The Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368 AD) collapsed almost ninety years after it had conquered and unified all over the China. While Yuan regime was defeated, the Dadu (present-day Beijing) was captured by the Ming troops and the usurpation of imperial power by Ming dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang, more commonly known as the Hongwu Emperor of Ming dynasty (1368 – 1398 AD), finally launched the establishment of the Son of Heaven of a Great Ming dynasty in China. During this early Ming Dynasty, China was considered as one of the most prosperous economically and technologically foremost empires in the world. As Ebrey notes that Europe was not yet a force in Asia and the dynastic Chinese sustained to look on the outer world in traditional terms. China was also regarded as the center of Asia at the beginning of 15th century and the idea of “Middle Kingdom” (Zhong guo 中国 or Central Beauty, a key political term in modern China) began to accelerate at that time.1) Hongwu Emperor was not interested in expanding commercial trade at all. He implemented the Hai jin policy which the Emperor banned the maritime shipping and private foreign trade outside of the tributary system, and he chose a path of its diplomatic and tribute mission with overseas countries.
In the first years of his reign, in July 1370, Hongwu Emperor rushed to dispatch envoys to overseas, including Vietnam, Java, Champa, Koryo, and Japan to announce the establishment of the new dynasty of China.2) In 1378 AD, the Emperor also sent envoys to designate prince Parameswara as a king of Srivijaya. However, Majapahit kingdom in Java regarded this action as a defiance to Majapahit’s authority and legitimacy over Srivijaya that had been under its domination since 1275 AD, and the envoys were then killed in the quarrel.3)
After Hongwu Emperor passed away in 1398 AD, the record of Ming dynasty said that its foreign relation was under a vacuous stage for four years. There was a bloody four-year rebellion against his nephew, Jianwen Emperor, and in 1402 AD the Hongwu’s son, Yongle Emperor (1402 – 1424 AD) seized the throne. He began a multifaceted project to expand Ming power over land and sea. In October 1402 AD, Yongle Emperor summoned the Ministry of Rites to handle foreign relations. At the same time, the Emperor assigned a remarkable Chinese Muslim commander and navigator, Zheng He or known as Admiral Cheng Ho to organize and manage the largest ships on seven sea voyages of exploration (1405-1433 AD) to the lands around the Asia countries. Frequently portrayed as a great mariner in the legendary nautical tradition of Islam, Admiral Zheng He’s premier qualification for the position of commander-in-chief of the treasure fleets was not his expertise as a captain, but rather in his pertinacious loyalty to Yongle Emperor. As a young Chinese-Muslim boy, Zheng He had been taken into the camp of General Fu Youde as a prisoner during the Ming battles against the Mongols’ troops and Yunnan was falling down under the Ming forces. He was emasculated and obliged to provide the service in Yongle’s household while the latter he was still an imperial prince and a commander in his father’s (Ma Haji) army. As Zheng He grew up, he became a great warrior of early Ming dynasty, serving with prominent bravery during his patron’s quest for the throne.4)
Espoused by 62 large and 255 small ships containing 27,000 passengers deriving from different elite class, the Admiral Zheng He led 7 naval expeditions to Southeast Asia, Middle East and east coast of Africa in the span of 28 years during the Ming Dynasty. The scale of Zheng He’s fleet was unprecedented in world history. The large treasure ships used during the expeditions were purported to be 440 feet long and 180 feet wide. Throughout his voyages, Zheng He brought Chinese tea, porcelain and silk products to foreign countries and also brought back exotic goods to the Ming court such as spices, precious stones and gold. Ma Huan 馬歡 (1380–1460 AD), a Chinese translator for Zheng He’s voyages, wrote a journey book, “Yin Ya Shen Lan” (瀛涯勝覽) listing ‘blue porcelain’ as one of the products traded and reported that it was popular in Dai Viet (Now Vietnam), Java and Sumatra (present-day Indonesia), Sri Lanka, and Dovar (now the province of Zufar, Oman). He also included comments on Jingdezhen blue and white wares as highly valued in these foreign countries. Yongle Porcelain was distributed via both land and sea, often in exchange for species, precious stones and gold. The latter notice is translated variously, as “The people of this country are fond of Chinese porcelain with blue flowers, musk, flowered and plain linen or silk, glass beads, etc.5)
