Monday, July 18, 2005

Zheng He the Explorer

Quick: Name one great Asian mariner. Chances are you would be unable to name even one. The vast oceans seemed to have intimidated the Oriental people--either that or wanderlust at the high seas was simply a peculiar trait of the Western man. Was it?

Perhaps, but there was one great Asian voyager that predated the exploits of Magellan and Columbus: Admiral Zheng He who six hundred years ago (the anniversary was last July 11) set sail to see the world. Beijing Review has a cover story commemorating the coming 600th anniversary of the ocean expeditions of Zheng He.

What was remarkable about Zheng He's expeditions?

1) The size of his fleet was unparalled in world history and would not be seen again until World War II. While Magelan had five ships, Zheng He had 240 ships in each of his voyages, carrying about 27,000 men. And his voyage took place 87 years before Columbus, 92 years before Vasco da Gama and 116 years before Magellan.

2) He didn't conquer. Unlike the Western voyagers who laid claim to the lands they "discovered,' Zheng He didn't require the natives to pledge allegiance to Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. In fact, the main reason for Zheng He's voyages was simply to showcase the power of China and develop cordial relations with other countries. It was simply a trip of good will and he brought gifts to the countries he visited. Everywhere he went, he left good impressions of the Middle Kingdom.

3) Zheng He was a eunuch--and a Muslim.

China has an ulterior motive in trumpeting the expedition of Zheng He and its 600th anniversary. It is pointing out that there is no need to fear China as a rising world power because when it was powerful and had the opportunity to conquer, it didn't.

Taiwan, I guess, is another matter altogether.


R. O. said...


Penang Lily said...

Whether China's intentions 600 years ago were peaceful or not are still subject to debate.

From The Star newspaper (Malaysia), 19 July 2005

(I'm pasting the full text because The Star links tend to expire. I hope that's okay to do!)

Debate over Admiral’s sea expeditions


MALACCA: A talk on Admiral Zheng He’s voyages to foreign lands in the early 15th century ended with a debate over whether the nature of the Ming Dynasty seafarer’s missions was friendly or aggressive.

While there were historical records portraying the visits as peaceful calls, Ming chronicles such as the Ming Shi Lu and the Ying Yai Sheng Lan written by Ma Huan who accompanied Zheng He, reported that the expeditions were military in nature, said Dr Geoff Wade yesterday.

The historian had earlier concluded his talk by saying that China, through Zheng He, had established proto-colonialism in the region by controlling ports and trade from the Indian Ocean to South-East Asia to gain economical and political benefits.

However, there was no real Chinese rule over foreign people or territory, said Dr Wade, who was on a lecture tour speaking on The Zheng He Anniversary: Reassessing, Commemorating and Utilising the Eunuch Voyages.

Replying to lecture moderator Datuk Tee Eng Tuan, he said that Zheng He’s expeditions had enabled the Ming emperor Yong Le to establish military and trade control over the ports.

Tee, who is a lawyer and a former chairman of the Malacca Chinese Assembly Hall, was questioning Dr Wade on whether Imperial China had conquered other parts of the world like the Portuguese did in Malacca, the Dutch in Indonesia and the Spanish in the Philippines.

“Did Zheng He attack Vietnam during his seven voyages?” Tee asked.

Dr Wade replied: “Not that I know of, but Vietnam was already under Yong Le then.”

In his lecture, organised by The Star and the Asian Centre for Media Studies, the historian said that modern day China was now promoting Zheng He’s motives as friendly and using this legacy of non-belligerence to support its profile.

“History is not dead. You can see how things that happened 600 years ago are still taking place now,” he said.

Through Zheng He, he added, China’s message was that the nation did no harm to others in the past, in its attempt to assuage any consternation over the nation’s rise as a political and economic power in the 21st century.

The talk was the first of four of his lecture tour in Malaysia, which is part of a series of events to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Admiral Zheng He’s visit to Malacca in 1405. The next lecture will be on Thursday at Menara Star in Petaling Jaya.

Dr Wade is a historian with interests in China and South-East Asian historical interactions and comparative historiography. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Ronnel said...

I wish I were in Malaysia now to attend those lectures.Extremely interesting! I'll be in malaysia end of the month thopugh. I hope there would be more interesting lectures to attend like this by then.

I am wondering whether Zheng He visited Sulu, souht of the Philippines. If the Beijing Review map of his voyages is accurate, Zheng He did not. But the Sultan of Sulu who visited China visited the capital Beijing during the Ming Dynasty. So perhaps he was invited to China by Zheng He. Otherwise, he would not have braved the long journey to see the emperor.

Ronnel said...

I guess Zheng He's exploartions were not entirely devoid of self-interest for China. Some say the voyages were made to secure trade routes. Very plausible. I would love to have heard about this accounts of Ma Huan about the military nature of Zheng He's explorations.

Nick Joaquin, a famous writer in the Philippines, hates Asia (read: China) for simply trading with the Philippines. He said it didn't even bother to transfer knowledge about porcelain-making.