15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Zhu Zhanji, the Xuande Emperor

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The Xuande Emperor (Born as Zhu Zhanji ), the fifth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)
The Xuande Emperor (Born as Zhu Zhanji ), the fifth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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On June 27, 1425, the Hongxi Emperor’s son Zhu Zhanji (March 16, 1399 – January 31, 1435), at the age of 26  ascended the throne of the Ming dynasty as the Xuande Emperor, the fifth Ming Emperor. His era name “Xuande” means “Proclamation of Virtue“.

The Xuande Emperor continued the liberal policies of  his father, the Hongxi Emperor.

On May 25, 1430, the Xuande Emperor issued an imperial order for the arrangement of the necessary provisions for the dispatch of Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, Li Xing, Zhu Liang, Yang Zhen, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, Yang Qing and others on official business to the countries of the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean).

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The treasure ships of Zheng He (Source: heritageinstitute.com)
The treasure ships of Zheng He (Source: heritageinstitute.com)

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On June 29, 1430, the emperor gave Zheng He command over a seventh and final expedition (1431 – 1433). This was the largest treasure fleet assembled, with more than 300 ships and 27,500 men.

Zheng He’s mission, this time, was to announce the new emperor’s reign to the “distant lands beyond the seas”, to revive the tributary relations promoted during the Yongle Emperor’s reign, and to conquer far-lying foreign lands and bring them into polite submission.

The mission was also, in part, an attempt to restore peace between the two trading partners of China – Malacca and Siam. The ships for this voyage were named befitting their peace mission, such as Pure Harmony, Lasting Tranquility, Kind Repose, etc.

The emperor bestowed on Zheng He the title “Sanbao Taijian“.

On January 19, 1431, Zheng He’s fleet left the shores of Longwan in Nanjing, China.

On February 3, 1431, the fleet arrived at Liujiagang.

Some courtiers of the Ming emperors were apprehensive of the expensive treasure fleets. Zheng He and his associates concerned about being vilified after their death decided to document Zheng He’s previous voyages on a stone tablet. On March 14, 1431, they erected the following [Liujiagang] inscription at the Palace of the Celestial Spouse in Liujiagang, Jiangsu:

We, Zheng He and his companions [including Admirals Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Qing], at the beginning of Zhu Di’s reign received the Imperial Commission as envoys to the barbarians. Up until now seven voyages have taken place and, each time, we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels. We have…reached countries of the Eastern Regions, more than thirty countries in all. We have…beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away, hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, whilst our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing those savage waves.

On April 8, 1431, the fleet arrived at Changle, where they remained until mid-December. On the 11th month of the 6th year of the Xuande reign, they erected the Changle inscription.

Eunuch admiral Hong Bao

In the early 15th century, the Ming emperors Yongle and Xuande, sent a Chinese eunuch named Hong Bao, on overseas diplomatic missions.

In 1412, between the third and fourth voyages of Zheng He’s fleet, the Yongle Emperor sent Hong Bao as the envoy to Thailand.

In 1421, Hong Bao participated in the sixth voyage of Zheng He during which foreign envoys were transported back to their countries, as far as the kingdom of Ormus in the Persian Gulf.

Hong Bao’s name appears in the Liujiagang inscription made by Zheng He. According to the inscription, Hong Bao was one of the five Assistant Envoys.

Ma Huan (c. 1380 – 1460), was a Muslim voyager and translator. He was a Chinese who converted to Islam when he was young. He knew several classical Chinese and Buddhist texts. He learned Arabic to be able to translate.

Ma Huan accompanied Admiral Zheng He on three of his seven expeditions: 4th, 6th and the 7th, to the western oceans.

During the expeditions, Ma Huan took notes about the geography, politics, weather conditions, environment, economy, local customs, even the method of punishment meted out to criminals. After returning home after his first expedition, he began writing a book about it. The final version of his book titled Yingyai Shenglan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores) was ready around 1451.

