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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?

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Traditional accounts of Zheng He’s voyages describe a great fleet of massive  wooden ships, the largest sail-powered wooden vessels in human history.

The Yongle Emperor planted vast orchards of tung trees (Vernicia fordii), to extract oil for preparing caulk to seal his huge Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ships.

Conjecture about the size of ships of Zheng He’s fleet

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A full size replica of Zheng He's treasure ship at the site of the shipyard where original ship was built in Nanjing (Alamy) (Source: telegraph.co.uk)
A full size replica of Zheng He’s treasure ship at the site of the shipyard where original ship was built in Nanjing (Alamy) (Source: telegraph.co.uk)

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According to some writers, the first expedition launched in 1405 consisted of a fleet of 317 ships including 62 treasure ships with a total strength of 27,800 men. If the accounts are factual, the fleet included:

  • Nine-masted, mammoth “Treasure ships” (Bǎo Chuán) about 417 feet (127 metres) long and 171 feet (52 metres) wide, with four decks, capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, as well as a huge amount of cargo. They were used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies;
  • Eight-masted, Equine ships (Mǎ Chuán) about 338 feet (103 metres) long and 138 feet (42 metres) wide, to carry horses, tribute goods, and repair material for the fleet;
  • Seven-masted, Supply ships (Liáng Chuán), about 256 feet (78 metres) long and 115 feet (35 metres) wide, to contain staple for the crew;
  • Five-masted, Fuchuan warships (Fú Chuán), about 160 feet (50 metres) long;
  • Eight-oared, Patrol boats (Zuò Chuán), about 121 feet (37 metres) long;
  • Water tankers (Shuǐ Chuán), with one month’s supply of fresh water.

Aboard the ships were navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, and soldiers along with the translator and diarist Gong Zhen who accompanied Zheng He on all his seven voyages to the western ocean until 1433.

Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.

The Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo and the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, have both described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their travel accounts.

Niccolò Da Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness of ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen five-masted junks weighing about 2,000 tons.

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Replica of Chinese Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ship of early 14th century vs Columbus' Santa Maria (1492).
Replica of Chinese Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ship of early 14th century vs Columbus’ Santa Maria (1492).

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Some writers claim that the treasure ships were immense, floating cities as long as 600 feet. They also claim that  a single deck of a single vessel in the fleet that set sail under Zheng He could have held  all the ships of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama combined.

Some modern scholars consider these descriptions of ships a bit exaggerated. They estimate that Zheng He’s treasure ships were 390–408 feet (118.9–124.4 metres) long and 160–166 feet (48.8–50.6 metres) wide while others place them as small as 200–250 feet (61.0–76.2 metres) in length, which would make them smaller than the equine, supply, and troop ships in the fleet.

One explanation for the apparent inefficient size of these colossal ships was that the large treasure ships were just used by the Yongle Emperor and his imperial bureaucrats to travel on the navigable calm waters of the Yangtze river.

Some detractors even claim that Zheng He, a court eunuch, would not have had the privilege in rank to command the large treasure ships, seaworthy or not.

In May 1421, the Yongle Emperor issued an order suspending Zheng He’s maritime expeditions, on account of their enormous expenditure. However, the order did not affect the sixth voyage (1421 – 1422) of Zheng He.

On August 12, 1424, the Yongle Emperor died while Zheng He was on an official mission to Palembang after his sixth voyage.

The Yongle Emperor had left China in political and economic chaos.

Zhu Gaochi , the Hongxi Emperor

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The Hongxi  Emperor (Born as Zhu Gaochi), the fourth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)
The Hongxi Emperor (Born as Zhu Gaochi), the fourth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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On September 7, 1424, the Yongle Emperor’s son Zhu Gaochi (August 16, 1378 – May 29, 1425), ascended the Ming dynasty throne as the Hongxi Emperor.

Prominent Confucian tutors taught Zhu Gaochi. He often acted as regent in Beijing or Nanjing during the Yongle Emperor’s northern military campaigns.

On ascending the throne, the Hongxi Emperor restored disgraced Confucian officials, such as Emperor Yongle’s minister of revenue Xia Yanji, imprisoned since 1421. He reorganized the administration and gave high ranks to his close advisors.

During the Hongxi Emperor’s reign shrinking funds, foreign aggressions, and above all the Confucian aversion towards trade and prosperity caused the abrupt abandonment of shipbuilding by the Chinese.

In September 1424, the Hongxi Emperor, on the advice of his close advisors, canceled Zheng He’s maritime expeditions once and for all.  The emperor left the  great ships to rot at their moorings or burned them down. He ordered the destruction of the records of the expeditions.

Now, the only concrete evidence of the seafaring expeditions we can glean from are available only in the folklore, artifacts, porcelains, and statues found at various islands and ports in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The Hongxi Emperor abolished frontier trade of tea for horses as well as missions for gold and pearls to Yunnan and Vietnam.

China plummeted into isolation.

The Hongxi Emperor appointed Zheng He as Defender of Nanjing, the empire’s southern capital. In that post, Zheng He was responsible for completing the construction of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing  begun by the Yongle Emperor..

On May 29, 1425, the Hongxi Emperor died of a heart attack.

Though Hongxi’s reign was short, he made reforms of lasting improvements in China.

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Next →  Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage

← Previous: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He

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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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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

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