Presidential Address delivered at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on December 28, 1992. Published in the American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (February 1993): 1–17.


I was born on December 12, 1937, the day the Japanese Imperial Army was set loose upon Nanjing for three weeks of rape and slaughter. My first connected memory as a child is of sitting in a sandbox at an apartment complex overlooking New York’s George Washington Bridge on a cold winter’s afternoon. A window flew open on the fourth floor in the apartment next to ours, and a man—whom I later knew to be William Rogers, then Tom Dewey’s assistant district attorney and later Eisenhower’s attorney general and Nixon’s secretary of state—shouted down to my father, who was watching me play in the sand, “Fred, they’ve bombed Pearl Harbor!” I know that time telescopes in a child’s mind, but it seemed that only a few days later, my father was holding me in his arms, scratchy in a navy lieutenant’s dress blues, at Grand Central Station, kissing me goodbye as he left for San Diego and wartime service in the Pacific.

Although the beginning of the American empire in Asia is conventionally marked by the conquest of the Philippines in 1898, the visceral experience of my generation—the generation that came of age in the 1950s—is the American empire that ascended during and after World War II. That age of American military and economic might, which lasted only about fifty years, must be one of the shortest-lived hegemonies in world history.

After the Second World War, my family moved to Cuba, where my father enrolled me in an academy in Havana called Colegio Baldor. It was not easy being one of the few North Americans among Cuban schoolboys so bellicosely proud of their national heritage, and as we would stand at attention on the sweltering parade grounds listening to veterans of 1898 stirringly recall their victories against the Spanish on the plains of Camagüey, I knew that after classes, things might not go so easily with an eleven-year-old Yankee when I ran the older boys’ gauntlet away from teachers’ eyes outside the school’s main gate. It was with a great and liberating sense of relief, then, that I heard my father announce his plans to take me out of school early in 1949 so that the entire family could retrace the second voyage of Columbus on our 56-foot ketch, the Chalene.

This trip was not entirely unexpected. My father revered Samuel Eliot Morison, and after he finished Morison’s biography of Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, he passed it on to me with the usual caution that the family would be expecting to hear my dinner-table review of the book within the week. This was a task I sometimes resented, especially when it came to giving book reports on Carlyle, Gibbon, or Spengler. But Morison’s personally infused account of the four voyages of discovery enthralled me, and I read the book several times, lingering over exciting pages such as the description of Columbus’s effort, in 1494, to sail along the south shore of what he took to be a large peninsula jutting out from China and the Asian mainland. The “peninsula,” of course, was Cuba, where I lived.

Columbus had left that spurious Chinese peninsula behind in November 1492 to sail back to Spain. Returning to Hispaniola on the second voyage, he set sail from Isabela with the Niña and two Portuguese-style lateeners on April 24, 1494, intending to navigate the south coast of Cuba “until definite proof of its continental character was obtained, and if possible to make contact with the elusive Grand Khan.”1 Four days later, sailing under steady northeasterly trade winds across the Windward Passage, Columbus reached the southeastern tip of what he believed to be the beginning of the Asiatic mainland.

Four hundred and fifty-five years later, we rounded that same tip of southeastern Cuba in the Chalene and followed Columbus’s route along the coast of Oriente province past the arid vegetation of the southern slope of the Sierra Maestra. I remembered reading that when his ships had reached Guantánamo Bay, called Puerto Grande by Columbus, the Spaniards had gone ashore and found giant iguana lizards—“the most ugly and disgusting creatures they had ever seen”—being roasted and eaten by the Indians.2 When we anchored and went ashore in 1949, we found giant iguanas still there, and when we sailed on westward for forty miles, we entered the same narrow barracuda-infested channel into the Bay of Santiago that Columbus had discovered, where the site of an important Indian city named Bagatiquir was chosen by Diego de Velásquez in 1514 as the location of Cuba’s second major Spanish urban settlement.3

The Spaniards had simply overwhelmed the Indians they encountered along the way. After Columbus turned south from the Gulf of Guacanayabo in strong winds and sailed away from Cuba under bare poles to Jamaica, he reached what he called Santa Gloria and the English later called St. Ann’s Bay to spend the night on May 5, 1494. His three vessels that evening drove off a group of Arawak Indians in seventy large war canoes by firing blank salvos at them from their lombards. At Puerto Bueno, Columbus and his men were again attacked by Indians, this time ashore, and they retaliated with crossbows, also setting loose a big dog “who bit them and did them great hurt, for a dog is worth ten men against Indians.”4

On May 9, 1494, Columbus reached Montego Bay (El Golfo de Buen Tiempo) on the west end of Jamaica and thence turned north to search for a place on the south Cuban coast called “Magón” by the Arawak Indians, which Columbus mistook to be “Mangi,” Marco Polo’s name for the southern Chinese province of Fujian. Reaching the Cuban coast again, Columbus sailed around the Zapata Peninsula to a shallow bank now called the Jardines. This is where our own Chalene foolhardily followed the log of Columbus, choosing to ignore Morison’s vivid warning about these waters:

The Admiral had boldly sailed into a tangled archipelago, the cays off the Zapata Peninsula, which are difficult enough to navigate today with chart and beacons. Moreover, the people were baffled by the different colors of the water. As they came upon the shoals from the deep blue of the gulf, the water at first was clear as crystal, but suddenly turned an opaque green; then after a few miles went milk-white, and finally turned black as ink. And so it is today. Part of the gulf has a bottom of fine white marl which becomes so roiled by the waves that it mixes with the water right up to the surface, looking, as Peter Martyr said, as if flour had been dredged into the sea. I have myself seen the water a deep green, as in the gulf of Maine, although the depth was less than three fathoms, and the next time I looked over the side it was black as ink under a bright sky, owing I suppose to fine black sand on the bottom being stirred tip by the waves. All this was new to the Spaniards, and the more terrible because it recalled old Arabic tales of the Green Sea of Gloom, and interminable shoals that fringed the world’s outermost edge.5

This is exactly where we ran aground in 1948, sailing on a neap tide with centerboard lifted. Within two hours of entering the archipelago, over speckled waters, we ran the ketch onto a shoal and found ourselves dug into the marl just as the unusually high tide began to recede.

It took us days to get off that shoal. Our short-wave radio transmissions could not reach Coast Guard station CLT in Havana because of the intervening Sierra Maestra. We could not find more than a few fathoms of water to float the boat any less than several thousand yards away, which meant kedging off yard by yard. A couple of us in a dinghy would take our heaviest anchor and chain out to a point two or three hundredfeet away in the direction of the deeper water, set the anchor solidly in the marl, and then come back so that all hands on the boat could tail the lines through the mechanical winch at the bow to haul the ketch on its side across the sands to deeper water. Kedging is backbreaking work, and because of our pitch on the shoal, we weren’t able to draw much drinking water out of the tanks and had to open canned vegetables to get enough liquid to survive. The midsummer sun was unforgiving. Finally, on the fourth day, we pulled free from the suction of that terrible place. Once liberated, we abandoned our plans for continuing to shadow Columbus in his fruitless search for the Chinese mainland and headed for blue water. Refueling in the penal Isle of Pines, Chalene continued west, plowing into the Yucatán Channel in time to catch the summer offshore winds and sail east by northeast back to Havana and our mooring in the Rio Almendares.

