China was never closed to the world. The myth of Chinese civilization huddled behind the Great Wall, isolated and insular, is as much a product of Western imagination as any historical reality. For thousands of years, travelers, traders, scholars, and missionaries explored the overland routes and sea lanes connecting China with the rest of the world.
Perhaps best known is Marco Polo, who recorded an account of his long journey from Venice to Khanbaliq, today’s Beijing, in the late 13th century. Equally famous, at least in China, is Admiral Zheng He, who led a series of oceanic sorties throughout the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, reaching the coastlines of the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern Africa. They were the best known but far from the only explorers to make the long voyage between East and West.