Before Christopher Columbus mistakenly ‘discovered’ the New World, the Chinese Ming dynasty was undertaking sea voyages that make Columbus’ three ship sojourn look like child’s play. In the early 1400s, a Muslim eunuch (you know, a male who has had his manhood taken away) by the name of Zheng He led seven EPIC sea voyages across the Indian Ocean. He is thought to be the inspiration for Sinbad the Sailor.
At a time when long sea voyages were a dream for Europeans and Middle Easterners, Zheng He sailed across the seas to southeast Asia, India, Indonesia, the Persian Gulf and finally (and most impressively) the east coast of Africa. To this day, there are people on the Swahili coast that believe they are descendants of some of these Chinese sailors. The Ming treasure voyages, as they are sometimes known, are both impressive and fascinating. They are impressive not so much because of the distance they covered—the Chinese had travelled these distances before—but because of the sheer size of the expeditions. Hundreds of huge ships with thousands of crew and passengers sailed for months. The voyages are fascinating because of the man who led them and the culture the represented.
Eunuchs have been around since the dawn of time. However, their position of power and influence at the Ming court was unparalleled. It was this power that both allowed Zheng He to captain the greatest voyages the world had ever seen and what eventually caused China’s centuries’ long isolation.
Beijing’s fabled Forbidden City was, in fact, forbidden to most males. The collection of buildings (the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures anywhere in the world) was the Emperor’s private realm. It was where he could enjoy the company of his many MANY concubines and wives. The last thing he needed was a virile man running around challenging his alpha male status. Women, however, could not be trusted to run the household. So what was an insecure male chauvinist to do? Why employ eunuchs, of course. During the Ming era, eunuchs yielded unprecedented power. They were, at times, the only way to get to the Emperor. They served as messengers between the elites at court and the Emperor. They were also the only men who were allowed to stay overnight in the Forbidden City. The eunuchs of the court soon formed a powerful clique — one that promoted expansionist views. It was with their support (and insistence) that the first of seven grand voyages set sail from China to the rest of the known world. It was no surprise that the man chosen to lead this adventure was one of their own.
The various places visited by the treasure voyages via www.dailykos.com
Zheng He was born in 1371 in Yunnan in western China. For a person who would become a renowned seaman, it is interesting that his birthplace was located at the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, some 6,000 feet above sea level far away from any seaport. He wasn’t even an ethnic Chinese. He was Hui. The Hui people are a Muslim group that are descendants of intermarriages between the Han and various Persian, Arab, and Turkish Muslim traders. What we know of Zheng He’s youth is sketchy at best. We know that he grew up a Muslim and that his father and grandfather most likely completed the Hajj in modern day Saudi Arabia. We also know that at some point Ming armies invaded his province, castrated the ten-year old Zheng He, before carting him off to the Emperor’s court. It should be noted that lopping off the penis and testes of the offspring of one’s enemies was very much the norm at the time. No longer a threat to the establishment, he was educated and groomed to be a trusted eunuch of the court. Through hard work and sheer luck, he soon became the Emperor’s right hand man and the second most powerful person in the kingdom.
And what a kingdom it was. In the early 1400s, China’s hard and soft power was unparalleled. It was the most technologically advanced land on earth. Its armies the most powerful. Its navy ruled the seas. The emperor, and the eunuch clique, decided the world should know the extent of China’s wealth and power. The largest fleet ever assembled would sail the Indian Ocean and trade, demand tribute, and simply show off the might of China. The first of these voyages included 317 ships, including close to 28,000 men. The massive ships carried sailors, soldiers, doctors, astronomers, diplomats and scholars. The ships sailed to modern day Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Six more voyages followed. They reached modern-day Kolkota in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Iran, and the eastern African coast. Sometimes the people they encountered welcomed them warmly. Good thing too, because when they didn’t the Chinese fought back and (not surprisingly) usually won. On one occasion, in Sri Lanka, the native people tried to repel the expedition. He quickly put down the insurrection, captured their king, and had him carted off back to China. What the sailors brought back to China enthralled the masses. The first giraffe the Chinese ever saw was brought back on one of these voyages—a gift from the ruler of Malindi on the African coast. The sailors also brought back zebras, Persian carpets, spices, lions, leopards, and ostriches. Oh, and gold.
Replica of one of the boats used by Zheng He via telegraph.co.uk
Although the size of the ships is still debated, they most certainly dwarfed Columbus’ Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria. Some scholars believe the nine-masted flagship measured about 400 feet long (the Santa Maria measured just 85 feet). Fred Wakeman, a former chair of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies, states, “A vessel that large would have displaced at least 3,000 tons, whereas none of Vasco da Gama’s ships exceeded 300 tons…and even in 1588 the largest English merchant ship did not exceed 400 tons.”
A statue of Zheng He
Okay, so the Chinese at some point led amazing voyages across the oceans. Then, for political reasons, they stopped. So what? Well, as we all know China is fast becoming (if it isn’t already) a global superpower. Its influence is once again felt across the world. Perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa. And that is where Zheng He comes in. Back in 2010, the Chinese government spent millions recovering what is believed to be the wreckage of one of Zheng He’s ships off the coast of Kenya. Why? To underscore the centuries old bond between China and resource-rich Africa. A BBC article points out that this “ties in well with China's diplomatic overtures to African nations, as it goes about securing natural resources and political influence.”
In the same BBC article, Dai Bingguo, a Chinese foreign policy advisor, said, "I want to assure you that China is not to be feared." Invoking Zheng He is a reminder to the audience that the sea admiral brought "porcelain, silk and tea rather than bloodshed, plundering or colonialism…to this day, Zheng He is still remembered as an envoy of friendship and peace.” Never mind that the Chinese government backs despotic rulers in several African countries in order to gain access to natural resources…centuries old bonds are centuries old bonds.