Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pre 13th Century Chinese Navy

The entire pre-historical travels of the aboriginal people has been the source of much speculation and wonder. Levathes devotes a page or so to this great movement from the Chinese mainland out into the Pacific, but that feat ranks as one of the most impressive maritime accomplishments in human history. The idea of pushing off from the southern tip of Taiwan, thinking that there is some land relatively close by, based on the flotsam and the movement of clouds far in the offing, is nonetheless quite daunting. It is undeniable that it too great courage to shove off from land, into the unknown, but it may have been the courage born of necessity. By 7000BC, there is a likelihood that the Taiwan’s arable land and wildlife had been exploited to the breaking point which gave men looking to raise families little choice but to fight for what was available or take their chances on the sea. For many, obviously, they took their chances.

The author does point out the many linguistic and cultural similarities that exist around the Pacific Rim. These similarities are compelling and indicate, at least to me, that people descended from those who lived in what is now southeastern China populated the Pacific. The implication is that these people displayed great courage, and great seamanship. It is not surprising that their descendents would build great navies in the next few thousand years.

In this line of courageous characters is Xu Fu. Sent by the Qin emperor to find some magic elixir in 219BC, Xu Fu would disappear for years before re-appearing to request youth for colonization or for more supplies. Given that Xu Fu traveled east from the Bohai Gulf, his most likely landfall was somewhere in Japan. With the youths and supplies the Emperor granted, it is likely that Xu Fu was able to establish some kind of colony. Ancient Japanese traditions, with the names slightly modified, lend credence to this theory.

For the next thousand years, oceangoing sailing was largely left to the merchant fleet. China had no sea-borne threat, and instead welcomed and found ways to accommodate traders from Asia and Africa. The only difficulties that could be linked to sea travel occurred as a result of ethnic tensions resulting from the interactions of large numbers of foreigners who had come to live amongst the Chinese, in the 8th and 9th centuries. Also during this period, Chinese monks went exploring on the seas and are said to have reached the Americas. The evidence for this proposition is at least as compelling as for earlier travels linking Taiwan to Polynesia, so such evidence cannot be discounted.

In the 12th Century, the Song navy rose to prominence, as the Song were forced to consolidate power in the southeast. As such, the Song recognized that their best defense lie in powerful Naval forces. Over time, this strong Navy was able to assert its dominance out into the Indian Ocean, where the superior Chinese Navy dominated trade and suppressed piracy. The Song dynasty’s naval power remained supreme until the Song themselves lost interest in maintaining the Fleet so that the manpower could be directed to other uses on land. The Fleet fell into disrepair and was unable to resist the powerful Mongol invasion that swept down from the North.