Zheng He and Ming China: The Lone Mariner and His Times

  Category: East Asia: China
By Poirot
I first met Zheng He in my grade school textbook; I saw a tall, handsome, wide jawed figure, standing firmly atop a multi-mast, earthy red ship, gripping his sword, and gazing at hundreds of similar whale-like vessels that lined the horizon. The stately admiral radiated power, defying Poseidon’s wrath with rare confidence.
Admiral Zheng He, who led seven expeditions to the Indian Ocean in early fifthteenthth century
Source: http://www.visitsingapore-zhenghe.com/ (Singapore’s Zheng He 600th Anniversary Celebrations)
History has seen few men like Zheng He, so powerful in his time, so completely forgotten after his death, and so fascinating for historians in our time. Exactly six centuries after his voyages, the spirit of this ancient mariner has returned from its long exile, and now even tries to redefine its place in history.
In the wake of Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, which claims that Zheng He’s ships circumnavigated the world and colonized America, interest in the early fifteenth century eunuch admiral has skyrocketed. Gavin Menzies may never convince his readers that Zheng He’s men shared a ritual dance with natives in the Bahamas, or that they braved the Antarctic glaciers under the guide of an albatross – in fact, many academics even call Menzies a hopelessly optimistic storyteller. Nevertheless, Menzies has resurrected Zheng He from centuries of irrelevance, and as a result, the world has begun to place the admiral on the same pedestal with Columbus, De Gama, and Magellan. Life Magazine even named Zheng He the fourteenth most influential figure of the second millennium.
Zheng He’s legacy, however, pales when compared to those of Columbus, Da Gama, and Magellan. For those familiar with Chinese history, the name Zheng He conjures up a sense of awe and inspiration, but also of failed potential, of aborted purpose. Zheng He’s fleet – which made the Spanish Armada look insignificant – roamed the Indian Ocean for three decades, and then vanished from deep blue waters almost magically. When Spanish caravals made significant journeys across the Atlantic, the eunuch admiral’s junks rotted in closed harbors, and Ming China burnt official records of his voyages.
Many contemporary historians, like J.R. and William McNeill, severely criticize Ming China’s decision to discontinue overseas expeditions, blaming the emperors for isolating China in an age of maritime exploration. Other scholars, like deceased historian Daniel Boorstin, link the decision to cut Zheng He’s voyages directly to China’s fall from global leadership and disgrace in front of European powers. NASA officials even use the aftermath of Zheng He’s voyages to justify more funding for Mars exploration. According to NASA Chief Historian Steven J. Dick, exploration projects boost a nation’s power; Ming China’s discontinuation of maritime exploration proved ill advised.
I disagree, and respect Ming China’s decision to discontinue Zheng He’s expeditions. At a glance, Zheng He’s legacy contradicts the rest of Ming China, and seems like a fading beacon of light in a dark era plagued with border troubles, mass corruption, eunuch terror, widespread famine, civilian unrest, and belligerent piracy. Yet, as a student of Chinese history, I feel that the admiral projected little importance to Ming China; he represented a dead end, a temporary aberration in natural historical progression.
Zheng He was ahead of his time, for Ming China did not suit overseas expansion. Like an odd piece in a jigsaw puzzle, the eunuch admiral never fitted nicely into the big picture, and as a result, could only be left out. Ming emperors’ decision to cease overseas voyages proved to be fundamentally sound, given the institutional, economic, and geopolitical realities of 15th century China.
Realities of the Ming Empire never meshed with the Zheng He’s maritime expansionist spirit; instead, the empire embodied, to a full extent, the ideals of another man – its founder, Emperor Hongwu, who despised commerce, sealed off borders, and excessively centralized the state. Born a poor peasant, Hongwu lost both parents to famine, and as a young man, rebelled against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The orphan blamed his parent's death – and the plight of millions more throughout China – on greedy Mongol rulers and their merchant class followers, including wealthy Arabic traders who dominated port cities such as Guangzhou and Quanzhou. Hongwu quickly rose from rebel status to become the new ruler of China, gaining popularity among influential Confucian scholars whom previous Mongol rulers ignored. After driving Mongols out of Peking in 1368, Hongwu exacted his revenge on affluent mercantile communities, confiscating private property, imprisoning wealthy merchants, and even restricting Islamic worship among Arabic traders.
