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Maritime History of Ancient China

Last Updated on 2024/02/04

Maritime Mastery of Ancient China: Song to Ming Era

Ancient China has a maritime history that spans thousands of years, playing a crucial role in its economic, cultural, and political developments. While the entire trajectory of Chinese maritime history encompasses numerous achievements, the Song (宋朝) and Ming (明朝) dynasties mark particularly significant eras of advancements and exploration.

Situated along the East and South China Seas, China’s geographical location provided it with ample opportunities for seafaring activities. The coastline became a conduit for trade, exploration, and diplomatic ventures, influencing the broader East and Southeast Asian regions.

The Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) marked a pivotal period in China’s maritime endeavors. During this time, there were significant improvements in shipbuilding and navigational technologies, reinforcing China’s position as a notable maritime power. Additionally, the establishment of key port cities and trading routes expanded its maritime trade network.

Following the Song, the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) further advanced China’s maritime aspirations. The expeditions of Admiral Zheng He (郑和) are often highlighted due to their extensive reach, extending as far as the east coast of Africa. These voyages showcased China’s maritime capabilities and facilitated diplomatic and cultural exchanges with various civilizations.

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Background: Early Chinese Maritime Ventures

Background: Early Chinese Maritime Ventures

Before the notable maritime achievements of the Song and Ming dynasties, ancient China had already initiated its ventures into the vast oceans, laying a foundational groundwork that would eventually pave the way for its maritime dominance. These early explorations and trading missions were fundamental in shaping the maritime future of China.

Ancient Seafaring and Navigation

The history of China’s relationship with the sea can be traced back to the Neolithic Age. Archaeological evidence, particularly from sites like the Hemudu (河姆渡) and Majiabang (马家浜) cultures, reveals the existence of canoes and simple watercraft. These early inhabitants relied on coastal and riverine resources, implying a familiarity with water-based activities.

Early Chinese texts, including the Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经), also contain references to various coastal regions and islands, hinting at some level of exploration or at least a knowledge of maritime landscapes.

Early Trade and Maritime Contacts

By the time of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) and the Qin Dynasty (秦朝), there are records of maritime trade and contact with neighboring coastal regions. The coastal states, especially those in present-day Guangdong and Fujian provinces, engaged in active trade with regions such as the Ryukyu Islands and the Malay Peninsula.

The Han Dynasty (汉朝) further intensified these contacts. Maritime trade routes, sometimes referred to as the Maritime Silk Road, began to form. Chinese goods, particularly silk, ceramics, and metals, were traded for exotic products from the Southeast Asian and South Asian regions. It was during the Han era that Chinese envoys and traders ventured as far as present-day Vietnam and perhaps even the eastern coastlines of India.

Emergence of Maritime Communities

The influx of maritime trade and exploration led to the growth of prominent coastal settlements. Ports such as Guangzhou (广州) became vital hubs, not just for trade but also for cultural exchanges. These early port cities were cosmopolitan in nature, with diverse communities that included traders, sailors, and envoys from various regions. Over time, they played a crucial role in fostering maritime knowledge and expertise, which would be instrumental for the subsequent dynasties.

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The Song Dynasty: Birth of a Maritime Power

During The Song Dynasty (宋朝), which lasted from 960 to 1279 AD, China began to harness the potential of the sea, both for defensive purposes and to foster economic ties with distant lands. This era saw marked advancements in shipbuilding, naval strength, and major seafaring expeditions, establishing the Song Dynasty as a premier maritime power in the region.

Naval Development and Defense

Under the Song reign, the importance of a strong naval force became increasingly evident. This realization was primarily driven by threats from northern nomadic tribes, as well as the need to protect the lucrative maritime trade routes along the coast.

To address these concerns, the Song Dynasty undertook substantial efforts to bolster its naval capabilities. By the late Song period, the Chinese navy had grown remarkably, boasting a fleet of large warships equipped with advanced armaments, including the formidable fire lance and other incendiary devices.

The naval defenses were not just restricted to open waters. A series of fortifications and watchtowers, known as the “Sea Wall,” were constructed along the coastline to deter pirates and potential invaders. These measures ensured the safety of maritime trade routes and coastal settlements.

