Hundreds of years ago, China was more advanced than Europe and even the Ottomans. Why didn't China become a colonial master?

Ming Dynasty Zheng He went on huge shipping expeditions and could have done what the Europeans did to the New World. Most puzzlingly, instead of robbing gold from the weaker countries like what the Spaniards did to the Aztecs, Zheng He did the opposite by presenting gifts of gold to the countries his ships dropped by. Today, the new world has become a extension of old Europe. China is still China.

Did the Chinese make a wrong calculation with their extreme generosity or were they really such magnanimous people?

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    To a large extent because the countries they visited had very little that China was interested in. Their main interest was selling things to these countries. They couldn't rob the countries of gold because they didn't have that much, to some extent because they were already using it to buy stuff (like silk) from China. Sep 28, 2013 at 16:12
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    Not oppressing somebody doesn't make you "magnanimous". It just means you're decent.
    – user2590
    Sep 29, 2013 at 4:48
  • Zheng He did the opposite by presenting gifts of gold to the countries his ships dropped by could be interpreted as either showing off your wealth to impress or starting off with gifts to start a friendly relationship. (I'm not firm enough in Chinese customs to decide whether that may be true but there are other instances where it is)
    – user45891
    Sep 21, 2014 at 10:40
  • Are you only referring to the naval expeditions of Zheng He, or are you looking for information about Chinese expansism? These are two entirely different questions.
    – Comintern
    Sep 22, 2014 at 22:42

3 Answers 3


One of the major reasons why Spanish invasion of Americas was so successful was that Columbus voyages came just in the right time: Spanish had a huge standing army of war-toughened soldiers with nothing to do, nothing to lose, and eager for adventure.

Serendipitously, in the same year as Columbus discovered America, Spaniards drove Moors out of Iberian peninsula, and suddenly tens of thousands of tough warriors had nothing to do. The war has finished, and the soldiers found themselves with no skills except for war, no family, and no prospects.

And here comes Columbus with the promise of the pagans' lands with unheard of riches, waiting to be conquered by those who are tough enough and willing to take the risks. And the thousands of unemployed soldiers with nothing to lose and nobody to leave behind answered the call.

Apart from this coincidence mounting invasion of the remote continent across the barely discovered waters would be infeasible. It's not easy to find sufficiently many experienced relatively young soldiers willing to drop everything and go into the unknown.

For example, when British joined in they were far less successful, even though the route was more familiar by then: it was too expensive to mount an expedition from a relatively well-to-do society. Therefore the failure of the Roanoke colony. Even then, the first successful settlement by Pilgrims came in the wake of armed religious conflict in their homeland.

IMHO China, as well as most other nations at that time, didn't mount an invasion across the ocean because under normal circumstances the adventure would be prohibitively expensive.

People who have, so to speak, a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and a loving family are less willing to take considerable risks. This makes organizing a large scale expedition into unknown dangerous lands, with very little chance of ever coming back, prohibitively expensive in a thriving society.

  • This answer seems to suggest that were it not for the serendipitous coincidence of events on the Iberian peninsula, the colonization of the Americas might never have happened. This is quite a surprising claim for which I'd be interested to learn more about.
    – user3521
    Jul 28, 2014 at 6:29
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    @KennyLJ: I don't think it's possible to prove counterfactual claims, other than with the above arguments.
    – Michael
    Jul 28, 2014 at 14:45
  • @KennyLJ Doesn't mean it would never have happened, just that maybe it would have happened at a different point in time when conditions were aligned.
    – Juicy
    Sep 22, 2014 at 2:14
  • Good points, I would point out China indeed colonized, but far smaller in scale than Europeans. Check out for Singapore and the nearby islands. There were Chinese colonies on asian islands before Japan and US. Singapore is still Chinese in culture. Zheng He was an explorer like Colombus, Colombus himself didn't really colonize in bigger scale, a few generations passed after him. Sep 22, 2014 at 8:13

The Europeans had an advantage over the Chinese, in that they were able in many cases to walk into recently depopulated areas and build their colonies unobstructed. Between 70 and 90 percent of everyone who lived between Point Barrow and Tierra del Fuego died after the arrival of European diseases. In the Spanish colonies the conquistadores arrived following a wave of sickness and death, claiming to represent a vengeful deity which would slay all who did not accept the 'true faith', promising redemption and life for those who accepted.

As the questioner notes, the "the new world has become a extension of old Europe", but then again, Europe has become an extension of the rest of the world. China is still China, and it seems the Chinese are more comfortable with that.

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    Do you have a reference for Spain missionaries using "vengeful deity + disease" in their work? Also, while the impact of pathogens like Smallpox was extensive - this would not have been unique to European visitors. Asian visitors would have had the same result. Oct 13, 2013 at 6:41
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    The "70 to 90 percent" figure likewise needs a reference. Oct 13, 2013 at 10:25

In addition to a huge standing army of war-toughened soldiers with nothing to do, nothing to lose, and eager for adventure (excellent point!), there were also other European countries which might jump on the opportunity.

So, for the Chinese (who had a relatively unified and isolated empire), the question was "do we want to do that?". For the Spanish (who had to perpetually compete with the other European powers) an additional question was "if we don't do that, would the other Powers do that?"

Ref: Guns, Germs, and Steel

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