ZHENG HE: THE GREAT CHINESE EUNUCH EXPLORER

ZHENG HE

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Zheng He (also known as Chêng Ho, Cheng Ho, Zheng Ho, and the Three-Jewel Eunuch) was a Chinese navigator and eunuch (a man without a penis or a set of testicles) whose achievements as an explorer rank with those of Columbus and Magellan but who has been largely forgotten because his travels had little impact on history. [Source: Frank Viviano, National Geographic, July 2005]

Zheng Ho (pronounced “jung huh”) embarked from China with a huge fleet of ships and journeyed as far west as Africa, through what the Chinese called the Western seas, in 1433, sixty years before Columbus sailed to America and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to get to Asia. Zheng also explored India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Arabia with about 75 times as many ships and men as Columbus took with him on his trans-Atlantic journey.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Zheng went all the way to the east coast of Africa. This was impressive enough, but Chinese merchants had traveled this far before. What was even more impressive about these voyages was that they were done with hundreds of huge ships and tens of thousands of sailors and other passengers. Over sixty of the three hundred seventeen ships on the first voyage were enormous "Treasure Ships," sailing vessels over 400 hundred feet long, 160 feet wide, with several stories, nine masts and twelve sails, and luxurious staterooms complete with balconies. The likes of these ships had never before been seen in the world, and it would not be until World War I that such an armada would be assembled again. The story of how these flotillas came to be assembled, where they went, and what happened to them is one of the great sagas — and puzzles — in world history. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

A stelae erected by Zheng He in Fujian in China reads: “We...have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, fully unfurled like clouds day and night, continue their course [as quickly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.”

Zheng He was very tall and a man of incredible ambition. Some descriptions say he stood seven feet tall, possessed a waist that was five feet in circumference and had “a voice as loud as a huge bell." He was a devout Muslim and supposedly earned his nickname “Three Jewel Eunuch” for the gems he gave out as gifts. His lack of recognition as a great explorer is partly because the Chinese never went to any length to declare he was a great explorer.

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volumes 1 and 2 (London: John Murray, 1903) are part of the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). “Marco Polo's Asia,” by Leonardo Olschki (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960). When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes. Books on 18th and 19th Century European Explorers of Western China: The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence and Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk. Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

Zheng He's Life

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Eunuch boy

Zheng He (1371 to 1435) belonged to the Hui nationality. His childhood name was Sanbao (or bao). He came from Hedai village in present-day Jinning county, Kunyang prefecture in landlocked Yunnan Province, several weeks away from the nearest port. He came from a family of devout Muslims. His grandfather and father went to Mecca, and they no doubt told Zheng He about their travels to the west. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

He was given the name Ma He at birth. His father was a rural official when Yunnan was a Mongol Province. He was killed in the Ming Chinese invasion of Yunnan in 1382 that ousted the Mongols. Ma is the Chinese transcription for Mohammed. Zheng was captured in the same Ming army invasion of Yunnan that left his father dead. The Ming General Fu Youde and his troops encountered the 10-year-old Zheng on a road and questioned him about the whereabouts of a Mongol leader. The boy said, “He jumped into a pond.” The general thought the boy was either cleverly concealing the truth or was quite brave. He took the boy prisoner.

In 1385, Zheng He was ritually castrated and trained as an imperial eunuch (See Eunuchs). Afterwards he was placed in the household of the 25-year-old Zhu Di, the forth son of the emperor and the Prince of Yan. Over the next 20 years Zheng He advanced in the court of Zhu Di as the prince advanced and became one of the princes most important aides. Because he was intelligent and industrious, and rendered services many times, he was deeply appreciated by Zhu Di. Zheng was a key strategist in the rebellion that allowed Zhu Di to overthrow his nephew, the Emperor, and become the Yongle Emperor.

Zheng He’s Career

Ma He was renamed Zheng He after distinguishing himself in the battle of Zhengluba, near Beijing, and given a 72-room mansion in the Ming capital of Nanjing. One of the first things the Emperor Yongle did after he seized power was sponsor Zheng He's voyages.