The first Ming emperor put a personal stamp on his empire, and structured all aspects of government, economics, and society based on Confucian ideals – which emphasized agriculture at the expense of commerce. According to Confucian teaching, merchants harm society by shamelessly seeking profit at the expense of others. Merchants are inferior in nature, and should be despised; in Confucius’ words, “the superior man understands what is right, while the inferior man understands what will sell.” Confucian scholars contended that a nation’s strength on rested on self-sufficient agricultural communities rather than international trading centers like Quanzhou. Consequently, Hongwu’s edicts tied millions of his subjects to their farmland, and prohibited Chinese merchants from trading with foreigners along coastal cities. Important port cities like Quanzhou – which flourished as Venice of the Far East under Mongol rule – declined rapidly during the Ming Dynasty.
Commerce was never recognized as a progressive force; instead, a poor farmer’s words weighed a hundred times more than a merchant’s tongue. In public meetings, magistrates would grant seats to landowners, while merchants were forced to stand. Hongwu even reinstituted civil service examinations previously abolished by Mongol rulers; these examinations awarded high posts to candidates who displayed extensive knowledge of Confucian texts. Confucian learning became a measure of status, and as a result, aspiring youths throughout Ming China emulated Confucius rather than Marco Polo. Shaped by Hongwu’s close minded policies, Ming China never developed a commercial mindset necessary for successful maritime expansion.
Nor did Ming China develop an expansionist mindset under Hongwu. Hongwu drew upon his experiences as a peasant, and injected thrift into all levels of governance, including foreign policy, and as he put it:
The overseas foreign countries like Vietnam, Champa, Korea, Siam, Ryukyu, Western Oceans, Japan and the various countries of the south are separated from us by mountains and seas and far away in a corner … If they gave us no trouble and we moved troops to fight them unnecessarily, it would be unfortunate for us. I am concerned that future generations might abuse China’s wealth and power and covet the military glories of the moment to send armies into the field without reason and cause a loss of life.
Hongwu was no Napoleon; he forbade aggressive campaigns in foreign lands, and maintained peaceful relations with states like
Korea, Champa, and Siam. The first emperor saw overseas expansion as a dangerous game – costly and unrealistic – and the Ming Empire reflected his non-expansionist vision.

Emperor Hongwu, who molded the Ming Empire as a reflection of himself
Source: Forbidden City Museum

The Ming Empire rapidly transformed into an incarnation of Hongwu – cruel, closed minded, and paranoid. Hongwu always felt that the enemy did not arise from outside, but lurked within; suspicious of everyone under his eye, he ordered secret police agents called Brocaded Guards to spy on officials throughout the empire. Brocaded Guards updated Hongwu with intimate details of his minister's lives, including their everyday dinner menu. Purging important officials and nobles also became a favorite pastime for the emperor: he poisoned Chief Advisor Liu Ji in 1375, beheaded Prime Minister Hu Weiyong in 1380, banished Grand Tutor Song Lian the following year, poisoned Marquis Xu Da in 1384, and executed General Lan Yu in 1393.  Hongwu’s reign set a precedent for excessive centralization of power, and succeeding Ming emperors shared the first emperor’s distrust of powerful viceroys, generals, and magistrates. The constant paranoia that plagued the Ming Empire from Hongwu’s days never died out, and new Gestapo-like networks, such as Eastern Depot, Western Depot, and Inner Depot, followed. Officials denounced by the secret police often faced Ling Chi, or Death by a Thousand Cuts, in which a blade systematically chopped off the victim’s arms, legs, genitals, and head. Under the Ming Empire’s suspicious eyes, opportunists like Hernando Cortes and Francis Drake would have been beheaded before they even set sail. Had Zheng He not been a court eunuch, he would also be accused by secret police, imprisoned, and executed.