There were a number of large yachts moored in the Rio Almendares then, including an immense black schooner belonging to a North American sugar plantation owner who, after the revolution, was accused by the Castro government of being a CIA spy. To my boy’s eyes, the most intriguing vessel was a former U.S. Navy PT boat, moored right across from us near the other bank of the river where the old colonial government had turned one of its jails into a quarantine confinement. With its prodigious Packard engines rumbling, the PT boat came and went at the oddest times, slipping its mooring in the early morning hours and returning late the next night. Owner and crew kept strictly to themselves. The sailmaker told me that they were smugglers who charged illegal Chinese immigrants vast sums of money to put them ashore in the Florida Keys. Rumor also had it that, as often as not, the PT boat captain collected the usual U.S. government bounty reward by telling Immigration Service agents just where to wait when he landed the Chinese. And if perchance they were chased by the U.S. Coast Guard, the cold-blooded smugglers deep-sixed their hapless human cargo in the Gulf Stream, taking their lives as casually as they had their money.

All this scuttlebutt bolstered my image of the Chinese as passive victims, meek as lambs led to slaughter. Like the Arawaks chewed up by the dog of Columbus, they seemed just one more pathetic example of the victimization wreaked upon non-Europeans by their Western conquerors. The boldness and daring I so boyishly admired in Columbus was seemingly only the nobler side of an unredeemable history of base domination, brutal extraction, and cruel enslavement. Who illustrated this better in colonial Cuba than the slaves, brought in from Africa or the indentured workers imported from China to work the sugar plantations of their Hispanic masters?6

The Cuban hacendados turned to the importation of indentured Chinese plantation workers both because of labor shortages that resulted from British enforcement of the abolition of the slave trade and because of fears that the African slaves already in Cuba might revolt as Toussaint l’Ouverture’s followers had in Haiti.7 Early in 1846, after a black slave uprising two years before, the Comisión de Población Blanca de la junta de Fomento approved a plan to introduce Chinese contract labor.8 Hence, on June 3, 1847, there arrived in Havana aboard the Spanish brig Oquendo some 206 indentured laborers from Fujian (the Mangi of Marco Polo and Columbus): the first group of Chinese to land on Cuban soil.9

Before abolition, the major promoters of the Chinese coolie trade had transported slaves from Africa.10 They negotiated their initial coolie contracts through Manila merchants with commercial links to the Amoy agency houses of Tait and Company. Mr. Tait, who was to become the largest shipper of coolies in Amoy, was also consul for Spain, Holland, and Portugal, and he was thus able personally to certify the legality of his own indenture contracts.11 As the trade flourished, the agency houses began to bypass the Manila middlemen by turning to Liverpool, Boston, and New York shippers, on the one hand, and, on the other, by dealing directly with the Cuban importers through Macao, where letters of credit from Havana, drawn on London or Paris, were exchanged in Hong Kong banks for Mexican silver dollars to pay the individual brokers a commission of 5 to 10 pesos for each coolie who was contracted. In this fashion, the Catalan dealer, Abellá Raldiris, alone “embarked” more than 100,000 Chinese for Havana, Callao, California, Australia, and Arkansas.12

The brokers, or crimps, in Macao, Amoy, Swatow, Hong Kong, and Whampoa who engaged Chinese to be carried to Cuba were often “chinos ladinos” of Sino-Portuguese descent, who would entice their victims into a teahouse, promise that they would be taken to Tay Loy Sun (Da Lüsong, Luzon) or “Great Spain” to make their fortune, pay them 8 silver dollars to sign an eight-year indenture agreement, and then decoy them to the depositories or barracoons, which the Chinese called zhuzi guan, or “pig pens.”13 The conditions inside these filthy enclosures, where no small number of these emigrants succumbed to disease, were inhuman.14 The Chinese, thereafter to be called “coolies,” were stripped of their clothing, disciplined with salted cat-o’-nine-tails, and penned to await the next clipper ship sailing for the sugar plantations of Cuba or the guano mounds of the Chincha Islands, where they frequently died under the whips of their Peruvian overseers or suffocated in clouds of guano dust.15

Surviving the voyage itself was an ordeal. “We proceeded to sea, we were confined in the hold below; some were even shut up in bamboo cages, or chained to iron posts, and a few were indiscriminately selected and flogged as a means of intimidating all others; whilst we cannot estimate the deaths that, in all, took place, from sickness, blows, hunger, thirst, or from suicide by leaping into the sea.”16 The American clippers in the coolie trade had more space below deck than the British guineamen in the slave trade, where, during the horrible “middle voyage” between Africa and the Americas, “each living man had less room than a dead man in his coffin.”17 But maltreatment and disease took their toll in the coolie trade as well.18 According to Cuban census figures, from 1848 to 1874, 141,391 Chinese were shipped to Havana; 16,576 died en route; and 124,813 were “sold” in Cuba.19 One of the major causes of death en route was cholera; and if a ship so afflicted sailed into Havana harbor, its cargo was quarantined for forty days in the “lazareto de la Chorrera” at the mouth of the Almendares River, where the Chalene’s mooring was set when I was a boy.20

Once off the ship in Havana, the Chinese laborers were “offered for sale in the men-market,” where they were forced, to their great shame, to strip naked and be prodded and poked like horses by the buyers.21 After being sold, the Chinese laborers were taken to sugar plantations, confined in barracks, and sent to work in the fields and mills under armed overseers.22 Field hands were cowed by sword-bearing “captains,” whose soldiers cut off the laborers’ queues. According to the testimony of a Chinese plantation worker: “We are fed worse than dogs, and are called upon to perform labour for which an ox or a horse would not possess sufficient strength. Everywhere cells exist, and whips and rods are in constant use, and maimed and lacerated limbs are daily to be seen.”23 Millworkers were paid much lower wages than free workers or rented slaves, frequently whipped and chained in spite of the abolition of corporal punishment in 1854 and often forced to sign fresh contracts of indenture when their eight-year terms concluded. In short, the Chinese quickly came to see that they were debt peons being treated, in Rebecca Scott’s words, “as slaves by an incomparably barbarous group of foreigners who refused to recognize them as free men.”24

One alternative to this misery was death. “Suicides by hanging on trees, by drowning, by swallowing opium, and by leaping into the sugar caldrons are the results of wrongs and sufferings which cannot be described.”25 During the 1860s, the rate of suicide for Chinese in Cuba was 500 in 100,000, compared to 35 in 100,000 for slaves and 5.7 in 100,000 for whites. That is to say, Chinese committed suicide one hundred times more than whites and fourteen times more than slaves. As a result, Cuba had the highest suicide rate in the world: 1 in 4,000 inhabitants.26

Another alternative was to resist, to fight back, and the Chinese coolies, far from being passive, did just that. From the moment they entered the barracoon, they tried to escape—sometimes by going through openings in the water closet into the mud and filth of the river.27 The coolie clippers had to be built like the old convict ships, with gratings of strong iron bars bolted onto each hatchway. Not only that; many clippers had barricades ten feet high in front of the poop and were manned by armed sentries to keep the Chinese from breaking out of the hold and storming the helm of the ship. But break out they did.28

