I remember reading about the exploits of China’s legendary eunuch admiral, Zheng He (sometimes rendered Cheng Ho), as almost a casual footnote in the history books. All the big names in navigation were, of course, European: Ferdinand Magellan, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus. Occasionally I’d come across a reference to Leif Eriksson’s discovery of North America in 1001; or an apocryphal tale of some intrepid (or gloriously intoxicated) Irish monk crossing the Atlantic in a coracle centuries before Columbus stumbled upon the West Indies.
It wasn’t till fairly recently that the world has seen a resurgence of scholarly interest in the geopolitical significance of Zheng He’s Seven Voyages between 1405 and 1433. Gavin Menzies published in 2002 a best-seller called 1421 in which he postulates that Zheng He had despatched a few ships from his gigantic Treasure Fleet to explore the oceans west of Africa, and that the Chinese had successfully circumnavigated the world a full century before Magellan (more on this at www.1421.tv). Menzies suggests, furthermore, that Zheng He’s scoutships may have visited North America (where Ming pottery shards were recently unearthed), sailed as far south as Australia, and perhaps even the Antarctic. The eunuch admiral’s navigators produced detailed maps which found their way to Europe, initiating a fever of maritime exploration at the beginning of the 16th century that saw Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England competing for supremacy at sea as a means to world domination.
In any case there can be no doubt whatsoever that the absolute master of the global seaways in the 15th century was Admiral Zheng He - loyal emissary of the Ming Court, supreme commander of the imperial Treasure Fleet, fearless explorer, and diplomat extraordinaire. Eunuch jokes aside, Zheng He was a ballsy larger-than-life hero who towered above his peers at a standing height of nine Chinese feet (approximately six-foot-eight by modern measure).
Zheng He’s name at birth was Ma Sanpao. He belonged to a Central Asian tribe known as the Semur which converted to Islam before migrating to Yunnan Province. When the Chinese army invaded Yunnan in 1382, the 11-year-old Ma Sanpao was taken captive, castrated, and given as a personal slave to Prince Zhu Di, who seized the Ming throne from his elder brother Zhu Yunwen in 1402, proclaiming himself Emperor Yong Le (“Everlasting Joy”). During Zhu Di’s military campaign against his sibling, Ma Sanpao distinguished himself as a cunning and fearless fighter. Yong Le was determined to extend tne glory of the Ming Dynasty to the far ends of the earth. Having rebuilt the Great Wall so that China’s rear end was covered, he conferred on Ma Sanpao, his brave and trusted eunuch warrior, the nom de guerre “Zheng He” and offered him the title, “Admiral of the Western Seas.”
|Atmospheric cutaway of a Chinese Treasure Ship from the voyage of Zheng He in 1405 (Stephen Biesty 2011)|
Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He embarked on seven voyages that established Chinese naval and diplomatic supremacy in 36 countries - including Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, The Philippines, Brunei, Java, Aceh, Temasek, the Melaka Sultanate, Siam, India, Ceylon, the Maldives, Persia, Arabia, the Swahili Coast of Africa, North America, and the Pacific Islands. Zheng He’s fleet was truly massive. One biographer writes: “No other nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them.” On certain voyages Zheng He’s Grand Fleet carried as many as 28,000 crew and the decks were lined with huge tubs of earth for planting vegetables and fruit trees. Fresh bean sprouts - and tofu in every imaginable form - were a staple diet at sea, providing the crew sufficient nutrients to minimize scurvy on long voyages.
Emperor Zhu Di was succeeded in 1424 by his son Zhu Gaozhi, whose 9-month reign was fraught with palace intrigue and financial anxiety. He ordered an abrupt halt to all treasure ship expeditions and concentrated on internal affairs, believing that China’s security lay in a robust policy of agrarian reform. Some researchers speculate that, during the 8-year hiatus between his sixth and seventh voyages, Zheng He was charged with the establishment of an Imperial Intelligence Agency, a prototype CIA, in effect.
