Why China ceased to be a Sea-Power by Mid-15th Century

Fleet of Ming Dynasty Explorer Zheng He © Bruno Zaffoni / CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Flickr

Ming China was the main power in Asia from the moment of the dynasty’s conception in the 14th century. This means, naturally, that the flow of the power structure was centred around it and that the surrounding states, as per tradition, generally gravitated towards Chinese influence, both culturally and politically. The Ming followed the same trajectory that the Mongol Yuan and Southern Song had followed before them – with both dynasties having gradually grown their maritime dominance over time (Jung-Pang, 1958), and the Qing would later follow suit.

China’s history follows a common path (although not always a clear one), and just as “any attempt to understand China’s twentieth-century diplomacy or its twenty-first-century world role must begin (…) with a basic appreciation of the traditional context” (Kissinger, 2012:19), any attempt to understand Chinese foreign policy or politics, must begin with a deep knowledge of the Chinese culture. Lucian Pye once described China as a civilization-state, pretending to be a nation-state (1992), and commented on its unquestionable identification with historical greatness even in the aftermath of the Century of Humiliation.

[The Chinese] showed no sign of a feeling of cultural inferiority. Political subjugation may have been feared, but cultural conquest was unimaginable. Thus Chinese xenophobia was combined with a complete confidence in cultural superiority. China reacted not as a cultural subunit, but as a large ethnocentric universe which remained quite sure of its cultural superiority even when relatively inferior in military power to fringe elements of its universe. (…) The identity of culture and polity made the Chinese leadership of the Ming and Ch’ing [Qing] periods uninterested in, and at times hostile to, things foreign. (Fairbank, Reischauer & Craig, 1989:178-179)

China’s inherently cyclical character (Monjardino et. al, 2021) – even in times of relatively inferior power –, means that both the rise and fall of the Ming and its maritime dominance were, at least historically speaking, imminent and predictable. Classical poet Du Fu proclaimed that “the state is destroyed but the country remains” (in Wood, 2021:159), and Luo Guangzhong opened the famed Romance of the Three Kingdoms with “It is a truth universally acknowledged (…) that an empire long united will fall apart” (Ibidem:129). These traditional quotes perfectly encapsulate and embrace this notion of cycles and continuity. China’s history and culture are linked to this sequence of events, so much so that one could even outline the parallelism between the Ming’s maritime expeditions and the diplomatic actions of the current People’s Republic of China today; and even in modern times, rulers have tended to adhere to the same ancient Mandate of Heaven that affected the reign of the Emperors of yesteryear.


At its height, the Ming pursued both continental and maritime expansions on three main fronts: Mongolia, Vietnam and the seven maritime expeditions from 1405 to 1433 (Yuan-Kang, 2012).

These Chinese journeys through the seas were “no more than diplomatic and flag-showing exercises, in areas where the Chinese empire had no serious political or strategic interests” (Gelber, 2007:72), as they focused mainly on demonstrating to other peoples the greatness and superiority of its civilisation (Jacques, 2012: 370-371). In doing so, this early exhibit of “soft power” created favourable conditions for Chinese merchants (Kissinger, 2012:26), who further enhanced China’s prowess in the Indian Ocean.

At the time of its peak, “Ming China wielded substantial influence over governance of the system” and politics were, thus, conducted on Chinese terms (Yuan-Kang, 2012:3) throughout “the Indian Ocean basin and China seas – from Korea and Japan throughout the Malay Archipelago and India to the east African coast”, who were, at least nominally, “under Chinese authority and acknowledged the suzerainty of the dragon throne” (Levathes, 1997).

At its height in the early fifteenth century, the great Ming navy consisted of 3,500 vessels (Jung-Pang, 1958:3). Over time, the military power that allowed for the Chinese to hold on to power and, effectively, to a sinocentric order they were trying to impose on East Asia (Yuan-Kang, 2012) continued to decline, as just a century and a half later, in the 1570s, the army was reportedly only 845.000 men strong (although enrollment records claim 3.000.000), which was “unprecedented in Chinese history” (Swope, 2016:20), and the navy also experienced a steep deterioration.

