Chinese exploration includes exploratory Chinese travels abroad, on land and by sea, from the 2nd century BC until the 15th century.
Pamir Mountains and beyond
Gan Ying, the emissary of General Ban Chao, perhaps traveled as far as Roman Syria in the late 1st century AD. After these initial discoveries, the focus of Chinese exploration shifted to the maritime sphere, although the Silk Road leading all the way to Europe continued to be China's most lucrative source of trade.
The pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang from Chang'an to Nalanda in India not only greatly increased the knowledge of Buddhism in China – returning more than 650 texts including the Heart and the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras – and inspired the immensely influential novel Journey to the West. It also led to Xuanzang's publication of the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, a text which introduced China to Indian cities such as the port of Calicut and recorded many details of 7th-century Bengal for posterity.
South China Sea
Before the advent of the Chinese-invented mariner's compass in the 11th century, the seasonal monsoon winds controlled navigation, blowing north from the equatorial zone in the summer and south in the winter. This most likely accounts for the ease in which Neolithic travelers from mainland China could settle on the island of Taiwan in prehistoric times. After defeating the last of the Warring States and consolidating an empire over China proper, the Chinese navy of the Qin Dynasty period (221–207 BC) assisted the land-borne invasion of Guangzhou and northern Vietnam. (Called first Jiaozhi and then Annam, the northern half of Vietnam would not become fully independent from Chinese rule until AD 938.) In 1975, an ancient shipyard excavated in Guangzhou was dated to the early Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220) and, with three platforms, was able to construct ships that were approximately 30 m (98 ft) in length, 8 m (26 ft) in width, and could hold a weight of 60 metric tons.
During the Three Kingdoms, travellers from Eastern Wu are known to have explored the coast. The most important were Zhu Ying (朱應) and Kang Tai, both sent by the Governor of Guangzhou and Jiaozhi Lü Dai in the early 3rd century. Although each wrote a book, both were lost by the 11th century: Zhu's Record of the Curiosities of Phnom (t 扶南異物誌, s 扶南异物志, Fúnán Yìwù Zhì) in its entirety and Kang's Tales of Foreign Countries During the Wu Period (t 吳時外國傳, s 吴时外国传, Wúshí Wàiguó Zhuàn) only surviving in scattered references in other works, including the Shuijing Zhu and the Yiwen Leiju.
Later, during the Eastern Jin, a rebel known as Lu Xun managed to fend off an attack by the imperial army for a hundred days in 403 before sailing down into the South China Sea from a coastal commandery. For six years, he occupied Panyu, the largest southern seaport of that time.
Indian Ocean and beyond
Chinese envoys sailed into the Indian Ocean from the late 2nd century BC, and reportedly reached Kanchipuram, known as Huangzhi (黄支) to them, or otherwise Ethiopia as asserted by Ethiopian scholars. During the late 4th and early 5th centuries, Chinese pilgrims like Faxian, Zhiyan, and Tanwujie began traveling by sea to India, bringing back Buddhist scriptures and sutras to China. By the 7th century as many as 31 recorded Chinese monks including I Ching managed to reach India the same way. In 674 the private explorer Daxi Hongtong was among the first to end his journey at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, after traveling through 36 countries west of the South China Sea.
Chinese seafaring merchants and diplomats of the medieval Tang Dynasty (618—907) and Song Dynasty (960—1279) often sailed into the Indian Ocean after visiting ports in South East Asia. Chinese sailors would travel to Malaya, India, Sri Lanka, into the Persian Gulf and up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq, to the Arabian peninsula and into the Red Sea, stopping to trade goods in Ethiopia and Egypt (as Chinese porcelain was highly-valued in old Fustat, Cairo). Jia Dan wrote Route between Guangzhou and the Barbarian Sea during the late 8th century that documented foreign communications, the book was lost, but the Xin Tangshu retained some of his passages about the three sea-routes linking China to East Africa. Jia Dan also wrote about tall lighthouse minarets in the Persian Gulf, which were confirmed a century later by Ali al-Masudi and al-Muqaddasi. Beyond the initial work of Jia Dan, other Chinese writers accurately described Africa from the 9th century onwards; For example, Duan Chengshi wrote in 863 of the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade of Berbera, Somalia. Seaports in China such as Guangzhou and Quanzhou - the most cosmopolitan urban centers in the medieval world - hosted thousands of foreign travelers and permanent settlers. Chinese junk ships were even described by the Moroccan geographer Al-Idrisi in his Geography of 1154, along with the usual goods they traded and carried aboard their vessels.
From 1405 to 1433, large fleets commanded by Admiral Zheng He—under the auspices of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty—traveled to the Indian Ocean seven times. This attempt did not lead China to global expansion, as the Confucian bureaucracy under the next emperor reversed the policy of open exploration and by 1500, it became a capital offence to build a seagoing junk with more than two masts. Chinese merchants became content trading with already existing tributary states nearby and abroad. To them, traveling far east into the Pacific Ocean represented entering a broad wasteland of water with uncertain benefits of trade. While British author Gavin Menzies once asserted in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World that Zheng likely traveled as far as the Americas, this is not supported by scholarship and there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. Similarly, the proposal by Paul Chiasson that the Chinese established a settlement in Nova Scotia has not met with acceptance.
Chinese Muslims traditionally credit the Muslim traveler Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas with introducing Islam to China in 650, during the reign of Emperor Gaozong of Tang, although modern secular scholars did not find any historical evidence for him actually travelling to China. We have good documentation that in 1008 the Fatimid Egyptian sea-captain Domiyat, in the name of his ruling Imam Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, travelled to the Buddhist pilgrimage-site in Shandong in order to seek out Emperor Zhenzong of Song with gifts from his court. This reestablished diplomatic ties between China and Egypt which had been broken since the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960). The trade embassy of the Indian ruler Kulothunga Chola I to the court of Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1077 proved an economic benefactor for both empires.
In China, the invention of the stern-mounted rudder appeared as early as the 1st century AD, allowing for better steering than using the power of oarsmen. The Cao Wei Kingdom engineer and inventor Ma Jun (c. 200—265 AD) built the first south-pointing chariot, a complex mechanical device that incorporated a differential gear in order to navigate on land, and (as one 6th century text alludes) by sea as well. Much later the Chinese polymath scientist Shen Kuo (1031—1095 AD) was the first to describe the magnetic needle-compass, along with its usefulness for accurate navigation by discovering the concept of true north. In his Pingzhou Table Talks of 1119 AD the Song Dynasty maritime author Zhu Yu described the use of separate bulkhead compartments in the hulls of Chinese ships. This allowed for water-tight conditions and ability of a ship not to sink if one part of the hull became damaged.
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