Guest Post: Lawrence Glarus: Guest Families


Have you ever wondered if there are other market dominant minorities out there?  Blogger Lawrence Glarus has found another out there:

Most people in China are Han. In fact, the Han are 92% of the PRC. This would, in the popular imagination, imply that they culturally similar. This isn’t necessarily wrong but, like any nation, there are thinner slices you can make. Out of this mix of cultures has emerged another crab.  China has produced a market dominant minority diaspora: the Hakka. The Hakka are a subgroup of the Han. They have their own Chinese dialectic though their identity is mostly connected to patrilineal descent. What are the minimum steps to create a market dominant minority?
1. Migration
2. Economic niche formation by cultural bans or scarcity of normal work.
3. Limited integration.

In the Hakka we meet all the requirements. The Hakka originated from Northern China. This is not particularly exceptional since all Han originated from Northern China. Like many groups, there were multiple waves of migration from their homelands somewhere in the North. There seem to be a number of theories of their origin but there were plenty of wars and political events in which COULD have displaced them. Suffice to say something or someone gave them a reason to move.

“Migration and the stigma of rootlessness. Dominant Han tradition worshipped the native place, and the Min and Yue Cantonese disdain the Hakka as rootless. Four mass migrations shaped Hakka identity. In the first the Hakkas left Henan and Shandong during the chaos of the Jurchen attacks between the Tang and Song dynasties (907-959 A.D.), and settled around Changting (Tingzhou) in the underpopulated highlands of the Fujian-Jiangxi border. In the second they moved into north-eastern Guangdong during the period of the Song-Yuan dynastic transition (1127-1279), settling around Meixian and the North River highlands. In the third many Hakkas claimed untended land on the south-east Guangdong coast during the early Qing (1644-1800). Others, like Chen Yi’s kin, moved up to the Hunan-Jiangxi border. By 1800 Hakkas had also settled permanently in Guangxi, Hainan, Taiwan and famine-depopulated Sichuan.36 The fourth migration came in the mid-19th century, after nearly a million died in the Hakka-Bendi land wars, and in the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64). Hakkas dispersed further away from Guangdong, into Sichuan, Hong Kong and overseas.”-The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise Mary S. Erbaugh

That is a rough history, but then again China is/was a rough place.  It might actually may not be THAT exceptional.

“The name Hakka was first used by Guangfu Chinese. Hakka was originally used to refer to the third person and was gradually accepted as the ethnic name. Now, many people are proud to call themselves Hakka. The four Hakka states are Meizhou, Ganzhou, Huizhou, and Tingzhou. Meizhou is often referred to as the capital of the global population of Hakka because it has the highest population of Hakka, and many Hakka emigrated from Meizhou. Ganzhou is considered the ancestral home of Hakka, and is known as the “Hakka cradle”.
Hakka is one of the seven major Chinese dialects. Hakka dialects were formed as early as the Southern Song Dynasty through the inheritance of many language tones from the five dynasties and Song dynasties. The Hakka area is divided into “pure” and “impure” Hakka counties. There are 48 pure Hakka counties and cities in regions bordering Guangdong, Fujian, and Jiangxi. Although the total population of Hakka has not been determined, it is estimated that there are about 50 million Hakka worldwide. Although the Hakka population is an important component of Han populations, the anthropologic characteristics of Hakka have not been reported.” -Physical characteristics of Chinese Hakka ZHENG

Hakka roughly translates to “Guest Families”, which in my opinion is a perfect name for a market dominant minority. A guest family is welcome, but they never really integrate. Even after at least 1000 years of living in South China the Hakka are still distinct (or at least have a distinct identity) from the other Northern Chinese peoples who got there first.  The Hakka, for example, typically didn’t bind their daughter’s feet.

The word “Hakka” is as blatant a brand of impoverished wandering as “Gypsy” or “Okie.” It was originally a hostile outside coinage, the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters for “guest family,” “settlers” (Mandarin pronunciation is kejia). “Guest” is often pejorative in Chinese. Jia is used in derisive names for minorities, but not for other Han except the even more benighted Danjia (Tanga, Tanka) boat people..Longsettled Han call themselves “locals,” “natives” bendi (punti), literally “rooted in the soil.” -The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise Mary S. Erbaugh

It is funny for Westerners to see this sort of behavior and attitudes in foreign nations.  Unlike our history, the dirty laundry of foreign (non-Western) cultures tends to not be aired.  There is nothing wrong with a little parochialism.  It is still a little hard to imagine a group being “guests” for a thousand years.  How many American’s even know the word “Okie” anymore?  To be fair it’s still fresh in the memories of the people of Oklahoma.

