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    Greater China
     Jan 26, 2012

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Power grew out of Zheng He's gunboats

Admiral Zheng He's armadas sailed from Nanjing to as far as East Africa over eight voyages between 1405-1433. Most Chinese lionize the Muslim eunuch as a peace loving ambassador of peace and friendship. But Australian historian Geoffrey Wade tells Victor Fic the admiral was a Ming military commander pursuing gunboat diplomacy, and indicts the commodore for war crimes.

A senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, based in Singapore, Wade's interests include Sino-Southeast Asian historical interactions and related issues such as Chinese expansions and early Islam in Southeast Asia. Wade's work includes an online database [1] that provides English translations of over 3,000 references to Southeast Asia


extracted from the Ming imperial annals. In 2009, Wade's China and Southeast Asia was published, a six-volume survey of seminal works on Southeast Asia-China interactions.

Victor Fic: Geoff, how did you become fascinated with Zheng He?

Geoffrey Wade: I have long been interested in how China and Southeast Asia interacted and did my PhD on Southeast Asia as represented in the Ming reign annals. A key element was the Ming maritime missions to Southeast Asia. China's commemorations of Zheng He in 2005 further piqued my interest.

VF: Summarize the orthodox Chinese claim that he was a peaceful seafarer.

GW: Within Chinese societies, one finds "popular" perceptions of Zheng He. One tribute translates as:
From the age of Zheng He until the new period of socialist construction, the achievements of Zheng He during his voyages to the Western Ocean have been excellent materials for conducting patriotic education for the Chinese nation.
This is taken from Huang Hui-zhen and Xue Jin-du's book Eighty Years of Researching Zheng He. These two PRC [People's Republic of China] academics surveyed most of the studies of Zheng He to the present.

A statue of Zheng He

A second translates as:
These were thus friendly diplomatic activities. During the overall course of the seven voyages to the Western Ocean, Zheng He did not occupy a single piece of land, establish any fortress or seize any wealth from other countries. In the commercial and trade activities, he adopted the practice of giving more than he received, and thus he was welcomed and lauded by the people of the various countries along his routes.
The speaker here is Xu Zu-yuan, then PRC vice minister of communications, in July 2004. This official was responsible for the Zheng He 600th anniversary celebrations in 2005.

VF: Did you initially believe these glowing tributes?

GW: No, I first came to Zheng He through a critical reading of the Ming annals and thereby was cognizant of his role in Ming China's military exploits.

VF: You amass evidence that Zheng He was "proto-colonialistic" and his treasure fleet was a gunboat armada. Where is the proof?

GW: The primary source material for Zheng He is in the Ming imperial annals. That text plus those written by persons like Ma Huan, a Muslim interpreter who accompanied him, provides all the evidence to validate the accusation.

VF: You focus on the admiral's massive fleet and crew - why are the numbers indicative?

GW: The various missions comprised between 50 and 250 ships, huge armadas, abroad for several years. The sources differ on the number of personnel, but figures between 27,000 and 30,000 are cited for the largest missions. A typical mission comprised, in the senior ranks, almost 100 envoys of various grades, 93 military captains, 104 lieutenants, 103 sub-lieutenants plus associated medical and astrological staff members. In one example, 26,800 out of 27,400 on board were the rank and file, the irregular and crack troops, plus sailors and clerks. Each mission likely carried over 20,000 military men.

In a Ming annals reference of 1427, it notes "10,000 crack troops formerly sent to the Western Ocean," also suggesting a large force of military men.

VF: You also note the armada was heavily armed.

GW: Like the Ming forces sent to Yunnan in South China and Dai Viet or today's Vietnam, they carried the most advanced firearms available in the world such as cannons, rockets and firelances. I underline they were military missions with strategic aims because much current scholarship, both Chinese and non-Chinese, stresses they were "voyages of friendship".

VF: You note that Zheng He engaged in violence in Sumatra. What were his ends and means?

GW: Clearly, this force's major threatening role - "to shock and awe" - encouraged foreign rulers to come to the Ming court to "pay tribute". Also, sometimes Zheng He's voyages brimmed with violence to implement the Ming emperor's demands. The cardinal engagements included his attack on the Old Port at Palembang in Sumatra in 1407 during his first major mission abroad. He returned with a "pirate" named Chen Zu-yi captured for reportedly having "feigned surrender but secretly plotting to attack the Imperial army".

VF: What were the casualties?

GW: The Ming fleet reported 5,000 persons killed, 10 ships burnt and 7 captured. Later that year, the Ming recognized the polity of Old Port. But because of the ex-military Guangdong and Fujian Chinese who lived there, the Ming deemed it not a separate country, but a "pacification superintendency", a common term for polities ruled by non-Chinese on the Chinese borders. The appointed superintendent, Shi Jin-qing, was recognized by Zheng He as the local ruler. References to this polity end in 1430, implying its fortunes were tied to the Ming presence in Southeast Asia and that the rulers were indeed Ming state agents.

VF: You advance evidence that also at Sumatra, the admiral stepped into a civil war.

GW: In 1415, Su-gan-la, the reported leader of the Samuderan "bandits", as the Ming annals called them, was captured and taken to China from Sumatra by Zheng He. Contradictory sources obscure the events of 1414 and 1415, and some of Ma Huan's account is obviously drawn from local folkore. But Zheng He appears to have intervened in a civil war in northern Sumatra and supported the side not hostile to the Ming. Again, the expedition was mainly a military force imposing a "pax Ming" on what became Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. 

Ming maritime depot near Samudera 

Continued 1 2  

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jan 24, 2012)


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