Freight History: China and International Shipping

 In China, exports, Imports, International Shipping

China is a world leader in international shipping.

Today China is one of the greatest import-export powers in the world, regularly shipping goods to ports around the world. Chinese businesspeople are rightly considered shrewd exporters, supplying popular supplies to receptive markets worldwide.

China Sea Shipping

Is China a latecomer on the international market?

We generally think of China as a latecomer on the international shipping scene, especially when compared with European nations that were aggressively sea-faring during the 1600-1800s such as Britain, Portugal, and Spain.

However, much earlier–during the 1300-1400s, before the “Golden Age of Sail”, China was a leader in exploration, shipbuilding, and international shipping.

Ming Dynasty and international shipping.

The ruling emperors of the Ming dynasty actively supported innovations in sea-faring by commissioning huge vessels called “treasure ships” to ply the waters far from their homeland.

These treasure ships ventured south down the coast of mainland China, to the trading ports of south-east Asia and beyond as far as India. They were engaged in exploration as well as mercantilism. To accommodate these long voyages and cargoes of trade goods, the ships were of enormous size – 7,800 tons! That is three times bigger than the largest ships British shipyards were turning out before the 1800s.

These treasure ships were juggernauts of the sea!

Monsoon winds used for China shipping.

Huge trees as masts were required for these juggernaut ships, which moved exclusively under sail and were cleverly piloted by mariners who knew how to take advantage of the seasonal winds of the monsoon.

By riding those winds into far away destinations, Chinese mariners were able to collect trade goods that were transported from places even further east. The next monsoon season, the same winds could blow a mariner and his ship back the way they came, their holds full of import cargo such as frankincense and rugs that they gained in exchange for the products they exported, such as silk.

The ships could haul back a variety of trade goods and, as a natural consequence of their combination of colonialism and commercialism, increased China’s international influence.

Chinese international shipping shifts with the Qing dynasty.

This booming international trade and cultural exchange through these big, well equipped treasure ships faded when the Ming dynasty fell and gave way to a new dynasty, the Qing. Qing dynasty emperors were typically more interested in consolidating and administering their interior assets than expanding their knowledge and power over the sea.

The Qing put their money elsewhere and without the funding of the Chinese government, the fleet of treasure ships and their mission to expand Chinese trade networks and cultural influence fell into disrepair.

Chinese imports and exports continue privately.

It was left to private Chinese businesspeople to fill in the gaps left in international shipping along the southern coast of Asia. While it was the government funding of these impressive treasure ships which began China’s foray into international shipping and commerce, China’s international shipping continued through humble private merchant sailors making their way through dangerous monsoon winds as far as they dared.

Today, private Chinese citizens continue in this tradition of independently seeking new markets for their products and importing the best of what the world has to offer. Of course, the Chinese government has a large hand in the nation’s international shipping.

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