Even Zheng He proved to be a victim of Ming China’s cruel and close minded policies. Zheng He descended from Muslims of Bukhara who served Mongols as administers in Yunnan Province. When the Ming army finally captured Yunnan from Mongol warlords in 1382, thousands of resistors were slaughtered, and their young sons – amongst them Zheng He – were castrated. Fortunes for the castrated captive changed when Ming general Fu Youde brought him to the court of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. The prince took the captive under his wing, and gave him a first rate education at the Imperial Central College. Zheng He distinguished himself through his intelligence and unique features – unlike most eunuchs, he had a booming voice, stood seven feet tall, read Chinese classics extensively, and mastered the martial arts. The tall, handsome eunuch followed his master in various military adventures across the northern frontier, even braving blizzards to capture Mongol leader Naghachu in Manchuria. After years of fighting side by side, initmacy between the prince and his brave eunuch grew, and the two became close friends. When Emperor Hongwu died and passed the throne to his eldest grandson Yunwen, the furious Prince of Yan gathered his private troops and marched to the capital, with Zheng He as a wing commander. The prince’s troops quickly captured the capital and forced Yunwen to commit suicide; as jubilant soldiers crowned the Prince of Yan as Emperor Yongle, the stage was set for Zheng He’s prominence.
Emperor Yongle, whose taste for expansion ran counter to his father’s vision
Source: Forbidden City Museum
Unlike his father Hongwu, Yongle – rumored to be the son of a Mongol concubine – possessed a less Confucian, more expansionist design for his empire, along the lines of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. An aberration in a line of unagressive rulers, Yongle personally led five military expeditions deep into Mongolia, orchestrated the invasion of Vietnam, and sent Zheng He, who had become Chief Eunuch, to explore the Indian Ocean with a fleet of 28,000 men. Yongle attempted to shake up his father’s close minded policies and repaint Ming Empire’s image; had he succeeded, Zheng He – who shared the emperor’s vision – would have left a greater legacy. Yet, in the end, Ming China could not swallow Yongle’s overflowing ambitions, could not steer away from Hongwu’s blueprint, could not escape from reality. History has been cruel to Zheng He, who ended up a misfit rather than a pioneer.
Zheng He failed to pioneer a commercial empire on the scale of Portugal or Britain. Despite their commercial overtones, Zheng He’s voyages were mere extensions of Ming Empire’s tributary system, a system not based on profit. Emperor Hongwu established the Ming tributary system merely as a way for foreign countries to acknowledge the empire’s status – private profiteering by envoys was strictly denied. When Ming envoys refused to accept gifts from the Vietnamese, Hongwu applauded; when envoys from Korea used a trip to the Ming court to trade privately with Chinese merchants, Hongwu frowned. Under Emperor Yongle, the Ming tributary system expanded with Zheng He’s diplomatic expeditions, and became more flexible. Zheng He’s men sailed to the Strait of Malacca, Malay, Arabia, and East Timor, carrying the emperor’s official seal and banner, accompanied an array of grain ships, battle ships, horse carrying ships, troop transport ships, and even water tank ships (with on board aquariums). Yongle realized that trade and tribute were synonmous, and allowed foreign ambassadors who boarded Zheng He’s ships to profit. The emperor even set up markets in the Ming capital for these foreigner envoys to trade. Yet, while foreign envoys profitted, expeditions under Zheng He did not. Zheng He’s treasure ships aimed to bedazzle foreign princes – gold, silver, porcelain, silk, and other valuables were exchanged, in great quantities, for items less worthy, like giraffes that amused the emperor but provided little practical benefit. Even beginning economics students understand that with little return, any business venture, no matter how grand in scale, would be doomed to bankruptcy.         

The Ming Empire had strength to launch 28,000 men to the Indian Ocean, but did not have a viable economic model to maintain her overseas enterprises. The Ming court drew heavily on tax revenue to construct and maintain Zheng He’s fleet, and maritime trade remained a government monopoly. The Ming government never subsidized private enterprise to follow up with Zheng He’s voyages, and never actively encouraged its citizens to participate in maritime trade. Without a mercantile system, exemplified by joint stock enterprises like the British and Dutch East India Companies, Ming overseas expansion could not reap enough returns. Tax revenue alone proved inadequate for supporting a fleet of four hundred feet long ships – each more than ten times larger than Columbus’ Santa Maria – in the long term. Each treasure ship in Zheng He’s fleet cost 350 taels of silver to construct, while Suzhou, the richest city in the Ming Empire, only generated at best 3,000 taels of silver per year from tax revenue. When Yongle’s other extravagant projects, such as campaigns in Mongolia and Vietnam, sucked up portions of the imperial treasury, funds dwindled for Zheng He’s voyages. As government initiative faltered, so did Zheng He’s fleet, and Ming China remained the exclusively argricultural society that Hongwu engineered.
