Why did China not discover the New World?

(This is the first in a series of 3 planned articles as to how decisions made by China literally changed the course of both Chinese and World History.   The decisions made at the time all eventually being detrimental to China.  Speculation of course is both fun, and a part of the story.)

Zheng He and the Ming Dynasty Voyages

Zheng He was a Chinese Muslim who became China’s greatest sailor and seafarer.  He was an explorer in the great European tradition that was soon to follow.   Zheng He was not a Han Chinese, and indeed, was not born in what was then considered China.   He was born in modern day Yunnan province, and not until a Chinese army invaded and conquered this Muslim dominated region was he incorporated into the Chinese Empire.

A captive of the invading army, Zheng He was castrated(along with the other captives) and eventually became a Eunuch.

Zheng He right upon capture had a great stroke of luck.  At the age of 10, he was placed into the household of a fellow named Zhu Di.  This was fortunate because Zhu Di eventually became Emperor of China.  Upon becoming emperor, his name was changed to Yongle.   Serving in the future emperor’s household allowed Zheng He the opportunity to eventually forge a bond between Emperor and Servant that served China well.

He eventually made 7 voyages for China, roaming the South China Sea, and beyond.   These voyages were expensive, and many ships were involved.  One of the main reasons why these trips were made is that China wanted to show the flag.   By doing so they expanded their tribute system.   China also opened up a market for it’s goods.   Keep in mind his trips were not the first trips made by China, but were the grandest, with all trips having a strategic goal in mind.  Even then, tea, silk and porcelain were sought after.  It is believed China travelled as far as the Straight of Hormuz, and the coast of Africa.
China, in effect, completely dominated the Eastern Hemisphere.   This Hemisphere was China’s lake.

Just as China was set to expand it’s influence, however, the voyages stopped.  Why? 

Turns out that even Emperor’s have rules.   The first Ming emperor had laid out a set of guidelines.  It was his wish to minimize tribute.  Thus to minimize the expense of collecting it.   

Zheng He served 3 emperors.  By the time the grandson of Zhu Di came around,  such expense on seafaring had come out of fashion.   Not too long after the last voyage took place(1433), the Mongols in North China rose as a rival and threat to Beijing.    They even kidnapped an emperor!   Thus a great sense of urgency came about, to defend China from the barbarians of the North.   It was simply considered more prudent to spend what funds were available on the consolidation of the Great Wall.  This wall was built north of Beijing, with the purpose of keeping out invaders.  Thus it became true that  the threat one could see was the threat that received all the attention.

Turns out those Great Wall expenditures only delayed the inevitable.   200 years after the consolidation of the Great Wall began in earnest,  Northern invaders eventually did overthrow the Ming, and after assuming power, called themselves the Qing. 

Yet if the Ming had continued those voyages, than what?    Would they had beaten the Europeans to the New World?  Though it is fashionable to state that the Ming would have indeed “discovered” America, it is not necessarily probable.   

Let’s try and break this down:

Those big ships

The Chinese in typical style did things big(even than!).  Voyages were always fleets.  These fleets were expensive.   As the Ming could not conceive any other way of travelling, it is only natural that the Ming Court would want to put an end to these costly ventures.    This is probably the real reason why these voyages stopped.

But what if they had simply scaled these trips down?   Columbus only had 3 ships.  Zheng He had over 200.  And his ships were very small compared to those of the Ming Treasure Fleets.   Zheng He carried 27,000 troops on his first voyage.     It lasted 2 years.  Columbus’ first voyage was 6 months.  His largest voyage had 1200 men and 17 ships.  (for further context, compare Cortez initial expedition to Mexico only had 500 soldiers)

If the Ming had simply scaled down the grandeur of it’s ocean going fleet, and “done a Columbus”,  than who knows how far China possibly would have reached.    China really doesn’t take up much ink in our history books until after 1949.   It’s fair to say if the two dominant civilizations had established direct trade and contact 500 years ago, rather than a century ago China’s influence over our history books would be much greater today.   One must also take into account China’s population.   In 1500 Spain had a population of approximately 7 million.  Compare this with China’s  population of 100 million, or 25% of the global population. 


Columbus had a shorter route. His route was also dotted with islands.   This is why Columbus never really saw America.   Yet it was hard to bump into an island on the Pacific Coast.   

 And let’s not forget the reason why Columbus was travelling to begin with;  he wanted a new trade route to India!   So nobody made it a stated strategic goal to develop the New World.   Because no country knew of it’s existence.

