Chinese Isolationism

In Ming China, 1434, a proclamation was issued that forbade foreign trade. This ban included the stop of all building and repairing of Chinese junks. This occurred shortly after the return of Zheng He’s treasure fleet.

Several explanations for this sudden inward turn have been offered. One such explanation is that the Confucian scholars were gaining power in Chinese society. One ideal of Confucianism is ethnocentrism, which perhaps lead the Confucian scholars to influence regulations to become more isolationist. Another explanation is that the Chinese economy was declining at this time. Authorities in China may have therefore decided to spend funds internally instead of spending them on building large treasure ships.

The listed consequence of traveling overseas is death.



Did Chinese Isolationism Exist?

John Hobson, English economist, suggests in his book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation an alternate view on the 1434 legislation that forbade foreign trade. He suggests that the regulations were not as harsh as the Chinese government made them seem because the Chinese government is forever trying to uphold Confucian ideals. Some traders were able to work around this ban. He also suggests that not all private trade was banned and in fact much of it was carried out in big port cities such as Macao, Chang-chou in Fukien province and Su-chou in western Shensi province. Finally, he introduces the idea that the tribute system China but into place after the 1434 ban was another form of trade. He says that joining China’s tribute system was more voluntary than forced as those who pay tribute gain access to China’s goods.