Objective: To identify and describe Chinese exploration during the Fifteenth Century

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Objective: To identify and describe Chinese exploration during the Fifteenth Century

Do Now: Describe the Ming dynasty’s contradictory policies regarding overseas exploration.
492 – The Prequel




  1. Overview

  1. Article - 1492: The Prequel By Nicholas D. Kristof

  2. The Chinese experienced an “Age of Exploration” before the Europeans

  3. So what led to reversal of fortunes of East and West regarding exploration?

  1. Zheng He

  1. Commander of a great Chinese fleet

  2. Muslim from rebel family-seized by the Chinese Army when a boy

  3. Castrated - his sexual organs completely hacked off – killed many

  4. Assigned, as a houseboy, to the household of a great prince, Zhu Di  conspired together to overthrow emperorsucceededprince became Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty

  5. Zheng He was rewarded with command of great fleet that was to sail off and assert China's pre-eminence in the world

  6. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led seven major expeditions

  7. Fleet included 28,000 sailors on 300 ships, the longest of which were 400 feet

  8. Columbus in 1492 had 90 sailors on three ships, biggest ship85 feet long

  1. Zheng He's shipsadvanced design elementswould not be introduced in Europe for 350 yearsbalanced rudders/watertight bulwark compartments

J. Except for the period of the Roman Empire, China had been wealthier, more advanced and more cosmopolitan than any place in Europe

K. A half-century before Columbus, Zheng He had reached East Africa

L. Chinese could easily have continued around the Cape of Good Hope and established direct trade with Europebut saw little value in Europe’s products

M. Kristof came to be fascinated with Zheng He and retraced his journeys

III. Kristof’s Findings

  1. Zheng He lived in NanjingTomb on hillside outside citynothing buried in tomb, since believed to have died on his last voyage and buried at sea

  2. But it is important to remember that his achievements were renounced

  3. In Indonesia where his memory has been most actively kept aliveVoyages led directly to the wave of Chinese immigration to Southeast Asia

  4. But Zheng He was viewed with deep suspicion by China's traditional elite, the Confucian scholars

  5. Yet Zheng He’s journeys grew out of a long sailing tradition in China

  6. But Zheng He's armada was far grander than anything that came before

  7. His grandest vessels were the "treasure ships," 400 feet long and 160 feet wide

  8. His armada included supply ships to carry horses, troop transports, warships, patrol boats and as many as 20 tankers to carry fresh water

  1. An explorer makes history but does not necessarily change it, for his impact depends less on the trail he blazes than on the willingness of others to follow



J. Kristof visited Calicut, a port town in southwestern India that was (and still is) the pepper capital of the world in search of Zheng He’s influence

K. Disappearance of Chinese fleet from Indian port symbolized one of history's biggest lost opportunities - Asia's failure to dominate second half of millennium

L. But while Zheng He was crossing the Indian Ocean, the Confucian scholar-officials who dominated the upper echelons of the Chinese Government were at political war with the eunuchs, a group they regarded as corrupt and immoral

IV. Conflict between Confucian Scholars and Eunuchs

  1. Eunuchs' role at court involved looking after concubines, but also served as palace administrators, often doling out contracts in exchange for kickbacks

  2. Partly as a result of their legendary greed, eunuchs promoted commerce

  3. Unlike scholars - who owed position to mastery of 2,000-year-old texts - the eunuchs, lacking roots in classical past,outward-looking and progressive

  4. It can be argued that it was the virtuous, incorruptible scholars who in the mid-15th century set China on its disastrous course

  5. After the Yongle Emperor died in 1424, China endured a series of brutal power struggleseventually scholars emerged triumphant

  6. Scholars ended the voyages of Zheng He's successors, halted construction of new ships and imposed curbs on private shipping

  7. To prevent any backsliding, they destroyed Zheng He's sailing records and, with the backing of the new emperor, set about dismantling China's navy

  8. By 1500, Government made it a capital offense to build a boat with more than two masts, and in 1525, Government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships

  1. Still, it was not the outcome of a single power struggle in the 1440's that cost China its worldly influence

  1. Also Asia was simply not greedy enough

  2. Dominant social ethos in ancient ChinaConfucianism and in India casteelites in both nations looked down their noses at business

  3. Confucius declaredwrong for a man to make a distant voyage while parents were alive, and condemned profit as concern of "a little man”

  4. Zheng He's shipsbuilt on grand scale/carried lavish gifts to foreign leaders that voyages were not huge money spinners could have been

  5. In contrast to Asia, Europe was consumed with greed

J. In contrast, Portugal led the age of discovery in the 15th century largely because it wanted spices, a precious commodity

1. Magellan's crew once sold a cargo of 26 tons of cloves for 10,000 times the cost

K. Also, China and India shared a tendency to look inward, a devotion to past ideals and methods, a respect for authority and a suspicion of new ideas

L. Chinese elites regarded their country as the "Middle Kingdom" and believed they had nothing to learn from barbarians abroad

M. When the Confucian scholars reasserted control in Beijing and banned shipping, their policy condemned all of ChinaIn contrast, European fragmented

N. But in Africa, a few descendants of Chinese sailorsdescendants remembered the giraffes given to the Chinese



  • What question led Kristof in search of Zheng He’s voyages?