Hakkas are also called “newcomers” (xin ren) or “arrivals” (lai reri). They are often called “Cantonese,” especially in Taiwan, Hunan and Sichuan. Hakka dialect is also called “dirt Cantonese” (tu Guangdonghua); “newcomer talk” (xin min hua); or “rough border talk” (ma jie hua) (see Cui Rongchang, “Sichuan fangyan de biandiao xianxiang” -The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise Mary S. Erbaugh

It is certainly interesting that these people who focused on education would have a language called “rough border talk”.  It is probable that any successful Hakka would learn and speak Madarin (or whatever was the court dialect de jour) well though.  All the famous (at least famous outside China) Hakka we know of spoke other languages very well and did not seemingly utilize Hakka language in their public persona.  In fact, the Hakka seem to do much better in other people’s areas than in their own, where they have tended to be poor farmers.

“As Hakkas tend to be very clannish, strangers who found out that the other party is a Hakka will affectionately acknowledge each other as “zi-jia-ren” (自家人) meaning “all’s in the same (Hakka) family”.” -La Wik

China was very clannish up until the Communists took over. The Communists naturally wanted to break up the clan structures which were a threat to their power. In the modern day as the PRC has relaxed their grip Clans are re-emerging as power centers in China. The fact that the Hakka are clannish shouldn’t surprise us, but it should be noted that they see each other as a larger clan 50 million rather than the typical 50-500 of a regularly organized clan.

When the Hakka found themselves in an already populated area in South China they had only marginal land to work with. Rather than displacing the natives they found themselves adopting economically niche strategies.

“Hakka culture have been largely shaped by the new environment which they had to alter many aspects their culture to adapt, which helped influence their architecture and cuisine. When the Hakka expanded into areas with pre-existing populations in the South, there was often little agricultural land left for them to farm. As a result, many Hakka men turned towards careers in the military or in public service. Consequently, the Hakka culturally emphasized education.” -La Wik


This tradition seemingly continues till today. Given the history of China, there would have been plenty of opportunities to pursue education, military or public service.  While the Hakka are quite interesting in their own country they are even more interesting in other countries. Having a long tradition of military and publics service has made them prominent and influential in the diaspora.

“There is a Chinese saying, “有阳光的地方就有华人, 有华人的地方就有客家人”, which literally means “Wherever there is sunshine, there will be Chinese. Wherever there is Chinese, there will be Hakka.””-La Wik


So if the Hakka focussed on education, military and civil service how good could they be at it?  Could there be a genetic or cultural propensity to enter the civil service that can overcome cultural barriers between cultures? Here is a short list of prominent Hakka that you may know of:

  1. Sun Yat-sen
  2. Lee Kuan Yew
  3. Deng Xiaoping

Okay, so that list wasn’t that long let’s get a list of Presidents of foreign countries who were Hakka. Years listed are years in power.

Name Years in Power Title Country/Current Flag
Liu Yongfu 1895  President of the Short Lived Republic of Formosa TaiwanTaiwan
Lee Teng-hui 1988–2000 President of the Republic of China TaiwanTaiwan
Tsai Ing-wen 2016– President of the Republic of China  TaiwanTaiwan
Lee Hsien Loong 2004- Prime Minister of Signapore  Singapore
Ne Win  1974-1981 President of Myanmar  Myanmar
San Yu  1981-1988  President of Myanmar  Myanmar
Khin Nyunt  2003–2004 President of Myanmar  Myanmar
Hendrick Chin A Sen 1980-1982 President of Suriname  Suriname
Thaksin Shinawatra  2001-2006 Prime Minister of Thailand  Thailand
Yingluck Shinawatra 2011-2014 Prime Minister of Thailand  Thailand
Gaston Tong Sang President 2006-2007, 2008-2011 French Polynesia  French Polynesia
Solomon Hochoy Last British Governor, 1960–1962; First non-white Governor in the whole of the British Empire, 1960; First Governor-General, 1962–1972, when Trinidad and Tobago obtained independence in 1962; First Chinese Head of State in a non-Asian country Trinidad and Tobago  Trinidad and Tobago

No Western country has had a Hakka Prime Minister or President but they do have a few Hakka politicians. Here are few. Firsts are noted.

