It occurred to me today that all essential historical exploration was done by the Europeans, who discovered the Americas and mapped most of the world.

This got me wondering about Eastern civilization. They knew about Europe, since we had the long Silk Road land route, so they knew there was much more to the far west along land. But did they ever wonder what was beyond the ocean to the east? Did the Japanese, Chinese, or other civilizations of that region ever send voyages out into the Pacific? Or were they very inward focused?

  • Yeah, they did. But they didn't quite get to the same scope of colonization as Europeans - the reasons for that are quite complex, of course (and well beyond my level of expertise), but I'd guess that before the union the states had enough trouble warring with each other (HRE helped a lot in Europe), and after that China was simply way too huge to manage - no need to complicate things further with distant colonies. Religion also played a role - in Europe, stimulating migration, while in China, focusing on maintaining order (again, after union).
    – Luaan
    Jun 15, 2015 at 6:21
  • There was a episode on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time on the Ming Voyages. You might like to listen to the podcast. I had never heard of these voyages before, so I found it interesting.
    – paul
    Jun 15, 2015 at 6:36
  • 3
    Related : history.stackexchange.com/questions/20661/…
    – Rohit
    Jun 15, 2015 at 7:35
  • 1
    It depends what you mean by "of that region" and when. It is generally thought that the Austronesians started in Taiwan (or perhaps Malaya), eventually reaching Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand across the Pacific, and Madagascar across the Indian Ocean.
    – Henry
    Jun 15, 2015 at 10:24

4 Answers 4


In terms of Chinese naval explorers in general, Zheng He springs to mind. He was one of China's primary explorers in the Indian Ocean and beyond in the 14th and 15th centuries. Around this time, the Europeans had been venturing eastward. Zheng He went westward to the "Western Oceans", going to India and the Middle East by sea in an attempt to show China's naval power. He made seven expeditions, going as far as western Africa. He did not go eastward, as far as I know, but he was directed to see what lay to the west. Zheng He was not the first Chinese explorer to go west, but he was one of the most famous, and his voyages took place at much the same time as some early European voyages, which is notable.

To answer your primary question about Chinese exploration in the east, though, Xu Fu made several voyages to the Pacific Ocean for the Qin Dynasty, in 219 B.C. His job was to find the legendary islands of Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou, supposedly far to the east, to find the elixir of life for the emperor. He was not a sailor but a monk. During his first attempt, he completely failed after a voyage of several years. He never returned from his second voyage, and little is known about him. There are various theories as to where he ended up, but there is little to no evidence to back any of them up.


I recommend reading Ian Morris' book Why The West Rules - For Now. He discusses this topic in a few chapters.

Although Ming Dynasty China had ships which could cross the Pacific and sail around the entire world, the government ministers chose not to. (The Ming Emperor was 12 years old at the time, so the government mandarins would have been making the decisions, similar to the constitutional monarchies of today although there was no elected Parliament). Sending ships across the world would have put massive amounts of men and money at risk, and what is the upside? All the resources the country needed were either in the territory it controlled or could be acquired through overland trade routes. Sending expeditions to faraway lands was a high risk, low return venture, to borrow an investment phrase. Finally, consider that crossing the Pacific is way longer than crossing the Atlantic.

Contrast this to the Atlantic facing nations of Western Europe. Resources were more contested, given the fact that Europe of the time was fragmented into many nations and they were at war with each other for most of the time. A western European nation state was in control of a smaller amount of land than the imperial Chinese dynasties and could not muster the same resources. Therefore, sending ships across the world had a much higher potential for a big payday. They had to do it, there was no choice. Even living in Britain today, go to the grocery store and look at how much stuff on the shelves comes from other countries. Also, see my earlier comment regarding how the Atlantic is a lot smaller than the Pacific.

Western Europe was the ideal place to sail around the world, it is in the centre of the half of the earth which has the most land. See this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_and_water_hemispheres

Finally some food for thought: Ian Morris mentions that the monarchies in Britain and the Netherlands were weaker than the Spanish one. This meant that the businessmen and merchants in northwest Europe had more of an incentive to finance overseas trade whereas Spain used seafaring trade voyages to enrich the government.


Well, firstly, the initial global-scale contact with China over the oceans was by the Arabs, not the Europeans. That's why many countries in southeast Asia are Muslim and have Arabic ruling dynasties. When the Europeans finally arrived that had to fight the Arabs first to establish bases.

Long-range exploration is very expensive and the kind of ships required need to very tough and resilient. Both European and Arab ships used ribbed construction and wrought iron nails and bolts. This gave them the strength to sail long distances in rough seas. Chinese junks were constructed with wood-only mortise-and-tenon technology which was not strong enough for extended ocean journeys. The Romans used mortise and tenon technology also and were unable to undertake long ocean voyages for exactly the same reason.

A secondary issue, neglected even by experts, is the role of steel in ship maintenance. An important innovation by both Arabs and Age-of-Exploration sailors was the use of a ship's carpenter. Armed with steel tools and wrought iron fittings (such as butterflies, bands and nails) a ship carpenter can repair many of the common breakdowns a ship will experience during a long voyage. More primitive Roman and Chinese expeditions would have to return to a civilized port to make these sorts of repairs. Having advanced on-board tooling was an important factor in allowing ships to stay at sea thousands of mile from home and keep sailing.


Laslo Montgomery's excellent podcast The China History Podcast has loads on foreign relations even a 3 part series on Zheng He

He traveled to parts of Western Asia and Africa starting in 1405. Unfortunately there is no transcript of the podcast but it goes into detail as to his travels. You can also search google for Zheng He and there is loads to be found on him.

  • 1
    Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference.
    – anon
    Feb 2, 2017 at 18:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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