Book Review: When China Ruled the Seas

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. Pp 10-252. 

Lousie Levathes presents readers with an era of China’s naval power in its golden age.  Levathes is a Johns Hopkins Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University and was a staff writer for National Geographic for ten years.  In the book, she describes the seven voyages of Muslim, Eunuch, Admiral Zheng He. He was the trading emissary and admiral of the Ming dynasty between 1405-1433. The aim of the book is to examine how and why the massive, complex treasure fleet appeared, operated and then disappeared within the span of a lifetime. It also explores why the Ming retreated into the modern Western stereotype of landlocked and reclusive. Finally, Levathes seeks to elaborate on the context which China understands itself both during the Ming Dynasty and how that translates into the modern era. (Levathes 21)    

The book’s eleven chapters are ten to twenty pages each.  It has a smooth narrative flow which is easy for the uninitiated to read.  Levathes uses three firsthand accounts of the voyages of Zeng He, several contemporary sources to corroborate events and many secondary records written within 200 years of the events.  This book provides an excellent resource guide for jumping into further reading about Chinese Naval Power in the Ming Dynasty.  

The first chapter sets the foundational framework of the early seafaring Yi people.  Next, chapter two provides the context of Confucianism and its implications within the elite ruling class.  It is this tension between the dominant doctrines of Confucianism which espoused the priority of agriculture, austerity and caring for the people juxtaposed with the allure and risk of trade, tribute and the wealth it brings.  This conflict factors heavily into the following chapters especially as the Ming are justifying abandoning the practice altogether.  

In chapters three through eight, Levathes develops the princeling Zhu Di, and his usurpation of the Ming Empire in 1402.  Zheng He follows as she discusses the strong bond of loyalty that the two build from an early age.  After hearing rumors of the deposed emperor alive overseas, Zhu Di justified the construction of a naval fleet to his academic Confucian advisors which, incidentally, happen to have enormous capacity for trade.  After discussing the shipyard process for the vessels, Levathes moves to the voyages themselves highlighting in narrative detail the adventures to Calicut, Ceylon, Malacca, Japan and the Persian Gulf.   

In chapters nine through eleven, Levathes covers the death of the emperor Zhu Di and the rise of his grandson, Zhu Zhanji who engaged Zheng He to re-establish China’s dominance in the international marketplace. Zhu Zhanji died unexpectedly of a short illness in 1435 and by 1437, his successor had halted all shipyard construction.  This was the end of the great Chinese treasure fleets.  The final chapter provides historical and political context to the events around Zheng He’s voyages and the rise and fall of the Ming international presence. 

Levathes does an excellent job describing how Zheng He and his fleets dominated the Pacific.  What is curious is how the political forces that Zhu Di and Zhu Zhanji encountered are so similar modern China’s today.  China’s land is vast and fleets are expensive.  External influence can create political chaos and division. It takes strong authority to manage both and Levathes provides an excellent window into the Chinese thought process, even today. 

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