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A 5 pages term paper on When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433" by Louise Levathes

    ILevathes, the ex- staff writer for National Geographic, tells the account of Chinese ruler Zhu Di and his preferred eunuch admiral, Zheng, who tried during 30-years of epoch to rupture China's isolation with seven major naval expeditions to India, Indonesia, and Africa. Levathes writes admired account of past and sprinkles her text with scene-setting and little digressions into everyday life in Ming China.  The maritime journeys of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus are the significant moments in the discovery of new worlds and civilizations. “When China Ruled the Seas” The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 by Louise Levathes, denies the myths and the recognition of the Chinese as the modern explorers come to light.

     Through this book a new history was presented that China “discovered” the West, nearly one hundred years before Vasco da Gama and Columbus left for Asia.  In May of 1403, the Emperor Zhu Di was engaged in structuring a fleet of 1,681 ocean-going ships.  Two years later, the Emperor commissioned his most trusted eunuch, Zheng, a Muslim, to take 317 of the ships to the Middle East and Eastern Africa.  The eunuch’s fleet was splendid, including a small number of “treasure” ships vessels that were 400 feet in length.  On the other hand, when Columbus set sail for the New World in 1492, he had only three ships, the largest was Santa Maria at 85 feet.

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     The author dispels the myth of China portrayed as an isolationist nation, which shunned contact with other lands.  In 1433, the age of exploration in China opened up a vast wealth of knowledge and influence for the Chinese people in the domination of the seas and maritime trade and exploration.  China, in fact, has a custom of oceangoing and trade with rest of the world.    When Emperor Zhu Di came to power subsequent to a civil war, China’s economy was depressing and the treasury was misspent. Zhu Di tried to streamline the economy by realizing that that nothing could regenerate the economic situation but for an inflow of money from Southeast Asia. The emperor ordered the construction of a vast and undefeatable “Treasure Fleet” constructed to carry Chinese merchandise overseas for trade, and carry foreign possessions back to China in trade.

     More than 1600 ships were constructed, together with enormous “Treasure Ships”, plentiful aid vessels, army transporters, water tankers, and food supply boats. During the years 1405 and 1433, the Treasure Fleet under the command of Admiral Zheng, who   made seven trips to ports in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

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The author of the book, Louise Levathes, brings out that Zheng’s vessels landed in Australia and examined the potentials of Chinese influence in Mayan Central America in the fifth century AD.

     A decade after the seafaring expeditions had factually and representatively taken off; China was the most advanced sea power of its time. However, wealth from trade overseas did not assist the common folk who saw the Treasure Fleet as a means of high levy and the existence of voracious and ruthless bureaucrats who demanded supplies and funding for the Treasure Fleet.  It is at this time that the Emperor begins to re-evaluate his profligate policies, which included his vast naval projects. Economic constraints had again come to worry the empire, and China, could not sustain the naval endeavor.

     After the death at sea of Zheng in 1433 and the death of the Xuande Emperor Zhu Hajji, who was Zhu Di’s grandson, in 1435, China began a slow but obvious fundamental twist.  One hundred years later, the act of trading or endeavors abroad was a criminal offence.

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     Therefore, by 1800, the isolationism practiced by the Chinese left themselves in a precarious position with regards to Western imperialistic tendencies.  A wound, some would say, that is still evident in modern times as China strives to recover its rightful position at the pinnacle of the world, and a rank it held over 500 years ago.

Works Cited

Online Catalogue and Synopsis of Chinese Historical Texts, City University of New York, pub. HYPERLINK http://www.cuny.edu     November 13, 2000

Levathes, Louise.  When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405 – 1433.  New York:  Oxford University     Press, 1994.


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