To put the Chinese strength into perspective, Portuguese friar Frei Gaspar da Cruz (1569/2019:87) visited China well into the decline of “the world’s greatest naval power in the early 15th century” (Lee, 2010), almost a century after the seven Treasure Voyages – today widely considered to be one of the greatest feats of navigation (Franke, in Twitchett & Fairbanks, 1998) – and stated:

As there is, in this land, a lot of high quality and cheap wood and iron, there is an abundance of ships and vessels (…). Their land (…) not only has a multitude of small islands across its coast, but also a big coast, through which you can also sail. (…) Any captain along the sea can on short notice have two hundred, three hundred, a thousand ships if need be. And there is no place along the river that is not filled to the brim with big and small vessels. Along the city of Canton [modern day Guangzhou], over half a mile into the river, the number of ships is so big that it is a most wonderful sight to see”.

The Ming Decline

At Sea

Jung-Pang Lo’s The Decline of the Early Ming Navy (1958) perfectly delineates the many reasons that lead to the decline of the Ming Navy and its influence over the seas.

It wasn´t because of internal fighting between eunuchs and officials (although these disputes became more meaningful as time went on), or that the expeditions were costly – at a point in time, there was no deficit even in spite of the gifts to the elite, the waged wars, and other expenses of the government, along with the cost of the naval expeditions.

When the capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing, everything changed: the maintenance of the new Royal palaces, for example, was too expensive (in more ways than just monetarily, as Jung-Pang Lo (1959:14) observes that “Not only was the march to the capital and back fatiguing, but, while in Peking, many of the men were put to work as labourers in the construction of palaces and temples. Degraded and humiliated, the soldiers lost their morale and self-respect.”). The gifts became ever so unnecessarily lavish, the wars waged became more costly, famine arose, and banditry became standard practice. With the treasury carrying such a heavy burden, the Tributary trade, which was reliant on China’s prestige and military power, as well as on the soundness and reliability of the Ming currency system, began to decay. Less and less Tributary States could label themselves as such, as they no longer felt the need to pay tribute - “The Ming government was no longer able to overawe the neighboring states and the prestige goods which it donated as gifts no longer had any meaning.” (Pang-Lo, 1959:8) . Inflation began to surge as the Ming paper notes “depreciated to less than a tenth of one percent of their face value” – as such, the Chinese wouldn’t accept them, the foreigners wouldn’t either and instead demanded to be paid in supplies such as silk and porcelain, or with copper coins as safety. The solution brought forth by the Ming was simple: ban emigration and foreign trade.

But alas, just like changing the capital, this decision created a domino effect. Banning all emigration and foreign trade worked with the lower classes, but not with the richer and more powerful families who, as a side effect of the protectionism, controlled local commerce, hoarded goods, and manipulated the monetary system to their own benefit, making them even richer and powerful when compared to before.

This effectively created a monopoly that further worsened China’s prowess at sea while trying to maintain it, since the merchants (with their newfound power and influence) could sway the officials’ decisions. This, in turn, might’ve led to the active opposition against any attempt to restore the government subordinated trade and the maritime expeditions. As Jean de La Fontaine put it, “A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it”.

The Chinese foreign policy changed as a result - from an offensive to a defensive stance, one might even say from advance to withdrawal - and the fleet was severely damped from that point onward, culminating a century later in the imperial edict which halted the construction of sea-going ships. This was an extremely difficult time for the Chinese, who were threatened at sea by the Japanese pirates and the Portuguese near Guangzhou, and on land by the Manchu and Mongol tribes, along with the Japanese and Korean (Finlay, 1992:8-9).

At the beginning of the 16th century, the loss of key positions such as Annam (located in nowadays northern Vietnam) and the Strait of Malacca, showed the Ming that they could not handle an “ambitious policy toward the sea” (Gryfiel, 2007:139) as they once did, and as a result fully redirected their focus inland, thus completing a transition in political priorities.