One of the most famous mutinies took place in 1859 aboard the Norway, an unusually large ship registered in New York, that was carrying a thousand Chinese laborers from Macao to Havana. The fifth night out of Macao, fire erupted in the hold, and the Chinese fought ferociously to get to the deck. The heavily armed crew barely held them off. At one point, the mutineers sent the captain a message written in the blood of their wounded, demanding that the ship change course for Siam so that those who wanted to leave the vessel could flee ashore. But, in the end, the men failed to break out of the heavily barred hold, and the fire was extinguished. By the time the Norway reached Havana, 130 of the Chinese were dead: 70 from wounds, the rest carried away by dysentery.29

The Chinese also resisted ashore. In November 1852, demonstrations broke out in Amoy, with the protesters demanding that the “pig trade” cease and that the foreign agency houses and their Chinese brokers be punished. When the British landed a force from H.M.S. Salamander to protect their nationals, the Fujianese forced the British to retreat. The British soldiers killed and wounded 10 or 20 Chinese as they fell back, but the ensuing investigation by Her Majesty’s government along with continuing protests by the gentry and people of Amoy marked the beginning of the decline of the Amoy coolie trade and the beginning of “a pattern of popular interference with the trade … that was to follow the trade wherever it went.”30

On the other end, in Cuba itself, the Chinese continued to rebel.31 By 1848, as large numbers of Chinese fled plantations, the Spaniards began to realize that the Chinese might be good workers, but they were not submissive and certainly were not resigned to being governed “a palos.” Frequent uprisings by Chinese who had taken to the hills led to the issuance of special regulations in April 1849 for the punishment of Asiatic recalcitrants: floggings, imprisonment, and solitary confinement.32 Nonetheless, in August 1860, the captain general, Francisco Serrano, wrote to Madrid urging that the government “put a stop to the damages caused in Cuba by the entry of Chinese who failed to live up to their contracts, broke the laws of hospitality, disturbed public order, aided the enemies of the nation, and kept the Island in a constant state of alarm.”33

During the 1868–1869 insurrection in Cuba, the insurgents offered liberty to any slaves and coolies who would join them. Especially in the central provinces, many Chinese joined the rebel ranks, including former Taiping Heavenly Kingdom followers who participated decisively in the assault on Manzanillo.34 This restiveness coincided with growing international indignation over the coolie trade to Cuba and the forced retirement of American vessels from the transport during our Civil War. The Qing government, after considerable Spanish stonewalling, managed to send a delegation from its newly formed Zongli Yamen (Foreign Office) in 1873 to investigate the condition of Chinese workers in Cuba.35 The delegation’s report was a devastating exposé of the hacendados’ callous exploitation of Chinese laborers; and, in due course, on November 17, 1877, the Spanish envoy in Beijing signed a treaty permanently closing the coolie trade with Cuba.36

Contrary, then, to my boyhood image of passive coolies meekly victimized by their exploiters, the Chinese laborers’ historical experience in Cuba from 1846 to 1877 reflected much active resistance—defiance to the point of forcing the colonial government to stop the trade. But was that so surprising, given the nature of the men themselves? After all, many of these Cantonese and Fujianese laborers were decoyed into the barracoons in the first place because they were willing to set sail, so to speak, without a sure guarantee of return. Their maritime provinces were lands with a long tradition of deep sea navigation that surely made the prospect of an odyssey to “Great Spain” less terrifying than such a voyage would have seemed to a landlocked native of Henan or Shanxi. These Chinese of the southeastern coast were, after all, heirs to the naval tradition of China’s greatest explorer, Zheng He.

I first learned of the sea voyages of Zheng He, the Chinese admiral who sailed to the coast of Africa and back in the early fifteenth century, when I was a beginning graduate student at Berkeley. My professor, the late Joseph Levenson, used the example of Zheng He’s voyages not so much to illustrate China’s awesome technological achievements but to note how the termination of the voyages in 1433 marked a cultural volte-face as Ming China turned back on itself and rejected the outside world. I certainly accepted the latter point, but I was most impressed by the revelation that China had once been a great sea power. Professor J. P. Lo at nearby Davis taught me not only that the Song (960–1278) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties had deployed large navies in Southeast Asia and against Japan but also that the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) had at least during the first sixty-five years of its existence strongly depended on naval might.37 Under the Yongle emperor (r. 1403–1424), the Ming navy consisted of 3,500 ships, which conducted annual armadas well off the coast, pursued Japanese “sea rovers” (wokou) as far as the Ryukyus and the shores of Korea, helped the Chams drive off an Annamese fleet in 1403, and invaded the Red River delta in 1407 to reannex that part of Annam as a Chinese province.38

In 1405, the Yongle emperor—who had usurped the throne of China from his nephew, the Jianwen emperor (r. 1399–1402)—ordered his chief eunuch, Zheng He, to conduct a massive naval expedition beyond Annam and through the Straits of Malacca into the “western seas” (xiyang).39 The ostensible reason for the expedition was to pursue the Jianwen emperor across Southeast Asia.40 But the real purposes of the voyage were, first, to impress China’s neighbors with the prosperity and power of the new dynasty, which had driven the Mongols beyond the Great Wall; second, to gain access to luxury products no longer available because the breakup of the Mongol empire had severed trade routes; and, third, to encourage embassies to come and pay tribute to the court of the new Yongle emperor.41 A eunuch was chosen to lead the expedition because, ever since the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), eunuchs were responsible for purveying articles of luxury for the court, including the emperor’s harem.42 And among them emperor’s most trusted eunuchs, Zheng He may have been especially well qualified because he was a Yunnanese Muslim (both his father and grandfather were hajis who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca) and because he was an excellent military commander and logistician who had played a key role in the Yongle emperor’s victorious military campaigns.43

The armada was immense, especially when we compare it to the Santa Maria, Niña, and Pinta that set off from the Canary Islands eighty-seven years later.44 Altogether, there were 62 huge nine-masted galleons called “treasure junks” (baochuan), 450 feet long and 180 feet across the beam. Since the upper decks and poops of the galleons overrode the bottom, the waterline length and beam were probably closer to 310 and 80 feet. However, a vessel that large would have displaced at least 3,000 tons, whereas none of Vasco da Gama’s ships exceeded 300 tons, and even in 1588 the largest English merchant ship did not exceed 400 tons.45 The nine masts of the baochuan, which were built in the Longjiang shipyards on the northwest side of Nanjing, had fore-and-aft sails; the galleons were steered with axially mounted rudders and fitted with strong bulkhead-built hulls divided into watertight compartments kept dry with pedal-driven bilge pumps.46 The rest of the fleet of several hundred ships consisted of eight-masted “gallopers” (machuan), seven-masted grain junks (liangchuan), six-masted transports (huochuan) and five-masted combat vessels (zhanchuan).47

When the fleet was assembled near present-day Shanghai, it carried 17 imperial eunuch ambassadors and assistant ambassadors; 63 eunuch officials and chamberlains; 95 military directors; 207 brigade and company commanders; 3 senior ministry secretaries; 2 masters of ceremony from the department of state ceremonials; 5 geomancers; 128 medical personnel; and 26,803 officers, soldiers, cooks, purveyors, clerks, and interpreters.48

