When China Ruled the Seas

By Louise Levathes

Book Note by Christine Drew and Richard Erdmann

While all of the blogs and book notes in our other themes are co-authored, this theme lets us wander mentally on our own – although in my case, I cannot imagine posting one of these without Christine reading and editing it and I use the word editing with the strongest of its meanings. 

In 2018 ​while on a plane from Albuquerque NM to Austin TX, ​I ​had the pleasure of sitting next to Dr. Virginia Garrard, the Director of the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas. ​Since ​I ​had ​graduated from the University of Texas Latin American Institute in 1968, and in many ways Nettie Benson, ​for whom LLILAS ​is named, had much to do with my success as a student, the idea that I was sitting next to the Director was s​pecial​. I am not certain that I ever met the director when I was a student. I told her it was a bit like sitting next to a rock star. During the trip she made a comment that I have not forgotten and found upsetting. Her graduate students wonder about the value of a history degree in a world that seems not to value history. I was a history and economics major and have never regretted it. The idea that historians are not valued, I found disturbing. 

Today I am almost always reading at least two books. ​I read ​one for work, ​right now it is ​The Halo Effect, ​and I read ​one for pleasure, right now it is ​When China Ruled the Seas, ​a history book about China mostly from 1405 to 1433.

Understanding history allows us a deeper understand​ing of the present, not just the past, and it ​can ​create a different perspective. For example, a typical oceangoing Chinese ship of the early 1400s might have been 400 feet long. The Santa Maria, Columbus’s ship ​that sailed in 1492, was ​only ​85 feet long. A Chinese fleet ​during those years could number ​in the ​dozens of ships, have more than 20,000 passengers (many soldiers) and crew, and ships might be designated as tankers, carrying fresh water for the fleet, or garden ships, growing food for the fleet. Columbus managed a fleet of three ships and none were designated to hold fresh water or grow food. The Chinese even had paddle wheelers. The list of differences could continue but the accomplishments of the Chinese fleets put western navies in a better perspective. It might cause one to think about who did what first. 

But reading about ​Chinese ocean-going accomplishments turned out to be only a minor part of the thoughts that the book raised ​for me​. China’s history involves a significant cultural difference between the coastal cities, who had looked to the ocean and traveled on it for probably 3,000 years before these massive fleets took sail, and the inland cities whose culture was far more inward-focused. Confucious might be categorized as an early nationalist and isolationist and someone representing the inland cultures of China. His beliefs permeated political philosophies in China for centuries, and perhaps to this day, and accentuated the difference between the coast and inland. The cultural differences are not just limited to the coast and the center, but in addition there are differences between the North and South with the North being considerably drier. 

Reading about these reminded me of the differences culturally between the center of the United States and the coasts and between the North and the South, between rural and urban, and how difficult it is to create a unified sense of identity. Protests in Hong Kong, and probably the U.S., indicate that unity is still a struggle. 

One certainly gets the impression that until recently, the early 1400s may have been China’s heyday. Their influence extended from the Pacific islands through the Middle East and to the East African Coast. It also extended from Southeast Asia and coastal India well into the northern steppes of Mongolia and Russia. But, environmentally, their heyday resulted in a massive deforestation that has ramifications through to the present ​day. It causes one to think about the balance between political and economic power on one hand and a sustainable environment on the other. 

Jared Diamond, a geographer and very popular writer, suggested in one of his books, ​Guns, Germs, and Steel, ​that environmental destruction played a role in what came next in Chinese history – several hundred years of isolationism. The reaction against internationalism was fierce, largely political between two power groups at the top, and violent. As the book tells it, Confucius, who actually lived 2000 years earlier, won and China went from one extreme to the other. It went from an international power and influencer to an isolationist country with less influence and power beyond its borders, but during its heyday, its borders expanded, and with success came immigration.

Another byproduct of China’s looking inward was discrimination. They expanded their borders both to the west and north, bringing various different ethnic groups under their rule. As a result of their trade successes, they also encountered many different ethnic groups who visited China and stayed. Between the two, expansion and immigration, the ​Chinese had become very diverse. This worked to their advantage as they looked out from their borders or as they looked forward in time, but it did not work to their advantage when they only looked inward. Since they did not want to shrink in size, nor could they easily kick everyone out, they chose to discriminate. 

Finally, one has to wonder if a country’s history creates a certain psychology or sense of self that marches into the future and even resurfaces, occasionally after decades or even centuries of dormancy, in an almost mythic form. Reading this book, one has a sense of the world as having had two historical centers – Persia (Iran) and China. Rome is a powerful but temporary interloper in the grand scheme of things. Both of those countries are now resurrecting a past that may well be part of their national psyche. 

When I was in school, western Europe and the United States were the center of the world. I knew nothing about Chinese history and only understood Persian history because of the Greeks, Romans, and Alexander the Great. I never understood it as a history largely independent of Europe. I tend to believe that a historian of this time period could contribute to an understanding of both of those countries today but most adult learners tend not to wander far from what they already know. I can sympathize with the history graduate student who discovers that no one is listening, but that does not mean we can afford to bury history. It plays too big a role in defining who we are today.

I bought this book in the 1990s and it has taken over twenty years to begin reading it (a benefit of the shut-in policy in New Mexico). Today I study how we learn and how that might influence teaching. Reading this book made me think that maybe I should also study what we learn. Today a K-12 education encompasses a broader perspective on history than I had. Over time I suspect that this broader historical knowledge will prove helpful, not just for policy-makers but for those of us who vote them in or out. As to historians, I found it encouraging that President Obama turned to an economic historian as his first Chief Economic Advisor, Christina Romer.