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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The eunuch admiral Zheng He

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Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.
Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.

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Zheng He (1371 – 1433) also romanized as Cheng Ho was born Ma He. He was the second son of a Hui Muslim parents from Kunyang in Yunnan. He had four sisters and one older brother. Though born a Muslim, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He’s devotion to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers, was the dominant faith to which he adhered.

Ma He’s father had the surname Ma and the title hajji that suggests that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ma He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and knew Arabic.

In 1381, Ma Hajji died at age 39 during the hostilities between the Ming armies and Mongol forces in Yunnan. It is not clear whether he died while helping the Mongol army or was just caught in the onslaught of battle. Ming soldiers took his son, the 10-year-old Ma He, as a prisoner. After castration, they forced him to serve in the household of the 21-year-old Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. There, Ma He, was known as Ma Sanbao and received a proper education.

Amid the continuing struggle against the Mongols, to consolidate his own power, Zhu Di eliminated rivals such as the successful general Lan Yu.

Ma Sanbao spent his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier. He often participated in Zhu Di’s military campaigns against the Mongols. On March 2, 1390, Ma Sanbao accompanied Zhu Di and commanded his first expedition. It was a great victory since the Mongol leader Naghachu surrendered. From then on, Zheng He became a trusted adviser to the prince.

Zhu Di promoted Ma Sanbao as the Grand Director (Taijian) of the Directorate of Palace Servants.

On February 11, 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname “Zheng” to Ma Sanbao, for distinguishing himself by defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba against the imperial forces during the Siege of Beiping of 1399, and also for distinguishing himself during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing. Zheng He served in the highest posts, as Grand Director and later as Chief Envoy during his sea voyages..

The Chinese may have been sailing to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) or earlier.

Desiring to expand Chinese influence throughout the known world, the Yongle Emperor sponsored the great and long-term expeditions under the command of his eunuch admiral Zheng He and his associates Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and others.

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Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty's fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)
Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty’s fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)

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According to medieval Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 that resulted in contact with foreign cultures. He sailed to Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Africa and many other countries.

Under Zheng He’s direction, the Chinese ships loaded with silk and porcelain plied the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean.

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A Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).
A Chinese Ming Dynasty ( blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).

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Zheng He’s fleet sailed to Japan, Ryukyu, and many locations in South-East Asia, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans. They traded gemstones, coral, pepper, and the cobalt used in the splendid porcelains for which the Ming dynasty would become known.

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Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He's fleet
Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet

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The Chinese fleet reached major trade centers of Asia: Thevan Thurai (Dondra Head), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Hormuz, Aden and Malindi in north-eastern Africa.

 The seven voyages of Zheng He
VOYAGE PERIOD REGIONS ALONG THE WAY
1st voyage 1405–1407 ChampaJavaPalembang,Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, KollamCochin,
Calicut.
2nd voyage 1407–1409 Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut.
3rd voyage 1409–1411 Champa, Java, Malacca, Samudera, Ceylon,
Kollam, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Korkai
Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Puttanpur.
4th voyage 1413–1415 Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang,
Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin,
Calicut, Korkai, Hormuz, MaldivesMogadishu,
Barawa, MalindiAdenMuscat, Dhofar.
5th voyage 1417–1419 Ryukyu, Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca,
Samudera, Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn,
Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu,
Barawa, Malindi, Aden.
6th voyage 1421–1422 Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin,
Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu,
Barawa.
7th voyage 1431–1433 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Samudera,
Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Bengal, Ceylon,  Calicut, Hormuz,  Aden,  Ganbali, Bengal,
Laccadive and Maldive Islands,  Djofar,  Lasa,  Aden, Mecca,  Mogadishu, Barawa.

In the early 15th century, China became the world’s premier maritime power.

The increase in Chinese sea trade also made piracy lucrative on these seas. The Japanese pirates harassed the whole of southeastern China.

Zheng He‘s feud with King Vira Alakeshwara of Ceylon.