  • Who was Zheng He? State as many biographical facts as possible.

  • Why were the voyages of Zheng He not really profitable for the Chinese?

  • Recount impressive facts regarding Zheng He’s journeys.

  • Where is Zheng He remembered and where is he forgotten? Why?

  • Discuss the conflict between the Confucian scholar-gentry and the eunuchs.

  • How did the Confucian scholar-gentry change China?

  • What lessons can be learned from China’s “mistake”?

  • Discuss reasons for Europe’s prominence in exploration.

  1. What Chinese state was associated briefly with the establishment of state-sponsored international commerce?

  1. Han

  2. T’ang

  3. Ming

  4. Song

  5. Qin

  1. Although the Ming emperor Yongle

encouraged maritime exploration, later

emperors discontinued that practice because

  1. Portuguese adventurers defeated the

Chinese navy.

(B) New Mongol invasions turned China’s attention to the north.

(C) The navy was considered too great a drain on the imperial resources.

(D) Qing emperors feared that new ideas would lead to political instability.

(E) All of the above.

  1. According to traditional Confucian values, merchants were
    (A) Honored for their contributions to society.

(B) Considered social parasites.

(C) Considered “mean people.”
(D) Ineligible for civil service positions.

(E) All of the above.

4. Confucian education tended to support

(A) Widespread literacy and popular fiction.

(B) An open mind to different religions and traditions.

(C) Conservative values such as filial piety and submission to authority.

(D) Independent thinking and resistance to authority.

(E) None of the above.
5. Which of the following is NOT true of

China’s civil service system?

(A) It was open to all men regardless of social standing.

(B) It provided the poor with an avenue for

upward social mobility.

(C) It ensured that the most progressive men available governed China.
(D) It guaranteed the central place of

Confucianism in Chinese education.

(E) It was very competitive with only a fraction of those applying gaining a government post.
6. In the view of Emperor Qianlong (Qing Dynasty), the

trade between China and England was

(A) Unnecessary to China but a favor to


(B) Mutually beneficial to both countries.

(C) Dangerous to both countries.

(D) Dangerous to England but beneficial to


(E) None of the above.

Excerpt from time.com
How does a country forget its greatest adventurer-hero? How does a man who ruled the seas for China and projected the Emperor's power become consigned to a neglected burial spot and a perpetually shuttered museum? One explanation, surely, is that the Chinese typically do not revere adventurers. This is a society that for centuries was dominated by a Confucian ideology that ascribed overwhelming virtue to orderliness. Everyone had a prescribed role to play according to his social status; everything fit into its rightful place. Only then was civilization thought to thrive. Even Chairman Mao, the peasant rebel who would become the Great Helmsman of the modern era, is admired not so much for leading revolutionary upheaval but for restoring stability to China after the tumult of dynastic collapse, civil war, and the Japanese invasion of the first half of the 20th century. Fear of change is an enduring legacy of Confucianism, says Henry Tsai Shih-shan, a University of Arkansas history professor who has written several books on the Ming dynasty. Chinese continually fail to appreciate that expansion can create power and wealth, not chaos. For a brief interlude, Zheng He challenged such conservative tendencies. By the end of his fleet's seven voyages, China had become an unrivaled naval power. As a result of the expeditions, the Emperor in Nanjing (and later Beijing when the capital was moved north in 1420) commanded the fear and respect of leaders throughout South and Southeast Asia. China had established itself as a trade and diplomatic force, its authority backed up by the thousands of troops who accompanied Zheng He on his travels. If countries could be said to own centuries then the 20th century is often viewed as America's; the previous one arguably belonged to colonial superpower Britain and the 1400s were all China's. Or at least they could have been, had the country not suddenly turned inward.
There are many theories as to why China curtailed its maritime aspirations in the mid-15th century. The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. Barbarian nations were thought to offer little of value to China. Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transport and other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century's end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. Oceangoing vessels were destroyed. Eventually, even records of Zheng He's journey were torched. China's heroic age was over; its open door had slammed shut. The expeditions wasted tens of myriads of money and grain, a 15th century Minister of War complained. Roderick MacFarquhar, a sinologist at Harvard University, characterizes the conservative triumph this way: Yellow River over blue water.
Thesis Statement: Change Over Time: China and Trade from Zheng He to the Present


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