(1371 - 1435 CE)
(also known as Zheng He)
THE GREAT FLEET
Ancient China never pushed its trade with other countries. To do so, would be to admit that it was not self-sufficient. As a result, it had no national navy of any consequence and the vessels from China that visited Indian and Arab ports were small junks, usually individually sailed by private traders.
Then, for a period of 28 years, everything changed! Countries as far away as Java, India, Arabia and Africa saw for themselves the huge might and grandeur of the new Chinese fleet: 300 ships with 37,000 men. The vessels ranged in size from the largest, the Treasure Ship carrying 9 masts and 444 feet long, down to the smallest, the Combat Ship which carried only 5 masts and measured 180 feet. (Christopher Columbus’s “Santa Maria” was only 85 feet long). The Admiral of this fleet was Cheng Ho.
Cheng Ho was a Muslim who came from a rebel family in the south of China and had, at age 10, been seized by the Chinese army. Like many other prisoners of the time, he was castrated. Now, as a eunuch, he struggled to survive. But his brilliance and tenacity, plus his imposing presence, led him to be a house-servant to a great prince.
After Cheng Ho helped the prince overthrow the prince’s nephew, Cheng became very influential in the Chinese royal court. Being a eunuch, he was trusted not to tamper with the emperor’s wives or concubines, and had constant access to the new Emperor, Yung Loo.
Cheng Ho starts his voyages
Yung Loo decided that all the surrounding countries should be paid a visit by a Chinese fleet, not to attack them, or even trade with them, but simply to assert China’s pre-eminence in the World. The commander of this magnificent fleet was Cheng Ho.
Ship-building technology in the Ming dynasty had improved considerably and westerners were astonished by how much bigger and better their ships were than their European counterparts: bulkheads, a series of upright partitions, divided the ship into compartments to prevent the spread of leakage or fire. These compartments were watertight and could be flooded and filled with fish. A stern gallery suspended a huge balanced rudder and magnetic compasses were used in conjunction with elaborate navigational charts.
Cheng Ho’s first voyage in 1405 reached India. Subsequent voyages went to the Persian Gulf and later down the African coast to Zanzibar. He made seven voyages in all and one can only imagine the amazement of the distant people who, for a thousand years, had known only small Chinese junks, suddenly being overwhelmed by the many storied ships, vaster than anything they had seen before.
The purpose of the Chinese fleet is difficult for the western mind to grasp. They were designed to display the splendor and power of the new Ming dynasty, to make “the whole world” into voluntary admirers of the one and only center of civilization — China.
Cheng sought no slaves or treasure — to do so would have implied that China needed what other lands possessed. The Middle Kingdom, China, needed nothing from anybody and had nothing to learn from anybody. They were therefore not traders or conquerors, they brought only gifts and a show of force, and expected tributes in return.
WHAT HE LEFT BEHIND
The Chinese were tolerant of all religions and, in the town of Galle in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), there is a stone slab inscription in 3 languages — Chinese, Tamil and Persian and dated 1409. It records a visit by Cheng Ho’s fleet.
The Chinese text is quite long but reads in part; “This Imperial Majesty, Emperor of the Great Ming, has dispatched the Grand Eunuch Cheng Ho … to set forth his utterances before the Lord Buddha … The temples and monasteries of Ceylon’s mountainous isle … are enlightened by Thy … power.”
With this, came gifts from China to Lord Buddha, including 1,000 pieces of gold, 5,000 pieces of silver and other gifts.
Historians long believed that this was the basic message to all recipients. However, closer examination showed that the Tamil version (that the locals could read) replaced Buddha with the Hindu God Visnu. Persians reading it would find that it glorified Allah and the Muslim saints. Cheng was therefore well prepared to flatter all competing religions in the region.
The recipients of this show of force and generosity, rushed to pay appropriate tributes to the Emperor. They sent ambassadors carrying messages and gifts with the fleet or on their own.
THE FAMOUS GIRAFFE
The tribute that created the greatest stir was an animal never before seen in China — a giraffe. The Chinese saw it as the mythical k’I-liu (somewhat like the western unicorn), a good omen for the future and an indication of the Emperor’s “abundant virtue.” Cheng Ho sailed to Malindi on the African coast, to obtain more giraffes. Then, after his seventh trip in 1433, the voyages came to a sudden end. A new regime not only cancelled further fleet visits, but imposed savage punishments on Chinese venturing abroad. The fleet was reduced from 400 to 140. The reasons were both internal squabbling and the huge expense of financing the voyages. Was it not better to use the imperial treasure on water conservation and granary projects?
THE END OF THE CHINESE NAVY
What was happening was the re-emergence of the traditional Chinese isolationist policy, which became more and more strict. By 1500 it was a capital offense even to build a sea-going junk with more than two masts. By 1525 coastal officials were ordered to destroy all such ships. This coincided with the arrival of Europeans in Asian waters and the eventual dominance of the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French navies. So as Europe broadened its horizons, China closed its doors.
How different the world might have been if the Chinese policy had been expansion instead of contraction. For one, Australia’s national language would probably have been Mandarin, not English.
Cheng Ho (Zheng He) died in 1435 and in 1985 his tomb was restored. There are 28 steps ascending to his tomb, four sets of seven representing his seven voyages.
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