China’s refusal to explore can be best understood if they are contrasted with the forces that drove the Europeans with increasing determination into the outside world. Its first worth noting that both China and Europe had the means and abilities to expand on a global scale, only the Europeans had a strong motive for doing so.
The social, political and economic transformations during the late Middle Ages brought Europe closer to China in terms of development. Although China was far larger than the European countries, both regions possessed centralized political systems to organize such expeditions. Both were increasingly efficient in mobilizing the necessary resources to support exploration. For example, both created schools to prepare sailors for oversea travel. Governments were active in promoting recruiting efforts to bolster their navies. Centralized governments used taxation to expand their treasuries making the funds for expansion available. China’s armies were far larger. However, Europe could challenge their Asian counterparts in that their soldiers were usually better fed, well armed and disciplined. Chinese wet rice agriculture was extremely productive and a large population was on hand to cultivate fields, build dikes and bridges and work their mines. Europe did increase its agricultural output near the end of the middle ages when it adopted more sophisticated farming practices. Also, Europe held the edge in using animal and eventually machine power. China continued to rely on human power. Rivalries between and among the many governments in Europe fostered a greater aggressiveness and competition than China could ever imagine. Both civilizations had the means for sustained exploration and expansion. As the voyages of Da Gama, Dias, Columbus and Zhenghe demonstrated both civilizations had the shipbuilding techniques. Each made use of the navigation skill and possessed the necessary technology to tackle such undertakings. Why then were the impressive expeditions of Admiral Zhenghe of China during the early 1400s met with a dead end whereas Europeans actively pursued expansion and global domination?
First, there was widespread support for exploration among the peoples living in Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and England. European rulers were willing to financed voyages in the hopes that precious metals would be found. These precious metals would help to support expansions in armies and weaponry helping to bolster the monarch’s power. European merchants hoped to find exotic goods that were in such high demand. Europeans coveted such goods as silk, spices and tea. Likewise, they hoped more suitable lands in more favorable climates for cultivation of new foods could be found. Sugar was in high demand and could reap important profits. Church leaders of rival branches of Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) believed expansion would give missionaries access to unlimited numbers of heathen to be converted. More converts also meant limiting the Muslim threat.
By contrast, the Chinese Zhenghe expeditions were very much a project of a single emperor and his favorite admiral (Zhenghe was a Muslim). The emperor seemed to view exploration with little more than a passing curiosity. The vast majority of merchants, however, felt little need for exploration. China already enjoyed a favorable balance of trade. Their products generated more profits than they ever paid out. The merchants had the option of waiting for other peoples to come to them. At the very least, they could venture out with their own ships to Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan. The scholar gentry were actively hostile to any attempts at expedition. This feeling underscored the competition for power between the Muslim admiral (Zhenghe) and the scholar class. Scholars, with their Confucian outlook, were highly suspicious of any outside ideas that could permanently alter Chinese culture. They saw it as a waste of resources. Money could be better spent defending China’s northern border with larger armies and more sophisticated fortifications. After all, Mongol invasion and rule was still fresh in everyone’s memory.
As this discussion makes clear, the elites of Western Europe had very good reason for pushing overseas voyages and projects of expansion. The rulers and bureaucrats of China, on the other hand, had equally convincing reasons not to explore. Rooted in centuries of struggle against Northern nomads, the idea of diverting much needed resources into overseas ventures made little sense. This is especially true if it was believed that few economic rewards would result. As it happened throughout their history, Chinese were drawn inward, focused on internal struggles. As China retreated, the Europeans surged outward. It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the consequences these two decisions had on each civilization and all of humankind.