Was Admiral Zheng He a peaceful explorer or something more sinister?



Zheng He’s Military Interventions in South Asia, 1405–1433

In: China and Asia

Author: Tansen Sen

Online Publication Date: 20 Dec 2019


By examining the activities of Zheng He and members of his expeditions at the Malabar Coast, Sri Lanka, and Bengal, this article argues that the Yongle emperor wanted to exert military power in South Asia in order to legitimize his usurpation at the Ming court. The essay analyzes Zheng He’s intervention in the dispute between Calicut and Cochin, the armed conflict in Sri Lanka in 1410-11, and the expedition’s involvement in a dispute between Bengal and its neighboring polity, Jaunpur. These episodes in South Asia make it difficult to accept the modern representations of the Zheng He expeditions as diplomatic missions intended to promote peace and harmony. Rather, they were, as the essay contends, part of the Yongle emperor’s aim to establish hegemony over “all the known world under the Heaven” or the tianxia.



Excerpts from:

ABC News

Peaceful explorer or war criminal: Who was Zheng He, China’s Muslim symbol of diplomacy?

By Max Walden

Posted Sun 22 Sep 2019 at 3:15amSunday 22 Sep 2019 at 3:15am, updated Thu 14 Nov 2019 at 1:19pm

Geoff Wade, an Australian historian focused on China’s engagement with South-East Asia, has argued that Zheng’s voyages represented a violent form of “maritime proto-colonialism”.

In the case of Vietnam, for example, Dr Wade has written: “There was invasion, occupation, the imposition of a military and civil administration, economic exploitation, and domination by a court in the capital of the dominating power.”

Ming rule of Vietnam is part of 1,000 years of Chinese domination of the South-East Asian country, which continues to anger Vietnamese nationalists to this day.

Dr Wade has written that the Zheng He voyages “involved the use of huge military force to invade peoples who were ethnically different from the Chinese, to occupy their territory, to break that territory into smaller administrative units, to appoint pliant rulers and ‘advisers’, and to economically exploit the regions sooccupied”.



Excerpts from:

Zheng He

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored seven naval expeditions.[49] The Yongle Emperor, disregarding the Hongwu Emperor‘s expressed wishes,[50] designed them to establish a Chinese presence and impose imperial control over the Indian Ocean trade, impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin, and extend the empire’s tributary system.[citation needed] It has also been inferred from passages in the History of Ming that the initial voyages were launched as part of the emperor’s attempt to capture his escaped predecessor,[48] which would have made the first voyage the “largest-scale manhunt on water in the history of China.”[51]

Zheng He was placed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook the expeditions. Wang Jinghong was appointed as second in command. Preparations were thorough and wide-ranging, including the use of so many linguists that a foreign language institute was established at Nanjing.[48] Zheng He’s first voyage departed 11 July 1405, from Suzhou[52]: 203  and consisted of a fleet of 317[53][54][55] ships holding almost 28,000 crewmen.[53]

Zheng He generally sought to attain his goals through diplomacy, and his large army awed most would-be enemies into submission. However, a contemporary reported that Zheng He “walked like a tiger” and did not shrink from violence when he considered it necessary to impress foreign peoples with China’s military might.[66] He ruthlessly suppressed pirates, who had long plagued Chinese and Southeast Asian waters. For example, he defeated Chen Zuyi, one of the most feared and respected pirate captains, and returned him to China for execution.[67] He also waged a land war against the Kingdom of Kotte on Ceylon, and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and East Africa.[68] From his fourth voyage, he brought envoys from 30 states, who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.[citation needed]




Zheng He: Symbol of China’s ‘peaceful rise’

  • Published

28 July 2010

By Zoe Murphy

BBC News

Zheng He was an admiral in the time of “empire”, when there were no boundaries, no frontier limits, says China expert Edward Friedman.

“The expeditions were real events – Zheng’s achievements were extraordinary and a marvel of the time,” says Prof Friedman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But the detail of Zheng’s story is open to interpretation, and the version being promoted by the Chinese government ignores history in order to serve foreign policy, he says.

Statesman Deng Xiaoping, regarded as the chief architect of China’s “opening up” in the 1980s, said China would never seek hegemony. And President Hu Jintao has said many times that peaceful development is a strategic choice of the Chinese government.

Prof Geoff Wade, a historian who has translated Ming documents relating to Zheng’s voyages, disputes the portrayal of a benign adventurer.

He says the historical records show the treasure fleets carried sophisticated weaponry and participated in at least three major military actions; in Java, Sumatra and Sri Lanka.

“Because there is virtually no critical analysis of these texts even now – history writing is still in the hands of the state – it’s very difficult for Chinese people to conceive of the state as being dangerous, expansionist, or offensive in any way to its neighbours.

“Chinese nationalism is fed on ignorance of its past relations. The way Zheng He is being represented is part of this.”

The International Zheng He Society in Singapore disputes this “Western thought”, and says the battles that Zheng was embroiled in were either retaliatory or an effort to rid the high seas of pirates.

“These incidents were hardly the nature of true battle but, instead, vividly signify the peaceful diplomacy of Zheng He,” said spokesman Chen Jian Chin.



Excerpts from:

The Guardian

Zheng He: messenger of peace, or of power?

This article is more than 12 years old

Beijing portrays explorer’s seven voyages to the western seas as emblem of China’s ‘peaceful rise’

Tania Branigan in Beijing

Sun 25 Jul 2010 18.22 BST

Zheng He’s remarkable adventures appeared to have been forgotten within a few years of his death, as China turned its back on such bold exploration and embarked on a long period of isolation.

But more recently – and particularly since 2005, when China held lavish celebrations to mark the 600th anniversary of his voyages – he has been lauded anew. As the country seeks to allay fears of its growing global influence, it has turned to the admiral as the exemplar of its “peaceful rise”.

“I want to assure you that China is not to be feared,” said Dai Bingguo, state councillor and a leading figure in foreign affairs, on a visit to Indonesia this year.

Pointing to the country’s history, he added: “Leading the most powerful fleet in the world, Zheng He made seven voyages to the western seas, bringing there porcelain, silk and tea, rather than bloodshed, plundering or colonialism … To this day, [he] is still remembered as an envoy of friendship and peace.”

Others argue that Zheng’s record is more complex. One historian, Geoffrey Wade, has pointed to fighting in Java and Sumatra, portraying Zheng’s voyages as “proto maritime colonialism” because they used force or the threat of force to control ports and shipping lanes for China’s benefit, even though they did not seek to rule other people or territories. Another, Edward Dreyer, suggested they were “‘power projection’ rather than mere exploration”.



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