From the Yangzi River, Zheng He’s fleet sailed down the coast to Fujian—Marco Polo and Columbus’s “Mangi”—and anchored in the Min River estuary. When the northeast monsoon began to blow in December and January, Zheng He made offerings to Tianfei, the “Celestial Spouse” who protects mariners and is today worshiped as the goddess Mazu throughout coastal Fujian and Taiwan, and then he set sail for Champa (Indochina).49 From there, the armada advanced to Java, Sumatra, Ceylon, and Calicut on the west coast of India. By the time Zheng He was ready to return to China in April 1407, his suite contained envoys from nearly all of those tributaries along with the truculent Palembang sealord Chen Zuyi, who was brought back to Nanjing to be decapitated.50

There were six more of these impressive voyages, progressively extending farther westward. Zheng He was not on every one of them, but he commanded them all. The second expedition (1407–1409) was launched to install the new king of Calicut, Mana Vikraman. During the third expedition (1409–1411), on his way back to China, Zheng He was attacked by the king of Ceylon (probably Bhuvaneka Bâhu V). Zheng He defeated the Sinhalese army and captured the royal family, which was taken back to Nanjing and presented to the emperor.51 Yongle freed the king and his family and sent them back to Ceylon.52 That action, along with the establishment of Chinese commanderies in Tonkin and Upper Annam, greatly increased the number of tributaries coming to the Ming court.53

The fourth expedition (1413–1415) followed the same initial route as the earlier ones but this time sailed even farther, visiting the Maldive Islands, reaching the Persian sultanate of Ormuz, and sending a branch expedition to Bengal that brought back to China envoys from the African kingdom of Malindi, who presented the Yongle emperor with a giraffe.54 This was an extremely auspicious gift because the giraffe—whose name in Somalian is girin—was taken to be the qilin or unicorn, the appearance of which was the sign of a sage-emperor whose presence attracted “distant people … in uninterrupted succession.”55 In return for this homage, Yongle sent Zheng He on a fifth voyage (1417–1419) to accompany the Malindian ambassadors home. This was probably the first time that Zheng He reached the east coast of Africa. He made a display of military force at Mogadishu in Somaliland, while ships detached from the main fleet sailed north to the Arabian peninsula. The sixth expedition (1421–1422), which consisted of 41 ships, also reached Africa, going as far as Mogadishu and Brava.56

This marked the apex of Ming maritime power. When the Yongle emperor died in 1424, the suzerainty of China was acknowledged by more foreign rulers than ever before; and representatives of 67 overseas states, including 7 kings, came bearing tribute.57 Yet hardly was Yongle laid away than his short-lived successor, the Hongxi emperor (r. 1425), halted the expeditions and appointed Zheng He the defender of Nanjing. There was a final seventh expedition in 1431, when the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–1435) charged Zheng He with the command of an expedition of 100 vessels that sailed to Ormuz and sent subsidiary fleets to the east coast of Africa and to Mecca in the north.58 But, after Zheng He returned to Nanjing and resumed his position as defender of the capital in 1433, the voyages ended altogether.59

Why did the argosies cease? The most commonly accepted explanation has been that the voyages were compromised from the start by their connection with palace eunuchs, who were associated with extravagance and imperial caprice.60 As the Dutch Sinologist J.J.L. Duyvendak put it, “The entire business of relations with overseas barbarians became, in the moral and political judgment of the official classes, inextricably bound up with their deep sense of disapproval of the extravagances and usurpation of power of the despised eunuchs.”61 The shift in policy was so extreme that in 1477 when the eunuch Wang Zhi called for the charts of Zheng He’s voyages in order to make plans to restore China’s paramount position in Southeast Asia, the vice-president of the ministry of war had all the government’s records of the expeditions taken out and burned.62

The decline of the Ming navy was precipitate. Far-flung coastal patrols against Sino-Japanese pirates were pulled back after 1436, when the Zhengtong emperor forbade the building of vessels for overseas voyages.63 The open sea sailors now passively anchored in port engaged in commerce, smuggled salt, or simply deserted their garrisons. The hereditary shipwright households that had built Zheng He’s galleons also declined and disappeared, and eventually the Chinese forgot how to construct the giant seagoing vessels of the earlier period.64

Many Chinese historians have used the end of Zheng He’s voyages to mark the fatal decline of the Ming dynasty. The rise of corrupt palace eunuchs in the 1440s, the neglect of public works after the breach of the Yellow River dikes in 1448, rising taxes with increased court expenses, and the blatant sale of public offices in the 1470s all seemed to signal a decisive dynastic turnabout, although the dynasty had two more centuries of life left.65

Even more significant, historians have regarded the termination of the expeditions as a turning point in the history of Chinese civilization itself. Professor Lo took this to be a sea change in the character and temperament of the Chinese, who became more “civilized” and “decadent,” preferring “lyrics to techniques, epistemology to politics, and the paintbrush to the sea.”66 Dr. J. V. G. Mills flatly declared, “The passing of the Yongle emperor ended the heroic age of imperial China; the great awakening was over, the spiritual vigor evaporated, and energetic action was no longer forthcoming. Military ardor waned, and anti-militaristic and anti-expansionist sentiments were aired.”67 And Joseph Needham, in a moving if overdrawn comparison of the Portuguese and Chinese maritime efforts, concluded with the observation that “the eunuchs were the architects of an outstanding period of greatness in China’s history,” and the end of the expeditions indicated that “the great naval possibilities had been done to death.”68

This was the repliement, China’s turning back upon itself, that Joseph Levenson had conveyed to me as a graduate student and that permitted me to think of an insular continental empire, closed to the outside world until “strangers at the gate” forced open the barriers in the 1840s and brought China into world history.69 Of course, one can try to see this supposed introversion in a good light. Instead of the aggressive thrust outward that enriched, engrossed, and then eventually expended the Iberian empires, for instance, China’s self-enclosure permitted advanced social and cultural development within a single ecumene, contemplative and sophisticated, unriven by narrow ethnic nationalisms and enduring century after century. The reign of the self-restrained and considerate Hongzhi emperor (r. 1488–1505)—the only monogamous emperor in Chinese history—was characterized by later Ming historians as a golden age of Confucian sagely rule.70 In 1492, just as Columbus thought he was discovering the material riches of Asia in the Caribbean, the Wu master Shen Zhou painted his famous hanging scroll “Night Vigil.” The inscription on the painting reads:

My outward form is slave to external things, and my mind takes its direction from them. Hearing is obscured by the sounds of bell and drum; seeing is obscured by patterns and beauty. This is why material things benefit people seldom, harm them often. Sometimes it happens, though, as with tonight’s sounds and colors, that while they do not differ from those of other times, yet they strike the ear and eye all at once, lucidly, wonderfully becoming a part of me. That they are bell and drum sounds, patterns and beauty, now cannot help but be an aid to the advancement of my self-cultivation. In this way, things cannot serve to enslave man.71

To maintain that revered Confucian realm, the imperial state bureaucracy sought to contain the maritime impulses of the coastal provinces. In 1500, it became a capital offense to build seagoing junks with more than two masts; in 1525, coastal officials were ordered to destroy such vessels altogether; and, by 1551, when Sino-Japanese sea rovers were raiding steadily along the littoral, Chinese who put out to sea, even if just for trade, were punished for treacherous collusion with the enemy.72

