in mind that China had the technology to build relatively large ocean-going wooden vessels since the Song dynasty.
During the southern Song, large amounts of sea-borne trade through ports at Guangzhou, and Hangzhou were already being conducted. the southern Song also had the largest inland river naval fleet in the world, with large vessels navigating the Yangtze and the Grand Canal, some of which were 5 storeys tall, and armed with cannon. These fleets played some role in resisting the Mongol invasion.
So, by time the Ming dynasty was established, China had the knowledge and the technology to build and arm large ocean-going vessels.
The question is not so much how the Chinese were able to launch these voyages as why they were launched. There were probably a multitude of reasons - the hunt for the fugitive 2nd Ming emperor by his uncle, the newly installed Yung Lo emperor; the announcement of a new imperial investiture (now based in Beijing rather than Nanjing); establishing new tributary relations with southern and western countries, since the traditional tributary routes through central Asia had been cut-off by Tamerlane. On the whole, wh
ile I agree that these voyages, commanded mostly by Admiral Zheng He, were peaceful, it is also historically incorrect to understate the fact that Zheng He used force (and in the case of Sri Lanka, quite overwheming force) whenever he felt it necessary. These vessels were also extremely well-armed. The early Ming emperors (and the Chinese empire) as a whole were not averse to imperialism, though not in the mercantile-imperialism of the European states. Flying the flag and state expansion was not only pursued by several emperors under several some dynasties, even Confucian scholars compiling the official histories gave their grudging approval (surprisingly) to imperial expansion.
The reasons why these voyages were stopped is really less of a mystery
than why they were begun in the first place. The Yung Lo emperor was a megalomaniac, whose strong personality gave the main impetus to these voyages. Once he was dead, the Confucian bureaucracy, who were never too enthusiastic about these voyages, moved to assert control over the new emperor. The commanding admirals of the Ming voyages were eunuchs. From the beginning of the Ming dynasty, there was political tension between the eunuchs (who had intimate personal contact with the emperor) and the bureaucracy - sometimes the scholars were in the ascendant, and (particularly towards the later halfof the dynasty) sometimes, the eunuchs. Stopping the voyages was one way to remove a potential power and revenue source for the eunuchs. Further, the voyages were ruinously expensive, even for a polity as rich and large as that of the Ming. We have to remember that unlike European voyages, the Ming expeditions did NOT have trade profit as an important motivation, although trade, of course, inevitably followed. But in traditional Confucian thought, merchants were poorly regarded, and trade as state policy, in the way that the Portuguese, and later, the Dutch and English, devised for their imperial voyages, could never have formed part of the raison d'etre for Ming voyages. And unlikethe Spanish, the Chinese did not have gold-rich Aztecs and Incas to plunder to finance their maritime adventurism. In the end, these voyages did not pay for themselves. Also, with the re-dredging of the Grand Canal, inland waterways from the south to the north were re-opened, and vitiated the need for maintaining coastal fleets. However, in my view, the main reason for the voyages being stopped was the Mongol threat from the north - even with the sack and burning of Karakorum by Ming generals, Mongol raids did not stop. By moving the capital from Nanjing in the south to Beijing in the north, the Ming emperors were taking the strategic move to ensure the protection of northern China.
One has to realise first that China is a continental power, bordering against extremely powerful nomadic tribes, who were often sophisticated enough to create their own rival empires, and dynamic enough to form significant mlitary threats against China. Ceaseless Ming campaigning in the first 4 reigns faced variable fortunes, to put it kindly, and there were at least 2 major military disasters.
It would have made far better sense for the Ming to focus their resources on the Mongol threat, which, following the death of the Yung Lo emperor, they eventually did.
However, this did not mean that Ming maritime knowledge was entirely lost. At the end of the dynasty, when Ming loyalists were being driven from the mainland in the mid-seventeenth century, Koxinga was still able to assemble a fleet powerful enough to re-conquer Taiwan, from the Dutch, who had ceased it several decades before.
Under the Ch'ing, apart from the fact that, as land-based conquerors from the far north-east who were unacquainted with maritime operations, they were threatened by naval operations of Ming loyalists on the Fujian coast, which was why they moved coastal populations inland, with the usual devastating humanitarian consequences. Over the long term, these measures also destroyed the last vestiges of Chinese maritime capability.

bzbodi said...

Interesting article. Let me add my 2 cents' worth. The reasons why the Ming dyasty ended the maritime voyages is less of a mystery than why they were even begun in the first place.