Name Years in Power Title/Significance Country/Current Flag
Penny Wong  2007-2013 First Chinese and first Asian Cabinet Minister  Australia
Tsung Foo Hee  2002-2005 Mayor, Whitehorse, Victoria  Australia
Henry Tsang 1999-2009 Deputy Lord Mayor, Sydney  Australia
Nat Wei 2011  Baron Wei first British-born person of Chinese origin in the House of Lords  United Kingdom
André Thien Ah Koon  1986-2006,1983-2006,2014-2020 First and only Chinese elected to the French National Assembly and the first Chinese elected to a parliament in Europe, 1986-2006; Mayor, Tampon, Reunion Island, 1983-2006, 2014-2020; First Chinese Mayor of Reunion Island and France  France
Varina Tjon-A-Ten 2003-2006 First Chinese elected to the House of Representatives, 2003-2006  Netherlands
Roy Ho Ten Soeng 2000-2006; Mayor, Venhuizen, North Holland,  First immigrant Mayor of Netherlands; First Chinese Mayor of Netherlands and Europe  Netherlands
Yiaway Yeh 2012 First Chinese Mayor of Palo Alto, California  United States

It seems like wherever the Chinese go the Hakka are soon to find themselves in a position of power.  The Hakka have been very successful in this niche.  So we know that other market dominant minorities have a tendency to be not far behind a revolution, is that also true of the Hakka?

“The Hakkas have had a significant influence, disproportionate to their smaller total numbers, on the course of modern Chinese and overseas Chinese history, particularly as a source of revolutionary, political and military leaders.” -La Wik

Revolutionary Leader Born-Died Rebellion Ancestry
Hong Xiuquan 1812-1864 Leader, Taiping Rebellion Meixian, Guangdong
Zheng Shiliang 1863-1901  Huizhou Uprising Huiyang, Guangdong
Deng Zhiyu 1878-1925 Huizhou Uprising Boluo, Guangdong
Hsieh Liang-mu 1884-1931 Huanghuagang Uprising Meixian, Guangdong
Zeng Sheng 1910-1995 Column guerilla force, Hong Kong Huiyang, Guangdong

Check out this page on Wikipedia.  I listed revolutionary leaders but if you take a look at the page there are quite a number of plain members, military leader, and politicians coming out of the Hakka.  They are especially prevalent in the Communist Party of China and the Taiping Rebellion.  Keep in mind the size of the Hakka relative to the size of China.  Nowadays at best their total population including diaspora is 4% of the population of China.

“The Paradox of Hakka Obscurity and High Political Position The Hakka are an impoverished and stigmatized subgroup of Han Chinese whose settlements are scattered from Jiangxi to Sichuan. Socialist revolution meshed well with the Hakka tradition of militant dissent, so that their 3 per cent of the mainland population has been three times more likely than other Han to hold high position. Six of the nine Soviet guerrilla bases were in Hakka territory, while the route of the Long March moved from Hakka village to Hakka village. (Compare Maps 1, 2, 3 and 4.)1 In 1984, half the Standing Committee of the Politburo were Hakka, and the People’s Republic and Singapore both had Hakka leaders, Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kwan Yew, joined by Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-Hui in 1988.” -The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise Mary S. Erbaugh

-The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise Mary S. Erbaugh
Hakka Language Areas.PNG
-The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise Mary S. Erbaugh

There seems to be a cultural/phenotypic niche for the market dominant minority.  The Hakka are an interesting case study in how completely different genetic populations can produce similar political/cultural results.  Obviously, the Hakka are not identical to other diasporas, but the parallels are worth a thorough investigation.

If you liked Lawrence’s post, take a moment to enjoy his work on Degenerate Trucks (complex adaptive systems) or his Notes on the neural systems of sponges. If you’re looking for your regular dose of EvX, then you should also check out Lawrence’s blog, where I’m the guest.


The big six civilizations (part 5: China, Treasure Ships, and Eunuchs)


I doubt I need to tell you that China was one of the first six major, basically independent civilizations to emerge in world history, but it was surprisingly late compared to the others.