The continual issuance of these proclamations during the sixteenth century reflected the inability of the imperial Chinese state, which had rejected official maritime expansion, to control private seafaring and maritime trade.73 During the late 1500s and early 1600s, there was a tremendous expansion of Asian trade, fueled in large part by the vast quantities of silver that were carried by galleons from Acapulco across the Pacific to Manila and from there by Chinese merchant mariners to Fujian and Zhejiang in exchange for silks, porcelains, and other luxury goods.74

Between 1573 and 1644, the Chinese economy—ever the sink of precious metals—absorbed 26 million Mexican silver dollars, becoming increasingly monetized and commercialized.75 These trends abated during the global economic and demographic crises of the mid-1600s, when a new maritime ban was in force between 1659 and 1683.76 But after the Kangxi emperor’s (r. 1662–1722) navy defeated the regime of the sealord Koxinga (Cheng Chengkong) and his heirs on Taiwan in 1683–1684, the ban was lifted and the inflow of silver resumed.77 By the late eighteenth century, when Chinese merchant “junk traders” monopolized the exchange of “Straits’ produce” from Southeast Asia, China was closely integrated into the world economy, and fluctuations in the silk and tea trades as well as in domestic grain prices followed the ups and downs of the supply of silver in the New World.78

The inability of the Chinese government to control private trade was mirrored in the state’s difficulty in preventing Chinese people from migrating abroad.79 The Chinese diaspora commenced before the great Ming argosies, but it was much stimulated by Zheng He’s expeditions.80 During the later years of the fifteenth century, Chinese began to colonize the Malay Archipelago, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, the Sulu Archipelago, and the Philippines.81 In the sixteenth century, another stream of Chinese settlers began to arrive in Siam, and by the end of the 1600s there were thousands in the capital of Ayutthaya.82 The Qing (1644–1912) government continued the Ming policy of forbidding emigration.83 Article 225 of the Qing code read: “All … who remove to foreign islands for the purpose of inhabiting and cultivating the same, shall be punished according to the law against communicating with rebels and enemies and consequently suffer death by being beheaded.”84 Individual emperors issued pardons to overseas merchants who returned home, but not until 1727 was the interdiction removed; by then, hundreds of thousands of Chinese were living abroad. A century later, virtually half the 400,000 residents of Bangkok were Chinese immigrants.85

Emigration increased dramatically during the nineteenth century, when the coolie trade flourished.86 Between 1848 and 1854, during the California gold rush, 700,000 Chinese came to California.87 By the early 1900s, more than eight million Chinese were settled abroad, and they bore with them an economic and political vitality that helped transform China itself.88 The Revolution of 1911 that overthrew the Qing dynasty was, of course, led by an overseas Chinese, Sun Yat-sen; and the first United Front between the Nationalists and Communists was largely implemented by a Chinese from San Francisco.89

That é1an has continued to swell, representing the private and now globally significant complex of individual voyages that is changing the economic face of the world.90 The tremendous competitive strength of what one sociologist has called “entrepreneurial familism”—a form of private commercial and industrial organization that may have emerged in resistance to the power of the Chinese bureaucratic state—has begun to roll back on China itself.91 The overseas Chinese, who own liquid assets worth nearly $3 trillion, are investing billions of dollars in mainland China every year, helping to fuel the expansion of the fastest growing economy in the world.92 The hundreds of thousands of individual voyages that have taken place since Zheng He launched his expeditions in 1405, well before Columbus thought he had discovered Cathay on the south coast of Cuba, may be reaching a certain kind of harbor at last.

My own first voyage to mainland China was in 1974 as an interpreter for a delegation of American pharmacologists.93 It was obvious to me as I left on the trip, in the middle of Watergate and the impending defeat of our forces in Vietnam, that the Nixon Doctrine, sound as it seemed, signaled the end of America’s empire in Asia. The war in Indochina had created the first of what were to be huge deficits in the federal budget, and although America’s technological supremacy in future brushfire engagements like the Gulf War would be a reassurance of our military expertise to come, favorable economic currents were about to flow in another direction toward the rise of a new Asia and certainly a new China. This was signaled by the enormous economic leaps Japan and the “four dragons” were taking and by the vigor of China’s response to challenges over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, where some of the world’s largest oil reserves lie.

During that 1974 visit to the People’s Republic, I saw for the first time the large, stationary marble barge built on the summer palace’s Kunming Lake for the Empress Dowager Cixi on her sixtieth birthday in 1894. The moneys that went into that inert memorial to regal self-esteem were diverted from the Chinese fleet, which was virtually obliterated during the naval battle with Japanese battleships and cruisers off the mouth of the Yalu River on September 17, 1894.94 I remember shaking my head in remembrance of that awesome misplacement of resources as I walked up to the imperial barge and placidly proceeded to tour the monument in a spirit of what must have been indifferent contempt, hidden even to myself. Coming down the last stairwell on my way off this notorious example of imperial Chinese interiority, I found my way blocked by two athletic young men in naval uniforms. They smiled to my smile and as we each gave way, I noticed the designation on their blouses: “Southeastern Navy of the People’s Republic of China,” which was the military arm leading the first extension of state power into the waters of Southeast Asia since the Zheng He expeditions.

To be sure, there is only one superpower in Asia now, and even though U.S. forces in Okinawa and South Korea will surely be reduced by our new president, the American strategic presence will likely persist well into the next century. But the fact that China is now building a blue-water navy is not nearly as important as the swell of its economy, not to speak of those of the “newly industrializing countries” and of Japan.

I close with this: a kind of provincial cosmopolitanism. The half-century of purely American hegemony is over. The time is here for us to take seriously the challenges to what was an insular, self-enclosed, and racist cultural ethic and to relish the complex diversity of American society. I am now, by choice and inadvertent shaping, a Californian. And although it may sound strange to you after the Los Angeles riots of last April, my pride in that Californian complexion is for its capacity to encompass the resistance of all our individual cultures to the melting pot and for its commitment to the regeneration of a civil society that will allow each of us to share the journey ahead.

Frederic Wakeman Jr. (December 12, 1937–September 14, 2006) received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1965. Wakeman became a full professor in 1971, and was the Walter and Elise Haas Professor of Asian Studies at Berkeley when he retired.