China had the technology and the capability to build large ocean-going wooden vessels as early as the Song dynasty. Huge volumes of sea-borne trade was being conducted during the southern Song,because the northern trade routes through the central Asian oasis had been cut-off by the establishment of the Khitan Liao empire in north China, which was later replaced by the Jurchen Kin (who themselves fell victim to Genghis Khan). The southern Song therefore maintained a large "merchant navy". Even this was dwarfed by its inland riverine fleet which was, at the time, the largest in the world, with some vessels that were five stories in height and armed with cannon.
The Ming therefore had the technology to launch their expeditions. The huge scale of the voyages though were unprecedented - apart from the major vessels,which included treasure ships that could have been 400 feet in length, there were also troop transport vessels, vessels for horses, "fire" ships, and support vessels.
These voyages were probably intended to "fly the flag" - to announce the new imperial investiture of the Yung Lo emperor (who was now based in Beijing, having moved his capital there from Nanjing). There is also speculation that the voyages were intended to hunt for the fugitive
2nd Ming emperor. Whatever the reasons, these voyages were certainly a demonstration of Ming imperialism, who could no longer look to the traditional tributary states in central Asia due to Tamerlane.
The Ming vessels were well-armed. They carried Chinese cannon, which could fire both large projectiles as well as grape, and were also armed with rocket powered arrows.
Zheng He, the eunuch admiral who was generally in command of most of these voyages, had been a relatively successful military commander in the early Ming's interminable wars with the Mongols to the north. He was also not averse to employing force (and in the case of a Sri Lankan potentate, overwhelming force) whenever necessary. Therefore, unlike the Song, which at best, had a "merchant navy", the Ming were despatching a huge naval taskforce, capable of independent military action, although such action was very rarely taken.
But Ming imperialism was very different from European mercantile-imperialism. Profit by trade was not one of the stated aims of the Ming voyages, and Zheng He certainly never established any trading posts or factories. In this sense, the Ming expeditions were very different from the Portuguese, and later Dutch and English voyages. European expeditions were necessarily on a much smaller scale, because they needed to make a profit from the trade of high-value commodities. Since Zheng He and his emperor were unconcerned about making the voyages pay for themselves, they launched massive fleets, to overawe their interlocutors.
If these fleets were designed to "fly the fla", they were an extremely expensive way to do so. The Chinese strategy proved, naturally, to be unsustainable - tributary relations are well and good from a imperial (and for the Chinese of the 15th century, a ritual) perspective, but the expense of maintaining huge fleets and sailing them around the Pacific and Indian Oceans really did not justify the semi-annual tribute of exotic goods, and animals. In the end, the cost was simply too prohibitive. Chinese, Indian and South-east Asian merchants of course developed trade in the wake of these voyages, but even then, since merchants were held in contempt both by the bureaucracy and the emperor, large-scale maritime trade was never systematically developed in the wake of these voyages.
Of course, the Chinese could have scaled back on the voyages, rather than stopped them altogether, to save on expense. But there were other factors which compelled the stoppage of maritime adventurism. One was the political rivalry between the Confucian bureaucracy and the eunuchs, who supplied the bulk of the admirals and commanders for the expeditions. By stopping the voyages, the bureaucracy managed to cut one source of power and funding for the eunuchs (which would rebound on them in the later part of the dynasty, with the eunuchs venting their energies on establishing their own paramilitary and secret service organisations under weak and indulgent emperors).
Second, and in my view, the far more important reason, was that the Ming realised that China was a continental power, and that her main threat was from the north. Early Ming wars against the Mongols had varying success, and under Yung Lo's successor, there was a major military disaster. Imperial energies and resources were required for fighting the Mongols, which urgently required cut-backs to the extravagant maritime voyages.
But even at the end of the Ming dynasty, Chinese naval power was still strong enough to enable Ming loyalists under Koxinga, driven from the mainland by the Manchu invasion in the mid-17th century, to re-invade and take Taiwan from the Dutch (who had occupied and fortified it several decades before).
The Ch'ing emperors were thus compelled to re-locate coastal communities inland, in response to Ming raids on Fujian and some other south-China coastal provinces, with the usual disastrous humanitarian consequences. The Ch'ing response to these raids is actually another fascinating area of study, and led in my opinion to the atrophy of Chinese sea-borne trade far more than the Ming prohibition (which was only fitfully enforced and often ignored) but I'll leave that to some other time.