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2 INTERVIEW Power grew out of 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.
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  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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
VF: You note
that Zheng He engaged in violence in Sumatra. What
were his ends and means?
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
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
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.