Zheng He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from many kingdoms. During all his seven voyages, Zheng He landed in Ceylon.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, he visited Tevanthurai or Dondra Head (Tamil: தேவன்துறை), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon. There, Zheng He erected a trilingual stone tablet written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. The tablet recorded the offerings he made to Buddha, Allah and Hindu gods. The Chinese Admiral also prayed to the thousand Hindu deity statues оf stone аnd bronze and to the primary deity, god Tenavarai Nayanar at the Tenavaram temple, іn Tevanthurai (or Dondra Head). He invoked the blessings of the deities for a peaceful world built on trade.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, Vira Alakeshwara’s army confronted and plundered his expedition.

Four years later, in 1409, during his third voyage, Zheng He came to Ceylon with an army. King Vira Alakeshwara (Tamil: வீர அழகேஸ்வரர்) of Kotte confronted the Chinese forces. The Chinese retaliated. They captured King Vira Alakeshwara, his queen, his family and kinsmen.

Zheng He then returned to China he brought along with him the captive King Vira Alakeshwara, his family and kinsmen. He wanted Vira Alakeshwara to apologize to the Yongle Emperor for offenses against the Chinese mission.

In 1411, the Yongle Emperor released King Vira Alakeshwara et al.

On the night after King Vira Alakeshwara returned to his capital Kotte in Ceylon his enemies murdered him.

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Next →  Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet 

← Previous: Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The Hongwu Emperor had many consorts, concubines, 26 sons and 16 daughters. He appointed his eldest son Zhu Biao as the crown prince. He placed his trust only in his family. He appointed his many sons as powerful feudal princes along the northern marshes and the Yangtze valley.

Zhu Di , the Yongle Emperor

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The Yongle Emperor (Born as Zhu Di), the third Ming Emperor of China.
The Yongle Emperor (Born as Zhu Di), the third Ming Emperor of China.

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The Hongwu emperor installed one of his many sons, Zhu Di (May 2, 1360 – August 12, 1424), as Prince of Yan in May 1370, with his capital at Beiping (modern Beijing)..

Zhu Di at first accepted his father’s appointment of his elder brother Zhu Biao in 1368 as the crown prince.

On May 17, 1392, Zhu Biao died young. After several months of deliberation, the Hongwu Emperor upheld the strict rules of primogeniture laid out by him to the dynasty. He favored the bookish 14-year-old grandson Zhu Yunwen, son of  Zhu Biao, over his other sons and anointed him crown prince.

On June 24, 1398, Hongwu Emperor died.

On February 6, 1399, Zhu Yunwen became the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty as the Jianwen Emperor.

Zhu Yunwen then began executing and demoting his powerful uncles. So, Zhu Di found a pretext for rising in rebellion against his nephew the emperor.

Assisted in large part by eunuchs, Zhu Di survived the first attacks on his fiefdom. Eunuch commander Ma Sanbao defended Beiping’s city reservoir, Zhenglunba, against the imperial armies with great success.

In January 1402, Prince Zhu Di started his military campaign to capture the imperial capital Nanjing. Ma Sanbao was one of his commanders.

On July 13, 1402, Zhu Di’s armies defeated the imperial forces and marched into Nanjing. Four days later, Zhu Di ascended the throne
as the Yongle Emperor. He declared his new era the Yongle or the time of “Perpetual Happiness”.

Although Zhu Di presented a charred body as Zhu Yunwen’s, rumors circulated that the young emperor had escaped his burning palace in a monk’s robe. Later on, during the Qing dynasty, officials altered the Ming official history texts to please their emperor.

The Yongle Emperor repaired and reopened the Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the longest canal or artificial river in the world.  The Grand Canal now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a famous tourist destination.

紫禁城 (Zijin Cheng) the “Purple Forbidden City”

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Hall of Supreme Harmony, in the forbidden city (Source :chinatourguide.com)
Hall of Supreme Harmony, in the forbidden city (Source :chinatourguide.com)

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In the beginning of the 15th century, the Yongle Emperor moved the imperial capital from Nanjing to a new city at Beijing, 550 miles to the northwest, next to the old Yuan dynasty capital of Kanbaliq or Dadu, built by Kublai Khan beginning in 1264.

