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It seems like European nations are all establishing colonies, but I don't understand why China would be any different. It seems like it has the power and resources to do so numerous times throughout history, but they never do. Why is this?

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    Another interesting but a why question. Hoping that this doesn't get closed. :-) – taninamdar Mar 23 '15 at 16:42
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    How are you defining "colonies"? Does the Russian Empire east of the Urals count as "colonies"? – Semaphore Mar 23 '15 at 16:55
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    The question would benefit from a definition of colonies. Zhan he's great voyage created colonies in Malaysia (for a loose definition of colonies). – Mark C. Wallace Mar 23 '15 at 17:01
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    Would Tibet qualify as a colony? – Rajib Mar 23 '15 at 17:02
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    And Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Xinjiang? Perhaps Singapore? – jamesqf Mar 23 '15 at 18:50
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They did. Depending on the preferred definition of "colonies", Chinese states in fact established innumerable colonies throughout history. Certainly the most common form was overland colonies created in conquered "barbarian" territories. This processes lasts up till today; Beijing's sinicisation and settlement policies in Tibet and Xinjiang are viewed with some justification as colonialisation.

While not overseas like how we usually envision "colonies", this isn't unique to China. In Europe, the colonial expansion observed in Tsarist Russia similarly spread overland. In the earliest times, there's also a certain similarity to the Roman and Greek colonies of classical antiquity. More stereotypical colonies were also founded later, though in most cases they were eclipsed and swept away by the more successfully European colonial empires.

See below for some examples on the differing forms of Chinese colonialism.


The Zhou tribe from modern Western China conquered the Shang Dynasty circa 1046 BC. One of the first recorded acts of the new dynasty was to dispatch members of the royal family and other loyal supporters throughout the Central Plains. This took the form of armed settlers establishing garrisoned cities, from which natives were ruled by loyal Zhou vassals. These were colonies much in the same manner as the Roman Republic's coloniae.

enter image description here

(Map of the Early Zhou Dynasty. Circled dots represent "states" established by the Zhou royal court. These were similar in nature to the cities states (or colonies thereof) of Europe during classical antiquity.)


Originally, the Zhou dynasty was largely a network of city states exerting loose control over territory in between. Barbarian tribes dominated much of this space, and at times became serious existential threats to the Chinese states. Most of these, especially near the centre of Zhou civilisation, were gradually subdued, colonised, and assimilated. By the Warring States period, the external borders of Chinese civilisation had made dramatic advances.

enter image description here

(Not explicitly shown is the expansion of the states into previously encircled barbarian lands)

Notice the northeastern expansion of Yan around modern Liaodong and into Korea; the southern expansion of Chu towards Vietnam; the northern expansion of Zhao towards the steppes; and the dramatic expansion of Qin in pretty much all directions. This was colonisation, in the same way that Russia colonised Eurasia.


Additionally, Chinese settlers established lasting colonies in the Pacific, such as Hainan or Taiwan. These were very much comparable to the overseas settler colonies of Western European powers, such as the Spanish and Portuguese in South America, or Britain in Oceania and North America.

enter image description here


Lastly, although Chinese commercialism were traditionally restricted by prejudice, it eventually began to flourish. Overseas trade became active (albeit with ups and downs) during the Song and Ming dynasties. By the early modern period, some Chinese settlements began to take shape in South East Asia. Examples include Sulu, and parts of modern Malaysia or Indonesia.

Apparently, some Chinese also settled o northern Borneo and perhaps also in the Sulu area ... there was also a rather large Chinese group in the Palembang region.

Guillot, Claude, Denys Lombard, and Roderich Ptak, eds. From the Mediterranean to the China sea: miscellaneous notes. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998.

These were more similar in nature to the trade posts established by European maritime powers during the first wave.

