In 1405 the Chinese began a series of voyages into the Indian Ocean directed by Cheng Ho, a powerful court eunuch of the Ming Dynasty. The motives for exploration were not unlike those of the Europeans: a desire to recover trade (profit) in the form of tribute from kingdoms in Southeast Asia; the reinforcement of the claim to universal authority (similar to the spread of Christianity as the universal religion), and a thirst for knowledge.
Emperor Yung-lo "The Consolidator," r. 1403 to 1424 undertook to incorporate South and Southeast Asia into China's tribute system.
This tribute system was based on the overlord-vassal relationship between the ruler of China and the rulers of other countries expressed by the traditional cultural view that saw China as the largest and oldest state in the world. China was the "parent state" of all other kingdoms and the source of civilization in general. The Son of Heaven (the emperor) effected a paternal interest in the orderly government of the tributary states by confirming the succession of new rulers, sometimes offering military protection against attack, and usually conferring the boon of trade with China.
Yung-lo's planned expansion of China's tribute system was marked by seven great maritime expeditions that begun in 1405 and continued until 1433. These expeditions were led by an Admiral named Cheng Ho (Zheng He), who, being a Moslem, was suited to deal with the Islamic rulers of South Asia.
The Star Fleet Vessels
The first fleet sailed in 1405-1407 with sixty-two vessels carrying 28,000 men, and over 100 support vessels. They reached Sumatra, India and Ceylon, as did the second and third expeditions. The forth voyage in 1413-1415 reached Hormuz on the Persian Gulf and Aden on the Red Sea. A fifth voyage also went as far as Aden. The seventh voyage started out with 27,500 men and reached Hormuz again in 1431-1433. Chinese vessels visited far down the east coast of Africa and seven emissaries reached Mecca.
The development of Chinese shipbuilding and techniques of navigation on the Asian sea routes made Cheng Ho's voyages possible.
They navigated by using the compass and detailed sailing directions that brought them to the coasts of China's customary tributaries, such as Siam and Vietnam. In addition to these some fifty new places were visited and their rulers enrolled as tributaries. Missions from Hormuz and the African coast came to China four times, from Bengal eleven times. Rulers in Sumatra and Ceylon were brought back into the system by force. Commercially these expeditions provided a line of communication with the existing overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asian ports. Politically, the tribute system was expanded from land-based trading partners to sea-trading partners. This incorporated much of the known world into the Chinese concept of the universal rule of the Son of Heaven.
After the beginning of 1433 China's beginnings as a naval power were suddenly stopped, never to resume again, until now. Why?
The court eunuchs that promoted the expeditions came under considerable opposition from their rivals, the Confucian scholar-officials
There was an internal Chinese court policy struggle between competing theories of the commercial and technology benefits of foreign trade, against the benefits in social purity of isolationism.
China was politically unified - a decision by a single ruler to ban ocean travel was sufficient to stop an entire civilization from developing sea power. It became illegal to put to sea in a multi-masted ship
The completion of the Grand Canal as a more efficient and safer means of grain transport caused China to neglect and abandon its ocean-going navy.
Maritime threats were always considered secondary in China to continental or land-based threats
Cheng Ho was an organizer, a commander, a diplomat, and an able courtier, but he was not a trader. No chartered companies, like the Dutch VOC Company or the British East India Company, emerged to found colonies or establish overseas trade.