Trade & Maritime Expeditions in the Mongol Ascendancy & Ming Dynasty

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  • 0:08 International Business…
  • 0:44 Mongol China and Yuan Dynasty
  • 2:23 Trade in the Ming Dynasty
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore how China used international business to become a powerful empire at very different points in its history. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

International Business and China

To us, international business and China go hand-in-hand. Everything is made in China; that's why it's one of the great economic powers in the modern world.

However, it wasn't always this way. For a long time, China was very cautious of foreign influence, partly because they believed that China was the center of the entire cosmos, and that all things Chinese were naturally superior. I guess when you're one of the most advanced civilizations of the ancient world, you get to believe these things. China did trade with other nations, but it wasn't until the 13th century that it truly became the center of the world's first international economy.

Mongol China and Yuan Dynasty

The background to China's role in international trade starts in Mongolia, with the great leader Genghis Khan who unified the Mongol tribes in 1206 and formed the Mongolian Empire. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean nearly to the Mediterranean Sea, making it the largest land-based empire in human history.

Needless to say, Genghis Khan was a pretty effective military leader. His grandson, Kublai Khan, was made the emperor of China and started the Yuan Dynasty, a period from 1271-1368 when Mongol emperors ruled China.

With the entire Asian continent unified under the Mongols, something major changed. For centuries, the ancient trade routes across the continent, called the Silk Roads, had been closed because parts of the routes were controlled by dozens of different kingdoms who either taxed or killed foreigners. Suddenly, all those kingdoms were controlled by one empire, an empire that greatly valued the idea of bringing together the best ideas, technologies, education, and goods from around the world.

Kublai Khan welcomed foreign merchants to his court, anxious to learn about the world and open new trade opportunities. Not only were the land routes opened, but Mongol control of the coasts opened up a vast network of maritime trade routes stretching from Japan into the Indian Ocean.

With the Silk Roads opening trade routes as far as Persia, it wasn't long until the enterprising Europeans made their way into China. Sometime around 1275, the famous merchant from Venice, Marco Polo, made it to China. He lived in the court of Kublai Khan for 20 years, and upon his return to Italy, trade between China and Europe flourished in the first truly international market.

Trade in the Ming Dynasty

After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, a new dynasty of Chinese rulers rose up called the Ming. The Ming Dynasty lasted from 1368-1644 and took lots of care to regulate how much foreigners could influence China now that the Mongols were gone. This, plus the end of the Mongol Empire and the true era of the Silk Roads, meant a drastic change in foreign policy.

The Ming went back to traditional Chinese models of carefully allowing foreign trade with international partners that could be trusted to recognize China as the greatest power in the world. The heavy fees for importing were lifted for merchants from a kingdom that paid tribute, taxes in the form of money, goods, or loyalty, to China.

This policy, coupled with the military expansion that the Ming used to keep Chinese politics stable under their control, lead to the creation of maritime expeditions to discover new cultures who could pay tribute to the Ming Emperor. This practice was started under the Yongle Emperor in 1403. These treasure voyages were led by the great admiral Zheng He.

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