Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty led a fleet of more than 20,000 men to explore the ocean west to China. The countries he visited included Indonesia, Yemen, Iran and Somalia in East Africa. The largest ship could carry 200 sailors and 1000 passengers. This took place before Christopher Columbus was born (1451-1506). The fleet was also much larger than the one led by Columbus. Although Zheng He’s mission was never meant to be colonization, we can still expect that the international influence of China would grow with time if similar voyages continued.
However, the policy of the Ming Dynasty changed suddenly afterwards. The country not only abandoned further sea adventures, but also cut off most international interactions. A number of hypotheses explained the change. Some said that the emperor used up all the finest lumber to build the Forbidden City. Others said that the main reason was the political rivalry between eunuchs and the royal family (Zheng He was a eunuch).
While we consider the abandonment as one of the foolish decisions in Chinese history, one may wonder why the same thing did not happen in Europe. New ideas are like mutations. If the idea of going out to search for unknown land (Columbus’ calculations and predictions before his voyage were almost completely incorrect) is a mutant, the wild-type would be minding your own business. In fact, when Columbus approached John II, King of Portugal, for funding, he hesitated. That is why Columbus had to turn to the Spanish Queen. The interests in sea adventures also fluctuated among different European countries.
What set Europe apart from China was the keen competition among countries. The great success of the Spanish campaign brought in gold and resources, building Spain into an empire in the 16th century. Other countries sensed the selection pressure and had to follow suit. This resulted in a long history of colonization. In contrast, China did not experience major economic and political competition from neighboring countries, and could live contently on her own until the European navies knocked her door.