02_China Limits European Contacts: The Ming Dynasty

Timeline: 14th-17th C.
FQ: How were Cheng He's voyages, and treatment, reflective of Ming Policy?
Main Idea: While Europe was recovering from the calamity of the plague, breaking the bonds of
feudalism, and nurturing a mercantile spirit, China was attempting to revive an economy devastated by
decades-long war. China flexed its 'economic, political, cultural, and technological muscle' in and out of its
region. Very few were China's equal in these areas and the emperors of the Ming dynasty formulated
policy that reflected such a view. However, as later emperors became entrenched and self assured, the
mid-15th Century witnessed the end of this short-lived, but awesome, display of Chinese global presence.
A world view evolved based on Confucian principles that failed to capitalize on this opportunity, as nations
today would. Advances during the Ming dynasty left China uninterested in European contact. Others
aspire to, and will, enter the "world scene" if China will not.


I. Context 
A. Time: 14th - 17th C.
B. Place: Ming Dynastic China (1368 - 1644)
C. Circumstance:  
1. Ming emperors reestablished Confucian Philosophy as the state philosophy=> 'Inward
Looking' (e.g. That which is vital to China is near or in China; The family is the building
block.). An attempt to recreate Han Dynastic policies.
2. Focus on fortifying borders with nomadic peoples of the northern steppes.
3. Expanding view of China as the 'Celestial Kingdom'/ Middle Kingdom. A re-assertion of
the 'Chinese' identity.
4. Initial emphasis on contacting 'others' and expanding the number of tributary states.
The policy is altered ~Mid 15th C. to limiting 'outside' contact and maintaining the current
number of tributary states.  
II. Vocabulary
III. Imperial Leadership 
A. The third Ming Emperor, and considered among the greatest of all Chinese emperors, was
emperor Yongle (1402 - 1424). He usurped the dragon throne from his nephew and this is
sometimes called the "Second Founding" of the Ming. He became known as Chengzu of the Ming
Dynasty after becoming emperor following the civil war. He moved the capital from Nanjing
(Southern Capital) to Beijing (Northern Capital).
### He commissioned most of the exploratory sea voyages of Cheng He and was the driving force
behind a Ming policy of foreign contact and communication (not unlike the Han Dynasty). During
his reign, the Yongle Encyclopedia was completed. This monumental literary endeavor reflected
the reverence for the past and respect for its contemporary impact that was fundamental to
exercising Confucian philosophical values.
### Emperor Yongle is buried in the central and largest mausoleum of the Ming Dynasty tombs in

B. The fifth emperor of the Ming was Xuande (1425 - 1435). Though he reigned during a period
that could be classified as a "Ming Golden Age", he did encounter difficulties that would change
future foreign policy. Cheng He was permitted to conduct one more voyage, but all such voyages
ceased by 1434.
### During Emperor Xuande's reign, former tributary states (eg. Annam) successfully asserted their
independence and northern nomadic peoples continued cross-border raids. Increasingly, funds to
meet these internal needs would draw from ventures like that of Cheng He. Aggravating the issue
was the poor administration that plagued the feudal military structure. In this Chinese brand of
feudalism, administration of the provinces was integrated into the system that raised troops and
provided officers for the army. Therefore, like Europe, administration of estates was reserved to
the class that would also provide officers in time of war. Those working the land would provide
soldiers for the rank & file of the army. Unlike the European model, China had a strong, central
Refer to film questions. The words are listed and defined at the bottom of that sheet.
government headed by a recognized and accepted ruler. An administration that mixed military
and civilian roles led to inefficiency that translated into decreasing revenues for the central
### The foreign policy of Emperor Yongle was replaced by one of global isolation (not regional) by
the end of the 15th century. 
Table 1: Reasons for Policy Change. From 'Outward' to 'Inward' Looking 
IV. Ming Tributary System
### The Chinese world view during the Ming dynastic period, particularly the first third, reflected that of
earlier dynasties (e.g. Han). This view is best represented in the images evoked by terms like Celestial
Kingdom and Middle Kingdom. These terms reflect the position or 'condition' of China as it relates to the
rest of the world. The tributary system was a 'ritualization' of China's superior stance in every relationship
with other peoples.  
V. Cheng He and his Voyages
### Ming China was exhibiting all the cultural and technological advances of its dynastic predecessors and
reaching new heights. Trade contacts with neighboring peoples and its own manufacturing processes
made Chinese goods accessible and desirable.
### Despite China's technological advantage and visionary sailors, it failed to pursue a maritime 'future' that
Europe did not ignore.
VI. Summary: Why It Matters Now. 
China’s independence from the West continues today, even as it forges new economic ties with the
outside world. 
A. View film, respond to select questions, discuss responses. 
B. Compare/ Contrast Ming Tributary System with Feudal Japan's Seclusion Laws [vis-a-vis
response to Europeans] 
Materials/Sources:#Refer to the course calendar for additional materials, assignments and pertinent due dates. 
! CNN’s Millennium Video Series: The 15th Century: Century of the Sail. CNN Productions, Inc. ©1999 [~15 min.] 
! Human Record Textbook, "The Jesuits in China", pgs 480, 481 - 485, & "Zheng He's Western Voyages", pgs 450 - 454. 
! World History: Patterns of Interaction
14th => Part of 15th C. Part of 15th C. => 17th C.
Toppled the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty & Acquired Mandate
of Heaven
Internal Issues 
! Incursions by Northern Nomadic Peoples continued =>
Great Wall completion 
! Pirates raiding commercial vessels on Eastern coast.
Maritime forces were used to control this. 
! Grand Canal undergoes a substantial refurbishment.
Offers the Ming another North-South water route reducing
use of coastal waterways.
Return to Han state philosophy (Confucianism) and World
View (Celestial/ Middle Kingdom).
Arrival of Europeans (Initially Portuguese) and the clash of World
#Tributary System Organized: Eventual list of tributary
states will reach to 29.
Increasingly difficult to justify the expense of maritime voyages of
exploration when there is no clear benefit to derive from it.
Cheng He Voyages (1405 - 1433)
Refer to handout readings focusing on the Tributary System and China's view of Europeans.
Refer to handout readings and film questions for details on Cheng He's fleet, his accomplishments, and the political environment of
the time. Additional resources can be found at <http://www.teachersdomain.org/resource/vtl07.la.rv.text.zhengI> and <http://

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