When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 – Louise Levathes

It’s too bad Zheng He’s voyages didn’t leave behind more complete records, because it most likely would have been enlightening to read Levathes’s full account of them. Behind what deceptively appears to be a narrative of the Treasure Fleet milked for all its worth is a tale of Chinese diplomacy, Sinocentrism, East Asian religion, and court politics that, despite the paucity of the sources concerning the actual fleet, leave us with a neat narrative of the Yongle Emperor’s reign. Levathes does a fine job of extracting what little she can from scant Chinese sources on Zheng He and supplementing them with rich documents on the Ming Empire to create a convincing portrait of an Emperor who wanted to bring the glory of the Chinese Empire to the Indian Ocean while at the same strengthening China’s diplomatic and military power vis a vis his new trading partners. As written, it’s a convincing interpretation as to the purpose of the Treasure Fleet. Unfortunately, Levathes does not use the same subtle skill to explore China’s subsequent abrupt isolationism. A book of deceptive depth that is also easy to read, it’s a nice entry into the myriad of work on the Ming Empire that are contemporary to it.

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