Powerful Imagination: Chinese Maritime Networks of the Fifteenth Century in the Eighteenth Century World

Abstract:

This paper examines the early maritime power of the early Ming court (ca. 1400–1435) as imagined in early eighteenth century China. Although many records of the voyages of Zheng He and his successors across the southern and western seas were famously destroyed, knowledge of their undertakings and the extent of early-Ming maritime dominance remained widespread throughout the late imperial period. Both historical documents and fictionalized retellings created memories of a distinct mode of imperial power and of the goods that came along with it. These took on new meanings as a novel set of maritime and overland empires became interlocutors and competitors of the Qing state (1644–1911).

This study examines how a group of well-known collectible objects, incense burners attributed to the court of the Xuande emperor (r. 1425–35), were reinterpreted as products of imperial capacity to command goods from overseas. A text now commonly used to authenticate the vessels, the Register of Vessels from the Xuande Court, is not a set of official documents from the Xuande reign, as it purports to be, but rather a forgery from about 1730. It invents a new backstory in which ingredients for the vessels’ copper alloy were brought from far-flung lands, making the incense burners, previously seen as simply the products of the court at the stable centre of the realm, into exotica emerging from an expansive imperium in a world of competing empires.