While the Islamic Empire spread from Spain to India, Chinese ships were traveling to Japan, Arabia, and even to the southern tip of Africa. The Chinese sailors traveled in junks, some of which were giant ships that displaced more than 1,000 tons. (Columbus’s ships averaged about 100 tons in size.)
Scholars are not certain exactly when the Chinese reached the coast of Africa, but some texts suggest as early as the 800s. In the 1400s, a Chinese explorer named Cheng Ho led seven sea expeditions, reaching the islands of Java and Sumatra, the coasts of India, and ports in Persia, where the Muslims were astonished by the size of the Chinese fleet.
Squadrons of Cheng Ho’s ships may have traveled around Africa and explored its western side, decades before the Europeans would reach the continent’s southern tip.
But these expeditions were to be China’s last. Confucianism, which scorned the outside world, was becoming the dominant philosophy in China, causing the Chinese to abandon their explorations and turn inward. At about this time, Europe was fully emerging from its former isolation.