History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

After a period of maritime explorations (see Zheng He) in the early 15th century, the Ming Dynasty started shutting the Middle Kingdom out of the rest of the world. This of course continued with the Qing, and the empire remained largely isolated until the 19th century, because of foreign "initiative."

However, just when Spain and Portugal started flourishing with an economy based on trade, the Chinese chose to close their doors to the world. Why might have caused them to do this?

share|improve this question
You mean the 15th century. – Cerberus Nov 2 '11 at 13:03
@Cerberus: The Ming Dynasty started in 1368-01-23, with the Hongwu Emperor (洪武帝). Thus, 14th century and onwards, even though the actual stop of outside exploration didn't happen until 1425 or so. – Martin Sojka Nov 2 '11 at 15:07
@Martin: Both the explorations (1405–1433) of Zheng He and the great isolation happened in the 15th century, not the 14th. Why do you mention the beginning of the Ming? – Cerberus Nov 2 '11 at 17:25
@Cerberus: Because that's where the move to isolationism has its roots. I know when Zheng He sailed around the seas. – Martin Sojka Nov 2 '11 at 18:43
@Martin: I'm sorry, but I really don't think "Why did China shut itself out of the world in the 14th century?" is appropriate when it organized several huge expeditions after the 14th century. I really honestly don't understand this at all. – Cerberus Nov 2 '11 at 18:50
up vote 25 down vote accepted

Well there were a few reasons

  • They pretty much had all they needed resource-wise in the country, trade was not a prerogative and even though Zheng He did go out exploring they were not interested in colonies or mercantilism.
  • Mercantilism was pretty much frowned upon within the Confucian system, merchants did not produce goods they moved them around and made money which made them a drain on the system. The few who were enterprising and maybe came up with some new product might often find themselves in competition from the government
  • The Emperor system considered itself the center of the world, the focus of the heavens. When outsiders came they gave tribute and fealty to the Emperor, so the outside world came to them, they did not need to go out

Imperial China didn't need the outside trade, they were a large country that didn't have need for resources from the outside and their technology at that point was sophisticated enough for what they needed. I've often wondered what would happen if they did not stop their explorations with Zheng He as some of the archaeology I have seen on ships from that era were innovative and very interesting. They seemed to be able to sail fairly far with their ships, which were extremely large (although I don't know converted numbers off the top of my head) although there were issues with rising piracy in the Malay Peninsula as well as storms.

Recent conservation efforts have shown numerous ship wrecks off the Chinese coast on the way to the Malay Peninsula, wrecks that are only now being explored and providing insight into shipping that DID continue after the Qing closed off the country. Look at recent issues of Archaeology magazine for more on the wrecks, they had a couple of stories recently that were interesting on how the shipping continued as the merchants converted to Piracy (or basically being called pirates) by continuing trade against Imperial Edicts.

share|improve this answer
It should also be added that there was a palace fire in the Forbidden City in the 1420s that the Chinese (at the time) saw as a sign from heaven that they should no longer send expeditions out into the world. In addition, the emperor at the time, Yongle, had difficulties conceiving a child/successor, and his eventual successor was against sending out exploratory fleets. – Edwin Feb 2 '12 at 22:37
Additional reading that corroborates this answer: Before European Hegemony by Janet L. Abu-Lughod. – Paul Rowe May 28 '15 at 14:20

I would like to emphasize the role that the Chinese mindset played. As MichaelF mentioned, the attitude of the rulers dictated the direction of China's advancements. Belief that China was "perfect" and had everything necessary was reinforced by Confucian notions of harmony and society. Signs of political and military weakness that appeared near the end of the last dynasty were ignored by the emperors and those in the court. During the Qing dynasty, progress in every area slowed considerably. Scholars turned from social commentary to more passive work, analyzing ancient texts often in obscure esoteric ways. Exploration was not encouraged and consequently naval technology stopped improving.

