One hundred years before Columbus and his fellow Europeans began their voyages of discovery, fleets of giant junks commanded by the eunuch admiral Zheng He and filled with the empire’s finest porcelains, lacquerware, and silk ventured to the world’s “four corners.” Seven epic expeditions brought China’s treasure ships across the China Seas and Indian Ocean, from Japan to the spice island of Indonesia and the Malabar Coast of India, on to the rich ports of the Persian Gulf and down the East African coast, to China’s “El Dorado,” and perhaps even to Australia, three hundred years before Captain Cook’s landing. It was a time of exploration and expansion, but it ended in a retrenchment so complete that less than a century later, it was a crime to go to sea in a multimasted ship. In When China Ruled the Seas, Louise Levathes takes a fascinating and unprecedented look at this dynamic period in China’s enigmatic history, focusing on the country’s rise as a naval power that briefly brought half the world under its nominal authority.
Drawing on eyewitness accounts, official Ming histories, and African, Arab, and Indian sources, many translated for the first time, Levathes brings readers inside China’s most illustrious scientific and technological era. She sheds new light on the historical and cultural context in which this great civilization thrived, as well as the perception of China by other contemporary cultures.
Beautifully illustrated and engagingly written, When China Ruled the Seas is the fullest picture yet of the early Ming dynasty—the last flowering of Chinese culture before the Manchu invasion.
“Levathes tells her story in a lively style, and details her sources meticulously.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A provocative book that fires the imagination.” —Los Angeles Daily News
“Fascinating . . . The story Levathes tells so skillfully could scarcely be more timely.” —The Washington Post
“A lively, interesting and highly readable account.” —Far Eastern Economic Review
Louise Levathes was a staff writer for National Geographic for ten years and writes for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 1990 she was a visiting scholar at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University in China.
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.