The next Ming emperor, Zhu Zhanji, ascended the throne in 1425 and was somewhat more outward-looking, reinstating the practice of receiving tributes from far-flung vassal states – but it wasn’t till January 1432 that Zheng He embarked on his last and largest voyage with 317 ships. Sensing it might be his final journey, the Admiral erected a stone pillar - inscribed with a detailed account of his previous voyages - at a temple in Chang Le on the Fujian Coast dedicated to the Celestial Spouse (a Taoist goddess). In the 1930s this important artefact was rediscovered, leading to a revival of academic interest in Zheng He’s remarkable accomplishments.
According to most accounts Zheng He (already ailing before he set sail) died on the return voyage in 1433 and was buried with full honors at sea; but we shall never know if he was reunited with his “missing parts” as was customary for imperial eunuchs. The Chinese believed that the deceased could otherwise never reincarnate as a man. Emperor Zhu Zhanji survived Admiral Zheng He by only two years and his passing marked the end of China’s seafaring era. Confucian court advisors advocating national introversion overruled the imperial eunuchs who sought to build upon Zheng He’s maritime achievements. The great shipyards at Longjiang were shut down, Zheng He’s voluminous journals were removed from the imperial archives (and destroyed or stolen), and in 1500 it was decreed that anyone building seaworthy vessels with more than two masts would be sentenced to death. In 1575 the emperor ordered the arrest of all merchants trading with foreigners and the destruction of all oceangoing ships. And thus the torch of naval exploration and systematic colonization passed into European hands.
|Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, 51 Lorong Hang Jebat, Melaka|
Melaka’s central location on the sea route between the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal made it Zheng He’s main port-of-call on all seven of his voyages. In 2005, to mark the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first naval expedition, the multimillion-ringgit Cheng Ho Cultural Museum was officially inaugurated in Melaka, on the riverbank site of the Admiral’s original godown.
This massive project was funded by private capital largely raised by well-known Zheng He authority, Professor Tan Ta Sen, and the Gwei family (who contributed hundreds of priceless porcelain pieces to the excellent Ming exhibit on the second floor).
According to Gwei Tze Co, who took me on a tour of the museum, part of the godown also served as living quarters for one of Zheng He’s captains, whose descendants can still be found in various parts of Malaysia. He showed me a couple of wells dug during Zheng He’s stopovers, a source of potable water after all these centuries. Admiring a gilded bust of the Eunuch Admiral in the foyer, I sensed that this wasn’t so much a museum as a shrine to a great hero of antiquity who has attained cult status in certain quarters. Indeed, Zheng He devotees in various parts of Central Java continue to revere him as a deity every year in a ritual procession from Semarang’s Tay Kak Sie temple to a mysterious cave temple called Gedung Batu, said to have been built by Zheng He’s master pilot.
The Cheng Ho Museum also features a life-sized tableau commemorating Parameswara’s visit in 1411 to the Ming Court, where he was formally recognized by China as the King of Melaka. A Sumatran prince-in-exile, Parameswara sought refuge from his enemies in a sleepy fishing village on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula in the late 1390s and transformed it into the great Kingdom of Melaka.
|Parameswara is recognized as King of Melaka by the Ming Emperor|
Other exhibits include maps, paintings, a scale model of the Treasure Fleet, maritime artefacts from the Ming era, and dioramas offering a vivid glimpse of life amongst the Chinese community in Melaka after Zheng He’s arrival. If you happen to be in the vicinity, a visit to the thoughtfully appointed Cheng Ho Cultural Museum at 51 Lorong Hang Jebat, Melaka, will prove stimulating and thought-provoking. View an audiovisual introduction to Zheng He, or purchase books and DVDs on his remarkable transformation from eunuch to deity. Call 606-2831135 for more information.
[This article first appeared in The Hilt, December 2006. Uploaded 27 February 2007, reposted 14 November 2014]