At Land

China’s decline as a maritime power in the fifteenth century can be linked to loss of power at sea as much as it can be linked to other pending issues on land. Why pending issues, one may ask? That is because the Mongols, the Manchus and the other peoples that surrounded China – whose goal was not to conquer and subjugate them, the “barbarians”, but to “rule [them] with a loose rein” (Kissinger, 2012:37) –, never really went away. Those outside China who “did not follow the Chinese way were ipso facto inferior, and dangerous when strong” (Fairbank, 1942:3), and as China’s social fabric, status and influence leaned heavily on the political presence that the Emperor emanated, so did the Ming’s abilities to deal with the threats that the outsiders posed. Since Strong men create good times, China was, at first, able to balance the aforementioned continental and maritime expansions. After the first years of the Dynasty, successive successful emperors such as the Yongle Emperor (who reigned from 1402 until his death in 1424), Hongxi Emperor (who reigned a sole year between 1424 and his untimely death in 1425) and, to a minor extent, his son, Xuande Emperor (whose end of reign roughly coincides with the end of China’s exploratory expeditions) paved way for the good times but, alas, “weak men” were then thrusted into the dragon throne. The Ming were unable to balance all of their offensive fronts, namely in Mongolia, Vietnam and, of course, the maritime expeditions, and in due time decided to focus solely on their continental front in detriment of the oceans.

By this time, the northern and southern frontiers of the Chinese Empire were in grave danger due to, in part, poor decisions like relying on the Great Wall to deter the Mongols, as “the Great Wall was as ineffective a defence as the Maginot line in the twentieth century” (Grygiel, 2007:139) and due to decaying diplomatic relations (if one could ever call Ming’s foreign relations “diplomatic”) with neighbouring kingdoms and peoples, such as the Manchu Tribes and Korea – keeping these peoples amicable was part of the reason the Ming were able to focus on the maritime front in the first place. The northern border, in fact, was threatened throughout the 15th century, firstly by the Mongols – a threat which reached its peak with the Ming’s defeat in battle to the unified steppe peoples in the Tumu Crisis in 1449, a clear sign of Chinese weakness –, and then by the Manchus, who then became the sole credible threat on Chinese territory after the disbandment of the Mongol union (and would later succeed in overthrowing the Ming, establishing the Qing as the last Chinese imperial house). In turn, the southern border, which connected China to Annam, Champa (in nowadays southern Vietnam) and the rest of Southeast Asia, was also under constant threat of instability. By the 1430s, a failed Chinese attempt at subjugating and assimilation on Annam only brought further loss of influence to an area that was vital for regional hegemony. And thus, with instability ever so close to China’s centre, the Middle Kingdom decided to abandon its maritime hopes, in an attempt to reinforce its geopolitical role.


As stated by Grygiel (2007:123-124) and understood throughout this essay, “Ming geostrategy was successful when it achieved a balance between stabilising China’s land borders and extending influence over the main maritime trade routes in Asia”. As it failed to do so, China effectively lost the ability to venture into the seas and had to focus inland, a temporary solution to what was an imminent demise.

While trying to balance maritime and continental politics, China lost control on the maritime front (slowly at first, then all at once) and could not prevent the painful and inevitable fall of the house of cards. Both sea and land affairs had to be in order for the Ming to claim geopolitical superiority along with the cultural hegemony that was canon throughout East Asia, and that balance was rather frail – the maritime prowess depended heavily on stability on the mainland, and as soon as that same stability came under threat, the Ming elite nestled inwards.

China’s cyclical nature aids the understanding of their geopolitical fall from grace and decline between the 1450s and 1640s. China rose to the role of not only cultural (as it had been) but geopolitical hegemon and, in time, imploded upon itself. But, like always, as the Ming fell, the Qing stood up; and as the Qing later fell, the Chinese Republic stood up; and, finally, as the Chinese Republic also fell, the People’s Republic of China stood in its place. And thus, the cycle continues.

Simão Santiago Madeira is a Master's Degree Student of Political Science and International Relations at the Catholic University of Portugal. He is passionate about China and Chinese Culture and has been for a while. To him, understanding China means better understanding the world that revolves around you, and understanding Chinese history means you can better understand world history. You can find him on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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