Navigation played a major role in the integration of East Asian polities and economies prior to and during the arrival of European traders in the 16th and 17th centuries. That arrival stimulated an increase in the volume of intra-regional trade in East Asia as Chinese merchants organized exports on a large scale to meet European demand, yet the history of the production of nautical charts in China has been little studied, due in no small part to the poor survival of sea charts and other documentation. The most important new addition to maritime charting in the past decade is the rediscovery of the Selden Map in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This map of navigation routes throughout East Asia is unprecedented, and may be seen as marking the beginning of the transformation of Chinese cartography under the influence of European mapping techniques.
Imperial China has a long-standing, multifaceted, and interesting imperial maritime history. Of particular importance in this context are the commercial dimensions of China’s maritime contacts with the outside world. From approximately the 7th century until Yuan 元 times (1279–1367), China even developed as a commercial maritime power, although its maritime trade was, until the late 11th century, basically dominated by foreign merchants. During the Yuan and early Ming dynasties (1368–1644), China was also a naval power—the attempts of Qubilai Khan (r. 1260–1295) to subdue Japan are well known. But their maritime interests took the Mongols as far as Southeast and South Asia. The early Ming 明 period, under the third Ming Emperor, Yongle 永樂 (r. 1403–1424), is characterized by unforeseen political, military, and commercial maritime expansion. After 1435, following the instructions of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu 洪武 (r. 1368–1398), China officially retreated from the seas and prohibited all private maritime commerce, until internal socioeconomic and financial problems and the great demand of foreigners—after 1500 also including the Europeans—for Chinese products urged the government to “reopen” its borders for trade. The rulers of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing 清 (1644–1911), first concentrated on securing their maritime borders against competing commercial and political interests, then managed a flourishing trade, increasingly also with Europeans, but were finally confronted with the colonialist and imperialistic claims of the Europeans. After the Opium Wars (1839–1842), the maritime commerce and politics of China were more and more controlled by European powers, especially the British.
Over the first three decades of the 15th century, Ming China dispatched a succession of naval fleets through the Southeast Asian seas and across the Indian Ocean, reaching South Asia, the Middle East, and even the east coast of Africa. These were the largest and best-armed naval fleets in the world at that time, comprising more than 100 ships and tens of thousands of troops. Like similar overland military missions sent to Đại Việt and Yunnan in the same period; these missions were initially intended to awe foreign powers and create legitimacy for the usurping emperor, Yongle. The maritime missions were generally led by eunuch officials, the most famous of whom was Zheng He. In the 21st century the Chinese state depicts these missions as “voyages of peace and friendship” and utilizes this trope in its contemporary diplomacy. However, the Ming sources reveal that military violence was an integral aspect of the successive voyages, whilst the fact that many rulers from Southeast Asian polities were taken to China by the eunuch-led missions also suggests that some degree of coercion was employed. The missions were ended by the court in the mid-1430s over concerns about the costs and the need for such missions.