Motivation for Exploration: Emigration

People also traveled by ship, exploring new lands, in order to emigrate. Emigration can be traced very early in Chinese history. The first recorded government-sponsored overseas migration took place by order of Emperor Qin in the third century BCE, when a fleet of 3,000 young emigrants sailed out with Xu Fu. After the travels of Xu Fu, there was a wave of Chinese emigrants to Japan, leading some people to believe that Japan is where Xu Fu ended his journey. In 214 CE, Chinese emigrants from 120 counties moved to Japan. In 220 CE, Chinese from seventeen counties did the same. In 214 and 216 CE, Koreans stopped groups of migrants, and elite Japanese military forces went to Korea to escort the Chinese settlers to Japan. Another case of overseas emigration occurred during the Ming Dynasty. In the early seventeenth century, Zheng Zhilong organized the move of several tens of thousands of people from Fujian to Taiwan to help relieve a famine. Later, the Qing government would do the same. In the 1680s, there were 16,000 men in Taiwan. By the early eighteenth century, that population had grown to one million. This increase is many times higher than the natural rate of population growth.

From the Song Period, there are many records of Chinese emigrants in overseas countries. These people were known as zhufan. In Pingzhou Table Talk and Anecdotes of the Song Dynasty, many Chinese merchants and sailors stayed in foreign countries for as long as ten years. A government document from 1112 CE showed that Chinese sea merchants helped scholars who failed the Imperial Examinations (tests that qualified them to work for the government) to emigrate to Southeast Asia. Some people believe, because of cultural similarities between China and South America, that emigration by sea from China took place earlier and stretched farther than has been previously thought.

There are many examples of whole Chinese communities overseas. Some of these were in Japan (possibly under the Taoist priest Xu Fu) and in Sumatra (under pirate Chen Zuyi). Sometime before the Ming Period, Chinese communities grew in Southeast Asia. In fact, places such as Indochina, the Malay Peninsula, Java, and the Philippines hosted thousands of Chinese emigrants. When Zheng He’s fleet visited Java, there were Chinese villages there that had over 1,000 households each. In Qing times, Chinese communities overseas appeared widely and grew quickly. In the early nineteenth century, Chinese emigrants constituted one-sixth of the population of Siam (now Thailand), and people from China continued to move there because of the availability of good land. At the same time, there were over 10,000 Chinese people living in Singapore. There are records telling us that in 1603, 23,000 Chinese residents in Manila were killed, so we know there were many Chinese living there as well.

The movement of people around and out of China intensified from 1560 to1780 CE. In the early part of this period, people shifted from inland China to the coastal regions. Then, the trend was to move to overseas locations. Eventually, entire families started to immigrate to places like Taiwan. An interesting fact about these emigrating families is that many of them were headed by eldest sons. In Chinese culture, the oldest son was very important – so the branch of the family that was sent overseas for business or other reasons was meant to do something very important. This was quite different from most Western emigrants during the Age of Exploration – often, the eldest son would inherit the land in the home country, while younger sons would go out seeking new land. Even after Europeans began to move into Southeast Asia, Chinese immigration continued to the same regions.