By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
From 1400, China began to spread its realm and thus started a series of voyages by Zheng He. The explorer, later dubbed as ‘Chinese Columbus’ sailed to several countries, received tributes, and bestowed gifts in exchange. But was it just that, a diplomatic mission? Did Zhen He also tried to impose one faith on the people of these countries, just like the European explorers?
Zheng He’s Diplomatic Missions
The aim of those missions was not to impose one faith, but to commemorate the visits made by Zheng He, for which he placed stone monuments, like one in Sri Lanka, invoking each of the major religions of the area; Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. Local rulers from foreign countries would be brought to China aboard those ships, to honor the emperor on official visits.
Power Visits by the Chinese Fleet
The impact of those visits was immense for local rulers who were concerned with the details of administering their kingdom but aware of the Chinese civilization, because of regular trips made by individual Chinese merchants, bringing desirable goods to their kingdom.
Without any advance word or warning, on the ocean horizon appeared a fleet of Chinese ships sailing directly towards them. The eunuch admiral commanding that fleet would arrive at the court with gifts of silk and other precious things, but the message was to communicate China’s power and prestige by just seeing that fleet for the first time.
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Zheng He’s Great Voyages Discontinued
In 1433, those great voyages stopped. What if the fleets had continued and ranged even further, rounded the southern tip of Africa and continued westwards, discovering the American continents? The author, Gavin Menzies claimed precisely that in his book, entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America. He claimed that the Chinese landed in present-day Oregon, and argued that their fleets visited Australia, and Italy where they touched off the Renaissance. No historian agreed with that argument, but it summed up the tantalizing sense of global possibility and what might have been.
The reason those voyages discontinued was because of the death of Zheng. He died of an illness on the seventh voyage, on his way back home in 1433. The project of the voyages also fell victim to office politics, the bureaucratic infighting of the imperial court, where a professional civil service class of Confucian scholars was engaged in a conflict with the class of eunuchs, handling Chinese commercial relations. The Confucian scholars claimed that the travels were a waste of funds and lives, and in that dispute the scholars won. The voyages were called off. Those bureaucrats, to prevent anyone in the future reviving the idea of the voyages, destroyed the records of Zheng He’s travels in 1477.
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Ruling by the Imperial Government
By 1500, the imperial government declared that anyone who built a ship with more than two masts, able to travel far, would be condemned to death. In 1525, the government went further to make it illegal to build any ship sailing the high seas. Economic pressures played a role in some of those decisions, as internal improvements within China made domestic trade more profitable than speculative overseas commerce. But the question remained as to why did the voyages not go further, as part of a larger campaign of discovery? Because from the beginning, those voyages were not about exploration or the discovery of new lands, the scientific collection of specimens or mapping of territories. In fact, they covered routes that already were familiar to many private Chinese merchants and traders.
Communicating ‘Soft Power’
The real point of the voyages was to spread awe, to communicate China’s ‘soft power’; the glory, the impressiveness, and the riches of Chinese culture, which the imperial Chinese elite saw as central to the world as a whole. The expeditions were not about finding something new but confirming something that was already known; the universal authority of the Chinese emperor and China’s civilization. The voyages had happened because the emperor wanted to display his soldiers in strange lands to manifest the wealth and power of China.’
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Explaining the Voyages
Zheng He prepared for the seventh voyage in 1431, and set up a stone monument explaining those travels from his perspective. In his words, the voyages were about spreading the influence of the Ming dynasty, which had unified the lands within the four seas and under the canopy of heaven.
The voyages of the fleet went far into remote regions, meeting foreigners whose languages needed double translation. Meaning, their language needed to be translated into another language that was known to Chinese translators, and then into Chinese.
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African Giraffe and the Miraculous Qilin
As it was clear that the voyages were about the assertion of authority, several African giraffes were brought to China as tribute. When they were displayed in China, they seemed exotic, but not fundamentally new. Learned scholars in China said that those were in fact an animal already known from Chinese myth, the miraculous Qilin, said to be a kind of Chinese unicorn. That rare beast, the Qilin, appeared only at times of good government, when the emperor ruled to bring order and prosperity, so the Qilin was a sign of the mandate of heaven.
An official of the Imperial Academy thought that the king’s virtue equaled that of heaven and its blessings had spread far and wide and the harmonious vapors had emanated a Qilin, as an endless bliss to the state, who had succeeded to the throne to accomplish perfect order.
Power Vacuum in the Indian Ocean
The voyages had been about authority, and the imperial Chinese authority proved by the favor of heaven, that the mission was accomplished. But, turning back those treasure fleets left a power vacuum in the Indian Ocean, which was filled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British. That was a turning point that could have happened, but did not, with decisive consequences.
Common Questions About Turning Points in Modern History
The significance of Zheng He’s Voyages is for diplomatic and trade relations with other countries. However the main purpose of the voyages was to spread awe, to communicate China’s ‘soft power’, of Chinese culture.
The reason Zheng He’s voyages stopped was due to his death, on the seventh voyage, on his way back home in 1433. The project of the voyages also fell victim to office politics, the bureaucratic infighting of the imperial court, where a professional civil service class of Confucian scholars was engaged in a conflict with the class of eunuchs, handling Chinese commercial relations.
Zheng He was sent on his voyages by Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty.
According to a Chinese myth, the Qilin, is a kind of Chinese unicorn, with a horn, the hoofs of a horse, the tail of an ox, and the body of a deer, and skin that was dappled with spots which appears only at times of good government, when the emperor ruled to bring order and prosperity.