Construction of the new Ming capital began in 1406 under the direct supervision of the emperor. It took 14 years and more than a million workers to build the city. Whole logs of precious Phoebe zhennan wood found in the jungles of southwestern China and large blocks of marble from quarries near Beijing were used for the construction.

A 40-foot high wall, 15-miles long surrounded the city. In the center of the city stood the imperial palace along with an administrative hub with offices for government officials. The palace had almost 10,000 rooms and to enter it required explicit permission of the emperor. Special baked paving bricks from Suzhou, known as “golden bricks” were used to pave the floors of major halls.

The emperor fascinated by the purplish constellation in the night sky along with the navigational North Star at its center, hoped to emulate it with his new capital. Hence, called  it 紫禁城 (Zijin Cheng) which literally meant “Purple Forbidden City.

UNESCO declared the Forbidden City as a World Heritage Site and listed it as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. It now houses the Palace Museum.

Porcelain Tower (or Pagoda) of Nanjing

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Early European illustration of the Porcelain Tower, from An embassy from the East-India Company (1665) by Johan Nieuhof.
Early European illustration of the Porcelain Tower, from An embassy from the East-India Company (1665) by Johan Nieuhof.

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The Yongle Emperor also constructed the Porcelain Tower (or Pagoda) of Nanjing, considered one of the wonders of the world. It was part of the former Bao’en Temple on the south bank of the external Qinhuai River in Nanjing, China.

The octagonal pagoda with a base of about 97 feet (30 metres) in diameter rose up to a height of 260 feet (79 metres) with nine stories. A staircase in the middle of the pagoda, spiraled upwards for 184 steps. The tower built with white porcelain bricks reflected the sun’s rays during the day. Glazes and stoneware worked into the porcelain created a mixture of green, yellow, brown and white designs on the sides of the tower. The tower was also decorated with animals, flowers and landscapes, and many Buddhist images. At night as many as 140 lamps hung from the building illuminated the tower.

In 1856, the Taiping rebels destroyed the pagoda.

China’s maritime operations under the Yongle Emperor

The Chinese may have sailed to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) or earlier. At the turn of the 15th century, desiring to expand Chinese influence throughout the known world, the Yongle Emperor sponsored the great and long-term expeditions under the command of his eunuch admiral Zheng He and his associates Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and others.

At the turn of the 15th century,  China’s maritime operations had already reached the zenith of considerable sophistication, just when Iberia gained  the new momentum.  The seven voyages from 1405 to 1433 under the eunuch commander-in-chief Zheng He exemplify the  Chinese maritime power.

Admiral Zheng He’s last voyage to Africa preceded that of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and before Vasco da Gama reached India by more than 60 years, and 90 years before the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe.

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Next →  Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He

← Previous: Part 1 – The Hongwu Emperor

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 1 – The Hongwu Emperor


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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In the 14th and 15th century, the three major cultural realms: China, Christendom and the Islamic World, dominated the maritime activities around Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the China Seas.

The Arabs and other groups adhering to the Islamic faith, while on pilgrimage to Mecca or in trade undertook extensive voyages on the sea from the coasts of Africa across the Indian Ocean to China, north, east, and northwest and vice versa.

At that time there would have been definitely a lot of interactions between China and the Arab World. Did they share geographical information and maritime know-how? What were the maritime endeavors of the Chinese? What circumstances hindered the Chinese from circumnavigating Africa or sailing into the Atlantic?

According to a few pseudo-historians the Chinese landed in North America in 1421, long before Christopher Columbus. Even if it is true, then 420 odd years before the Chinese, Leif Erikson an Icelandic explorer and his crew had already set their feet in North America. (Read my three-part article: “Vikings, the First Colonizers of North America …“)

To know whether the Chinese set foot in North America in 1421 long before the Iberians, let us skim through the history of China in the 14th and 15th century.

The Hongwu Emperor (born as  Zhu Yuanzhang)

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The Hongwu Emperor (born as Zhu Yuanzhang), founder of the Ming Dynasty.
The Hongwu Emperor (born as Zhu Yuanzhang), founder of the Ming Dynasty. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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The Hongwu Emperor (October 21, 1328 – June 24, 1398), also known by his given name Zhu Yuanzhang and his temple name Ming Taizu, was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China.