  1. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, 1942), 445. []
  2. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 449. []
  3. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 451. []
  4. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 452–53. []
  5. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 460. []
  6. Rebecca J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton, N.J., 1985), 29. []
  7. It has also been suggested that the introduction of steam-driven equipment into the sugar refineries required a more skilled work force than African slaves. Denise Helly, “L’émigration chinoise à Cuba,” in Chinois d’outre-mer, Proceedings of the 29th International Congress of Orientalists, Paris, July, 1973 (Paris, 1976), 61–62. Plans were made to attract white agricultural laborers from Catalan, the Canary Islands, and Galicia by offering high wages, but probably because of the severe working conditions on the plantations, few actually came. Duvon Clough Corbitt, A Study of the Chinese in Cuba, 1847–1947 (Wilmore, Ky., 1971), 2–3. See also Seymour Drescher, “British Way, French Way: Opinion Building and Revolution in the Second French Slave Emancipation,” AHR, 96 (June 1991): 710–11. []
  8. The junta was a government-sponsored corporation of prominent planters and businessmen, first organized in 1795. []
  9. Juan Pérez de la Riva, Para la historia de las gentes sin historia (Barcelona, 1976), 47–65. []
  10. Pedro Zulueta, the first importer of Chinese laborers, had been tried in London for violating the 1817 and 1835 treaties between England and Spain abolishing the slave trade; Corbitt, Study of the Chinese in Cuba, 4–5. []
  11. Robert L. Irick, Ch’ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade 1847–1878 (Taipei, 1982), 27. []
  12. Juan Pérez de la Riva, El barracón: Esclavitud y capitalismo en Cuba (Barcelona, 1978), 89–92, 101. []
  13. Juan Jiménez Pastrana, Los chinos en la historia de Cuba, 1847–1930 (Havana, 1983), 31–32. []
  14. “After entering, the gates were closed by a foreigner, and as all exit was prevented we perceived how we had been betrayed, but there was no remedy; in the same chambers were more than 100 others, most of whom passed their days and nights in tears, whilst some were dripping with blood—the result of chastisements inflicted on account of a suspected intention of escape, or of a declaration of their unwillingness, when interrogated by the Portuguese inspector. The barracoon was of great depth, and, at the time of punishment, as an additional precaution to prevent the cries being overheard, gongs were beaten, and fireworks discharged, so that death even might have ensued without detection”; deposition of Ye Fujun in Report of the Commission Sent by China to Ascertain the Condition of Chinese Coolies in Cuba (Taipei, 1970), 9. []
  15. Basil Lubbock, Coolie Ships and Oil Sailers (Glasgow, 1981), 32–35; Irick, Ch’ing Policy, 27. []
  16. Deposition of Li Zhaochun in Report of the Commission Sent by China, 12. []
  17. Lubbock, Coolie Ships, 11. []
  18. “On board 300 died from thirst”; deposition of Chen Asheng in Report of the Commission Sent by China, 13. “Eleven men committed suicide. The day after I embarked we were all ordered on deck, and foot irons were attached to 173 physically strong men, besides 160 men were stripped and flogged on their naked persons with rattan rods”; deposition of Huang Afang in Report of the Commission Sent by China, 15. []
  19. Virtually all were men. Only 20 to 30 women per year came to Cuba. Of course, the direct coolie trade was not the only source of Chinese immigrants to Cuba. After 1860, as many as 25,000 Chinese came to Cuba from California via Mexico and New Orleans. Pérez de la Riva, El barracón, 56–58. []
  20. Pérez de la Riva, El barracón, 107. []
  21. Deposition of Li Zhaochun in Report of the Commission Sent by China, 18. []
  22. The auction was technically a sale of their contracts of indenture. []
  23. Petition of Xian Zuobang in Report of the Commission Sent by China, 19. []
  24. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba, 33. See also the petitions and depositions in Report of the Commission Sent by China, 23. []
  25. Petition of Yang Yun in Report of the Commission Sent by China, 20. []
  26. Pérez de la Riva, El barracón, 67. []
  27. Irick, Ch’ing Policy, 27. []
  28. Basil Lubbock, The China Clippers (1914; Taipei, 1966), 44–49. See, for example, the account of the successful mutiny of the Chinese aboard the Robert Browne in 1852, recounted in Irick, Ch’ing Policy, 32–43. []
  29. Lubbock, Coolie Ships, 43–48. []
  30. Irick, Ch’ing Policy, 32. []
  31. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba, 33–34. []
  32. Jiménez Pastrana, Los chinos en la historia de Cuba, 47–48. []
  33. Corbitt, Study of the Chinese in Cuba, 21–22. []
  34. Juan Jiménez Pastrana, Los chinos en las luchas por la liberación cubana, 1847–1930 (Havana, 1963), 71–79; Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba, 57–58. []
  35. Cuba Commission, Chinese Emigration: Report of the Commission sent by China to Ascertain the Condition of Chinese Coolies in Cuba (Shanghai, 1876). This has been reproduced and is cited here as Report of the Commission Sent by China. []
  36. Corbitt, Study of the Chinese in Cuba, 19–20; Jiménez Pastrana, Los Chinos en las luchas por la liberación cubana, 88. []
  37. The first Chinese admiralty was established by the Southern Song in 1132, and its fleet quickly gained control of the East China Sea. Song and Mongol navies clashed in 1277, and the final decisive conflict between them was the sea battle off the Guangdong coast in 1279, in which the Mongols captured 800 Chinese warships. Khubilai Khan unsuccessfully attempted to invade Japan in 1274 with 900 warships and failed again in 1281 with 4,400 vessels. Joseph Needham, with the collaboration of Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-djen, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 3, Civil Engineering and Nautics (Cambridge, 1971), 476–77. A major factor contributing to the Ming founder’s rise to power was the naval campaign of 1363 on Lake Poyang, resulting in Zhu Yuanzhang’s gaining mastery over the Yangzi Valley. Edward L. Dreyer, “The Poyang Campaign, 1363: Inland Naval Warfare in the Founding of the Ming Dynasty,” in Frank A. Kierman, Jr., and John K. Fairbank, eds., Chinese Ways in Warfare (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), 202–03. []
  38. Jung-pang Lo, “The Decline of the Early Ming Navy,” Oriens extremus, 5 (1958): 150–51. []
  39. This could also be translated as “western route,” since it was the term employed by Chinese navigators for the passage across the “south seas” (nanhai) all the way to Africa. Yün-ts’iao Hsü, “Notes on Some Doubtful Problems Relating to Admiral Cheng Ho’s Expeditions,” in Chinois d’outre-mer, 74–75. That would accord nicely with the Chinese charts of the passage depicting “a schematic corridor in which sailing tracks are marked with precise compass-bearings. and other instructions.” Joseph Needham and Wang Ling, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth (Cambridge, 1959), 560. []
  40. When the Yongle emperor—then still the prince of Yan—took Nanjing in July 1402, the bodies of the empress and her eldest son were found within the burned inner palace. There were rumors that the Jianwen emperor had escaped, although the new government announced that his remains had been found and would be buried with the other two corpses. The rumors persisted and were perpetuated by historians such as Gu Yingtai (d. ca. 1689), who claimed that the Jianwen emperor had escaped to southwestern China and lived until 1440. Gu Yingtai, Ming shi jishi benmo [Narratives of Ming history from beginning to end] (Taipei, 1976), 198–206. For a contemporary recount of this version, see Shang Chuan, Yongle huangdi [The Yongle emperor] (Beijing, 1989), 131–39. Most modern historians believe that the Jianwen emperor died in the palace blaze; see Edward L. Dreyer, Early Ming China: A Political History, 1355–1435 (Stanford, Calif., 1982), 169; Harold L. Kahn, Monarchy in the Emperor’s Eyes: Image and Reality in the Ch’ien-lung Reign (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 12–37. []