During his career as a naval commander, Zheng He negotiated trade pacts, fought pirates, installed puppet kings, and brought back tribute for the Yongle Emperor in the form of jewels, medicines, exotic animals, among other things. His armada traveled and traded with not only what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, but even with the Arabian ports of modern day Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and as far as Somalia and Kenya.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ At ten years old he was captured by soldiers sent there by the first Ming emperor intent on subduing the south. He was sent to the capital to be trained in military ways. Growing up to be a burly, imposing man, over six feet tall with a chest contemporaries said measured over five feet around, he was also extremely talented and intelligent. He received both literary and military training, then made his way up the military ladder with ease, making important allies at court in the process. When the emperor needed a trustworthy ambassador familiar with Islam and the ways of the south to head his splendid armada to the "Western Oceans," he naturally picked the talented court eunuch, Ma He, whom he renamed Zheng. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Great Ambitions of the Yongle Emperor


Yongle

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was a Chinese dynasty with a Chinese imperial family, as distinct from the dynasty that came before it (the Mongol, or Yuan, dynasty of Chinggis and Khubilai Khan) or the one that followed it (the Manchu, or Qing, dynasty). To demonstrate Ming power, the first emperors initiated campaigns to decisively defeat any domestic or foreign threat. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

The third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Di or the Yongle Emperor, was particularly aggressive and personally led major campaigns against Mongolian tribes to the north and west. He also wanted those in other countries to be aware of China's power, and to perceive it as the strong country he believed it had been in earlier Chinese dynasties, such as the Han and the Song; he thus revived the traditional tribute system. In the traditional tributary arrangement, countries on China's borders agreed to recognize China as their superior and its emperor as lord of "all under Heaven." These countries regularly gave gifts of tribute in exchange for certain benefits, like military posts and trade treaties. In this system, all benefited, with both peace and trade assured.

Because the Yongle emperor realized that the major threats to China in this period were from the north, particularly the Mongols, he saved many of those military excursions for himself. He sent his most trusted generals to deal with the Manchurian people to the north, the Koreans and Japanese to the east, and the Vietnamese in the south. For ocean expeditions to the south and west, however, he decided that this time China should make use of its extremely advanced technology and all the riches the state had to offer. Lavish expeditions should be mounted in order to overwhelm foreign peoples and convince them beyond any doubt about Ming power. For this special purpose, he chose one of his most trusted generals, a man he had known since he was young, Zheng He.

Background Behind Zheng He’s Voyages

China began extending its power out to sea during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) when it invaded Japan and Java. Even before that it established a Maritime Silk Road that carried more goods than the overland Silk Road. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: To satisfy growing Chinese demand for special spices, medicinal herbs, and raw materials, Chinese merchants cooperated with Moslem and Indian traders to develop a rich network of trade that reached beyond island southeast Asia to the fringes of the Indian Ocean. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Into the ports of eastern China came ginseng, lacquerware, celadon, gold and silver, horses and oxen from Korea and Japan. Into the ports of southern China came hardwoods and other tree products, ivory, rhinoceros horn, brilliant kingfisher feathers, ginger, sulfur and tin from Vietnam and Siam in mainland southeast Asia; cloves, nutmeg, batik fabrics, pearls, tree resins, and bird plumes from Sumatra, Java, and the Moluccas in island southeast Asia. Trade winds across the Indian Ocean brought ships carrying cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and especially pepper from Calicut on the southwestern coast of India, gemstones from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), as well as woolens, carpets, and more precious stones from ports as far away as Hormuz on the Persian Gulf and Aden on the Red Sea. Agricultural products from north and east Africa also made their way to China, although little was known about those regions.

“By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China had reached a peak of naval technology unsurpassed in the world. While using many technologies of Chinese invention, Chinese shipbuilders also combined technologies they borrowed and adapted from seafarers of the South China seas and the Indian Ocean. For centuries, China was the preeminent maritime power in the region, with advances in navigation, naval architecture, and propulsion. From the ninth century on, the Chinese had taken their magnetic compasses aboard ships to use for navigating (two centuries before Europe). In addition to compasses, Chinese could navigate by the stars when skies were clear, using printed manuals with star charts and compass bearings that had been available since the thirteenth century. Star charts had been produced from at least the eleventh century, reflecting China's concern with heavenly events (unmatched until the Renaissance in Europe).”


