“We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li * of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising skyhigh, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away . . . while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night continued their course (rapid like that) of a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.”—Fifteenth-century inscription at Changle, Fujian, China, attributed to Zheng He.
CHINA is a land of big things. It has the largest population and one of the largest land areas of earth’s nations. Its people built the Great Wall, one of the most ambitious construction projects in history. A fleet of great ships built by China’s Ming Emperors Yongle and Xuande was larger than any other that would be assembled for the next five centuries. The admiral of that fleet was a Muslim from southwestern China named Zheng He.
POWER, TRADE, AND TRIBUTE
According to the inscription partially quoted at the beginning of this article, Zheng He’s mission was “to make manifest the transforming power of the (imperial) virtue and to treat distant people with kindness.” As a result of the voyages, it states, “countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects [of China] . . . Barbarians from beyond the seas . . . have come to audience [at the imperial court] bearing precious objects and presents.”
The Ming emperors’ objective in undertaking these voyages has been a topic of debate. Some see Zheng He as an ambassador of culture and goodwill for a powerful yet peaceful nation. Others see his mission as one of aggressive political domination of vassal states. Indeed, Zheng He offered splendid gifts and political support to the rulers who welcomed him, but those who refused to give token submission and tribute to the Ming emperor, he overpowered and took prisoner. As a result of Zheng He’s impressive voyages, dozens of rulers from around the Indian Ocean sent ambassadors to China to pay homage to the emperor.
Whatever the case, Zheng He’s fleet also carried incomparable lacquerware, porcelains, and silks made by Ming craftsmen to trade in distant ports. The fleet returned with gems, ivory, spices, tropical woods, and other luxury items valued by the Chinese. It even carried a giraffe to China, which is said to have caused quite a stir. Through these exchanges of goods and ideas, the outside world was given inklings of China’s impressive 15th-century civilization.
Those remarkable voyages did not continue. Just decades after Zheng He’s voyages, China turned its back on foreign trade and diplomacy. Feeling no need to look beyond China’s borders, a new emperor and his Confucianist advisers tried to seal the country off from outside influence. They consigned the treasure fleet to the past, apparently destroying records of their epic voyages and even the ships themselves. Only in recent years have people, inside of China and out, learned of that grand epoch when Zheng He’s giant fleet sailed the seas.
^ par. 3 The li is a Chinese measure, the length of which has varied through the centuries. It is thought that in Zheng He’s time, one li was approximately a third of a mile, or half a kilometer.