Despite Zheng He brought back the exotic luxury goods, but his expeditions were so sumptuous that the costs exceeded the benefits. Increasing costs of voyages induced political crisis during the later years of Yongle’s reign. According to Dreyer’s analysis, “hostility to the acquisition of extraneous and superfluous items from foreign countries had been a staple of Neo-Confucian doctrine for centuries.” The elite of civil officials had built up animosity toward eunuchs as political power. Since they were against projects associated with eunuchs in general, they were also actively against Zhen He’s “thriftless” expedition project and made a general effort to reverse it. The voyages of Zheng He fostered diplomatic relations, commercial trades and cultural exchange between China and foreign countries. Though the original and main purpose of Zheng He’s expeditions to foreign countries was political and diplomatic, Emperor Yongle also intended to awe the rulers of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean into sending tribute to China.6)
In 1424, Zheng He was again sent on a mission to Palembang (Sumatra), Shi Jinqing, the governor of the Xuanweisi of Palembang, having died, Zheng He was sent to appoint his son Shih Chi-sun (his daughter according to Ma Huan), as the new Chinese governor of Palembang. Zheng He went alone in this voyage, non in command of a sea-going fleet. On August 8, 1424, the Yongle Emperor died, and it ended the consistent imperial support Zheng He’s expedition under the Yongle Emperor’s son, the Honxi Emperor洪熙 reigning from 1424 to 1425 AD. Shortly after the death of Hongxi’s Emperor, the Ming reign was under the next successor, the grandson of Yongle, Emperor Xuande (1426 – 1435 AD). The diplomatic mission and tributary system between early Ming dynasty to overseas, including Java, Malacca, Vietnam and Palembang empires through maritime was more intensified. Finally, the command of officially Zheng He’s seventh and final voyage from 1431 to 1433 was an important culmination point of mission to Java and Palembang (Sumatera) kingdoms. According to Information Office of the People’s Government Fujian Province, it explores that on the 11th day of the first month of Emperor Xuande, the fleet sailed for another 25 days to arrive at Java. On June 16, it left Java and sailed for 11 days to arrive at Palembang. On July 1, the fleet left Palembang and sailed for seven days to arrive at Malacca, and on August 8, it left Malacca and sailed for 10 days to arrive at Sumatra.7)
Leading six trade and diplomatic voyages launched between 1405 and 1422 AD during the Yongle reign, Zheng He was summoned to complete the Ming’s seventh and final voyage in 1431 AD under Xuande Emperor of Ming dynasty. The life of the legendary “Admiral,” Zheng He, who commanded these voyages, gives evidence of how power relationship outside the traditional channels of Confucian scholarship and government were treated by China as a threat to political stability. Zheng He’s expedition served both the internal and external political motives and interests of Yongle Emperor. He was not only as prominent admiral of Ming dynasty, but he also acted as a diplomatic representative of the early Ming court, who strove to establish the relations with the overseas sovereigns he visited and encouraged them to send tribute to Ming court. For Ming dynasty, to establish foreign tributary missions could not only reinforce the central power of China in Asia but also extended the legitimacy of the reign of Ming dynasty and domestic stability. Zheng He obtained a large amount of exotic foreign goods that could satisfy his desire and the emperor. Admiral Zheng He died in 1433 AD in the age of 62 years at his sea adventure between 1431 and 1433, and likely he was buried off the coast of India. The legacy of Zheng He’s voyages is inherited by the modern Chinese government today, and it is a political instrument to bolster and establish relations with other countries.
Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History: China, Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition, 2010, p. 209
W. Wang, Ming Taizu shilu 明太祖实录 (Ming veritable record of Emperor Taizu of the Ming dynasty), 1991, p. 112
Tan Ta Sen, Cheng Ho and Islam in Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2009, pp. 175 – 176.
Steven L. Danver (Ed), Popular Controversies in World History: Investigating History’s Intriguing Questions, Volume One, Prehistory and Early Civilizations, ABC-CLIO LLC, United State of America, 2011, p. 83.
Peter Francis, Asia’s Maritime Bead Trade: 300 B.C. to the Present, University of Hawai Press, Honolulu, 2002, p. 70.
Edward L. Dreyer, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405 – 1433, 2006, p. 24, 27 & 102.
Office of the People’s Government Fujian Province, Zheng He’s Voyages Down the Western Seas, China International Press, 2005, 44.