AN04d_Ch.19: China Limits European Contacts: The Ming Dynasty
Timeline: 14th-17th C.
FQ: How were Cheng He’s voyages, and treatment, reflective of Ming Policy?
Main Idea: While Europe was recovering from the calamity of the plague, breaking the bonds of feudalism, and nurturing a mercantile spirit, China was attempting to revive an economy devastated by decades-long war. China flexed its ‘economic, political, cultural, and technological muscle’ in and out of its region. Very few were China’s equal in these areas and the emperors of the Ming dynasty formulated policy that reflected such a view. However, as later emperors became entrenched and self assured, the mid-15th Century witnessed the end of this short-lived, but awesome, display of Chinese global presence. A world view evolved based on Confucian principles that failed to capitalize on this opportunity, as nations today would. Advances during the Ming dynasty left China uninterested in European contact. Others aspire to, and will, enter the “world scene” if China will not.
A. Time: 14th – 17th C. B. Place: Ming Dynastic China (1368 – 1644) C. Circumstance:
1. Ming emperors reestablished Confucian Philosophy as the state philosophy=> ‘Inward Looking’ (e.g. That which is vital to China is near or in China; The family is the building block.). An attempt to recreate Han Dynastic policies.
2. Focus on fortifying borders with nomadic peoples of the northern steppes.
3. Expanding view of China as the ‘Celestial Kingdom’/ Middle Kingdom. A re-assertion of the ‘Chinese’ identity.
4. Initial emphasis on contacting ‘others’ and expanding the number of tributary states. The policy is altered \~Mid 15th C. to limiting ‘outside’ contact and maintaining the current number of tributary states.
II. Vocabulary (1)
III. Imperial Leadership
A. The third Ming Emperor, and considered among the greatest of all Chinese emperors, was emperor Yongle (1402 – 1424). He usurped the dragon throne from his nephew and this is sometimes called the “Second Founding” of the Ming. He became known as Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty after becoming emperor following the civil war. He moved the capital from Nanjing (Southern Capital) to Beijing (Northern Capital).
He commissioned most of the exploratory sea voyages of Cheng He and was the driving force behind a Ming policy of foreign contact and communication (not unlike the Han Dynasty). During his reign, the Yongle Encyclopedia was completed. This monumental literary endeavor reflected the reverence for the past and respect for its contemporary impact that was fundamental to exercising Confucian philosophical values. Emperor Yongle is buried in the central and largest mausoleum of the Ming Dynasty tombs in Beijing.
B. The fifth emperor of the Ming was Xuande (1425 – 1435). Though he reigned during a period that could be classified as a “Ming Golden Age”, he did encounter difficulties that would change future foreign policy. Cheng He was permitted to conduct one more voyage, but all such voyages ceased by 1434.
During Emperor Xuande’s reign, former tributary states (eg. Annam) successfully asserted their independence and northern nomadic peoples continued cross-border raids. Increasingly, funds to meet these internal needs would draw from ventures like that of Cheng He. Aggravating the issue was the poor administration that plagued the feudal military structure. In this Chinese brand of feudalism, administration of the provinces was integrated into the system that raised troops and provided officers for the army. Therefore, like Europe, administration of estates was reserved to the class that would also provide officers in time of war. Those working the land would provide soldiers for the rank & file of the army. Unlike the European model, China had a strong, central government headed by a recognized and accepted ruler. An administration that mixed military and civilian roles led to inefficiency that translated into decreasing revenues for the central government.
The foreign policy of Emperor Yongle was replaced by one of global isolation (not regional) by the end of the 15th century.
IV. Ming Tributary System (2)
The Chinese world view during the Ming dynastic period, particularly the first third, reflected that of earlier dynasties (e.g. Han). This view is best represented in the images evoked by terms like Celestial Kingdom and Middle Kingdom. These terms reflect the position or ‘condition’ of China as it relates to the rest of the world. The tributary system was a ‘ritualization’ of China’s superior stance in every relationship with other peoples.
V. Cheng He and his Voyages (3)
Ming China was exhibiting all the cultural and technological advances of its dynastic predecessors and reaching new heights. Trade contacts with neighboring peoples and its own manufacturing processes made Chinese goods accessible and desirable.
Despite China’s technological advantage and visionary sailors, it failed to pursue a maritime ‘future’ that Europe did not ignore.
VI. Summary: Why It Matters Now.
China’s independence from the West continues today, even as it forges new economic ties with the outside world.
A. View film, respond to select questions, discuss responses.
B. Compare/ Contrast Ming Tributary System with Feudal Japan’s Seclusion Laws [vis-a-vis response to Europeans]
1. Refer to FilmQ04\_The Ming Dynasty and Cheng He
2. Refer to handout readings focusing on the Tributary System and China’s view of Europeans.
3. Refer to handout readings and film questions for details on Cheng He’s fleet, his accomplishments, and the political environment of the time. Additional resources can be found at and .
– CNN’s Millennium Video Series: The 15th Century: Century of the Sail. CNN Productions, Inc. ©1999 [~15 min.]
– Human Record Textbook, “The Jesuits in China”, pgs 480, 481 – 485, & “Zheng He’s Western Voyages”, pgs 450 – 454.
– World History: Patterns of Interaction