  41. Some historians have claimed that the first Zheng He expedition was part of the Yongle emperor’s plan to acquire allies in the Western Oceans and attack Temür [Tamerlane] (1335–1405) on his flank through India. Temür had been planning to invade the Ming since 1398, and in December 1404 he left Herat at the head of some 200,000 warriors. Chung-jen Su, “Places in South-east Asia, the Middle East and Africa Visited by Cheng Ho and His Companions (a.d. 1405–1433),” in F. S. Drake, ed., Symposium on Historical, Archaeological and Linguistic Studies on Southern China, South-east Asia and the Hong Kong Region (Hong Kong, 1967), 198. However, Rossabi authoritatively concludes that there was no connection between the launching of the Zheng He expeditions and Temür, who died en route to China on February 18, 1405. His son and successor, Shâhrukh Bahâdur, made an accommodation with the Ming court. Morris Rossabi, “Cheng Ho and Timur: Any Relation?” Oriens extremus, 20 (1973): 134–35. See also Joseph F. Fletcher, “China and Central Asia, 1368–1884,” in John K. Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), 209–11. []
  42. J. J. L. Duyvendak, China’s Discovery of Africa (London, 1949), 26–27; Hsü, “Notes on Some Doubtful Problems,” 73. At this time, China exported silks, porcelains, lacquer ware, art objects, copper cash, iron pans, and Buddhist sutras. It imported camphor, tortoiseshell, coral, pepper, and other spices, areca nuts, sandalwood, incense, dye stuffs, cotton fabrics, sugar, ivory, elephants, parakeets, buffaloes, pearls and precious stones, rhinoceros horns, drugs, glass, and tin. It also imported horses, copper ore, sulphur, timber, hides, gold, silver, and rice. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan: ‘The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores’ [1433], translated from the Chinese text edited by Feng Ch’eng-chün, with introduction, notes, and appendices by J. V. G. Mills (Cambridge, 1970), 4. []
  43. Ma Jizu and Zheng Yunliang, “Weida de hanghaijia Zheng He ji qi jiashi” [The great navigator Zheng He an the state of his family], in Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed., Yunnan huizu shehui lishi diaocha [Investigations into the social history of Yunnan Muslims] (Kunming, 1987), no. 4: 43–44; Chung-jen Su, “Places in South-east Asia,” 198. Zheng He’s original name was Ma He; he was also colloquially called Ma Sanbao. The “San bao,” or three jewels, represented the Buddhist triratna (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). One later text suggests that the “san bao” also referred to the “three precious eunuchs” appointed by Yongle to head the expedition: Zheng He, Yang Min, and Li Kai; Hsü, “Notes on Some Doubtful Problems,” 71–72. For distinguished military service, the emperor conferred the surname of Zheng on Ma He in 1404and promoted him to be superintendent of the office of eunuchs; Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 5–6. []
  44. It even dwarfed the Spanish armada, which consisted of 28 galleons, 40 large armed merchantmen, 34 fast ships, 23 freighters, and 4 Portuguese galleys, and which carried about 10,000 soldiers. []
  45. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 31. Needham takes J. P. Lo’s calculations of liao (see below, n. 46) to estimate a burden of 500 tons. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 480–81. []
  46. Nathan Sivin, “Review of Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 4: Physics and Physical Technology; Part III: Civil Engineering and Nautics, by Joseph Needham, with the collaboration of Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-Djen,” Scientific American (January 1972), 113. See also Paul Pelliot, “Les grands voyages maritimes chinois au début du XVe siècle,” T’oung Pao, 30 (1933): 273–74. Historians have been reluctant to accept the “monstrous” sizes given for the baochuan in the Ming shi. However, over the course of the seven Zheng He expeditions, the average size of the complement of a single vessel was 500 men, which would have required a ship of at least 2,000 liao (a unit of ship measurement that came to about 500 lbs.). Ships of this size were mentioned by Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. In a stele discovered in 1936at the Jinghai temple near Nanjing, there is a discernible portion of the text that speaks of the 1405 command having 2,000-liao seagoing ships, and in the 1409 command of 1,500-hao seagoing ships. Jung-pang Lo, “The Decline of the Early Ming Navy,” 151. In 1962, a rudder post over 36 feet long and 1.25 feet in diameter with a rudder attachment length of nearly 20 feet was discovered in the ruins of the old Ming shipyard in Nanjing. Such a rudder would have had a surface area of 452 square feet, proving that such immense vessels did indeed exist. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 481. []
  47. Su Chung-jen, “Places in South-east Asia,” 200–01. []
  48. Paul Pelliot, “Les grands voyages maritimes chinois,” 273–74; Su Chungjen, “Places in South-east Asia,” 201. []
  49. J. J. L. Duyvendak, “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions of the Early Fifteenth Century,” T’oung Pao, 34 (1938): 342–44; Zhongguo hanghai shi yanjiu hui [Society for the study of Chinese maritime history], eds., Guangdong haiyun shi (gudai bufen) [History of Chinese maritime transport (Ancient part)] (Beijing, 1989), 159–61. []
  50. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 10–11; Pelliot, “Les grands voyages maritimes chinois,” 273–77. []
  51. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 516. []
  52. However, the Chinese insisted that the king be replaced as ruler by his cousin. Dreyer, Early Ming China, 197. []
  53. Ming shi [History of the Ming], 6:3b, transl. in Pelliot, “Les grands voyages maritimes chinois,” 279–80. See also Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 11–12. []
  54. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 12–13. []
  55. Duyvendak, China’s Discovery of Africa, 33. []
  56. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 13–14; Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 489–90. []
  57. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 2. See also Wang Gungwu, “Early Ming Relations with Southeast Asia: A Background Essay,” in Fairbank, Chinese World Order, 53–54. []
  58. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 14–18; Sivin, “Review of Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 4,” 113; Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 490. []
  59. Zheng He died not long after in 1435. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 6. []
  60. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 524–25; Shang Chuan, Yongle huangdi, 260–62. “Trade, which Confucianists affected to scorn (while Buddhism gave it impetus), was a matter of imperial interest. It was an interest deriving from a court society’s demands for luxury, which were not approved by Confucianists, and it was manifest in such various phenomena as the eunuch Cheng Ho’s voyages (1403–33),which Confucian historians buried; eunuchs’ prominence, protested by officials in trading-ship control organs; and the Canton system of trade (1759–1839), in which the superintendent, the ‘Hoppo’, was a specifically imperial appointee and outside the regular bureaucratic chain of command”; Joseph R. Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, Volume 2, The Problem of Monarchical Decay (London, 1964), 26–27. []
  61. Duyvendak, China’s Discovery of Africa, 27. []
  62. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 525. []
  63. In 1411, Chinese engineers constructed dams that converted the Grand Canal into an all-seasons conduit, making it possible four years later for the government to abolish the maritime grain-transport service and thereafter send all tribute grain north to the capital by inland waterway. Sea transport was revived in 1572, but only temporarily. By 1575, the seagoing ships were put in reserve. Hoshi Ayao, The Ming Tribute Grain System, Mark Elvin, transi. (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1969), 76–77; Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 315, 526; Wu Jihua, Mingdai haiyun ji yunhe de yanjiu [A study of sea transport and canal transport during the Ming period] (Taipei, 1961), 268–74. []