Models of Zheng He's fleet


Zheng He's Expeditions

In the 3rd year of Yongle, under the order of Ming Chengzu Zhu Di, Zheng He and his assistant, Wang Jinghong, led a huge ship team composed of 62 treasured ships and more than 27,000 people,. They started from Liujia port, Suzhou, near Shanghai, and returned after more than two years. When arriving in each place, Zheng He exchanged porcelain, silk, copper and iron wares, gold and silver for local products.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Sponsored by the Yongle Emperor to show the world the splendor of the Chinese empire, the seven expeditions led by Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 were by far the largest maritime expeditions the world had ever seen, and would see for the next five centuries. Not until World War I did there appear anything comparable. Overall He visited more than 30 countries and by some estimates covered 160,000 sea miles (about 300,000 kilometers).

Nayan Chanda wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “On a crisp autumn morning in 1405 ... amid the sounds of drums and gongs, an extraordinary armada of giant ships unfurled its red silk sails and slowly made its way out [the Liujia harbour at the mouth of the Yangzi River] to the East China Sea. Under the command of a tall, ruddy-faced eunuch admiral, Zheng He, more than 300 vessels [some of which were four times the size European caravels, and armed with cannons and a slew of explosive devices], carrying a cornucopia of merchandise as well as 28,000 sailors, soldiers, traders, doctors and interpreters, set out on a voyage to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. It was the beginning of an epic series of voyages ... [that] dazzled maritime Asia and east Africa with the riches of the Middle Kingdom and the display of its political and military power. [Source: "Sailing into Oblivion," by Nayan Chanda, Far Eastern Economic Review, 162/36, September 9, 1999]

All seven expeditions led by Zheng began and ended in Nanjing and stopped at Qui Nhon in Champa (Vietnam), Surabaya in Indonesia, Palembang and Semudera on Sumatra, and the Malabar Coast in India, the source of much of the world's spices and the primary destination of all the voyages. There were side trips to present day Thailand, Bangladesh, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) eastern Malaysia, and the Maldives.

On his voyages to Africa, Zheng gave out gifts from the Chinese emperor, including gold, porcelain and silk. In return, he brought home ivory, myrrh, zebras and camels. But it was a giraffe that caused the biggest stir. The animal is known to have been a gift from the Sultan of Malindi, on Kenya's northern coast, but theories vary as to how exactly it got to China. One account suggests that the giraffe was taken from the ruler of Bengal” who himself had received it as a gift from the Sultan---and that it inspired Zheng to visit Kenya a few years later. [Source: Xan Rice, The Guardian July 25 2010]

Zheng He's Ships

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Early European explorers to China were amazed by how much larger the Chinese ships were than their counterparts in the West. The smallest vessels were five-masted combat ships that measured 180 by 68 feet. The largest were colossal multi-storied ships, 400 feet long, 170 feet across at the beam, with nine masts, a 50,000 square foot main deck and a displacement of 3,000 tons. All the ships of Columbus and de Gama would have fit on the deck of Zheng He’s largest ship.

For centuries, historians thought stories of enormous Chinese ships had to be exaggerations. In 1962, workers unearthed a 36-foot-long wooden steering post in a trench in the Yangtze River in Nanjing. The post was large enough to connect to a rudder that covered an astonishing 452 square feet, large enough to steer Zheng He’s 400-foot-long treasure ship.

The vessels In Zheng He's fleet contained watertight compartments that prevented water in one part of the hull from flooding the whole ship---an advancement first developed by the Chinese in the Han period that would not appear in European vessels for several hundred after Zheng He. The compartments were created from bulkheads, a series of

Purpose of Zheng He's Voyages

One of the primary purpose of the voyages was to pick up and drop off ambassadors, envoys and tributes. Relationships were established with Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms and sultanates from Java to Mecca. States and leaders that recognized Ming supremacy and offered tribute were rewarded with diplomatic recognition, military protection and trading rights. By the end of Yongle’s reign, 30 foreign states had paid official visits to the Chinese Emperor and offered tribute. Most were brought to China in luxurious quarters in the treasure ships.

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Zheng He's tomb

"The Chinese would not establish their own permanent bases within the tributary states," Boorstin wrote," but instead hoped to make 'the whole world' into voluntary admirers of the one and only center of civilization. With this in mind the Chinese navy dared not loot the states that it visited. Zheng He would not seek slaves or gold or silver or spices. Nothing would suggest that the Chinese needed what other nations had." Much has been made about the non-colonial nature of the voyages. But China has done it share of expansionism: a the time of the voyages China was expanding southward and westward into land that traditionally did not belong to the Han Chinese. Some kingdoms along Zheng’s routes were conquered and puppet rulers loyal to the Ming were installed.

