When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1403-1433

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It seems as fantastic as a dream: less than a hundred years before Columbus and the dawn of the great age of European exploration, in the amazingly brief period from 1405 to 1433, China ruled the world's oceans. Under the command of the eunuch admiral Zheng He, fleets of more than three hundred "treasure ships" - some measuring as much as 400 feet long, with crews of 28,000 men - made seven epic voyages through the China Seas and the Indian Ocean. Unrivaled in size until the invasion fleets of World War I, the ...
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Overview

It seems as fantastic as a dream: less than a hundred years before Columbus and the dawn of the great age of European exploration, in the amazingly brief period from 1405 to 1433, China ruled the world's oceans. Under the command of the eunuch admiral Zheng He, fleets of more than three hundred "treasure ships" - some measuring as much as 400 feet long, with crews of 28,000 men - made seven epic voyages through the China Seas and the Indian Ocean. Unrivaled in size until the invasion fleets of World War I, the fleets traveled from Taiwan to the Red Sea, down the east coast of Africa, China's El Dorado, and perhaps even to Australia, three hundred years before Captain Cook's "discovery." Bearing a costly cargo of the Ming empire's finest silks, porcelains, and lacquerware, the treasure fleets ventured forth ready to trade with all who recognized the authority of the dragon throne, occupied at the time by the ambitious Zhu Di, who also built Beijing's Forbidden City. Far more than mere commercial missions, however, the expeditions churned up political and cultural currents in southeast Asia and precipitated the diaspora of the Chinese throughout the Indian Ocean basin. Half the world was thus in China's grasp, and the rest could easily have been, had the emperor so wished. But instead China turned inward, resulting in the rapid demise of its navy and the loss of its technological and scientific edge over Europe. As had happened many times before in the country's history - and has happened many times since - the gates that had swung so wide clanged shut, and China's period of greatest expansion was followed by that of its greatest isolation. When China Ruled the Seas is popular history at its best. Drawing on new translations of eye-witness accounts and official Ming histories, and including dozens of vivid illustrations, this is the first full account of one of the most colorful chapters in China's past and its sudden, enigmatic end.

In the tradition of Barbara Tuchman and Jonathan Spence, former veteran National Geographic staff writer Louise Levathes delivers a vivid, you-are-there account of the great age of Chinese maritime exploration. Levathes takes a fascinating look at China's rise as a naval power--and its plunge into isolation when a new emperor ascended the Dragon Throne.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Levathes, a former staff writer for National Geographic , here tells the story of seven epic voyages made by unique junk armadas during the reign of the Chinese emperor Zhu Di. These ``treasure ships'' under the command of the eunuch admiral Zheng He traded in porcelain, silk, lacquerware and fine-art objects; they sailed from Korea and Japan throughout the Malay archipelago and India to East Africa, and possibly as far away as Australia. Levathes argues that China could have employed its navy--with some 3000 vessels, the largest in history until the present century--to establish a great colonial empire 100 years before the age of European exploration and expansion; instead, the Chinese abruptly dismantled their navy. Levathes describes the political showdown that led to this perverse turn of events, revolving around a clash between the powerful eunuch class and Confucian scholar-officials. Her scholarly study includes a section on the construction of the seagoing junks (the largest had nine masts, was 400 feet long and would have dwarfed Columbus's ships) and provides a look into court life in the Ming dynasty, particularly the relationship between the emperor, his eunuch and his concubines. Illustrated. (May)
Library Journal
In the early 1400s China was poised to become the world's premier maritime power. Emperor Zhu Di (who also built Beijing's Forbidden City) planted vast orchards of tung trees to provide oil to seal his huge ``treasure ships,'' which ranged the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean loaded with silks and porcelains traded for gemstones, coral, pepper, and the cobalt used to improve the very porcelains for which his Ming dynasty would become known. But due to shrinking funds, foreign aggressors, and the Confucian distrust of trade and prosperity, the Chinese abruptly abandoned shipbuilding and began their long plummet into isolationism. A former staff writer for National Geographic, Levathes writes history in the praiseworthy tradition of Barbara Tuchman. There are substantial notes and a bibliography of works in Chinese, English, and French. Highly recommended.-Jack Shreve, Allegany Community Coll., Cumberland, Md.
Booknews
Levathes chronicles an era of Chinese history that was unparalleled for its expansionism and contact with the outside world, as the Ming treasure fleet ventured to all corners of the known world. More than mere commercial missions, the expeditions churned up still seething political and cultural currents in southeast Asia and precipitated the diaspora of the Chinese throughout the Indian Ocean basin. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671701581
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/5/1994
  • Pages: 256

Table of Contents

Pronunciation Guide to Major Figures 13
Chinese Dynasties 15
Prologue: Phantoms in Silk 19
1 The Yi Peoples 23
2 Confucians and Curiosities 33
3 The Prisoner and the Prince 57
4 The Treasure Fleet 75
5 Destination: Calicut 87
6 The Strange Kingdoms of Malacca and Ceylon 107
7 Emissaries of the Dragon Throne 123
8 The Auspicious Appearance of the Celestial Animals 137
9 Fires in the Forbidden City 155
10 The Last Voyage 167
11 The Sultan's Bride 183
Epilogue: A People Called Baijini 195
Notes 205
Acknowledgments 233
Index 237
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