Zhu Yuanzhang was born to poor peasants in a village in Zhongli, present day Fengyang, Anhui Province. The region was then ruled by the Yuan dynasty, the empire established by Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan. Zhu had seven older siblings. As they did not have enough food to support the whole family, his parents gave away several children.

When Zhu was 16, the Yangtze River broke its banks and flooded the lands where his family lived. Then, a plague killed his entire family. He and one of his brothers survived.

Destitute Zhu Yuanzhang became a novice monk at the local Buddhist monastery in Huangjue Temple. After a short time, the monastery ran short of funds and food, and Zhu had to leave.

For the next few years, Zhu Yuanzhang led the life of a wandering mendicant. After about three years, he returned to the Huangjue Temple monastery and stayed there for the next five years. The monks taught him to read and write.

In 1352, the monastery where Zhu Yuanzhang lived was  destroyed during a local rebellion against the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.

Zhu joined one of the many insurgent groups that had risen in rebellion. His rise through the ranks was rapid, and he became a commander. Later, Zhu Yuanzhang’s rebel group joined the Red Turbans, a millenarian sect related to the White Lotus Society, and one that followed cultural and religious traditions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and other religions.

Soon, Zhu Yuanzhang emerged as a leader of the rebels struggling to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty. He and the Red Turbans conquered the whole of China. They endeavored to reunite the country.

In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang’s army conquered the city of Nanjing. Later, during his reign, Nanjing became the capital of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang became famous for good governance. The city of Nanjing attracted people fleeing from many lawless regions in China. Over the next decade,  the population of Nanjing increased tenfold.

In the meantime, internal factions fighting for control weakened the Yuan government. It made little effort to retake the Yangtze River valley that played a large role in the history, culture and economy of China. By 1358, different rebel groups took over central and southern China. The Red Turbans also split up.

Around 1360, Zhu Yuanzhang became the leader of a small faction called “Ming”. A larger faction, under Chen Youliang, controlled the center of the Yangtze River valley.

Zhu Yuanzhang was able to attract many wise and talented people into his service. One of them, a hermit named Zhu Sheng advised him:

Build high walls, stock up rations, and don’t be too quick to call yourself a king.

Another, Jiao Yu, was an artillery officer who later compiled a military treatise outlining the weapons using various types of gunpowder. Another person,  Liu Bowen, became one of Zhu’s key advisors. In later years, Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen edited the military-technological treatise titled Huolongjing (Fire Dragon Manual).

Starting from 1360, Zhu Yuanzhang and Chen Youliang fought a long lasting war for supremacy over the former Red Turban territory. Zhu defeated Chen’s larger navy. A month later, Chen died in battle. After that, Zhu Yuanzhang did not take part in any battles in  person. He remained in Nanjing from where he directed his generals to go on campaigns.

In 1367, Zhu’s forces defeated Zh.ang Shicheng’s Kingdom of Dazhou. This victory granted Zhu’s Ming government authority over the lands north and south of the Yangtze River.

Soon, the other major warlords surrendered to Zhu.

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The grand ceremony of first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ascending to the throne exhibited at the Wax Sculpture Palace of Ming Emperors in Changping, Beijing. (Source: ebeijing.gov.cn)
The grand ceremony of first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ascending to the throne exhibited at the Wax Sculpture Palace of Ming Emperors in Changping, Beijing. (Source: ebeijing.gov.cn)

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On January 20, 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing. He adopted the name “Hongwu” meaning “vastly martial” as his era. He pledged that his dynasty would drive away the Mongols and restore the Han Chinese rule  in China.

Ming armies headed north to attack territories that were still under the Yuan Dynasty’s rule. In September 1368, the Mongols gave up their capital city of Khanbaliq (modern Beijing) and the rest of northern China and retreated to Mongolia..

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Map of the Ming Empire (Source: globalsecurity.org)
Map of the Ming Empire (Source: globalsecurity.org)

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In 1381, the Ming army captured the last Yuan-controlled province of Yunnan and China became unified under the Ming Dynasty’s rule.

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Next →  Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor

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