The American historian Edward L. Dreyer (1940 – 2007) known for his works on the history of the Chinese Ming Empire analyzed the preserved sources about the voyages of Zheng He, in particular Ma Huan’s book. According to Dreyer, Hong Bao was the commander of one of the detached squadrons of Zheng He’s fleet during the Seventh Voyage (1431 – 1433).

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The 7th voyage of Zheng He's fleet. A possible route of Hong Bao's squadron is shown as a dashed line, based on analysis by Edward L. Dreyer. (Source: wikimedia.org)
The 7th voyage of Zheng He’s fleet. A possible route of Hong Bao’s squadron is shown as a dashed line, based on analysis by Edward L. Dreyer. (Source: wikimedia.org)

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Hong Bao’s squadron visited Bengal after separating from the main fleet in Semudera in northern Sumatra or in Qui Nhon in Champa. From Bengal, Hong Bao’s squadron proceeded to Calicut in southern India. On December 10, 1432, the main fleet came straight from Semudera across the Bay of Bengal.

Before leaving Calicut, Hong Bao sent seven of his personnel, including Ma Huan, to Mecca and Medina aboard a native Indian ship sailing to Jeddah. Hong Bao appointed Ma Huan as emissary to Mecca.

While the main fleet left Calicut towards the kingdom of Ormus, Hong Bao’s squadron went from Calicut to various destinations on the west side of the Arabian Sea in southern Arabia and Horn of Africa, including Aden and Mogadishu.

Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang dynasty (618–907) in Kenyan villages. These are  believed to have been brought over by Zheng He’s fleet during the 15th century ocean voyages. According to a local oral tradition, 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors, part of Zheng’s fleet, washed up on shore there hundreds of years ago. They converted to Islam and married local women.

An article titled “China’s Great Armada, Admiral Zheng He” written by Frank Viviano appeared in the July 2005 issue of National Geographic.  Viviano  described that on Pate Island, fragments of ceramic articles of Chinese origin had been found around Lamu. The administrative officer of the local Swahili history museum claimed they were of Chinese origin, from Zheng He’s voyage.

Viviano wrote that the eyes of the Pate people resembled the Chinese. The ancestors of the Pate people were said to be from indigenous women who married shipwrecked Chinese sailors of the Ming period. Famao and Wei were some of the names among them which were of Chinese origin. The ancient Chinese sailors had named two places on Pate as “Old Shanga,” and “New Shanga”.

A local guide who claimed descent from the Chinese showed Frank Viviano graves of Chinese sailors layered with coral. They were almost identical to Chinese Ming dynasty tombs, complete with “half-moon domes” and “terraced entries”.

 Death of Zheng He

On the return voyage, Zheng He became very ill. According to one theory, he died in 1433, shortly after the seventh voyage. Some believe that he died and was buried in Calicut. But there is a second conjecture that Zheng He continued being the defender of Nanjing and died in 1435.

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Zheng He's tomb in Nanjing (Author: Peter Pang)
Zheng He’s tomb in Nanjing (Author: Peter Pang)

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In 1985, a namesake Muslim-style tombwas built in Nanjing on the site of an earlier horseshoe-shape grave. The tombcontains his clothes and headgear as his bodywas buried at sea.In June 2010, Wang Zhigao, the Chief of Archaeology Department at Nanjing Museum announced that a Ming Dynasty grave recently found near Zutang Mountain in the Jiangning District of Nanjing was identified as that of Hong Bao and not of Zheng He as surmised earlier.
Cult of Zheng He
The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca. (Author: Gisling)
The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca. (Author: Gisling)

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Zheng He became the object of cult veneration among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. The influence he had over Asian culture was so strong that he is still considered a god by Indonesian Chinese. They have built temples to honor him in Jakarta, Cirebon, Surabaya, and Semarang. The temples of this cult known after either of his names, Cheng Hoon or Sam Po and are peculiar to overseas Chinese.

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Next →  Part 6 – Did They Reach the Americas Before Columbus?

← Previous: Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet

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