Anyway, this post is going to only briefly look at the Erlitou, as I assume you are already fairly familiar with Chinese culture, and instead focus on the voyages of the Treasure Ships. And eunuchs.

The Erlitou culture appeared on the Li river around 1900 BC. The largest city, also called Erlitou, may have been home to 18,000-30,000 people, before the capital got moved and most of the folks moved away. They may have been the somewhat mythical Xia dynasty, but there isn’t enugh evidence, yet, to prove the association either way.

The Erlitou people had pottery, (and potters’ wheels,) could smelt bronze, were making silk, and raising domesticated plants and animals such as wheat, rice, millet, pigs, and goats. (Rice was originally domesticated in south Asia, but had spread by this point to China.) I believe they also had some form of proto-writing.

They weren’t the first folks in the area–they succeeded the Longshan culture, which had small farming villages and probably morphed into the Erlitou–but they appear to be the first large polity.

Now that’s all well and good, but the interesting stuff came later.

The many helpful comments back on my post, the Hikikomori Nations, pointed me to the naval journeys of Zheng He, who commanded the Chinese navy, battled pirates, and sailed to Indonesia, India, and Africa back in 1405-1433.

Then, almost as suddenly as these “Treasure Voyages” had begun, they ended. Wikipedia explains why:

The treasure voyages were commanded and overseen by the eunuch establishment whose political influence was heavily dependent on imperial favor. However, within Ming China’s imperial state system, the civil government were the primary political opponents of the eunuchs and the opposing faction against the expeditions. Around the end of the maritime voyages, the civil government gained the upper hand within the state bureaucracy, while the eunuchs gradually fell out of favor after the death of the Yongle Emperor.

This left me scratching my head. Eunuchs were a political block in early 15th century China?

The Wikipedia page on Eunuchs helpfully explains:

In China, castration included removal of the penis as well as the testicles. …

From ancient times until the Sui Dynasty, castration was both a traditional punishment … and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service. Certain eunuchs gained immense power that occasionally superseded that of even the Grand Secretaries. Zheng He, who lived during the Ming Dynasty, is an example of such a eunuch. Self-castration was a common practice, although it was not always performed completely, which led to its being made illegal.

It is said that the justification for the employment of eunuchs as high-ranking civil servants was that, since they were incapable of having children, they would not be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty.

*Mind boggles.*

Sun Yaoting, right, and his biographer, left
Sun Yaoting, right, and his biographer, left

The last Imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died in December 1996.

Here’s an Australian article about poor Sun:

For centuries in China, the only men from outside the imperial family who were allowed into the Forbidden City’s private quarters were castrated ones. …

Sun’s impoverished family set him on this painful, risky path in hopes that he might one day be able to crush a bullying village landlord who stole their fields and burnt their house.

His desperate father performed the castration on the bed of their mud-walled home, with no anaesthetic and only oil-soaked paper as a bandage. A goose quill was inserted in Sun’s urethra to prevent it getting blocked as the wound healed.

He was unconscious for three days and could barely move for two months. When he finally rose from his bed, history played the first of a series of cruel tricks on him – he discovered the emperor he hoped to serve had abdicated several weeks earlier.

Sun was eight years old at the time.

The young ex-emperor was eventually allowed to stay in the palace and Sun had risen to become an attendant to the empress when the imperial family were unceremoniously booted out of the Forbidden City, ending centuries of tradition and Sun’s dreams.

“He was castrated, then the emperor abdicated. He made it into the Forbidden City then Pu Yi was evicted. He followed him north and then the puppet regime collapsed. He felt life had played a joke at his expense,” Jia said.

If you’re curious, Yinghua Jia wrote a whole book about Sun’s life, The Last Eunuch of China. (It has 4.5 stars.)

You know, growing up, I heard fairly frequently about Chinese foot-binding (done to women) and harems (in various countries.) There was a fairly frequent intellectual subcurrent of “historical cultures were mean to women.” NO ONE EVER MENTIONED THE EUNUCHS.

Okay, carrying on: so there were apparently enough men whose parents had thought it a good idea to lop of their genitals in order to get them a job that they constituted an opinion-making polity within the Chinese government, and got into conflicts with the Confucian scholars, who I assume hadn’t been horrifically mutilated by their parents.

