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China, Global History, and the Sea: Pedagogical Perspectives and Applications Visual Sidebars and Recommended Maritime Resources

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The Defeat of the Mongol Invasion Fleet, wood block print by Utagawa Yoshitora, active from about 1850 to 1880. Source: Print from collection of Grant Rhode, photo courtesy of Fuji Arts.

The Defeat of the Mongol Invasion Fleet


Kamikaze, the “Divine Wind”

At the end of the second Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281, a great typhoon struck the Mongol fleet south of the island of Takashima in Kyushu, resulting in devastation of the fleet, forcing the return of fleet remnants to Korea. Religious orders in Japan took credit for the Mongol defeat, saying that their prayers to the kami, Shintō gods, had been answered when the great wind, kaze, was sent by the kami to sink the Mongol fleet.

Thus, the kamikaze “divine wind” saved Japan from the Mongols. Japanese samurai had organized a gritty defense against the Mongols during both the first and second invasion attempts, but the credit and consequent rewards following the conflict went more to religious orders than to samurai soldiers. us, the kamikaze lodged for centuries in the Japanese imagination as the primary cause of the Mongol defeat. As the tide of war turned against the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II and the American forces under Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz pushed closer toward the Japanese home islands, the Japanese remembered how the divine wind had saved Japan from invasion during the thirteenth century. Between two and three thousand Japanese pilots volunteered to become the new “divine wind” to save Japan from invasion. eir kamikaze suicide missions sank or damaged 350 American ships, but this time, the kamikaze results were not enough to save Japan from occupation by outside forces. Aer the war, Admiral Nimitz said that pre-war war-gaming had prepared him for every Japanese move in the Pacific, including the complex island-hopping campaigns, with one exception. He had not anticipated the kamikaze suicide missions, even as the Mongols had been unprepared for the kamikaze typhoon.1

photo of a ship
Replica ship at the Nanjing shipyard drydocks where Zheng He’s treasure ships were built during the fifteenth century. Source: Photo courtesy of Grant Rhode, 2013.

Zheng He Replica Treasure Ship in Nanjing

Zheng He ship size controversy: Were the treasure ships 200 feet or 400 feet long?

Many consider Zheng He to have sailed the largest wooden ships ever built, noting them to be over 400 feet long.2 e standard Ming history, the Ming Shi, describes the ships as forty-four zhang long by eighteen zhang wide. Since a zhang is about ten feet long, Zheng He’s largest ships would have been over 400 feet long if these historical descriptions are correct. Keep in mind that modern aircra carriers are only about twice as long as this. No nautical archaeological evidence exists to verify the size of Zheng He’s ships, except for a rudder post excavated in 1962 at the Longjiang shipyard in Nanjing. A ship of 400 plus feet has been extrapolated from the size of the thirty-six-foot rudder post by making assumptions based on extant Chinese wooden ships.3 Aside from this one piece of available archaeological evidence, literary sources such as the Ming Shi and other early accounts are the basis for the 400-foot estimate.

Others argue that Zheng He’s ships were in the 200-foot long range, similar to Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory preserved in Portsmouth harbor, UK.4 e Zheng He replica treasure ship in the shipyard drydock in Nanjing is just over 200 feet long.5 Arguments for the shorter ship length include displacement and crew size calculations, alternate asumptions about the rudder post, and mostly significantly, engineering arguments that European ships were limited to about 200 feet because of longitudinal strength issues. ese issues would have confronted Chinese ships as well. However, it is possible that the longitudinal strength issues might have been solved through the use of structural bracing. Unless conclusive archaeological evidence of a hull or bracing is found, the debate is likely to continue about the length of Zheng He’s ships. 

photo of a ship model
HMS Cornwallis model at Jinghai Temple in Nanjing. Source: Photo courtesy of Grant Rhode, 2013

Treaty of Nanjing signed aboard the HMS Cornwallis

The end of the Canton system, the beginning of the “Century of Humiliation”

At the end of the First Opium War begun in Guangzhou (Canton) in 1839, the power of British naval guns forced Chinese Representatives to negotiate a humiliating treaty at Jinghai Temple beneath Lion Hill in Nanjing.6 In August, 1842, the Treaty of Nanjing was signed by Sir Henry Pottinger aboard the HMS Cornwallis,which swung at anchor in the Yangzi River on the shore near the Jinghai temple.7 e terms of the treaty gave Britain free trading rights at five treaty ports along the China coast, thereby modifying the Canton trading system that had previously existed. e ports were spaced evenly along the China coast at Canton, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. Provisions were granted for fixed tariffs, extraterritoriality, and most favored nation status. In addition, China ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British.

As the first of the “unequal treaties” that China was to sign, the Treaty of Nanjing marked the beginning of China’s “Century of Humiliation,’’ which continued until Chairman Mao announced that China had “stood up” with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In fact, residual negative feelings about this century of subjugation and disorder still color Chinese foreign policy, so that China is unwilling to subject itself to what it perceives to be foreign pressure as it had in Nanjing in 1842. Reflecting on its subjugation by sea during the nineteenth century, today’s Chinese leadership is developing a powerful navy. On the twenty-first century global stage, China feels that naval power is essential to avoid another period of humiliation.