Seafaring Expeditions and Diplomacy

While the military aspect of the Song’s maritime endeavors is significant, the dynasty’s commitment to exploration and diplomacy is equally notable. Song envoys and merchants traveled extensively throughout the East and Southeast Asian maritime regions.

The Song court established formal relations with many polities across the seas. Diplomatic missions were sent to places as distant as Srivijaya in modern-day Indonesia and the Chola Empire in southern India. These diplomatic relations often included tributary exchanges, where foreign rulers would send exotic gifts to the Song court in exchange for Chinese goods and recognition.

Departure of a Ryukyu (Loo Choo) Junk bearing tribute to Beijing
Departure of a Ryukyu (Loo Choo) Junk bearing tribute to Beijing. In 1828, an Okinawan tribute ship prepares for its voyage to China from Naha, an event William Smyth sketched and F. Finden engraved for Captain Beechey’s 1831 London narrative. The depicted ship could be a shinko-sen, kai-sen, or maran-sen. Shinko-sen, sometimes termed To-sen or ‘Chinese ship’, primarily facilitated trade between Naha in Ryukyu and Fuzhou in China. Gifted by the Ming between AD 1383 and 1450 when Ryukyu became a tributary state, these vessels are the largest, measuring up to 34.8 m in length. Source

Trade Routes and Ports

The Song Dynasty’s maritime ambitions were not merely driven by exploration but also by the quest for economic prosperity. The dynasty’s maritime commerce was facilitated by a network of trade routes and key port cities.

Maritime Silk Road: While the overland Silk Road is often more renowned, the Maritime Silk Road during the Song Dynasty was equally, if not more, influential. This sea-based trade network connected China with the Malay Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa. Chinese commodities, such as silk, tea, and ceramics, were in high demand, while China sought exotic goods like spices, gems, and rare woods.

Key Ports:

Quanzhou (泉州): Often dubbed the “starting point of the Maritime Silk Road”, Quanzhou became one of the world’s largest ports during the Song Dynasty. Its importance can be gauged from the myriad of foreign merchants, ranging from Arabs to Southeast Asians, who resided there. The city was not just a trade hub but also a center for cultural exchange.

Guangzhou (广州): An ancient port with roots predating the Song Dynasty, Guangzhou continued to flourish under Song rule. It was a key node for trade with Southeast Asia and had a significant Arab trading community.

Hangzhou (杭州): While closer to the interior, Hangzhou was connected to the sea via the Grand Canal. Its proximity to the capital and its status as a terminus for the canal made it an essential center for internal and external trade.

Geomantic compass from China, dated around 1760, housed at the National Maritime Museum in London
Geomantic compass from China, dated around 1760, housed at the National Maritime Museum in London, source

Technological Advancements

The Song Dynasty was a period of remarkable technological ingenuity, especially in maritime-related domains. These innovations not only elevated China’s naval capabilities but also facilitated longer and safer voyages.

Shipbuilding: One of the most significant advancements was in the realm of shipbuilding. The ships of the Song Dynasty were more robust, larger, and better designed than their predecessors. The introduction of the junk ship, a design unique to China, revolutionized maritime travel. Its multiple watertight compartments improved buoyancy, making the ships more resistant to sinking even if damaged. Additionally, the stern-mounted rudder and the battened sail enhanced navigational control, allowing for more precise and agile movements in various sea conditions.

Navigational Instruments: Alongside advancements in ship design, navigational tools saw considerable refinement. The magnetic compass, known as the “south-pointing needle” (指南针), was improved during this period, proving invaluable for long-distance voyages. Mariners also utilized detailed maritime charts and began to document their journeys, which contributed to a growing body of navigational knowledge.

Maritime Communication: Effective communication tools, such as ship-borne lanterns and flags, were employed to convey messages between vessels, especially during nighttime or in dense fog. This enhanced coordination among a fleet and improved safety.

Admiral Zheng He (郑和)
Monument of admiral Zheng He. located in the Stadthuys, Melaka, source

The Ming Dynasty: Golden Age of Chinese Exploration

The Ming Dynasty (明朝), which ruled from 1368 to 1644, is notable in Chinese history for its significant maritime endeavors and interactions with other regions. Building upon the maritime groundwork laid by the Song Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty conducted numerous voyages that expanded beyond former limits. These expeditions were driven by various factors such as trade, diplomatic efforts, and showcasing China’s advancements and capabilities.