The Treasure Voyages were thought up by the Eunuchs, and the admiral of the Treasure Fleet, Zheng He, was a eunuch:

Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435), often spelled Cheng Ho in English, was a Hui court eunuch, mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during China‘s early Ming dynasty. Born Ma He, Zheng commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. …

As a favorite of the Yongle Emperor, whose usurpation he assisted, he rose to the top of the imperial hierarchy and served as commander of the southern capital Nanjing (the capital was later moved to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor). …

Zheng He was born into a Muslim family.[7][10][11]

He was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty.[14][15] His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan.[7] His grandfather carried the title hajji.[1][16] His father had the surname Ma and the title hajji.[1][7][16] The title suggests that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.[1][7][16] It also suggests that Zheng He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and that he could speak Arabic.[17]

Zheng He had a distinguished career in the army before becoming head of the Chinese navy.

It is generally accepted (based on Ming dynasty records) that Zheng He died in 1433 at Calicut in India during the return leg of the seventh voyage and was buried in Calicut or at sea,[48] although some theories, based on artifacts associated with him and believed to be from later than 1433, posit that he died shortly after that voyage in 1434[48] or early 1435.[49]

A tomb was built for Zheng He in Nanjing. This is usually believed to be a cenotaph containing his clothes and headgear as his body was buried at sea or in Calicut, but other theories exist as to whether Zheng He was buried in Nanjing, and if so, where. In 1985, a Muslim-style tomb was built on the site of the earlier horseshoe-shape grave.[50] He adopted the eldest son of his elder brother, who was awarded a hereditary officer rank in the imperial guard.

The voyages of Zheng He
The voyages of Zheng He

As for the Treasure Fleet itself:

The grand project resulted in seven far-reaching ocean voyages to the coastal territories and islands in and around the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond. … The first three voyages reached up to Calicut on India’s southwestern coast, while the fourth voyage went as far as Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Afterwards, the fleet made voyages farther away to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.

While the voyages did result in better maps, they weren’t exploratory, like Columbus’s–the Chinese were already well aware that India and Africa existed before they set out:

Chinese seafaring merchants and diplomats of the medieval Tang Dynasty (618—907) and Song Dynasty (960—1279) often sailed into the Indian Ocean after visiting ports in South East Asia. Chinese sailors would travel to Malaya, India, Sri Lanka, into the Persian Gulf and up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq, to the Arabian peninsula and into the Red Sea, stopping to trade goods in Ethiopia and Egypt (as Chinese porcelain was highly valued in old Fustat, Cairo).[11] Jia Dan wrote Route between Guangzhou and the Barbarian Sea during the late 8th century that documented foreign communications, the book was lost, but the Xin Tangshu retained some of his passages about the three sea-routes linking China to East Africa.[12] Jia Dan also wrote about tall lighthouse minarets in the Persian Gulf, which were confirmed a century later by Ali al-Masudi and al-Muqaddasi.[13] Beyond the initial work of Jia Dan, other Chinese writers accurately described Africa from the 9th century onwards; For example, Duan Chengshi wrote in 863 of the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade of Berbera, Somalia.[14] Seaports in China such as Guangzhou and Quanzhou – the most cosmopolitan urban centers in the medieval world – hosted thousands of foreign travelers and permanent settlers. Chinese junk ships were even described by the Moroccan geographer Al-Idrisi in his Geography of 1154, along with the usual goods they traded and carried aboard their vessels.[15]

Giraffe brought back on one of Zheng He's voyages, a gift to the Emperor from Somalia
Giraffe brought back on one of Zheng He’s voyages, a gift to the Emperor from Somalia

Nor was trade the main point, because Chinese merchants were already doing plenty of trade. Rather:

The Chinese expeditionary fleet was heavily militarized and carried great amounts of treasures, which served to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. They brought back many foreign ambassadors whose kings and rulers were willing to declare themselves tributaries of China. During the course of the voyages, they destroyed Chen Zuyi‘s pirate fleet at Palembang, conquered the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom of King Alekeshvara, and defeated the forces of the Semudera pretender Sekandar in northern Sumatra.

There is some debate about exactly how big the Treasure Ships were, but the general consensus appears to be that they were some of (if not the) biggest in the world at the time, and carried about 27,000 people. (Total, not per boat.)