On what he thought were possible reasons for the voyages, Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: 1) As state enterprises, the expeditions were very costly. Foreign goods could be obtained more cheaply and with less trouble if foreign merchants came themselves to China or Chinese merchants travelled at their own risk. 2) The moral success of the naval enterprises was assured. China was recognized as a power throughout southern Asia, and Annam had been reconquered. 3) After the collapse of the Mongol emperor Timur, who died in 1406, there no longer existed any great power in Central Asia, so that trade missions from the kingdom of the Shahruk in North Persia were able to make their way to China, including the famous mission of 1409-1411. 4) Finally, the fleet would have had to be permanently guarded against the Japanese, as it had been stationed not in South China but in the Yangtze region. As early as 1411 the canals had been repaired, and from 1415 onward all the traffic of the country went by the canals, so evading the Japanese peril. This ended the short chapter of Chinese naval history. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Purpose of Zheng He’s Voyages: Gunboat Diplomacy?

Dr. Christina Lin of Johns Hopkins University wrote: “With the image of Zheng He and his treasure ships bearing gifts and trade, the Chinese have weaved this into an intricate narrative of a peaceful rise, portraying the swift ascent of Chinese economic, military, and naval power as the latest phase in a benign regional dominance with its provenance in the Ming era... Nonetheless, despite China touting Zheng He’s peaceful intentions, some scholars such as Geoff Wade from National University of Singapore observed the voyages were about ‘gunboat diplomacy’, coercion, and recognition of Ming dominance. While the primary mission of the treasure fleet was to display Ming power and engage in trade, Zheng He had a mandate to also collect tribute and establish ties with rulers all around the Indian Ocean shores. [Source: “Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, January 2015 >>>]

“The purpose was to establish suzerainty under Ming Empire, and this policy was institutionalized later in 1636 when ruler Hong Taiji established Lifan Yuan (various translations as court of colonial affairs, office of barbarian control, office of Mongolian and Tibetan affairs) that became Lifan Bu in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Indeed if submission to the Dragon Throne was not forthcoming, Zheng He did not hesitate to intervene militarily. For example, the ruler of Sri Lanka refused to recognize the emperor and was taken to China as a prisoner, while similar fate befell two rulers in Sumatra. >>>

“Zheng’s missions were intended to exert political and economic control across space rather than territorial control. By controlling economic lifelines of nodal points, networks, ports and trade routes, China was thus able to control trade. In do doing, a dominant maritime power reaps economic and political benefits by taking control of main port polities along major East-West maritime trade networks as well as the seas in between.” >>>

Shipwrecked Chinese in Africa

According to Kenyan lore, reportedly backed by recent DNA testing, a handful of survivors swum ashore. After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay and marry local women, creating a community of African-Chinese whose descendants still live in the area. “ [Ibid]

On the small Muslim East African island of Pate, just off the Kenyan coast, there are people that have lighter skin than most Africans and look, some say, like Chinese. New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof visited Pate. One village elder told him, "Many, many years ago, there was a ship from China that wrecked on the rocks off the coast near here...The Chinese were visitors, so we helped those Chinese men and gave them food and shelter.”


Zeng He map


The elder told Kristof to checkout the village of Shanga on another part of the island. There Kristof met a man who looked Chinese. The man told him, "I am in the Famao clan. There are 50 or 100 of us. Legend has it that we are descended from Chinese...A Chinese ship came along and it hit rocks and wrecked. The sailors swam ashore to the village that we now call Shanga and they married the local women and that is why Famo look so different." Another person told Kristof the Africans gave the Chinese some giraffes (historical records show that Zheng He's expeditions did bring back the first giraffe to China).

The people on in Shanga bury their dead in Chinese-style "turtle shell graves,” beat their drums to Chinese not African rhythms, speak a dialect with Chinese words, and practice a form of basket weaving found in southern China but not in Kenya. Young people from the island who claim to have Chinese ancestry have been given full scholarships to study in Beijing.

