Zheng He was the greatest Chinese navigator and admiral of the 14th century, and his fleets travelled half of the world to as far as east Africa.
Zheng He the War Prisoner
Zheng He was born into a Muslim family in Yunnan Province in 1371. When he was ten-year-old, the tribe to which his family belonged raised an armed rebellion against the central government of Ming Dynasty and was defeated. While most of the war prisoners were sentenced to serve in border armies, some young boys who either looked neat or could read and write were selected to be trained as eunuchs. And Zheng He was one of them and sent to serve the fourth prince in Beijing.
Under the Ming law, it was a criminal offense to turn boys from families other than war prisoners or criminals into eunuchs, since increasing the population had always been one of the top priorities of a government throughout China’s history, until Deng Xiaoping came to power in the 1980s.
Zheng He the Eunuch
Zheng He’s loyalty and intelligence were quickly noticed by the prince. Soon he was promoted to be the prince’s personal servant, which gave him an opportunity to study Chinese classics under the prince’s direct guidance and learn calligraphy from a Buddhist monk called Daoyan, the prince’s close friend and the most trusted political consultant. It was during that time Zheng He developed a strong interest in Buddhist teachings.
Zheng He the Warrior
By the turn of the 15th century, the first Ming emperor died and was succeeded by his grandson known as Emperor Jianwen. Jianwen was basically a young scholar with no military experience, so Monk Daoyan urged the fourth prince to take this opportunity to seize the power. Thus after 20 years Zheng He was once again involved in an armed insurgence, but this time he was a willing participant with outstanding military exploits.
The army of the central government in Nanjing was defeated. Consequently, the legitimate emperor became a war criminal, the fourth prince became the third Ming emperor and Zheng He, a former war prisoner, became a war hero and was promoted to the position of chief eunuch.
Zheng He the Buddhist
Once helped the prince to become the emperor, Daoyan returned to his monastery to resume his former life as a Buddhist monk and accepted Zheng He as his formal disciple. Zheng He received Bodhisattva Precepts and was given the Buddhist name “Fushan (福善)” by his master, but later he often used another Buddhist name “Fujixiang (福吉祥)”. The ceremony was simple but solemn, witnessed by some government ministers.
During his seven voyages overseas, Zheng He never missed an opportunity to visit Buddhist temples and burn incense there as a way to communicate with the enlightened force whenever his fleet landed in a country. In his spare time, he hand-copied a great number of Buddhist sutras.
Hand copying sutra is a common way to practice Buddhist cultivation in China, which serves two purposes: to help others to access Buddha’s teachings in an era when printing was expensive, and most importantly, to function as a meditative learning process that allows the message easily entering the subconsciousness.
Zheng He the Great Admiral
In 1405, the third year of the third Ming emperor Yongle’s reign, the first Treasure Fleet left the shipyard in Nanjing and entered the open sea via Liujia Bay in Suzhou’s Taicang, 50km from Shanghai, began its virgin voyage around the half of the world, which took nearly two years to complete.
The fleet was comprised of 63 vessels and boarded 27,800 people, who carried out tasks of marine navigation, foreign trade, logistic service and military escort respectively under the centralised command of Zheng He and his assistants. In a way, his fleet was like a micro-empire, that included professionals from diverse disciplines: the marines, the honour guards, the ship repair technicians, the astrologists, the geologists, the diplomats, the merchants, the interpreters, the accountants, the writers, the painters, the musicians, the Buddhist monks, the Muslim mullahs, the doctors, the chefs, and the sowing and laundry ladies.
The condition that permitted Zheng He to become a great admiral is China’s sophisticated shipbuilding industry and navigation technology which led the world ever since the 12th century when Chinese capital was relocated from the north to the south along the east coastline.
The biggest vessels in the fleet, including Zheng He’s commanding ship, were a four-storey structure, measuring 150 meters long 60 meters wide and powered by 12 sails on 9 masts, and each of these “Treasure Ship” could accommodate over a thousand people. Other vessels included 120m long Horse Ship loaded with commercial goods, 90m long Grain Ship stored with food and fresh water, 80m long Sitting Ship for marines and other support staff and 60m long Battle Ship that guarded the fleet.
The fleets were equipped with detailed nautical charts, chip logs, sounding lines, marine compasses with errors within 2.5 degrees and the unique pulling stars measurement method (牵星术) (based on cross-examinations between marine astrolabe, nautical almanac and marine compass). During the day, the fleet used signal flags to communicate among vessels and at night lanterns in different colours were employed. When it was raining or there was heavy fog, gongs, trumpets and shell trumpets would come out in full swing.
After every two voyages, all the vessels were replaced with new ones, including 40 to 50 Treasure Ships – imagine the astronomical costs it involved, given at the same period the construction works of Beijing’s Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven were also underway. For securing the key materials, the high-quality logs from Yunnan primordial forests, Nanjing shipyard and Beijing construction field sometimes had to compete for the emperor’s prior attention.