Selected Reading Recommendations

Adams, Jeff. The Role of Underwater Archaeology in Framing and Facilitating the Chinese National Strategic Agenda. From Tami Blumenfield and Helaine Silverman (eds.), Cultural Heritage Politics in China, pp. 261-282. New York: Springer, 2013.

Andrade, Tonio. Lost Colony: e Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Blusse, Leonard. Visible Cities: Canton, Nagasaki and Batavia and the Coming of the Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Chong, A. and S. Murphy, eds. e Tang Shipwreck: Art and Exchange in the 9th Century Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2017.

Doar, Bruce G. “China Maritime Silk Road Museum,” China Heritage Project, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific (CAP) e Australian National University, accessed September 21, 2020.

Finamore, Daniel. Maritime History as World History. Salem and Gainesville: Peabody Essex Museum and University Press of Florida, 2004.

Flecker, Michael. A Ninth-Century AD Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia- First Evidence for Direct Trade with China. World Archaeology 32, no.3 (2001): 335-354.

Guangdong Sheng Bowuguan. Xisha Wenwu: Zhongguo Nanhai zhudao zhi yi Xisha qundao wenwu diaocha (Xisha Cultural Relics: A survey of the cultural relics of the Xisha Islands, one of the South China Sea islands). Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1975.

Hang, Xing. Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: e Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620- 1720. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hayton, Bill. The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Kaplan, Robert. Asia’s Caldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific New York: Penguin Random House, 2015.

Krahl, Regina, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson and Julian Raby, eds. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Washington DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2011.

Perez-Alvaro, Elena, Craig Forrest. Maritime Archaeology and Underwater Cultural Heritage in the Disputed South China Sea. International Journal of Cultural Property 25 (2018): 375-401.

Perry, John Curtis. Singapore: Unlikely Power. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Smithsonian Institution. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Washington DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2011.

Taylor, Kate. Smithsonian Sunken Treasure Show Poses Ethics Questions. The New York Times, April 24, 2011.

Van Dyke, Paul. The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700-1845 Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005.

Vosmer, Tom, Luca Belfioretti, Eric Staples and Alessandro Ghidoni. e “Jewel of Muscat” Project: Reconstructing an Early Ninth-Century CE Shipwreck. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 41 (2011): 411-424.

Wills, John. China and Maritime Europe, 1500-1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Xu, Yongjie. “e Dream and the Glory: Integral Salvage of the Nanhai No. 1 Shipwreck and Its Significance,” e Silk Road 5, no.2 (2008): 16–19.

___. The Test Excavation of the Nanhai No. 1 Shipwreck in 2011—a Detail Leading to the Whole. e Silk Road 13 (2015): 84-87. 


1. Admiral Nimitz’s comment is documented in the US Naval War College Museum. It is drawn from his 4,000-page operational diary of World War II in the Pacific covering the period December 7, 1941 through August 31, 1945. Referred to as e Nimitz Graybook, this document was put online in 2014:, aer thirty years of remai ing classified aer the war.

2. Aside from Needham, works citing the large size of Zheng He’s ships include Edward Dreyer, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405 – 1433, New York: Pearson Longman, 2006, 112; Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the seas: the Treasure Fleet at the Dragon rone, 1405–1433, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, 80; Yang Wei, “Admiral Zheng He’s Voyages to the ‘West Ocean,’” Education About Asia 19, no. 2 (2014): 27.

3. See rudder discussion in Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology, Part III: Civil Engineering and Nautics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971, 481.

4. Detailed arguments with counterarguments and citations for the shorter length are put forward by Sally Church, “Zheng He: An Investigation into the Plausibility of 450- Treasure Ships,” Monumenta Serica, 53 (2005): 1-43.

5. The replica treasure ship in the Nanjing boatyards is just over 200 feet long as calculated by seventy-two paces of the author’s stride during a visit to the Nanjing docks and replica ship in November, 2013. In building the replica, Chinese authorities appear to have accepted the shorter ship argument, perhaps siding with the engineering opinion of Xin Yuan’ou, Professor of Shipbuilding and Engineering at Shanghai Jiaotong University and cited by Church.

6. Jinghai Temple was built in 1407 by Ming Emperor Yongle to celebrate the return of Zheng He from his first successful voyage to the Western Ocean. At the temple near the Longjiang shipyard where his treasure ships had been built, Zheng He prayed to Tian Fei, sometimes called Mazu, Chinese goddess of the sea, and thanked her for safe return from his first expedition to the Indian Ocean. Zheng He was a Muslim, practiced Buddhism, and worshipped Tian Fei, all representing important parts of his character.

7. HMS Cornwallis was built of teak in the large British Bombay Dockyard. e ship was named for Lord Charles Cornwallis who lost the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia in 1781, leading to Britain’s loss of the American colonies. Cornwallis’ career survived the Yorktown defeat and he later became Governor General of India. It is ironic that, being known for having lost the American colonies, Cornwallis is also associated with the semi-colonization of China through the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing aboard a ship named for him.

“Mongol Invasions of Northeast Asia: Korea and Japan”

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