Due to bad record keeping (more on this later,) there is some debate (or spirited fantasy) about where, exactly, Zheng He (and other Chinese admirals) sailed:

He is best known for his controversial book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, in which he asserts that the fleets of Chinese Admiral Zheng He visited the Americas prior to European explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492, and that the same fleet circumnavigated the globe a century before the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan. …

Menzies states in the introduction that the book is an attempt to answer the question:

On some early European world maps, it appears that someone had charted and surveyed lands supposedly unknown to the Europeans. Who could have charted and surveyed these lands before they were ‘discovered’?

In the book, Menzies concludes that only China had the time, money, manpower and leadership to send such expeditions and then sets out to prove that the Chinese visited lands unknown in either China or Europe. He claims that from 1421 to 1423, during the Ming dynasty of China under the Yongle Emperor, the fleets of Admiral Zheng He, commanded by the captains Zhou Wen, Zhou Man, Yang Qing, and Hong Bao, discovered Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Antarctica, and the Northeast Passage; circumnavigated Greenland, tried to reach the North and South Poles, and circumnavigated the world before Ferdinand Magellan.

Unfortunately, it looks like Menzies massively over-reached and doesn’t provide much proof, as many of his reviewers point out.

Our original question that started this whole quest was whether the Chinese discovered Australia (or New Zealand) before the Europeans. (And not Taiwanese-descended Polynesians, who obviously got to NZ first.)

According to Mega-Tsunamis, Chinese Junks, and Port Philip Bay (a very speculative article linked in the comments on the original post):

In 1450 AD, the catastrophic comet Mahuika descended upon the coast of New Zealand. Reputed to be twenty-six times as bright as the Sun, it discharged electrically and shattered Admiral Zhou Man’s Chinese fleet of some sixty ships. The fleet supported a thriving Chinese colony of Han, Tang and Song, mining gold, jade and antimony in New Zealand. The comet’s screaming noise blew out the sailors’ eardrums; they received horrific burns. …

These facts are recorded in the meticulous fifteenth century records of Chinese ambassador Zheng He. Historian Gavin Menzies claims that over nine hundred ships failed to return to China from Pacific expeditions in that tragic year.

I don’t know how much of this comes directly from Menzies’ work vs. other peoples’ speculations, but since Zheng He died in 1433 (or maybe 1435, at the latest,) I don’t think he was writing very much about comets in 1450. Further, I find it unlikely that Admiral Zhou Man was commanding a fleet of Chinese ships in 1450, given that the last Treasure Voyages ended in 1433, after which official Chinese sentiment turned against the voyages and the ships were left to rot in their docks. Wikipedia notes:

In the Ming court, the civil officials were the faction who were against the voyages.[143][156][168] In contrast, the eunuch establishment stood at the head of the fleet and the expeditions.[140][141][156][168] The civil officials condemned the expeditions as extravagant and wasteful.[168][169] Traditionally, they were political opponents of the eunuch establishment,[140][156][168] but also to the military establishments who crewed the fleet.[156] … On cultural grounds, the hostility came forth due to the trade and acquisition of strange foreign goods which stood in contrast to their Confucian ideologies.[171][172][168][169] The undertaking of these expeditions only remained possible as long as the eunuchs maintained imperial favor.[141][173]

The Hongxi Emperor was fiercely against the treasure voyages throughout his reign.[80] After the advice of Xia Yuanji, he ordered the cessation of the treasure voyages on 7 September 1424, the day of his accession to the throne.[93]

After 1433, the civil officials succeeded in halting subsequent maritime expeditions.[170] The ships were left to rot, while their lumber was sold for fuel in Nanjing.[170] The mariners were reassigned to load grain on barges of the Grand Canal and to build the emperor’s mausoleum.[170] After the voyages, subsequent Ming emperors would reject the Yongle Emperor’s policy of bringing the maritime trade into the structure of the tributary system.[140]

It also looks like there was some effort to suppress or destroy records of the voyages, (leaving ample room for folks like Menzies to speculate on what might be missing,) so that future leaders wouldn’t get the wrong idea and try to recreate them.


From 1405 to 1433, large fleets commanded by Admiral Zheng He—under the auspices of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynastytraveled to the Indian Ocean seven times. This attempt did not lead China to global expansion, as the Confucian bureaucracy under the next emperor reversed the policy of open exploration and by 1500, it became a capital offence to build a seagoing junk with more than two masts.[16] Chinese merchants became content trading with already existing tributary states nearby and abroad. To them, traveling far east into the Pacific Ocean represented entering a broad wasteland of water with uncertain benefits of trade.

