China is not exactly famed for discovering or settling any new overseas territories (and considering Europe's colonial legacy, that's not necessarily something to be embarrassed about). However, the country would never have grown as large and influential as it did without at least a few brave souls who dared to venture off the map and into the history books. Some were tempted out to sea by the siren call of personal or national glory, while others defied the driest deserts and most dangerous seas in pursuit of knowledge. These are the most illustrious and celebrated of China’s adventurers…
Hailing from modern-day Henan, Xuanzang was ordained as a novice monk in Luoyang aged just 13. He and his brother then fled the chaos of the former Sui capital for Chengdu and the new Tang capital at Chang'an, and he became a full monk at age 20.
Inconsistencies, contradictions and discrepancies in the Buddhist texts he studied always irked Xuanzang, and he took it upon himself to trace Chinese Buddhism back to its origins in India. Inspired by a dream, Xuanzang set out from imperial capital Chang'an in 629, and arrived in India a year later, after a harrowing cross-country trek.
Xuanzang did a Grand Tour of the Buddhist world and studied under various masters before returning to China in 645, where he was met with the highest honors. When the Taizong Emperor offered him a civil appointment, however, he refused. Instead, Xuanzang retired to a monastery and devoted the rest of his life to translating more than 600 Mahayana and Hinayana texts that he brought back from India.
Xuanzang's account of his pilgrimage, the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, was the most detailed account of Central and South Asia ever completed. Although he set out solely to obtain Buddhist texts, Xuanzang's epic quest became much more – his record included much about the area’s politics and history, leaving accounts that would help historians shed light on the region over a millennium later. His translations also became the last remaining versions of numerous sacred texts, compelling future scholars to work from his Chinese translations rather than the lost originals.
Xuanzang's Silk Road journey inspired the Ming-era novel Journey to the West, now regarded as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature and subject to infinite reinterpretations and remakes.
When Zheng was just a boy, his father died and he was promptly taken captive, castrated and placed in the household service of Zhu Di, the future usurper to the throne who would become known as the Yongle Emperor.
It wasn’t an auspicious start, but Zheng He was to become the indisputable champion of all Chinese explorers. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng commanded seven voyages of trade and discovery, traveling throughout South and Southeast Asia, and as far as eastern Africa.
Soon after seizing power, the Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of the greatest fleet humanity had ever seen. Who did he choose as its head captain? None other than his trusted servant Zheng He, who had helped Yongle seize power by getting the palace eunuchs on side.
The armada wasn't just impressive on account of its size, however: by the standards of the day, the Treasure Fleet was a technological marvel, featuring innovations such as watertight bulkheads. European naval architects wouldn’t concoct ships to match Zheng’s fleet until the 19th century.
It was dubbed the ‘Treasure Fleet’ on account of the porcelain, silk and other valuables carried on board to trade with foreign peoples. The voyages were part floating trade fair and soft power putsch, but they also served to remind the empire's neighbors that the Chinese were back in control, and that they expected tribute.
When Zhu Di eliminated the rightful emperor, he burned the imperial palace down with him inside. The body was never found, however, and the flames of Zhu Di's paranoia never died down. Fearful that his rival to the throne may have escaped to amass his forces abroad and reclaim power, the Yongle emperor also wanted Zheng He to scour the known world for him.
China's experiment with sea power died along with the Yongle Emperor himself. In the early 15th century, the Ming navy numbered around three and a half thousand vessels, but by 1500 it was a capital offense to build vessels with more than two masts, and in 1525 an imperial edict ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships. As the Ming turned inward, Europe's Age of Discovery and empire-building was just beginning.
Today, as China's clout grows regionally and the nation's maritime presence widens, Zheng He is increasingly invoked as a historical model, portraying China's 21st-century naval build-up as merely the latest manifestation of a benign regional dominance that can be traced back to Zheng's voyages.
Despite the immensity of Zheng's fleet and its enormous political ramification, however, he mainly traveled along long-established trade routes and did not discover any new lands.
(Unless, of course, you're pop-historian Gavin Menzies, author of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, who asserts that Zheng and his admirals discovered North and South America as well as Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica and the Northwest Passage - all before solving the longitude problem. Oh and sparking the Italian renaissance, kindly remembering to give Magellan and every other European explorer the maps they later used to accomplish the same and steal all the credit.)
When a guy builds an army of 8,000 terracotta warriors to keep his corpse company in a massive necropolis, it's fair to say he's a bit concerned about this whole afterlife deal. Before it came to that, though, China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang was determined to unlock the secret to eternal life, obsessively pursuing a legendary elixir of immortality.
Xu Fu was one of the emperor's court sorcerers tasked with procuring this magical potion. According to legend, there were mythical islands thousands of kilometers to the east populated by immortals, and it was Xu's job to find these lands and bring their secrets back to the emperor.
When he returned from his first expedition empty-handed, Xu told the famously ruthless Qin Shi Huang that they had only failed because a giant sea monster had thrown them off course. Hearing this, Qin gave Xu a division of imperial archers and 3,000 virgins (of course) and sent him on his way again.
This time, Xu did find something. It wasn't the spring of eternal life, but it was a vast, fertile, exquisite and promising land somewhere in modern-day Japan.
Perhaps realizing that he had run out of plausible excuses (like sea monsters) for not finding the clearly non-existent potion of immortality, and that if he returned home empty-handed once more the emperor would have his head, Xu Fu did the rational thing and stayed put, setting up his own kingdom instead.
Around the same time that all this went down, Japan's ancient Jomon culture suddenly disappeared and dramatic leaps in farming techniques occurred, improving local inhabitants' quality of life and laying the foundation for ancient Japanese society. Many believe that Xu’s arrival was the catalyst for Japan's development – in some parts of Japan, Xu is worshipped as the God of farming, medicine and silk.
Meanwhile, back in China, Qin Shi Huang died from ingesting mercury, which he believed would make him immortal (oops) and his empire crumbled, hurling China into violent disunity and chaos. Wherever Xu ended up, it's highly unlikely he had any regrets.
Zhang Qian set out from the Han capital of Chang'an in 138 BC, heading west to forge an alliance with the Yuezhi people against a mutual enemy - the nomadic Xiongnu tribes which had recently killed the Yuezhi king and drank wine from his skull. As you do.
The daring mission meant passing right through Xiongnu-held territory to reach their potential allies. During his journey, Zhang was captured by the Xiongnu, (understandably unhappy about the Chinese sending an envoy across their lands to negotiate an alliance with their enemies) and held captive for a decade before finally escaping. When he did get free, though, Zhang didn't run back to safety in Chang'an; he merely persisted in his mission to pursue entente with the Yuezhi.
Zhang Qian failed to achieve the diplomatic goals of the mission, but when he returned to the imperial capital, he regaled the emperor with tales of how prized Chinese goods were in the Central Asian markets he visited, and convinced him to use the full might of the empire to secure these trade routes and ensure the safety of those using them.
Although trade routes connecting China to South and Central Asia had existed long before Liu Bang founded the Han Dynasty in 206 BC, they were tortuous, perilous paths that wound through hostile territory, where traders were easy prey for nomadic bandits.
Thereafter, however, the Silk Road flourished, and China and her trading partners prospered like never before. The foundations for China's golden age under the Tang had been firmly laid, thanks to the intrepid Zhang Qian.