But the benefits from these expeditions were also enormous. The relationships with the neighbouring states were strengthened; the message of peace and mutual prosperity was spread; the example of how nations could deal with each other in a respective way was set; and Chinese people’s knowledge about the world around them was immensely enriched.
Zheng He’s Fleets, the World’s First Ocean Liners
In the next twenty years since the virgin voyage in 1405, the Treasure Fleets travelled between countries and continents on a regular basis, transporting not just goods but people. During that period, Zheng He’s fleets acted as passenger ships for 21 groups of Chinese envoys with diplomatic missions overseas and 193 groups of official delegates from foreign governments.
Of course, Zheng He himself was the best and top-ranking envoy of the Ming emperor. He met the kings and sultans, presented them with high-quality silks, chinaware and lacquerware, and established diplomatic and business relations with their countries.
The trade was not confined to the government level. The merchants from Zheng He’s fleets carried Chinese goods to the markets in exchange for local products to sell in China.
Each time when returning home, the fleet was boarded by a large number of foreign diplomats and merchants, sometimes, the entire families of foreign monarchs, along with imported goods like sapphire, emerald, ivory, corals, pearls, ruby crystal and all sorts of precious metals, as well as herbal medicines, cooking spices and ambergris for incenses.
It was in 1430 during Emperor Xuangde’s reign the 7th and the last world tour led by Zheng He was commissioned.
Evidently, Zheng He’s fleet landed on the American continent this time.
Zheng He never went back to China. He became very ill during the returning voyage and died in Calicut in 1433.
Zheng He’s Wars during His Expeditions
Zheng He’s fleets were basically for peace and business. But did he ever take military action against anyone during his expeditions?
The answer is yes.
The most significant incident was a war with the kingdom of Ceylon. The king of Ceylon was a bit greedy at the time, and attempted to take over the fleet and take away all the goods from the vessels. A plot thus had been developed.
But Zheng He was a military veteran against government armies. He did so, passively, when he was ten and lost the battle, that was how he became a eunuch; and he did so, actively, when he was thirty and won the battle, that was how he became an admiral. Now he was going to do it again: passively at first as he was unwittingly separated from his fleet by the king, then actively as he led his 3,000 guards to storm the palace and take hostages of the royal family while the king drove his entire army to attack the fleet.
And that was how Zheng He became a kingmaker: He brought the prisoners of the war back home; the emperor decided not to kill the king but demanded him to abdicate his throne for his brother and then sent him and his family back to Ceylon.
Another main battle involved Chinese pirates. By then there were two brothers surnamed Chen from a fishing village in Guangdong who established a pirate kingdom on Sumatra island, which made the Strait of Malacca a dangerous place to sail for commercial boats.
Zheng He was secretly warned to not travel through that area at a particular time by a Chinese man from the pirate kingdom, but the brave admiral somehow believed China had a responsibility to clean up the mass created by Chinese outlaws. So he took up the challenge. Zheng He’s crew suffered some loss, but won the battle. The pirate kingdom was destroyed with the Chen brothers being taken to Nanjing and got beheaded publicly.
Zheng He and a Fishing Village Woman
There are three individuals who played key roles in the success of Zheng He’s expeditions: Zheng He, naturally; Emperor Yongle, Zheng He’s boss; and a village woman known as Mazu.
But when Zheng He began his first sea travel, Mazu had already died for nearly 400 years. How was it possible for her to help him?
Apparently she could. Because she is a miracle in life and in death.
She was born in 987 during the Song Dynasty to a well-to-do family in a small fishing village in Fujian province, and studied Chinese classics, Chinese medicine, Chinese astrology from a family teacher, learned how to swim from other village kids, and was recognized as the most educated girl and the top swimming performer in the village. These personal qualities equipped her to become the best lifesaver in China, a profession that she devoted all of her time to practice until she died on a rescue mission at age of 27.
Yet her passion for lifesaving and ability to save lives does not seem to be affected by the loss of her physical body. Since her death, her vaporous figure was sighted on the sea from time to time and numerous incidents were reported about how she protected fishermen from danger. For her miraculous power, her temples were erected everywhere along China’s coastal areas and she was commonly addressed as Mazu (妈祖 ancestral mother) by the people and honoured as Celestial Princess (天妃) by the emperors.
But Zheng He’s marine adventure has to take a big credit for boosting Mazu’s popularity among Chinese communities in China and overseas.
According to historical records, Mazu never failed to lend a hand whenever Zheng He was in trouble during his adventure, including to have kept his fleet from the reach of the Ceylon king.
For which grand Mazu temples were built by imperial decrees, one in Nanjing shipyard and one in Suzhou’s Liujia Bay.
