WHEN CHINA RULED THE SEAS: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1403-1433 by Louise Levathes. (Simon & Schuster: $23; 256 pp.) Off the coast of what is now Kenya, tribesmen watched dumbstruck as dozens of ships, scores of them, a city of ships, appeared over the horizon, ships 400 feet long with sails of red silk, with serpents' eyes painted on their prows, with thunderous drums, with hundreds of horses aboard, and 28,000 men and treasures not yet dreamed of in Africa. The year was 1418. Columbus would not be born for 33 years.

It could have been a turning point in history, should have been. The Middle Kingdom was preeminent, as well, in science, mathematics, medicine, art, commerce, technology, while Europe was just stumbling out of the Middle Ages, a raggedly clutch of states ignored by the lordly Chinese as good for only wine and wool. What wealth existed beyond China was to be found in India, Malaya, the Persian Gulf. All deferred to China; all paid tribute. There was no limit to China's influence.

And then it stopped.

Levathes, probing and synthesizing contemporary Ming Dynasty accounts, writes an absorbing adventure story of which the West remains largely ignorant. Her history revolves about Zhu Di, one of China's rare megalomaniacal emperors (self-styled "Lord of the Realm of the Face of the Earth"), and his brilliant, steadfast lieutenant, Zheng He, a Muslim, a eunuch and commander of the fabled Treasure Fleet.

Why did the enterprise stop abruptly after 30 years? Levathes tells it best, but blame--or credit--the post-Zhu-Di Confucians, who insisted, quaintly, that the welfare of the people was more important than profit, that maintaining garrisons halfway around the word was foolish. Writes Levathes: "It would take European colonial powers another 400 years to reach the same conclusion."

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