History : Jul-Aug 2018
48 JULY/AUGUST 2018 While a well-equipped navy had been built up during the early years of the Song dynasty (960- 1279), it was in the 12th century that the Chinese became a truly formidable naval power. The Song lost control of northern China in 1127, and with it, access to the Silk Road and the wealth of Persia and the Islamic world. The forced withdrawal to the south prompted a new capital to be established at Hangzhou, a port strategically situated at the mouth of the Qiantang River, and which Marco Polo described in the course of his famous adven- tures in the 1200s. For centuries, the Song had been embroiled in battles along inland waterways and had become indisputable masters of river naviga- tion. Now, they applied their experience to building up a naval fleet. Alas, the Song’s newfound naval mastery was not enough to withstand the inva- sion of the mighty Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. The Mongols and the Ming Having toppled the Song and ascended to the Chinese imperial throne in 1279, Kublai built up a truly fearsome naval force. Millions of trees were planted and new shipyards created. Soon, GRANGER/ALBUM G RANDSON OF THE GREAT GENGHIS KHAN, the Mongol Kublai Khan built an empire for himself in the 13th century, fa- mously conquering China in 1279. He also had his sights set on Japan and tried to invade, not once, but twice: first in 1274 and again in 1281. Chroniclers of the time report that he sent thousands of Chinese and Korean ships and as many as 140,000 men to seize the islands of Japan. Twice his massive forces sailed across the Korea Strait, and twice his fleet was turned away; legend says that two kamikazes, massive typhoons whose name means “divine wind,” were summoned by the Japanese emperor to sink the invading vessels. Historians believed the stories to be legendary, but recent archaeological finds support the story of giant storms saving Japan. A century and a half after Khan’s attempted invasions, Zheng He’s treasure ships would resemble the vessels of Kublai Khan. His ships were numerous and notably large—ap- proximately 230 feet long. It seems both Zheng He and the Ming emperor clearly appreciated impressive size, both in terms of the vessels and the fleet, and made it an important factor in spreading Chinese prestige and dominance throughout the Indian Ocean. KUBLAI KHAN KAMIKAZED DETAIL FROM A 13TH-CENTURY JAPANESE SCROLL PAINTING DEPICTING THE DOOMED INVASION OF JAPAN LED BY MONGOL EMPEROR KUBLAI KHAN IN 1281.