Admiral Zheng He

Perhaps the most emblematic figure of this era is Admiral Zheng He (郑和). A Muslim eunuch of Mongol descent, Zheng He commanded a series of seven ambitious expeditions between 1405 and 1433, steering his colossal fleet as far as East Africa. These voyages, known as the Treasure Voyages, were designed to establish the Ming Dynasty as a global power, gather tributes from distant lands, and promote trade.

Zheng He’s fleet was a marvel of the age. It included giant treasure ships, possibly over 400 feet long, escorted by smaller vessels, like horse ships, supply ships, and troop transports. The treasure ships were equipped with advanced navigational aids, including compasses and detailed maps, and the whole fleet could carry up to 27,000 crew members.

The influence of Zheng He’s voyages was profound. They extended the reach of Chinese influence, facilitated direct trade links with new territories, and fostered diplomatic relations. The expeditions also brought back a wealth of knowledge about distant lands, cultures, and commodities.

Other Notable Expeditions

While Admiral Zheng He is the most celebrated of the Ming Dynasty’s maritime explorers, there were other significant voyages and figures of note during this period. One example is the voyages to Ryukyu Kingdom (modern-day Okinawa) and Japan, which aimed to strengthen trade ties and ensure vassal relationships. Furthermore, Chinese junks regularly sailed to Southeast Asia, establishing Chinese communities in places like Malacca and Java, which acted as intermediaries in the thriving spice trade.

In addition, the Chinese coast saw a proliferation of fortified harbors and naval bases, which not only protected against pirates but also ensured control over the crucial maritime routes. This reflected the strategic importance of the maritime domain to the Ming Dynasty, both for trade and defense.

Maritime Trade and Diplomacy

Under the Ming Dynasty, maritime trade was not just an economic activity but also a diplomatic tool. The establishment of the tributary system was central to this. States and kingdoms from Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and even East Africa would send envoys to the Ming court bearing tributes. In return, these envoys would receive gifts, often of higher value than the tributes they brought, in a clear display of China’s magnanimity and wealth.

This system also facilitated the flow of luxury goods, exotic animals, and valuable commodities into China. Key items included spices from Southeast Asia, gems from South Asia, and rare woods and animals from Africa.

Such exchanges were not merely transactional. They played a key role in the establishment and maintenance of diplomatic ties, solidifying the Ming Dynasty’s position at the center of a vast network of maritime relations.ameri

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The Honil Gangni Yeokdae Gukdo Ji Do, commonly referred to as Kangnido, is a world map crafted by Korean scholars Kwon Kun and Yi Hoe in 1402, set in the Joseon dynasty era.
The Honil Gangni Yeokdae Gukdo Ji Do, commonly referred to as Kangnido, is a world map crafted by Korean scholars Kwon Kun and Yi Hoe in 1402, set in the Joseon dynasty era, source

Decline of Maritime Power

China’s maritime prowess, which peaked during the early and middle Ming Dynasty, experienced a decline towards the latter part of this era. This decline was not a sudden event but rather a culmination of various internal and external factors that affected China’s seafaring ambitions and capabilities.

Internal Factors

Policy Changes: A shift in imperial policy became evident with the rise of conservative factions within the Ming court. These factions were skeptical about the benefits of overseas voyages and trade, leading to decisions that limited or altogether halted maritime explorations.

Economic Constraints: The cost of maintaining a large fleet and undertaking expansive voyages was significant. With other pressing concerns, including defending the northern frontiers and dealing with internal rebellions, resources were redirected away from maritime projects.

Technological Stagnation: While China had been at the forefront of shipbuilding and navigation techniques, the lack of continued investment and interest in this sector led to a stagnation in maritime technology.

