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Around the World at the Time of Columbus

Emperor of the Ocean
China<br><i>Dish</i>, 1403-24<br>Porcelain with blue decor under clear glaze
zoom China
Dish, 1403-24
Porcelain with blue decor under clear glaze


Nearly a century before Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas, China was the world’s greatest sea power. Between 1405 and 1433, seven expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He (jung huh), each with hundreds of ships, sailed to ports in Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. These expeditions were meant to impress the nations they visited with the might and magnificence of the Chinese Ming dynasty.

Zheng He traveled with enormous “treasure ships” up to 500 feet long. (European oceangoing ships of the time were only about 100 feet long.) The ships were loaded with silk and porcelain and other Chinese luxury goods. In exchange for these “gifts,” the Chinese collected tribute (payment) in the form of money, horses, minerals, timber, drugs and spices—and even a giraffe.

The secret of making porcelain—a lightweight yet strong ceramic—was closely guarded by the Chinese government. Porcelain had been carried overland from China to Middle Eastern markets beginning in the 14th century. To suit the tastes of Arab traders, Chinese potters soon began adding designs in blue and white. Before long, the Chinese, too, developed a taste for blue-and-white designs. Pieces of blue-and-white porcelain, like this plate, were among the most highly prized Chinese treasures in the lands visited by Zheng He.

By the end of the 15th century, however, China had turned away from the outside world. The Chinese believed they themselves could produce everything they needed, and they lost interest in foreign trade. European traders eventually made their way by sea to Chinese ports in the 16th century, and they immediately placed orders for blue-and-white porcelain. This was the start of a trading relationship that lasted until European potters figured out how to make porcelain themselves, in the 18th century.

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1. [MAP] The seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He took China’s vast fleets as far as the east coast of Africa.
2. Blue-and-white designs in Middle Eastern traditions, as seen in this wall tile from Syria, first inspired Chinese blue-and-white porcelain designs. (Syria, Hexagonal wall tile, 16th century, earthenware with underglaze blue and turquoise)
3. Chinese philosophy taught that China was the center of the universe. Thus many rulers did not consider foreign trade of great importance, and by the end of the 15th century China’s early navy had been disbanded. (China, Manchu emperor’s court robe, 1723-35, silk tapestry)


September 2005