Essay: When China Ruled the Seas

The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne voyages during the rule of Ming was important for various reasons. First, this fleet was massive, implying that it could accommodate huge loads of military equipment. In a period where various rulers sought to expand their territories, strong military departments were fundamental in the protection of a given country’s possession. Besides, this development helped Ming to exhibit to the rest of the world the wealth and power that his country possessed. Thus, this strategy helped the Chinese government to secure loyalty from various countries that offered to act as tributaries to the strive for global economic dominance.

Zheng He engaged in his voyage majorly to gain recognition from other parts of the world. His seven expeditions to various regions in the Indian Ocean were meant to show the world the level of progress that China had made in terms of the building of ships. Besides, he sought to illustrate the expertise that its military officers had when it came to navigation through the sea. Therefore, the voyages helped in announcing China’s economic preparedness so that other nations could feel the ease associated with transacting with China. Additionally, the Zheng He voyages that traveled as far as the coast of East Africa were aimed at securing trade commodities for their people back in China. As Michael Wood explains in his presentation about the voyages, the Zheng search for “new knowledge, rare food and plants, and exotic animals. They even wanted to take the giraffe with them, an animal believed to represent the mythical sign of Yongle the Emperor” (“Chinese voyages of exploration,” n.d.). In such a way, one could argue that the Zheng expedition was aimed at enriching the Chinese culture.

In a period when most global leaders sought to expand their dominance by oppressing the less powerful, Zheng started his voyages with a different mission. A lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Museum unearths important information about the motivation behind the expedition by Zheng He and his crew. According to the professor, Zheng said, “The barbarians from beyond the seas, though their countries are truly distant, have come to audience bearing precious objects and presents” (Penn Museum, 2013). In such a way, Zheng felt that these people should be treated with kindness instead of conquering them.

The fleets used by Zeng He was successful because of the expertise that was used to construct the ships used in the voyage. That coupled with the personal supervision of the Zeng, made the construction work faultless even though he wanted to travel all over the Indian Ocean with his army. These expeditions helped China to control the Indian Ocean. Worth noting is the fact that this ocean acted as the largest crossroad for traders. In so doing, China gained significantly by monopolizing the transportation of trade goods to and from their destinations. Also worth noting is the fact that “major rivers such as Yangxi supported the transportation of timbers to the coastal region to support the construction program” (Timeline, 2018). Therefore, the readily available materials contributed to the success of the voyage. Besides, despite various concerns over the huge distance involved, Zheng He was prepared for the expedition because he had the ocean navigation handbook with him (CHINAnimax Vid, 2012). Thus, he was a courageous and well-informed leader.

Zheng He’s voyages stopped despite their success because of three fundamental reasons. One of them is the death of the Yongle Emperor, who was the sponsor of the first six ships that Zeng’s army constructed. In such a way, Zeng lacked the requisite resources to sustain the operations of the ships. Secondly, Zeng’s son who was also an emperor believed in Confucianism and conservatism (“Why did Ming China end the treasure fleet voyages? ” 2010). He, therefore, ordered that the voyages be halted to avoid aggravating tension with the county’s neighbors. Lastly, the fleets were expensive and cost Ming China greatly. In such a way, stopping them was a way for the country to reduce its expenses. Furthermore, the emperor succeeded Zheng stopped the voyage because he believed it would be wiser “pursuing the traditional goals of Chinese civilization”. As Michael Wood posits in his video, the new emperor of China was more interested in “finding a harmonic balance between the human beings and the cosmos within the borders of the country” (“Chinese voyages of exploration,” n.d.). Impliedly, China had no intention to dominate the world because of the common perception within the Ming leadership that China was the world in itself.

The failure to capitalize on the ready market that it had hampered China’s growth to become a global superpower. Instead of expanding its economic territory by using their command of the Indian Ocean to dictate trade terms, the leaders of the Ming dynasty felt that it would be more effective to pursue the traditional goals of the Chinese civilization. This approach favored a more conservative approach requiring the leaders to enrich those within its borders by utilizing locally available resources.
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CHINAnimax Vid. (2012, October 2). Zheng He [Video]. YouTube.
The Chinese voyages of exploration. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2020, from
Penn Museum. (2013, October 10). Great Voyages: Zheng He [Video]. YouTube.
Timeline. (2018, March 1). When China Ruled the Waves (Chinese Dynasty Documentary) [Video]. YouTube.
Why did Ming China end the treasure fleet voyages? (2010, May 3). ThoughtCo. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from