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Zheng He's Voyages were Unprofitable and Detrimental to Ming China, a Thesis
Category: East Asia: China
I would like to take the time to discuss Zheng He's voyages and contradict a popular, modern view that often sees them as a sign of progress in general.
My thesis: The official decision made by Emperors Ren Zong and Xuan Zong to cease the overseas voyages were fundamentally sound, on both an economical and political basis, given the philosophical structure of Chinese dynasties in general and the Ming dynasty in particular.
Background: Like most Chinese dynasties, the Ming dynasty based its philosophical and political structure on strict Confucian standards, and its economic structure on agriculture. Confucian morals looked down upon merchants, and traditional agricultural societies place trading goods secondary to harvesting crops. Tying entire populations to their lands proved to be economically practical to an agricultural society and politically desirable for preventing vast social unrest. Zhu Yuan Zhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, made it a priority to bind his subjects to their farmlands, and to instill basic Confucian ethics in all aspects of Ming government and society. Never had a dynasty reflected the ideals of one man than the Ming to Zhu Yuan Zhang (Tai Zu). Born a poor peasant, Zhu Yuan Zhang hated merchants and commerce, closed off ports to foreign traders, and issued edicts forbiding populations moving from their registered lands. Thus, the Ming Dynasty, unlike Spain, Portugal, England, France, or the Netherlands, never developed or endorsed the necessary political, economic, and social structures necessary for successful overseas empires.
1. Economically, Zhenghe's voyages proved to be greatly unprofitable, and by today's standards, a sure path towards bankruptcy. Adhering to the traditional Confucian notion that China was "superior" to her neighbors, the Treasure Ships aimed primarily to impress and bedazzle foreign princes. Gold, silver, procelain, silk, and other valuables were exchanged, in great quantities, for items worth less than a third of their value. Vast portions of the treasury were spent on the Treasure Ships, and with little return over the years, available funds became depleted. Without a system similar to the European mercantilism that spurred the Dutch and British colonies, the Ming, with their agricultural mindset, were bound to see Zheng He's voyages end in economic disaster. Ming China had the strength to launch 20,000 men into the Western seas, but did not have a viable economic structure to maintain her overseas enterprises.
2. Politically, Zheng He's voyages proved, in the end, to be a distraction towards the political agenda of the Ming Emperor - centralization of all power under the Son of Heaven. Emperor Cheng Zu, or Yong Le, originally sent Zheng He to the Western seas to seek for a disappeared prince who threatened the throne, and of course, to spread the Emperor's influence to foreign lands along the way. The plan worked at first, as foreign kings and princes were brought back to Beijing to kowtow to the Ming Emperor. Yet, as the voyages continued, the Imperial court may have sensed the Zheng He threatened the emperor's soverignty. Just like Copericus threatened the Catholic Church's teachings with his theories, Zheng He threatened the emperor's soverignty with his discoveries of vast new lands beyond the "Middle Kingdom." It would be devastating for Ming subjects to see that the "Middle Kingdom" was no more than a dot on a map, and that the "Son of Heaven" did not really rule all under Heaven.
Concluding remarks: Emperor Yong Le, who sent Zheng He to the Western seas, was an aberration in a line of unaggressive emperors of a non-expansionist empire. Yong Le's overseas voyages proved to be unprofitable, just as his expeditions to Monglia proved to be futile. Western scholars today criticize later Ming emperors for abandoning Zheng He's voyages, but they fail to realize that it was fundamentally impossible for China to continue the voyages without changing its philosophical, political, economic, and social structure. Given the traditional Confucian ideals that shaped the Ming Dynasty as a premise, abandoning the overseas voyages was the only viable, logical, and practical solution. Zheng He's voyages began under the fundamental principles of the Ming Dynasty - to spread the influence of Confucianism and the sovereignty of the Ming Emperor. When the voyages began to threaten the very principles and guidelines, they were bound to be terminated.