In Siyu village, Chinese researchers conducted DNA tests on a Swahili family whose oral history and hints of Chinese facial features led them to believe they were descendants of Zheng's shipwrecked sailors. The tests reportedly showed evidence of Chinese ancestry and a 19-year-old woman called Mwamaka Shirafu was given a full scholarship to study traditional medicine in China, where she remains. “ [Ibid]

Quest for Zheng He’s Ship

In July 2010, a team of 11 Chinese archaeologists arrived in Kenya to begin searching for an ancient shipwreck and other evidence of commerce with China dating back to the early 15th century. The sunken ship is believed to have been part of Zheng He’s mighty armada. [Source: Xan Rice, The Guardian July 25 2010]

A likely shipwreck site has been identified near Lamu island, according to Idle Farah, director general of the National Museums of Kenya, which is working on the archaeology project with its Chinese equivalent and Peking University. “The voyages of the Portuguese and the Arabs to our coasts have long been documented,” Farah told the Guardian. “Now, by examining this shipwreck, we hope to clarify with clear evidence the first contact between China and east Africa.” [Ibid]

The three-year, $3 million joint project forms part of a recent effort by the Chinese government to celebrate the achievements of Zheng. The project will center around the tourist towns of Lamu and Malindi and should shed light on a largely unknown part of both countries' histories. Herman Kiriama, Kenya's head of coastal archeology, said the joint archeological team has also tried to locate the Sultan of Malindi’s original village, which is though to be around Mambrui village, outside Malindi, where Ming porcelain has been discovered. Specialist maritime archeologists from China searched underwater for the ship and other clues. “ [Ibid]


Zheng He map


Legacy of Zheng He and His Voyages

Zheng He died during his last expedition and was buried at sea. He left no autobiography although two stone tablets were raised to record his achievements. Zheng He's expeditions were ultimately renounced. Official records of his expeditions were burned in the 1470s because imperial bureaucrats considered them to be "deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people's eyes and ears." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “These travels of Zheng He seem to have had one more cultural result: a large number of fairy-tales from the Middle East were brought to China, or at all events reached China at that time. The Chinese, being a realistically-minded people, have produced few fairy-tales of their own. The bulk of their finest fairy-tales were brought by Buddhist monks, in the course of the first millennium A.D., from India by way of Central Asia. The Buddhists made use of them to render their sermons more interesting and impressive. As time went on, these stories spread all over China, modified in harmony with the spirit of the people and adapted to the Chinese environment. Only the fables failed to strike root in China: the matter-of-fact Chinese was not interested in animals that talked and behaved to each other like human beings. In addition, however, to these early fairy-tales, there was another group of stories that did not spread throughout China, but were found only in the south-eastern coastal provinces. These came from the Middle East, especially from Persia. The fairy-tales of Indian origin spread not only to Central Asia but at the same time to Persia, where they found a very congenial soil. The Persians made radical changes in the stories and gave them the form in which they came to Europe by various routes—through North Africa to Spain and France; through Constantinople, Venice, or Genoa to France; through Russian Turkestan to Russia, Finland, and Sweden; through Turkey and the Balkans to Hungary and Germany. Thus the stories found a European home. And this same Persian form was carried by sea in Zheng He's time to South China. Thus we have the strange experience of finding some of our own finest fairy-tales in almost the same form in South China. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Zheng He's expeditions led to a wave of Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia. In some places in Indonesia he is regarded as a deity and temples have been built to honor him. The 600th anniversary of the launch of Zheng Ho’s first voyage was celebrated with much fanfare in China and around the world in 2005. A new $50 million museum dedicated to him opened in Nanjing. A major exhibition dedicated to him was staged in Beijing, where the government seems more interested in scoring political points on the peaceful, noncolonial nature of Zheng’s voyages than presenting historical facts. Also in 2005, a rear admiral in the People’s Liberation Army built a replica of one of Zheng’s boat and planned to retrace parts if Zheng’s voyages.

Did Zheng He’s Voyages Bring Down the Ming Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Factions at court had long been critical of the Yongle emperor's extravagant ways. Not only had he sent seven missions of the enormous Treasure Ships over the western seas, he had ordered overseas missions northeast and east, had sent envoys multiple times across desert and grassland to the mountains of Tibet and Nepal and on to Bengal and Siam, and had many times raised armies against fragmented but still troublesome Mongolian tribes to the north. He had embroiled China in a losing battle with Annam (northern Vietnam) for decades (most latterly due to exorbitant demands for timber to build his palace). In addition to these foreign exploits, he had further depleted the treasury by moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing and, with a grandeur on land to match that on sea, by ordering the construction of the magnificent Forbidden City. This project involved over a million laborers. To further fortifying the north of his empire, he pledged his administration to the enormous task of reviving and extending the Grand Canal. This made it possible to transport grain and other foodstuffs from the rich southern provinces to the northern capital by barge, rather than by ships along the coast.

