In Nanjing today you can see a full-size replica of the treasure ship of Admiral Zhen He, the most famous sailor in Chinese history. It is 400 feet long – nearly five times the size of the Santa Maria, in which Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492.And this was only part of the fleet of more than 300 huge ocean-going junks....With combined crew of 28,000, Zheng He’s navy was bigger than anything seen in the West until the First World War... In a series of six epic voyages between 1405 and 1424, Zhen He’s fleet ranged astoundingly far and wide...But then, in 1424, this harmony was shattered ... Zheng He’s voyages were immediately suspended ...From 1500 anyone in China found building a ship of more than two masts was liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime even to go to sea in such a ship. The records of Zheng He’s journeys were destroyed.
Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson, The Penguin Press, 2011