share|improve this answer
why the downvote? I would like to know in order to improve my answer and future answers. – grayQuant Feb 17 '13 at 20:45
You seem to know a lot about Chinese history, and are perhaps assuming too much by not including links to background material. I see no sufficient reason for the downvote, but e.g. had own difficulties in parsing your other question about Song and Han schools of Confucianism (see comment there). BTW, can you perhaps recommend a book on Neo-Confucianism in China today? I found China's New Confucianism by Daniel Bell pretty disappointing (not to say awful). Thx :) – Drux Feb 19 '13 at 22:30
@Drux, thanks for your comment. I am not used to posting links unless they are special knowledge. Personally I see no point in linking wikipedia or other general resources but perhaps I should do that to get better answers. – grayQuant Feb 20 '13 at 0:32
If you already understand Confucianism, then maybe read Neo-Confucian Thought in Action: Wang Yang-ming’s Youth. Read the analects (Oxford) if you haven't. I haven't read Neo Confucianism in History by Bol but I plan to. These are pretty academic works and probably won't give you a completely satisfactory understanding but contain good parts in my opinion. – grayQuant Feb 20 '13 at 0:38
Yes, a self-contained argument is a beautiful thing, and over-reliance on wikipedia is boring (as well as potentially dangerous both on practical and epistemological grounds). I usually prefer explicit (best: constructive) comments over "cheap" downvotes. Having said this, both "... progress in every area slowed", "scholars turned ...", and "Song school vs. Han school" may mark areas of special knowledge. Your profile on SE is perhaps yet too short for "us" to trust the sentences w/o further information? – Drux Feb 20 '13 at 5:27

Wrong assumption. Ming trading with SEA continued during the 14-16th century, trading Ming porcelain and other goods for spices, teak, ivory and turtle shell, with archaelogical finds in Malacca and Singapore. Indeed, the wukou pirates were also large Chinese merchant fleets which rebelled against the trade ban of 1540, which was started against the the threats of piracy and smuggling...a scorched earth policy enacted that reflected Ming China weakened military( a Mongol army would attack Beijing, their capital during this period.) The revival of her military ended the trade ban, to the extent that a few decades later, Spain would allow a precious bullion run to Manila and half of the silver mined in Peru found its way to Ming shores, creating the famous China trade that would lead to the EIC adventures further east to the Oriental.

Similarly, after a Qing naval ban enacted against Ming loyalists in Taiwan,(where a Ming warlord pirate captured the Dutch colony), the Qing resumed trading overseas, with documentated visits to Bangkok. Indeed, just one year after the founding of Singapore, the first Qing junk called in port to engage in entrepot trade. Never mistake the Canton trade system of protectionism for lack of interest in mercentilism. Indeed, what are the Hong merchant barons, if not mercentilists??

share|improve this answer

As a supplement, there were other reasons.

  1. Money was one of the important reasons. Such fleets cost huge amounts of money. The Emperor Zhu Li (Yongle Emperor) had been spending huge amount of money on the book of Yongledadian (《永乐大典》), moving the capital, and the war with the Mongols. Exploration was definitely not the number one thing to do on an empty national treasury.

  2. People. There was no one like Zheng He or Wang Jinghong (郑和, 王景弘) after they died. The Emperors after Zhu Li were focusing on power struggling, civil affairs and hence there was no one to support the exploration in the political system after all.

share|improve this answer
I am not sure I find reason n.2 fully convincing. Surely Zhe He and the others had a few capable lieutenants who could have carried on the work. It was not a one-man operation (just like European exploration, which did not depend on one man or two). So it seems that there were no more explorers because the imperial policy changed, not the other way around. – Felix Goldberg Jan 11 '13 at 8:27

It was one guy. They had concurred the known world. There was no competition to drive inovation. Europe on the other hand, aways had competition in every aspect of life. So when Italy failed to finance Columbus, Spain did. China isn't alone in this. Other empires have fallen into this trap. Every large organization is subject to this trap. We should always be suspicious of monopolies.

share|improve this answer

The whole assumption is wrong. The construct China-was-once-a-big-maritime-power-when-nobody-could-verify-it then when Westerners show up they become a hermit kingdom, is just a modern revisionist interpretation, primarily by sensationalist Western scholars, many of whom exhibited highly amateurish scholarship, like Needham.

The Arabs invaded southeast Asia before even the Tang Dynasty and expanded their power and empire constantly. In their writings, China is virtually a non-entity from a naval power point of view. In many cases they refer to the Chinese almost as aborigines.

The maps you see of ancient China with these huge empires are highly misleading. When the Portuguese arrived in 1520 the entire south was completely occupied by Cantonese. Ming emissaries were like 1 out of 100,000 people.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.