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.
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)