  • Very good answer explaining the Zhou dynasty. Could you however elaborate on what makes the tribes controlling the spaces around them barbarian ? – Pierre Arlaud Mar 24 '15 at 8:58
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    @PierreArlaud With that, I was trying to draw a parallel with the barbarians of the classical Grceo-Roman world. Some were nomadic tribes, others were subject peoples; they were "barbarians" because they weren't part of the ruling tribes (and excluded from the citizenry). – Semaphore Mar 24 '15 at 9:10
  • I know, but it may be unclear if you ignore the situation at that time, especially considering the parallel ends when you realize China was feudal at that time, on the contrary to the Greco-Roman world :-) – Pierre Arlaud Mar 24 '15 at 9:13
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    With Europe during antiquity. You are the one who complained that "China was feudal", and I explained why that isn't an issue. If you have an actual point to make please spell it out. As it is, I don't know what you think you're getting at with your mockery. – Semaphore Mar 24 '15 at 12:02
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    w.r.t. Chinese settlement in Indonesia, arguably West Borneo has a more significant Chinese presence than Palembang. See for example the Lanfang Republic - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanfang_Republic – michel-slm Mar 24 '15 at 13:12
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Notice how big China is? There's a reason for that; it's only a semantic difference between calling conquered territory a "colony" and simply part of your country.

EDIT: Someone pointed out in comments that the term "colonize" means something different from "expanding borders". So I should clarify what I mean: yes the terms are different, but it's just a semantic difference. If China were limited in how much it could expand (eg. it's an island, like Britain) then it would have "expanded" through colonizing, but they didn't have to. The only real difference between colonizing and expanding is whether or not the conquered territory shares a border.

  • There is a difference between a colony and conquered territory. "A group of emigrants or their descendants who settle in a distant territory but remain subject to or closely associated with the parent country." thefreedictionary.com/colony Which is different than expanding borders. It's a good question that deserves an actual answer. – user8363 Mar 25 '15 at 11:25
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    oh I get that the terms are defined differently; I'll edit that into my answer. What I'm saying is, that difference is semantics. People living in, say, Shanghai have about the same relationship to Beijing as colonists do. – jhocking Mar 25 '15 at 13:15
  • Your edit already makes more sense and (almost) answers the question. It doesn't address, however, why for example countries like the Netherlands and Portugal, which are not islands, did establish remote colonies and how this relates to China. Maybe the question could be formulated like this: Why was it easier for China to expand it's own borders than to colonize and why did it not resort to colonization after it couldn't expand it's borders further? However I believe that other than this there were cultural reasons for this as well, which this answer doesn't address. – user8363 Mar 25 '15 at 14:13
  • I vaguely remember that China regarded China as the center of the world where they were closest to god (or something like that) and thus leaving China to explore remote areas would be silly. Where in Europe the voyages of exploration were sparked by the idea that the world might be sphere and not flat. (and although this is an interesting question, the other answers are more concise, because apparently China DID have colonies). – user8363 Mar 25 '15 at 14:18
  • That's an interesting follow-up question, but as you note it's already addressed plenty in other answers. In particular, the notion of "overland colonies" that semaphore mentions is basically "expanding borders by another name." – jhocking Mar 25 '15 at 15:14
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China did have colonies. All of the islands in Asia reachable by junk have been colonized by the Chinese at one time or another: Malaysia, the Phillipines, Taiwan, etc. The far ranging colonies of the European powers made in the 1500-1800 period cannot be compared because China did not have types of sea-faring vessels necessary.

Another factor is that China lacked a cohesive zealotry that is often the impetus behind colonization. For example, the Arabs colonized many places, including southeast Asia during the Islamic expansion, but this may be attributed to their religious zealotry. In China, a place having many different nations, peoples and languages this kind of force did not exist. Also, one of the most common religions in China, Buddhism is a passivistic religion that does not encourage conquest and attack.

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    Buddhists are not necessarily pacifist - witness the Samurai. – Mayo Mar 23 '15 at 21:26
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    @Mayo: Samurai are (historically) Shinto, not Buddhist. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 23 '15 at 22:08
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    Well. Yes. But Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th C and many Japanese were both buddhist and shinto. Zen and Shinto combined to as the philosophical backbone of Bushido. (Not an expert here so take what I just said with a grain of salt.) Nichiren was also a very Japanese strand of Buddhism. – Mayo Mar 24 '15 at 2:28
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    Buddhism's arrival in Japan was not exactly a model of pacifistic expansion. Today it is hard to imagine a religion like Buddhism having militant followers (though pockets of militants can be found if you know where to look), but it has had its share of military expansionist periods over the years. – The Spooniest Mar 24 '15 at 13:28
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    Buddhists in Burma are oppressing Muslims. – jhocking Mar 24 '15 at 16:45
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In the early 15th century, China had huge junks that dwarfed the ships of their European counterparts. China's Treasure Fleet sailed throughout the eastern Pacific and northern Indian oceans. By the latter part of the 15th century, China had turned inward. Building or working on a junk with more than two masts became a capital crime.

