From the ancient era to the middle ages, China was a global pioneer in the exploration of foreign territories. Its explorers traversed land and sea, capitalising on the 4,000 mile Silk Road and the country’s advanced seafaring technologies, to reach lands as far away as East Africa and Central Asia.
Archaeological traces of this “golden age” of Chinese seafaring and exploration remain elusive and rare to find, but there is evidence of several key explorers from the era.
Here are 5 of the most influential explorers in Chinese history.
1. Xu Fu (255 – c. 195 BC)
The life story of Xu Fu, who was employed as a court sorcerer for the Qin dynasty ruler Qin Shi Huang, reads like a mythical tale complete with references to sea monsters and a magician purportedly 1000 years old.
Entrusted with the task to find the secret of immortality for emperor Qin Shi Huang, Xu undertook two journeys between 219 BC and 210 BC, the first of which was a failure. His primary mission was to retrieve the elixir from the ‘immortals’ on Mount Penglai, a legendary land of Chinese mythology.
Xu sailed for several years without finding the mountain or the elixir. Xu’s second trip, from which he never returned is believed to have resulted in him landing in Japan where he named Mount Fuji as Penglai, making him one of the first Chinese men to have set foot in the country.
Xu’s legacy may not include the finding of the secret of immortality but he is worshipped in areas of Japan as the ‘god of farming’ and is said to have brought new farming techniques and knowledge that improved the quality of life of the ancient Japanese.
2. Zhang Qian (unknown – 114 BC)
Zhang Qian was a diplomat during the Han dynasty who served as an imperial envoy to the world outside China. He expanded sections of the Silk Road, making a significant contribution to the culture and economic exchange across Eurasia.
The Han dynasty was eager to form allies against their old enemy, the Xiongnu tribe in modern Tajikstan. Someone was needed to travel thousands of miles across the hostile Gobi Desert to form an alliance with the Yuezhi, an ancient nomadic people. Zhang stepped up to the task and was granted the staff of authority in the name of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty.
Zhang set off with a team of a hundred envoys and a guide called Gan Fu. The dangerous journey took 13 years and his discovery of the Silk Road was the unintended consequence of undertaking the mission. Zhang was captured by the Xiongnu tribe whose leader, Junchen Chanyu, took a liking to the intrepid explorer and decided to keep him alive, even offering him a wife. Zhang stayed with the Xiongnu for a decade before managing to slip away.
Having crossed the vast Gobi and Taklamakan Desert, Zhang eventually reached the land of the Yuezhi. Contented with their peaceful lives they resisted Zhang’s offers of riches if they became allies in war.
Zhang returned back to his homeland, but not before he was captured again by the Xiongnu and this time treated less favourably. His imprisonment lasted less than a year before making it back to Han China in 126 BC. Out of the 100 envoys who originally set off with him only 2 of the original team survived.
3. Xuanzang (602 – 664 AD)
During the Tang dynasty, an inquisitive interest in Buddhism encouraged the religion’s popularity throughout China. It was this growing fascination in the religion that lay behind one of the greatest odysseys in Chinese history.
In 626 AD, the Chinese monk Xuanzang made a 17-year journey in search of Buddhist scriptures with the aim of bringing its teachings from India to China. The ancient Silk Road and China’s Grand Canal assisted Xuanzang on his epic journey into the unknown.
By the time Xuanzang returned back to the city of Chang’an along the Silk Road, after many years of travel, the journey had taken him along 25,000 kilometres of roads to 110 different countries. The famous Chinese novel Journey to the West was based on Xuanzang’s journey to ancient India to acquire Buddhist scriptures. Over a decade, he translated around 1300 volumes of Buddhist scriptures.
4. Zheng He (1371 – 1433)
The Ming dynasty’s great treasure fleet was the biggest fleet assembled on the world’s oceans until the 20th century. Its admiral was Zheng He, who from 1405 to 1433 undertook 7 treasure voyages in search of new trading posts in Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Western Asia and East Africa. He sailed 40,000 miles across the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean.
Zheng’s childhood had been traumatic when his home village was attacked by Ming troops and he was captured as a boy and castrated. As a eunuch, he served in the Ming Royal Court before becoming a favourite of the young prince Zhu Di, who later became the Yongle Emperor and Zheng’s benefactor.
In 1405 the great treasure fleet, consisting of 300 ships and 27,000 men, embarked on its maiden voyage. The ships were five times the size of those built for Columbus’ voyages decades later, at 400 feet in length.
The maiden voyage resembled a floating city carrying valuable products such as tons of China’s finest silks and blue and white Ming porcelain. Zheng’s voyages were hugely successful: he set up strategic trading posts which would contribute to spreading China’s power across the globe. He is often cited as China’s greatest seafaring explorer.
5. Xu Xiake (1587 – 1641)
An early backpacker of the late Ming dynasty, Xu Xiake traversed thousands of miles across mountains and deep valleys in China for 30 years, documenting his travels as he went. What makes him stand out from other explorers throughout Chinese history is that he didn’t set out on his explorations in pursuit of riches or to find new trading posts at the request of an imperial court, but purely out of personal curiosity. Xu travelled for the sake of travelling.
Xu’s magnum opus of his travels was a 10,000-mile journey to the southwest where he travelled from Zhejiang in eastern China to Yunnan in southwestern China, which took 4 years.
Xu wrote his travel diaries as if his mother was reading them at home and following his journey, which makes his famous book Xu Xiake’s Travels one of the most original and detailed accounts of what he saw, heard and thought during his travels.