A century before Columbus began the period of colonial empire, in Ming Dynasty China, a fleet under Admiral Zheng He visited Indonesia, India and even East Africa.
Why, with a massive fleet and seaborne army at their command, did the Chinese not conquer the kind of colonial empire later founded under the flags of Spain and Britain?
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was a time when bans against commerce with foreign countries were lifted. Traditionally the lands beyond China had held little interest to the Imperial establishment. The Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, however, decided to proselytize Chinese civilization to the world.
Yongle’s Vision and Chinese Empire
A fundamental factor in Chinese foreign relations that made it different from European countries was the idea of the Emperor having rule over “all under Heaven.” In the Chinese worldview, all other countries were naturally subject to China. Yongle didn’t need to conquer them, rather he treated it as a duty to take care of all other countries, and remind them of their place with displays of Chinese wealth and power. Zheng He’s treasure fleet was essentially a mobile embassy, cultural exhibition, and occasionally police force.
Admiral Zheng He visited Sri Lanka, and received tribute demands from its ruler. Affronted, he directed his seaborne army to overthrow and replace the ruler and took him back to China to stand trial. Visiting Calicut and Malacca, he conducted ceremonies of investiture upon the rulers already in place.
At best this might have been useful prestige to the states receiving China’s benediction or an annoyance at worst. However, for the Ming Emperor, it was China’s duty to arrange the world in an orderly fashion, and to sponsor good rulers and remove ones they deemed poor. The ideas of land conquest and colonization espoused in Europe simply never occurred to them.
End of the Ming Treasure Fleet
Zheng He’s voyages, furthermore, did not last long. They had been based on tribute, state visits and exchange of gifts, but trade profits were not a priority. After thirty years, encounters with “barbarian” peoples abroad, as well as failed military campaigns against the Mongols and Vietnamese that had drained morale and the treasury, China withdrew back into itself.
China measured its power by how well they organized the world around them. The reign of Yongle was the rare occasion when there was an endeavour to actually establish this order outside their traditional borders.
However, not even his empire had the resources to maintain such bold aspirations, nor did he exert any real political or economic power over the nations Zheng He had visited. The traditionalist nobles and bureaucrats’ insular, anti-foreign and anti-trade attitudes eventually willed out. China’s potential colonial fluorescence flickered and died as they cut costs by eliminating Zheng He’s navy, leaving themselves vulnerable to the maritime empires of Britain and Japan in later centuries.