The Ming Dynasty had, reportedly, one of the largest navies in the world during the 15th and 16th centuries, which is when the "New World" was being "discovered" by Europeans. They also had made contact with European traders during this time, and had surely heard about the Americas that were being visited by the Spanish, English, French, etc.

Why did they never send any fleets across the Pacific and try to claim a piece of the "new" landmass that was being explored during this time?

  • Just some speculation: The Chinese must have been aware that it was far away to the Americas, on the other side of the sea. Going via the pacific probably did not seem like a reasonable path, and travelling around Africa was very far. This to grab land and gold? The Chinese had plenty of both already. Sep 19, 2013 at 9:27
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is counterfactual. May 7, 2015 at 21:49
  • As a native Chinese who is familiar with this part of history very well I can say for sure it is NOT counterfactual. The Ming dynasty never had the concept of exploring or colonizing the Americas. Nov 7, 2022 at 2:48

2 Answers 2


They didn't try because it wasn't politically relevant to them (i.e. The Emperor wasn't interested). Chinese dynasties preferred a tributary network instead of European or Pan-Arabic style colonisation.

This reasoning worked well enough considering the key motivation for Europeans traders to sail beyond Europe was to bypass Arabic tariffs on the Silk Road and connect with Sinae (China) directly. From the Emperor's standpoint, foreign traders came to them.

The Chinese tributary system didn't collapse until the 19th century Opium Wars pushed European foreign policies on China.

Tianxia ("All is equal under heaven") is an intriguing political concept and explains much of China's diplomatic philosophy to this day; and at the risk of drifting into History's twin, Futurology, is proving appealing to certain emerging nations that are more comfortable with Chinese soft power instead of American hard power.

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    This is it IMHO. The main motivation for European exploration was always better trade with China and the far east. China had little desire or need to trade with anybody else, and trading with themselves required no ships. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 19, 2013 at 18:20

It's a much more complicated process than saying "Let's do it.", to provision a sea voyage of (at that time) likely 12+ months, return trip.

Accurate maps didn't exist at the requisite scale, and pilots "chart's" were patentable; so a European pilot (or three) would have been advised.

  • Absolutely - +1. In his book the The Discoverers, Prof. Daniel J. Boorstin makes a similar argument regarding the Arab nations of the 15-16th centuries, who were very adept navigators in the seas around Arabia and Africa, but failed to venture much further: They simply didn't know the routes. You cannot simply set off into a vast, unknown ocean and hope for the best (if you have any expectation of returning...)
    – user2590
    Sep 19, 2013 at 5:06
  • The need for European pilots is a good reason, but that it took a long time to organize a voyage didn't stop others from doing it. Sep 19, 2013 at 9:26
  • This is a really good point. The circumnavigation of Africa was a major government effort for Portugal. It would not have happened without strong support from Prince Henry and the Crown.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 24, 2013 at 14:11

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