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wheat-dogg, raker of forests, master of steam  Jan 27, 2019 • 10:25:24pm

It was not just the Great Wall that was a symptom of China’s isolationism. Bureaucrats during the 16th century Ming Dynasty did not want free trade, so they recalled China’s maritime fleet and either burned the ships or left them to rot. Had they continued to take advantage of China’s naval dominance, perhaps it would have been the Chinese who circumnavigated the world. Admiral Zheng He took his ships to Africa and all points between there and China. The Chinese were so well known in that part of the world that locals believed the Portuguese arriving much later were Chinese.

In the 1470s the government destroyed Zheng’s records so that his expeditions could not be repeated. And by 1525 all the ships in the Treasure Fleet were gone.

Why?

Historians have a variety of explanations. The Yongle Emperor was distracted by a land war against the Mongols, a conflict in which the navy was irrelevant, for instance. Others argue that the vast cost of the Treasure Fleet’s expeditions far outweighed the actual treasure they came back with.

But Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economist, prefers a different theory. In his book “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality,” he argues that the Chinese burned their boats (almost literally) in an attempt to control foreign trade.

The Treasure Fleet was abandoned at the urging of the political elite inside the Emperor’s civil service who had become alarmed at the rise of a newly rich merchant class. “The emperors of China, worried about threats to their power from merchants, banned oceangoing voyages in 1430, so that Admiral Zheng He’s explorations were an end, not a beginning,” Deaton writes.

independent.co.uk

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