  64. Jung-pang Lo, “Decline of the Early Ming Navy,” 156–62. []
  65. Jung-pang Lo, “Decline of the Early Ming Navy,” 164–65. []
  66. Jung-pang, Lo, “Decline of the Early Ming Navy,” 168. See also John E. Wills, Jr., Embassies and Illusions: Dutch and Portuguese Envoys to K’ang-hsi, 1666–1687 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 17. []
  67. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, 3. []
  68. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 525, 527. Sivin concurred: “Cheng’s argosies, however, were a final blaze of splendor, before the extinction of the large and intrepid navy that had been founded 300years earlier. The political decisions that killed it were part of a decisive turning inward of the civilization”; Sivin, “Review of Science and Civilisation in China,” 113. []
  69. Frederic Wakeman, Jr., Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China 1839–1861 (Berkeley, Calif., 1966), 6–7. []
  70. L. Carrington Goodrich, ed., and Chaoying Fang, assoc. ed., Dictionary of Ming Biography (New York, 1976), 378. []
  71. Translated in James Cahill, Parting at the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty, 1368–1580 (New York, 1978), 90. []
  72. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 527. Needham does, however, note that resistance to Japanese pirates kept the Ming navy strong enough to send squadrons between 1592 and 1598 to fight alongside the Korean admiral Yi Sunsin against the invading Japanese fleets of Hideyoshi, 528. []
  73. The powerful families of Fujian and Zhejiang that traded with Sino-Japanese pirates were protected by allies at court. “The naval expeditions of Yung-lo’s time had paved the way for a wave of Chinese migration to Southeast. Asia. The heyday of the Arab and Persian merchants had passed, the Portuguese had not yet arrived, and, thus, for a century, the Chinese controlled all the commerce in the waters of the East. Private trade supplanted the official tributary trade which the Cheng Ho expeditions helped to bring about.” These private interests may have earlier frustrated attempts to continue the Zheng He expeditions. Jung-pang Lo, “Decline of the Early Ming Navy,” 156–57. []
  74. Juan Gonzales de Mendoza wrote in his Historia de las Cosas mas notables, Ritos y Costumbres del Gran Reyno de la China, sabidas assi por los libros de los mesmos Chinas, conio por relación de religiosos y oltras personas que an estado en el dicho Reyno (Rome, 1585) of Chinese merchant-captains trading overseas under confidential licenses from the Chinese government. Three Chinese merchants had been in Mexico and had gone on to visit Spain. See Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 4: 527. []
  75. Man-houng Lin, “From Sweet Potato to Silver: The New World and Eighteenth-Century China as Reflected in Wang Hui-tsu’s Passage about the Grain Prices,” in Hans Pohl, ed., The European Discovery of the World and Its Economic Effects on Pre-industrial Society, 1500–1800 (Stuttgart, 1990), 313. []
  76. Frederic Wakeman, Jr., “China and the Seventeenth-Century World Crisis,” Late Imperial China (June 1986). But Chinese trade with Southeast Asia certainly continued to flourish, and the Shang family that ruled the feudatory of Guangdong obtained much of its revenue from overseas commerce, including trade in textiles with Japan. Wills, Embassies and Illusions, 128–29; Zhongguo hanghai shi yanjiu hui, eds., Guangdong haiyun shi, 143–49. []
  77. John E. Wills, Jr., Pepper, Guns and Parleys: The Dutch East India Company and China, 1622 [1662]–1681 (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), 195–97. Restrictive policies were resumed during 1717–1727 when the imperial government prohibited commercial shipping to the Philippines, Java, and most parts of Southeast Asia. Lin, “From Sweet Potato to Silver,” 315–16. []
  78. Dian H. Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790–1810 (Stanford, Calif., 1987), 10; Lin, “From Sweet Potato to Silver,” 327; Chen Shunsheng, “Qingdai Guangdong de yinyuan liutong” [The circulation of silver dollars in Guangdong during the Qing period], in Ye Xian’en, et al., eds., Ming-Qing Guangdon shehui jingji yanjiu [Studies on the society and economy of Guangdong during the Ming and Qing] (Guangzhou, 1987), 206–36. []
  79. The best brief discussion in any language of the Chinese diaspora is the chapter of that title in Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley, Calif., 1986), 7–31. []
  80. When Zheng He got to Palembang, he discovered that most of the people residing there were refugees from Guangzhou, Changzhou, and Quanzhou. Su Chung-jen, “Places in South-east Asia,” 206. []
  81. Ta Chen, Chinese Migrations, with Special Reference to Labor Conditions (Washington, D.C., 1923), 4. []
  82. By the mid-nineteenth century, 15,000 Chinese were migrating to Thailand each year. Richard James Coughlin, “The Chinese in Bangkok: A Study of Cultural Persistence” (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1953), 14. []
  83. When the Ming fell, a number of Chinese fled to Southeast Asia, especially to the lands in Cochinchina controlled by the Nguyen lords, outside of the Trinh lords’ kingdom in Tonkin. Special “villages of people continuing to be loyal to the Ming” (Minh-huong-xa) were established to house these settlers. Chen Jinghe (Ch’en Ching-ho), Chengtian Mingxiangshe Chen shi zhengpu [A brief study of the family register of the Trans, a Ming Refugee family in Minh-huong-xa (Central Vietnam)] (Hong Kong, 1964), 6. []
  84. Cited in Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, 2d edn. (London, 1965), 26. Both the Ming and Qing did little or nothing to protest against the massacres of Chinese in the Philippines in 1603 and 1639 and in Java in 1740. Edgar Wickberg, The Chinese in Philippine Life, 1850–1898 (New Haven, Conn., 1965), 10–11. []
  85. Purcell, Chinese in Southeast Asia, 84–85. []
  86. Chen, Chinese Migrations, 4. []
  87. Of these, 95 percent were males. Many re-migrated. C. Livingston Daley, “The Chinese as Sojourners: A Study in the Sociology of Migration” (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1978), 21, 188. []
  88. Chen, Chinese Migrations, 15. []
  89. For the role of the overseas Chinese in the 1911 Revolution, see Huang Zhenwu, Huaqiao yu Zhongguo geming [Overseas Chinese and the Chinese revolution] (Taipei, 1963). By 1953, the People’s Republic of China estimated that there were 11,743,320 overseas Chinese. Stephen FitzGerald, China and the Overseas Chinese: A Study of Peking’s Changing Policy, 1949–1970 (Cambridge, 1972), 3. There are now approximately 55 million overseas Chinese, counting Taiwan and Hong Kong. []
  90. Chinese constitute 4 percent of Indonesia’s population and own 75 percent of the country’s assets. Chinese in Thailand, 8–10 percent of the population, own 90 percent of the country’s manufacturing and commercial assets and half of the bank capital. Only 1 percent of the population in the Philippines is pure Chinese, but Chinese-owned companies account for 66 percent of the sales of the 67 largest commercial outfits. []
  91. Siu-lun Wong, Emigrant Entrepreneurs: Shanghai Industrialists in Hong Kong (New York, 1988), 172–73. []
  92. The overseas Chinese “gross national product” is estimated as being worth $450 billion. Their liquid assets are equivalent to all ofthe bank deposits in Japan. “The Overseas Chinese: A Driving Force,” Economist (July 18, 1992): 21–24. []
  93. See the introduction to Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China, eds., Herbal Pharmacology in the People’s Republic of China (Washington, D.C., 1975). []
  94. John L. Rawlinson, China’s Struggle for Naval Development, 1839–1895 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 140–41, 178–85; Bao Zunpeng, Zhongguo haijun shi [History of the Chinese navy] (Taipei, 1951), 209–10. []