Early Chinese Exploration

As early as 50,000 years ago, people who lived in what is now southern China traveled on bamboo rafts and began to colonize the Pacific. They traveled to New Guinea and to Australia, and formed the cultures that would develop in those places. Somewhat later (although the date is contested) people from north of the Yangtze River crossed the Bering land bridge to the American continent, becoming the descendants of the First Americans. Between 14,000 BCE and 4,000 BCE, the seas rose and caused a second wave of southeastern Asians to travel out and colonize Indonesia and Polynesia. Chinese exploration as early as 3000-2500 BCE is thought to have taken place in Siberia and across into Alaska. These early southeastern Asian explorers were able to cross huge expanses they had traversed the Indian Ocean and come into contact with the African continent, and it is possible that they even sailed across the Pacific and touched land in America. So, truly, some of the earliest pure exploration and colonization was done by Asian people living in the region now known as China. China's maritime economic development began forming in the Zhou Period (1030-221 BCE). After about 2,000 years of continuous development, Chinese mariners were definitely able to travel around Asia and Africa. It may be that later ages of Chinese self-embargo¯ and isolationism led to the idea that China was always a purely agrarian society. However, the level of maritime participation in the economy of China depended very much on the nature of who was currently in power.

In Chinese history, some emperors employed explorers to study the waters near China and other areas around the globe. Emperor Shi Huan Ti (the Qin ruler who united China) in 219 BCE, Han Emperor Wu about one hundred years later, and Ming Emperor Zhu Di in 1405 CE, all sent out skilled navigators and explorers. These men would help China's culture reach other areas of the world. They also acquainted the Chinese with unusual items from other countries. During the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), Chinese explorers went on expeditions beyond Chinese territory in search of exotic medicines, especially an elixir for immortality. Such activities were vigorously supported by the authorities and reached a climax in 219 B.C.E. when Xu Fu sailed with 3,000 young men and women from Shandong to search for such an herb. Other emperors, focused more on the Chinese people alone and distrustful of people from other lands, forbade foreign travel and insisted that all trading happen within the borders of China. So, the history of Chinese exploration changed with the mood of each emperor. Chinese seafaring really gained prominence at the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). Chinese artifacts, and archaeological evidence, mostly in the form of shipwrecks, indicate the presence of strong maritime ties throughout coastal Asia during this time. There was extensive trade up and down the eastern coast of China, extending as far north as Korea and possibly as far south as Australia. Out of the long history of Chinese maritime culture and exploration, two of the most well known Chinese explorers are Xu Fu (sent out by Shi Huan Ti) and Zheng He (sent out by Zhu Di).

In China itself, the most well known overseas explorer was Wang Dayuan, a traveler who spent most of his life on ships. In his two longest expeditions, Wang traveled the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia to the Arab Sea and the east African coast. He wrote a travel book called Records of Overseas Countries and Peoples (Daoyi Zhilue) in 1349 CE. Wang's writings were confirmed by other travel books written during the Ming Period, one by Ma Huan in 1451 CE entitled Tours to Great Sites Overseas and the other by Fei Xin in about 1460 CE, entitled Voyages on Heavenly Rafts.