“Causing further hardship were natural disasters, severe famines in Shantong and Hunan, epidemics in Fujian, plus lightning strikes that destroyed part of the newly constructed Forbidden City. In 1448, flooding of the Yellow River left millions homeless and thousands of acres unproductive. As a result of these disasters coupled with corruption and nonpayment of taxes by wealthy elite, China's tax base shrank by almost half over the course of the century.

“Furthermore the fortuitous fragmentation of the Mongol threat along China's northern borders did not last. By 1449 several tribes unified and their raids and counterattacks were to haunt the Ming Dynasty for the next two centuries until its fall, forcing military attention to be focused on the north. But the situation in the south was not much better. Without continual diplomatic attention, pirates and smugglers again were active in the South China Sea.

“The Ming court was divided into many factions, most sharply into the pro-expansionist voices led by the powerful eunuch factions that had been responsible for the policies supporting Zheng He's voyages, and more traditional conservative Confucian court advisers who argued for frugality. When another seafaring voyage was suggested to the court in 1477, the vice president of the Ministry of War confiscated all of Zheng He's records in the archives, damning them as "deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people's eyes and ears." He argued that "the expeditions of San Bao [meaning "Three Jewels," as Zheng He was called] to the West Ocean wasted tens of myriads of money and grain and moreover the people who met their deaths may be counted in the myriads. Although he returned with wonderful precious things, what benefit was it to the state?"

“Linked to eunuch politics and wasteful policies, the voyages were over. By the century's end, ships could not be built with more than two masts, and in 1525 the government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships. The greatest navy in history, which once had 3,500 ships (the U.S. Navy today has only 324), was gone.”

Zheng He, a Symbol of China’s Peaceful Rise?

Dr. Christina Lin of Johns Hopkins University wrote: “With the image of Zheng He and his treasure ships bearing gifts and trade, the Chinese have weaved this into an intricate narrative of a peaceful rise, portraying the swift ascent of Chinese economic, military, and naval power as the latest phase in a benign regional dominance with its provenance in the Ming era. Since 2005 there has been increased writing and research into the Admiral, and on July 11, 2005, China commemorated the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage as National Navigation Day to signal China’s maritime resurgence in the world. [Source: “Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, January 2015 >>>]

“True to form, in December 2008 China signaled its resurgence by deploying naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy exercises. This is followed by subsequent port calls in the following years to the Mediterranean, including a naval training vessel dubbed Zheng He. Nonetheless, despite China touting Zheng He’s peaceful intentions, some scholars such as Geoff Wade from National University of Singapore observed the voyages were about ‘gunboat diplomacy’, coercion, and recognition of Ming dominance. While the primary mission of the treasure fleet was to display Ming power and engage in trade, Zheng He had a mandate to also collect tribute and establish ties with rulers all around the Indian Ocean shores.

“Zheng’s missions were intended to exert political and economic control across space rather than territorial control. By controlling economic lifelines of nodal points, networks, ports and trade routes, China was thus able to control trade. In do doing, a dominant maritime power reaps economic and political benefits by taking control of main port polities along major East-West maritime trade networks as well as the seas in between.

“Thus China appears to be replicating this mission today by investing in various seaports along the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, including Egypt’s Port Said, Israel’s Port Ashdod, Lebanon’s Port Tripoli, and recently Turkey’s Kumport in Ambarli Port Zone. Syria remains the missing link. Without Damascus, there is no “ning jiu li”/cohesion for China’s Silk Road. As such, it would be interesting to see if indeed the Middle Kingdom joins Russia’s military campaign to stabilize Syria in the coming weeks.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Image Sources: Zheng He, wikipedia; 3) Eunuch boy, Brooklyn College; Zheng ship, Ohio State University; Zheng He expeditions, Dr. Robert Perrins, 1421; Zheng He tomb. China Beautiful website ; 1421; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021


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