Destroying Chinese war junks, by E. Duncan (1843), On 7 January 1841. During the First Opium War (1839-42), the iron steamship ‘Nemesis’, commanded by Lieutenant W. H. Hall and supported by boats from the ‘Sulphur’, ‘Calliope’, ‘Larne’, and ‘Starling’, attacked and destroyed Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay near Chuenpee. This action took place close to the Bocca Tigris forts, which protected the entrance to the Pearl River leading to Canton. After the skirmish, British forces seized these forts. The ‘Nemesis’ was an experimental creation by John Laird, representing the first entirely iron warship. Due to its success, Hall, initially a Royal Naval master, was commissioned as a Naval lieutenant in 1841. He later served as a captain in the Crimean War and retired as an admiral in 1875. The depicted scene, derived from an oil painting by Duncan, shows the ‘Nemesis’ in the backdrop targeting Chinese junks, with one particularly being shattered. Observers in rowboats and individuals in the water fill the foreground. Source

External Factors

Piracy: The South China Sea and other maritime routes became plagued with piracy. These threats often came from well-organized pirate groups, making maritime trade and exploration riskier.

European Expansion: By the 16th century, European powers, particularly the Portuguese and the Spanish, began to assert their dominance in many of the maritime routes that China frequented. The Europeans brought with them advanced naval technology and strategies, challenging China’s position.

Trade Control: As European powers established colonies and trade posts in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region, they started exerting control over trade routes and dictated the terms of trade, often to the detriment of traditional Asian maritime powers, including China.

Cultural Impact and Legacy

The maritime exploits of ancient China, particularly during the Song and Ming Dynasties, left an indelible mark on the cultural, artistic, and literary fabric of the nation. These voyages not only expanded China’s geopolitical influence but also enriched its internal cultural landscape through the exchange of ideas, commodities, and artistic motifs.

Cultural Exchange and Adaptation

As Chinese explorers and traders ventured to distant lands, they returned with a plethora of unfamiliar goods, art forms, and ideas. Chinese artisans began to incorporate foreign motifs and techniques into their work. This is evident in the ceramics of the period, where designs began to exhibit influences from Persia, India, and the Arabian Peninsula. Porcelain wares from Jingdezhen, for example, showcased Persian cobalt blue designs, a direct result of maritime trade.

Literature and Chronicles

The maritime journeys became a popular subject in Chinese literature. Tales of exotic lands, strange creatures, and the vastness of the seas started to permeate written works. The best example of this is perhaps the accounts of Admiral Zheng He’s voyages, documented meticulously by his chronicler, Ma Huan, in the book “Yingya Shenglan” (瀛涯胜览). This work offers invaluable insights into the cultures, geographies, and economies of the lands Zheng He visited, preserving them for posterity.

Beyond formal chronicles, poetry and prose of the period also began to reflect the maritime spirit. The sea, once a mysterious and distant entity, became a frequent metaphor in literary works, symbolizing the vastness of the world and the adventurous spirit of the Chinese people.

Artistic Representations

Visual arts, especially paintings and murals, began to showcase maritime themes. Seascapes, ships, and harbors became prominent subjects, reflecting the pride and importance of maritime endeavors. The introduction of foreign animals and plants, brought back from distant lands, also influenced art. For instance, African giraffes, believed by many in China to be the mythical qilin, were painted in courtly artworks, symbolizing the far-reaching influence of the Ming Dynasty.

“The Yingya Shenglan” is a historical record penned by Ma Huan in 1451, documenting the various nations visited by the Chinese during the Ming treasure voyages under the leadership of Zheng He. Ma Huan served as an interpreter on three of these voyages and collaborated with Guo Chongli, another expedition member, to create this account. Their combined observations formed the basis of the book, which Ma Huan started compiling in 1415. He wrote an introductory note and poem in 1416, and later added a mention of the Yongle Emperor after his death in 1424. Additional contributions to the book include a 1444 foreword by Ma Jing and a 1451 afterword by imperial clerk Gu Po, facilitated by Guo Chongli and his acquaintance, Lu Ting-yung. The book was officially published in 1451.

Topics: Song Dynasty maritime innovations, Ming Dynasty sea expeditions, Early Chinese maritime ventures, Cultural impacts of Chinese seafaring, Decline of Ancient Chinese maritime power, Zheng He’s voyages significance, Trade and diplomacy in Ming Dynasty.

Featured image: wikimedia

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