Who knows what the world would look like had China not taken that turn away from science and exploration in the early 15th century to court intrigue by the end of the 15th century. It would make for a good alternate history novel.

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    The Chinese ships weren't that much larger than their European contemporaries: Grace Dieu, for example, displaced almost 3000 tons. The reputation for dwarfing European ships comes from comparing the treasure ships to caravels, which were deliberately built as small as possible, to permit exploration of coasts and rivers. – Mark Mar 25 '15 at 2:02
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    "It would make for a good alternate history novel. " -- The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson, although as for "good" it wasn't entirely to my taste ;-) Also, the alternate premise isn't solely that China looked outward, it's that Europe wasn't a player. – Steve Jessop Mar 25 '15 at 15:57
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If you count areas occupied by China that has less than a majority of Han Chinese people, either today or at least when first claimed, then China has numerous colonies along its western borders; Sinkiang, Tibet, parts of Mongolia, etc.

The reason why China is not considered "colonialist" in the usual sense of word is because historically, it has NOT had Chinese settlements in lands that were "noncontiguous" to China.

For instance, during the Ming dynasty, Admiral Zheng He (and numerous admirals before him), visited parts of modern Indonesia, India, the Middle East and Africa, (some say, even western North America), but did not establish Chinese settlements in these places or try to conquer them. This is in contrast to European countries that later did conquer these areas.

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There are plenty of other good answers historically speaking, but I think right now a good example would be the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

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After reading the interesting explanations, it strikes me that there were at least two reasons why the western European nations, at least those with significant maritime capabilities, sought to colonize: (1) they had no significant military advantages over the other nearby nations. Colonial expansion into the neighboring countries would have been a costly proposition. (2) If everything comes down to money, then perhaps the desire to colonize was based more on improving their financial strength than invasion and occupation; it was all about the benjamins.

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    I can think of some counter-examples. First, the Norman's conquest/colonization of England, and England's subsequent conquest/colonization of Scotland & Ireland. Second, Napoleon certainly did conquer quite a bit of Europe. Indeed, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and later the Germans) seems to have treated much of the Balkans as something between colonies and conquered lands. – jamesqf Mar 25 '15 at 18:36
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    @jamesqf - The Norman invasion can be considered part of the Nordic Conquests, and is a part of medieval Europe - and you will note Napoleon sure couldn't hang onto what he conquered. Since the beginning of the modern era, even relatively small European states like Prussia, Switzerland and the Netherlands were insanely dangerous for larger powers to tangle with. – RI Swamp Yankee Apr 1 '15 at 12:01
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Tom au comment on South China Sea is very important to understand the reasoning. Why would China colonize South China Sea when there are so many other islands? The answer is simple, because China is interested in trade only.

I recently visited Philippines and found that China had trade relationship with Philippines before the arrival of Spanish/Portuguese. They even collected some form of revenue from the Estates or loosely taxes but never gave the islands their name or religion or language. I think with China being so large and diverse they had respect for another region/ island for their language /culture etc and did not want to convert them to be like themselves. Yes they did settle wherever they went to trade.

Same logic applies with India also being such a large and ancient civilization they spread slowly through trade routes only not through religion/ language and culture domination. Whatever India spread through religion in Indonesia eg Bali or Cambodia Ankor Wat was primarily through trade routes and was spread by the religious people who were part of the tradesman rather than the ruler.

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    Hi Demonqzu and welcome to History SE. Your answer would be improved if you could add sources. – Lars Bosteen Sep 5 '18 at 13:13
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Chinese waited for other countries to colonies and develop countries , then established themselves , that is why wherever you go in the world there are Chinatowns

  • This is an opinion that doesn't really answer OP's question. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 15 '15 at 22:24
  • -1 :There is no Chinatowns in my country (Switzerland), and the only Chineese immigrants came during the last 10 years. – Bregalad Sep 16 '15 at 7:47

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