Zheng He was considered as one of China’s renowned explorers during the Ming dynasty, although much debate remains about his exploratory abilities. During this era, China played a pivotal role in the global trade as it was the sole supplier of silk goods to the world. China in turn, imported spices, incense, and cotton goods. In this article, the author seeks to find the objective of Zheng He’s voyages, and in doing so, he takes an opposing stand to the hypothesis that Zheng He was an accomplished explorer.
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The author bases his argument on the fact that Zheng He’s fleet was heavily armed, and was more suited to providing a security function rather than an exploratory one. A second basis is made on the fact that Zheng He did not discover any new lands but went to already established lands. The author of the article goes on to outline facts to support his hypothesis.
First the author analyzes Zheng He’s journeys. Zheng He’s initial three journeys were identical, and he used trade routes that were known to Arabs, Indians and Indonesians for thousands of years. With regards to Chinese traders, the routes were familiar to them for several hundreds of years.
The trade route covered modern day Vietnam, Java, Indian coast and back to China relying entirely on the monsoon patterns. The fourth voyage took a different turn in that Zheng He went further on to Hormuz from India as opposed to going back to China, as was the case in the first three voyages. This could hardly be described as an exploratory expedition, as it was an established trade center where caravan routes from Middle East and Central Asia met the sea trade route of Indian Ocean.
It is in the fifth voyage that some exploration is seen, whereby Zheng He went to Arabia and further on to the east coast of Africa. Zheng He landed along the coast of modern day Somalia and Kenya. Zheng He’s sixth journey, hurriedly arranged as the emperor put a temporary ban on treasure voyages, took him to distant places.
His last journey, done for old time’s sake, was made at a time when the political climate was changing, and the new emperor frowned upon trading with foreigners. In as much as Zheng He reached Africa in his last three voyages, this is not a reason to call him a formidable explorer.
This voyage followed the same route as the fourth voyage that reached Hormuz. Smaller boats from the Armada made their way to the East coast of Africa as well as the Arabian coastline. The author’s argument is that seven men reaching Arabia can hardly be called exploratory as Zheng He was a Muslim and his father and grandfather had probably travelled to Mecca, as they had the title of pilgrim.
The author then goes on to trash Joseph Needham’s, an authority on China, view regarding Zheng He. Needham’s view is that The Ming Dynasty was the greatest influence on Chinese maritime exploration. This, he single handedly, attributes to Zheng He. The author also gives credit to Mills by agreeing with him that Zheng He did not discover any new lands
The second argument that the author makes is that the political climate of the day favored trade across the Chinese borders. Emperor Hongwu looked down on trading with foreigners, as well as receiving tributes from far flung countries. He effectively banned mission tributes carrying treasure to China, and this had the effect of turning numerous Chinese maritime traders into pirates.
After Emperor Yongle, who was his son took over power, the seas were opened and China could once more trade with the world, but at the risk of being attacked by pirates lurking in the seas around the Chinese seas. The pirates mainly raided ships carrying gifts to China; hence they did not reach their intended destination. The ships carried exotic gifts meant for the Chinese emperor.
Zheng He’s fleet comprised of large numbers of military personnel, whose main purpose was to intimidate and quickly ensure submission from subjects along the trading routes. The subjects would then pay tribute to the Chinese emperor using cotton goods and spices. Zheng He‘s primarily role seemed to be more of a policing role for bringing law and order on the trade routes.
Zheng He had immense resources at his disposal, implying that he was trusted by the rulers of his time. The ships Zheng He travelled in were over two hundred feet long and carried six hundred to seven hundred men. In his first voyage, when he attacked a pirate ship, it is reported that he led twenty seven thousand men.
During the Song era, sea power was viewed as a powerful arsenal, and hence, could have equipped Zheng He. It is pertinent to note that during his early years, Zheng He came out more as a “policeman” than a trader or explorer. On his first voyage, he attacked Chen Zuyi, a substantial pirate fleet, killing five thousand pirates. On his third voyage, he was attacked by the King of Ceylon who condoned piracy and specialized on preying on the tribute missions to China.
It was only after bringing peace to the sea lanes that Zheng He was able to conduct some form of exploration, but this again must have been approved by the emperors as the author states that Emperor Yongle and Emperor Xuande both had appetites for exotic gifts. Following Xuande’s death, his mother took over the reins of power on behalf of Xuande’s son and the voyages were banned as they believed that they were expensive to the economy.
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The author implies that Zheng He’s role was to control and provide protection along the sea lanes. We see here an invisible hand of rulers who enjoyed exotic luxuries, and thus, encouraged voyages. As the rulers changed, priorities changed in that treasure voyages became less important.
All in all, Zheng He was more of a “policeman” equipped and sent by the rulers of the day to secure their interests, which were mission tributes. The Chinese rulers before and after Zheng He did not believe in trading with foreigners.
His exploratory nature was a byproduct of being well equipped in terms of ships and military personnel, so he was able to travel far after securing the sea lanes and subduing any resistance that he met along the way. Zheng He’s fleet provided protection to Malacca against the Thais, proving the point even more that Zheng He was a “policeman”, as opposed to an explorer.
In conclusion, the author has managed to bring forth different perspectives as to Zheng He’s voyages, which show that he played more of a security role whose aim was to instill and maintain law and order on the sea highways. This was in a bid to enable a favorable climate for ships in transit carrying precious cargo.