After Columbus’ initial foray in 1492, the Conquistadores  did not return enmasse until after 1500.  Even than, they focused more on Mexico and South America.   Forays into North America were sporadic and weak.   Simple “let’s see what’s out there” stuff.

Europe or America, North or West?

If China had continued it’s route and eventually rounded the Horn of Africa, it inevitably would have found Europe before America.  That’s because by naturally hugging the African coast, coming across Europe would have been the next natural step.  

However,  China was so fixated to it’s South and West, where all it’s tribute kingdoms and trade lay, that it also pretty much neglected the North.  There was no money to be made from the North.   Thus in a way, China made it hard on itself by travelling routes it was already familiar with.    Of course finding the New World via Arabia and Ceylon is hard!   There was also the Korean peninsula standing it’s way.   In order to get to open water, the Ming Fleet would have to go around the Korean peninsula. 

Once it had cleared the peninsula, it would have been easier for China to simply hug the Russian coast and find it’s way to North America via that route.   Then again, there really was no incentive for China to travel North.   All it’s trade was South and West!   However, let’s not forget that China wasn’t looking for the New World.

Thus reaching America simply by continuing the Ming voyages was not a given.  However, if the Ming had indeed taken the Northern route(forget about it!), or simply veered across the Atlantic from the coast of Africa, than everything would’ve changed.

Now Spain:   Coronado did not explore the American Great Plains until the mid 1540’s, a hundred years after Zheng He’s last voyage.    The Spanish first visited California around 1540.  Los Angeles was not even started as a settlement until almost the time of the American Revolution(1769).

San Francisco not until 1776. 

What does this mean?   China had over 300 years to continue it’s seafaring exploration before Spain would’ve come around to establishing even a remote outpost in the American West….if it had taken the Northern Route!

Thus China’s ability to explore and develop the New World was commensurate with it’s Will and Curiosity.

And that’s a big if.  With it’s dominant position in the world, and large population, China would have easily been able to establish a large presence on the American West Coast by the 1500’s, ie the time of the Spanish arrival to the New World.

 Would China have been able to secure more settlements up and down the Latin America coast as well?  Spain conquered Peru in 1532.    100 years after Zheng He’s last voyage.   With a developed presence on the West Coast, China would have inevitably continued it’s expansion, and come into eventual conflict with Spain.    

The Local Populace

How would China have dealt with the local populations?

 How China would have reacted to the Aztecs is a different story.   One doubts the Aztecs would have given tribute.   Yet it is also true based on China’s interaction with it’s Asian neighbors that China would not have tried to wipe out the Aztec, let alone the Inca, either.  ( They certainly would not have  given them blankets of smallpox!)

Do not believe that China would have swept into Latin America, conquering all in it’s path.   The Spanish and Portugese  were very aggressive with expansionism in South America.   They conquered and plundered with very personal goals of fame and wealth.    Everything the Chinese did was for the Heavenly Kingdom.    However, the Spanish had many isle bases, and their ability to replenish their armies would have been easier based on those Caribbean isle bases.    Still, China would have needed a very large presence in the American West in order to expand it’s influence into South America.   As long as China had an established base in California, it could continue to send vis a vis the Spaniards a nearly unlimited supply of soldiers to continue explorations.


The Ming missed a tremendous opportunity by foregoing  future seafaring exploration.   It’s certainly fun to speculate what would have happened if sea exploration had continued.   Both European and New World history would be different.    With China’s wealth and population, without question things would be different today, if further trips had continued. 

With the Ming emperor  wanting to focus (reasonably so), more on the threat at hand, rather than expansion abroad, it forego the probable “discovery” and expansion into  North America.  However,  China’s population and sheer numbers would have eventually overwhelmed the Spanish on the West Coast if it had travelled the Russian route.    The discovery and development of the New World would by no means have been a Chinese monopoly.   Chinese influence probably would have petered out in Mexico.   Yet the colonization of America was a very slow process.    New York wasn’t established until 1625. 

A small outpost at that. 

Would the Chinese have reached the Eastern seaboard by then?
And considering the new found lands at it’s disposal, would the Qing have continued the seafaring policy? 

Again, if China wanted to, it very well could have by sheer numbers dominated Latin America.  And it could have been a self supporting venture as well.  China very well may have had several large thriving settlements  by the time the Spanish arrived in large numbers.
To it’s credit, neither China (nor anyone else)thought for a minute there were futher lands worth discovering.  But the lack of a Spirit of Discovery left a vacuum all the same, which the West walked into, and the rest is history.   It’s made tiny Spain’s conquest all the more impressive. 


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