While trade continued, official support and imperial navies did not, largely justified by the Haijin doctrine, which banned maritime shipping in 1371 and enforced to varying degrees over the years:

In the second month of the first year (1661) of Kangxi, the Qing court issued an imperial decree: The sea shore inhabitants will be ordered to move inland 50 li, to curb their links with the Taiwan rebels under Koxinga. Soldiers then moved in and set up the boundary: in just three days, all houses were razed to the ground and all inhabitants evacuated. … Warnings were placed on notice boards stating that “Anyone who dares to step over the border line shall be beheaded!” “Persons found a few paces over the border line, shall be beheaded instantly.”

This is, however, well after the time period we are discussing. It looks like the main reason the Treasure Voyages were canceled (aside from eunuchs vs. Confucian conflicts) is that the Mongols became a problem (the Mongols were frequently a problem, after all,) and China had to devote its energies to defending its land borders rather than sailing about the ocean.

Perhaps the best evidence either way would be maps:

Gangnido map
Gangnido map
Selden Map
Selden Map
page from the Mao Kun map, showing the South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands
A page from the Mao Kun map, showing the South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands

These are the maps I’ve found so far, none of which show Australia or New Zealand. The Mao Kun map is supposed to be based of Zheng He’s maps, and is divided into 40 pages, showing the coasts of China, India, east Africa, etc.

The Seldon Map, from the early 1600s, while very good, does not show Australia, and the Gangnido map (and its later, updated copies,) which people think may show the Arabian peninsula, Africa, the Mediterranean, and part of Europe on its left side, (but strangely, the Malay Peninsula and India were smooshed together into the left-hand side of the big China blob, according to the Wikipedia talk page.)

At any rate, it looks like Australia and New Zealand didn’t make it onto the maps until much later–if they were known to the Chinese, they were probably regarded as unimportant due to lack of valuable trade goods or political states to trade ambassadors with.

I find the difference between the official Chinese reaction to the Treasure Voyages and the European reaction to Columbus’s discoveries remarkable.


The Hikikomori Nations

The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare defines hikikomori as people who refuse to leave their house and, thus, isolate themselves from society in their homes for a period exceeding six months.[2] (wikipedia)

The Hikikomori Nations:


Text from the seclusion edict of 1636:

“No Japanese ship (…), nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoever acts contrary to this, shall die, and the ship with the crew and goods aboard shall be sequestered until further orders. All persons who return from abroad shall be put to death. Whoever discovers a Christian priest shall have a reward of 400 to 500 sheets of silver and for every Christian in proportion. All Namban (Portuguese and Spanish) who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the Onra, or common jail of the town. The whole race of the Portuguese with their mothers, nurses and whatever belongs to them, shall be banished to Macao. Whoever presumes to bring a letter from abroad, or to return after he hath been banished, shall die with his family; also whoever presumes to intercede for him, shall be put to death. No nobleman nor any soldier shall be suffered to purchase anything from the foreigner.”

Obviously Japan was the original Hikikomori country. “Sakoku” or “closed country” is the term used to describe Japan’s foreign policy between 1633, when the Tokugawa shogunate decided to kick out almost all of the foreigners and outlaw Christianity, and 1853, when Commodore Perry arrived.

Oh, look, I found the relevant Polandball comic:

ojHujNhThe Sakoku period is very interesting. The Shogun basically decided to severely reduce contacts with due to concerns that the Portuguese and Spanish were destabilizing the country by importing guns and converting the peasants to Christianity. The revolt of 40,000 Catholic peasants in the Shimbara Rebellion was the final straw–the shogun had 37,000 people beheaded, Christianity was banned, and the Portuguese were driven out of the country. (The now largely empty Shimbara region was re-populated by migrants from other parts of Japan.)

Shimbara was the last major Japanese conflict until the 1860s, after the US re-introduced guns.

During the Sakoku period, Japan carried on trade with the Chinese, Koreans, Ainu, and Dutch (who were more willing than the Spaniards and Portuguese to leave their religion at the door.) I believe that internal movement within Japan was also greatly restricted, with essentially passports required to travel from place to place.