When 60-year-old Zheng He was ordered by the fifth Ming emperor to conduct the seventh voyage, he went to Mazu’s home province to restore her fallen temple and erect a stele with a detailed account of how she protected his fleets in the previous five expeditions.
It became Zheng He’s final writing words. Calcutta, a city in southern India on the Malabar Coast that was the destination of Zheng He’s first voyage, became the destination of his life on his last voyage. He died there on his way home after years on the sea.
It was the year 1433.
The True Reason behind the End of Expedition
The true reason to end the adventure has little to do with Confucius ideology as it is commonly believed but a lot to do with China’s economic situation and navigation skills at the time, especially after Zheng He’s death.
In the opera “Zheng He’s Expedition”, Zheng told a king on a Java island “Ming kingdom wants to make friends with, not money from, its neighbours, and prefers to take less and give more when doing business with other countries (大明朝与邻为善，薄来厚往)”.
It was indeed the foreign policy held by the Ming emperors, but that doesn’t make an economic sense and is not sustainable. After decades of marine adventures, Ming government was simply unable to afford these extravagant games any longer.
In fact there was the 8th voyage after Zheng He. The fleet didn’t go far and two-thirds of people never made home – they died in the sea.
For China’s marine technology of the early 14th century, a stronger leadership from an outstanding navigator was absolutely essential for ocean travel. Unfortunately there were not many eunuchs from the Forbidden City who were as brave and experienced in the field as Zheng He, while it was out of the question for the guys other than emperor’s trusted eunuchs to take up the task – the possibility of the massive fleet to be turned into a mighty rebellious force would be too grave for the court to contemplate.
Beijing Opera: Zheng He’s Expedition
Beijing opera Zheng He’s Expedition has by and large faithfully conveyed the main objective of China’s marine expedition during the heyday of the Ming Dynasty.
But there are some factual errors in the opera script.
First of all, there was no woman on Zheng He’s ship.
Yes, there were some females in his treasure fleets, but they were middle-aged women doing needlework and laundry and all stayed in separate vessels. Having mixed gender in a same boat for a sea travel was strictly prohibited in ancient China by custom.
Secondly, the pirates who once dominated the Strait of Malacca had no relations with the second Ming emperor Jianwen or his former officials.
Morally speaking, the Jianwen group is far superior to Zheng He’s boss, the third Ming emperor who promoted Confucius teaching but did not practice seriously. Yet Jianwen did, and completely, which contributed to his downfall to a large extent.
Practicing Confucius is good for a person or a nation in the long run, but karma often takes time to work out.
And finally, there was no record or evidence showing that any Ming minister ever threatened to burn the documents related to Zheng He’s expedition, either when he was alive or after his death.
Two decades after Zheng He’s death, when the eighth Ming emperor attempted to resume the marine adventure, he could not find the documents related to Zheng’s expedition, including design drawings of treasure ships, nautical charts and maps. Upon inquiry, a chief archive keeper admitted he had placed all the documents in a secret location in the Forbidden City so no one could squander financial and human resources on this useless game again which, in his humble opinion, only satisfied the emperor’s vanity but brought no real benefit to the kingdom and the people.
A palace-wide search was conducted by the War Minister under the emperor’s directive but yield no result. No one of Ming emperors ever ordered a marine expedition since then, and nobody during the Ming period ever mentioned those documents again.
So where were the documents? Were they indeed burned by the achieve keeper as he once casually claimed? Many Chinese historians used to believe this should be the case.
But the latest researches tend to conclude the papers were destroyed by Manchu emperor Qianlong, the guy who was famously known for demanding the British monarchs to “tremblingly obey and show no negligence” of his order in his letter to King George III. Some drawings and texts of the Zheng He expedition that never appeared in the Ming records were found in the books compiled by emperor Qianlong, which means original materials had survived the Ming Dynasty and were discovered by Manchus who had occupied the Forbidden City after the collapse of the Ming. (Who Destroyed Zheng He’s Documents)
Despite these flaws, the opera Zheng He’s Expedition is still a wonderful visual introduction to the Ming Dynasty’s heroic marine adventure, and the leading actor Meng Guanlu’s performance is truly outstanding.
Meng Guanglu (孟广禄) is one of the best Hualian actors on today’s Beijing Opera stage.
Hualian (花脸 Painted-face) is one of the four major male roles in Beijing Opera. The other three are laoshen (老生 mature man), xiaosheng (小生 young man), wusheng (武生 martial man) and choujue (丑角 clown).
There are several schools in Painted-face roles, differentiated by their special focus on stage performance. Tongchui hualian (铜锤花脸 Painted-face with Hammer) mainly focuses on singing (to which Meng Guanglu belongs), jiazi huanlian (架子花脸 Painted-face in Posture) on acting while wu hualian (武花脸 Painted-face with Kungfu) on martial arts.
Within tongchui hualian there are again several styles with the Qiu style being the most popular (which Meng Guanglu practices).