Zheng He’s sailing to West Ocean

Sep 2007 | Comments Off on Zheng He’s sailing to West Ocean


An important waypoint on passage of navigation history

Zheng He’s Exploration of the Western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean was an important event at the turning point of the world history. It was a golden opportunity for China to strengthen itself and make greater contributions to human beings. Unfortunately, to some extend, Zheng He’s magnificent feat in the history of navigation was later considered as a sheer waste of energy and money and a “failure policy”, and thus was put an end to. Zheng He’s trip, therefore, did not produce long-term effects. China still cut off itself from the out side world and stopped her exploration of ocean navigation, while Europeans, along the routes opened up by their expeditions, reached America, Africa and Asia and established colonies all over the world, which greatly promoted the capitalist development. In spite that the scale of Zheng He’s navigation far exceeded that of Columbus’s “Great Discovery” which followed some 80 years afterward, the former had much less effect on the progress of the world history.

The reasons behind the suppression are complicated (Chen 2005, Lin 2003, Ma et al 2006). Confucian culture focusing on harmony and not conquering limited the achievements of collecting wealth and expanding territory. Agriculture oriented policy refrained exploration of nature and undervalued the scientific findings and technological innovations. The reasons may also include seeking the undeserved reputation of “emperorship of the whole world”, and spending too much money and resources without the expected effects. However, Zheng He’s sailing to West Ocean did mark an important waypoint on the passage of world navigation history. Never before in the world had there been any such adventure that was in such a scale, lasted for such a long time, had so many people under command, fared so far into the ocean, and had such advanced navigation technologies. It was suggested that the strength of Chinese naval exceeded the total strength of all the other countries of the world in that period of time (Wang 2005). Zheng He’s great voyages marked the age that the human civilization extended from land to ocean materialized an unprecedented miracle in the navigation history of China or even in the world.


1.1 Historical background
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), China became a unified strong multinational feudal empire. Emperor Yong Le, who named Zhu Di, was a man of vision and strategy. At the beginning of his reign, the country enjoyed political stability, economic prosperity and a considerable level of science and technology. While promoting economic and cultural development in the country, Emperor Zhu Di actively carried out diplomatic activities, expanding China’s relations with foreign countries and developing foreign trade. Although Zhu Di lifted the ban to the seas imposed at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, he had no intention of expand the territory. The principle of “bullying no weaker states” he formulated was the continuation of the policy of “never conquering other states” pursued by his father who was the First Emperor of Ming Dynasty (Information Office of Fujian Province 2005). In order to strengthen ties with other countries, spread China’s civilization and engage in international trade, Emperor Zhu Di ordered Zheng He to go for a voyage down the western seas, taking with them luxury gifts.

After the emperor Zhu Di took over power, council of ministers was in its course of recomposing. Confucian officer and eunuch were striking openly and secretly (Zhou 2006). He was going to gain support from the council of ministers where Confucian officer usually occupied the major part in the former time, but it were eunuchs who contributed a lot to Zhu Di’s ascending the throng. So he put eunuchs in a very important position.

One of the duties of Chinese emperor was to at-tract “all under heaven” to be civilized in Confucian harmony. When foreign ambassadors came to the Chinese court, they “kowtowed” (the process of “kowtow” was to kneel three times and bow one’s head to the floor three times at each kneeling). In re-turn for tribute from other countries, the emperor sent gifts and special seals that confirmed their ruler’s authority. In fact, these foreign kings were officially made part of the Ming Dynasty.

1.2 About Zheng He

Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) was born in Kunyang, Yunnan (present-day Jinning County, Yunnan Province) around 1371 AD. He was originally surnamed Ma, and was known as San Bao (Three Treasures) subsequently. Raised as a Muslim, Zheng He started to study the teachings of Islam at an early age. Both Zhang He’s father and grandfather had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so were quite familiar with distant lands. Listening to his father and grandfather’s stories, young Zheng He developed a consuming curiosity about the outside world. His father’s straight character and altruistic nature also made a lasting impression on the boy.

Zheng He was captured by Ming Dynasty forces during their defeat of the remnants of the Yuan Dy-nasty in Yunnan, around 1381 AD. He was taken to Nanjing, where he was castrated and put into impe-rial service. He was then sent to Beiping (Beijing) to serve in the palace of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan and the fourth son of the Ming Emperor.

During Zheng He’s time in the palace, his brilliance and loyalty won him Zhu Di’s trust. As a result, the prince chose Zheng He to serve as his personal bodyguard during his quest to become emperor. It was during this period that Zheng He’s genius and leadership abilities became apparent. For four years, Zheng He went through fire and water at the side of Prince Zhu Di, accompanying him on countless campaigns and battles throughout China. Amassing victory after victory, Zheng He was instrumental in Zhu Di’s seizure of imperial power. Zhu Di often discussed and consulted matters of state with him, offering him numerous opportunities to learn about politics, military affairs, and strategy. After Zhu Di ascended the throne as the Yong Le Emperor, he promoted many of the military and civil officers who had supported him. Among them was the eunuch officer Zheng He. Zhu Di changed Zheng He’s surname from Ma to Zheng, and elevated him to the position of Grand Eunuch.

Considering his extraordinary abilities and loyal service, Emperor Zhu Di deemed Zheng He the best choice for ocean voyage. Then, Zheng He was promoted to the third rank, acting as an envoy of the imperial court to foreign countries, thus beginning the greatest voyage in the world history. During his seven voyages, Zheng He fully displayed his talent and exhibited his extraordinary capabilities, proving himself to not only an outstanding military commander but also a superb diplomat and a statesman, with profound knowledge about Confucius-Mencius and about the world.

From the first through the seventh ocean voyages, Zheng He devoted 28 years of his youth to the great cause of navigation.

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