The Western Ocean before the West: The Indian Ocean in the Chinese Geographical Imagination

Timothy Brook
University of British Columbia.

Through the 12th to 14th centuries, Chinese mariners traded into the Western Ocean, as they called  the Indian Ocean. distributing Chinese manufactures from Pegu to Hormuz. That history is not easy to reconstruct, given the lack of documentation. Much easier to chronicle is the eruption of state intervention  for which state records exist, beginning late in the 13th century and culminating early in the 15th. Thereafter: the dwindling Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean led to an almost complete evacuation of Chinese traders as Portuguese merchants asserted hegemony in the 16th. The analysis offered will unfold in reverse time, starting with the fragmentary knowledge of the Indian Ocean preserved on the Selden map (1608), then looking back to prior knowledge and asking how that knowledge was lost. In part the loss was the effect of altered patterns of trade circulation; but it also happened as a new Western Ocean, the Atlantic, erupted into the Chinese imagination of the world, confounding earlier geographies and directing attention beyond India to Europe as the ultimate destination of westward travel.