According to Wikipedia, “The [Edo] period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population*, popular enjoyment of arts and culture, recycling of materials, and sustainable forest management. It was a sustainable and self-sufficient society which was based on the principles of complete utilization of finite resources.[1]

*The population doubled during the early part of the Edo period, then leveled out.

It was illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration (1868).

North Korea is obviously the most extremely isolated country on earth today, except for North Sentinel island, which is technically part of India but no one can go there because the natives will kill you if you try. At least North Korea occasionally lets in basketball stars or students or something, though personally, I’d rather take my chances with the Sentinelese.

Ahahaha I think I am going to spend the rest of my post writing time reading Polandball comics.

Okay, I lied, I will write a real post.

So North Korea is a lot like Edo Japan, only without the peace and stability and the most people eating, though to be fair, there were famines in Edo Japan, too, it was just considered normal back then.

I don’t think I really need to go into detail about North Korea to justify its inclusion in this list.


According to this article I was just reading in Harvard Mag, Myanmar has fewer cell phones than North Korea. Myanmar has spent most of the post-WWII period as a military dictatorship cleaved by civil war and cut off from the rest of the world. Socialism has gifted Myanmar with one of the world’s widest income gaps and one of the lowest Human Develop Index levels–making it one of the world’s worst non-African countries. (And one of the most corrupt, ranking 171 out of 176 in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Despite recent reforms, the country is still largely off-limits to outsiders:

Since 1992, the government has encouraged tourism in the country; however, fewer than 270,000 tourists entered the country in 2006 according to the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board.[250]

much of the country is off-limits to tourists, and interactions between foreigners and the people of Myanmar, particularly in the border regions, are subject to police scrutiny. They are not to discuss politics with foreigners, under penalty of imprisonment and, in 2001, the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board issued an order for local officials to protect tourists and limit “unnecessary contact” between foreigners and ordinary Burmese people.[254] …

According to the website Lonely Planet, getting into Myanmar is problematic: “No bus or train service connects Myanmar with another country, nor can you travel by car or motorcycle across the border – you must walk across.”, and states that, “It is not possible for foreigners to go to/from Myanmar by sea or river.”[255] There are a small number of border crossings that allow the passage of private vehicles, such as the border between Ruili (China) to Mu-se, …

In regards to communications infrastructure, Myanmar is the last ranked Asian country in the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index (NRI) – an indicator for determining the development level of a country’s information and communication technologies. With 148 countries reported on, Myanmar ranked number 146 overall in the 2014 NRI ranking.[340] No data is currently available for previous years.


Isolationist Butan couldn’t stand in starker contrast to Myanmar. Sure, it’s almost impossible to immigrate to Bhutan, (unless you are Indian,) but if you do manage to get in, they probably won’t kill you!

A tiny country at the top of the Himalayas, Bhutan has dispensed with this “GDP” concept and instead claims to be trying to maximize “Gross National Happiness.” Bhutan has so far resisted the siren call of “modernization,” opting instead to try to retain its traditional culture. The government only allowed TV into the country in 1999 (“In his speech, the King said that television was a critical step to the modernisation of Bhutan as well as a major contributor to the country’s gross national happiness … but warned that the “misuse” of television could erode traditional Bhutanese values.)

Last time I checked, it cost $250 a day to visit Bhutan, and it is the only country I know of that has completely banned smoking.


Nepal has historically been isolated,due to being on top of the Himalayas, but it has a lot of tourists these days. I don’t know how open the country is otherwise.

Tibet: See Nepal

North Sentinel Island

North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman Island chain, is technically owned by India, but anyone who tries to set foot on it gets poked full of holes by the natives, so no one goes there.


Okay, I now China has historically been way more open to trade and contact with other countries than everyone else on this list. But I got to thinking: why didn’t China discover Australia?

I mean, it’s not that far away, and there isn’t that much open ocean to cross–it’s mostly island hopping. Sure, PNG seems a bit inhospitable and full of cannibals, but Australia, from what I hear, is a pretty nice place. So why were the Dutch and the Brits the first folks to actually record Australia on their maps? The Chinese seem to have had a pretty decent navy. (I have a vague memory of having read about China having sent its navy out on an expedition that reached Africa, came back and never went out again.)

China also has a great big wall on its northern border (but if you had the Mongols on your northern border, you’d have a great big wall, too.)


What about Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia? Do any of them qualify?