The Ming Dynasty’s naval ambitions
Zheng He was China’s greatest seafarer, commanding seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 that sailed deep into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and reached as far as East Africa and the Middle East.
What makes these voyages even more noteworthy is that they happened almost 90 years before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Columbus sailed west with 90 sailors on three ships, the biggest of which was about 85 feet long. But Zheng He was at the head of armadas of 300 boats, carrying as many as 30,000 men. His largest treasure junks, or baoshan, were said to be four times the size of the Santa Maria, the flagship in Colombus’ fleet.
Who was Zheng He?
He was born in Yunnan, then an independent state, to a Muslim family from the Hui ethnic group. Captured as a boy during a Ming invasion, he was brought as a slave to the imperial household after being castrated (a common practice: eunuchs were used to avoid doubt on the paternity of children born to the emperor’s consorts).
However, eunuchs at the court were often promoted to high rank and Zheng He became a key advisor to the Emperor Yongle after serving impressively in military campaigns against the Mongols. In the first three decades of the fifteenth century he would then lead his seven great voyages on behalf of the emperor, trading and collecting tribute thousands of miles from home.
Why are his treasure fleets so famous?
Zheng He’s voyages are widely celebrated as evidence of China’s spirit of exploration (championed in the present day by the country’s lunar expeditions or its breakthroughs in quantum computing).
Yet although he was an exceptional navigator, Zheng He was not necessarily a true pioneer: his fleets followed routes mapped out by merchants dating back as far as the Han Dynasty. What was more impressive about the voyages was their scale. They were completed with hundreds of ships, many built in proportions that wouldn’t be surpassed until the long-distance steamers of the nineteenth century (i.e. 400 years later).
Some naval historians aren’t convinced by the chronicles of the time, arguing that ships with nine masts, 12 sails and four decks would have pushed the limits of what was possible in wooden construction. But it’s generally agreed that the largest junks would still have been at least 800 tonnes in weight, featuring innovations like bulkheads that seafarers wouldn’t implement in Europe until many years later.
Another common theme about the voyages among the Chinese is that Zheng He came in peace, never as an oppressor. The observation is supposed to contrast with the behaviour of the European powers during the so-called ‘Century of Humiliation’. But it’s not completely accurate: there were confrontations in places like Java and Ceylon, and cases in which prisoners were brought back to Nanjing.
Of course, the very purpose of these voyages was as a fifteenth century version of ‘shock and awe’, projecting Chinese power into faraway lands. The fleet brought gifts of gold, silver, porcelain and silk for their hosts, but the quid pro quo was that these peoples paid homage to Yongle, the second Ming emperor. Ultimately, Zheng He’s priority was to promote the glory of the new Ming Dynasty.
Why else is Zheng He’s story interesting today?
The eunuch admiral died on his way home from an expedition to the Red Sea in 1433 and in the years that followed the Ming court turned against maritime adventure. The reasons are disputed: one theory is that the political elite was alarmed at the rise of a merchant class; another is that there was a need to refocus on the Mongol threat in the north; a third was the huge financial drain of building and manning the treasure fleets.
When another voyage was suggested to the court in 1477, the Ministry of War removed all mentions of Zheng He from the archives, damning them as “deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people’s eyes and ears”. “Although he returned with wonderful precious things, what benefit was it to the state?” the ministry also asked.
The Ming turned further inwards, making it punishable by death to build a boat with more than two masts and later ordering the destruction of all ocean going vessels.
But Zheng He stands out in a period when the Middle Kingdom was actively engaged with other parts of the world. As such, he started to get more mention again in the wake of China’s ‘opening up’ under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s. Even then Deng was cautious, urging his compatriots to “hide brightness and cherish obscurity”, but under Xi Jinping, the current president, China is steering a more confident course overseas.
Perhaps that’s why Zheng He’s feats are back in focus, as ancient forerunners of policies like the Belt and Road Initiative and the push to internationalise the Chinese currency, the yuan. With China’s companies trading and investing in international markets like never before, and millions of its students and tourists venturing overseas, the case is being made for a more expansive nation, drawing on the inspiration of Zhang and his treasure fleets.
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