Map of Ming China and Zheng He’s voyages to the Indian Ocean
Source: http://www.wwnorton.com/worlds/ch2/maps.htm
Hongwu’s blueprint eventually proved to be more expedient than Yongle’s grandiose schemes. Yongle failed to outshine his father’s wisdom: his aggressive manuevers paralyzed the treasury and burdened his citizens, but produced no long lasting benefits, and, to a great extent, blemished the Ming Empire’s geopolitical status. States in Southeast Asia and along the Indian Ocean did not actively threathen the Ming Empire, and some, like Vietnam and Champa, even acknowledged themselves as vassals. Yet, Yongle turned against these peaceful nations and former vassals, displaying unbridled arrogance and full ignorance of foreign customs. Zheng He even abducted a Sri Lankan ruler called Alakeswara and presented him to the Ming court, so that the emperor could “pardon” the foreign king and “appoint” new rulers for Sir Lanka. Of course, these imperial “appointments” meant nothing to Sri Lankan natives, who found more reason to resent patronizing Ming envoys.
Hongwu’s wisdom became more and more apparent as Yongle’s expansionist campaigns turned into fruitless entanglements. As news from Ming invasion forces in Vietnam reached the imperial court, Emperor Yongle could only shake his head and recall his father’s stern admonishments against brash military adventures. Yongle’s armies tasted bitter defeat at the hands of guerilla fighters in Vietnamese jungles, the same jungles that American soldiers would loath five and a half centuries later. Vietnamese guerillas fought successfully and persistently against Chinese occupiers, eventually forcing Ming troops to withdraw in 1427. Ironically, the Ming invasion of Vietnam produced a domino effect across Southeast Asia, destabilizing the region and actually weakening the Ming Empire’s influence. When Yongle’s troops flooded into Vietnam, former Ming allies like Champa, Siam, and Burma sensed danger and adopted defensive measures against Ming China. Neighboring states then watched in awe as the Vietnamese Le Dynasty drove out Ming occupation armies and asserted a strong nationalism in defiance of Ming authority. The Ming emperor’ armies were no longer invincible, and the Ming emperor’s will was no longer unbendable – Yongle and his expansionist policies had failed.
Yongle also paid dearly for his impulsive forays into Mongolia, which took place as Zheng He sailed to the Indian Ocean. Whereas Hongwu enjoyed the pastime of poisoning his generals and ministers, Yongle relished opportunities to lead 100,000 men deep into the Mongol steppe. One could easily claim that Yongle had a more productive hobby, if not for one obvious problem: the massive Ming army trekked hundreds of miles only to find smokeless camping grounds. Mongol forces under Arughtai and Bunyashiri would raid Ming settlements, and then vanish completely days before Yongle’s army approached. The cat and mouse game clearly favored the Mongols, who had intimate knowledge of terrain; finding a Mongol in the vast steppe proved as hard as spotting Osama Bin Ladin along the Afghan border. After Yongle’s tired army erected a couple of stone monuments – to save face – and left Mongolia, Mongol riders would regroup and continue raiding. Against the advice of his finance and war ministers, Yongle launched five costly, but indecisive northern expeditions; at the end of his last expedition, the emperor – broken and exhausted – succumbed to disease. Moments before death, Yongle admitted that Xia Yuanji, his finance minister, was right.
Fortunately for the Ming Empire, Yongle’s successor Hongxi proved to be a skilled administrator, and began to clear the mess his father left behind. Unlike his athletic, militaristic father, Hongxi was overweight, disliked any type of physical exercise, and spent most of his time with Confucian scholars. Nevertheless, Yongle’s reign would have collapsed without Hongxi’s assistance. When Yongle found amusement chasing Mongols hundreds of miles away from the capital, Hongxi served as regent for long stretches of time and administered the empire with precision. Upon ascension, Hongxi immediately released Minister of Finance Xia Yuanji, who Yongle imprisoned for protesting against campaigns into Mongolia. Next, he cut back his father’s extravagant expenses, lowered taxes, and issued edicts forbidding more overseas expeditions under Zheng He. The Ming Empire drifted back to policies along Hongwu’s lines.
Historians like Steven J. Dick from N.A.S.A. criticize Hongxi’s non-expansionist and overly Confucian policies, but that would be forcibly imposing a modern understanding on a historical context. Different historical contexts require different solutions to problems. Zheng He lived in a time before Adam Smith, before Maynard Keynes, and certainly before U.S. government budgets. Without the correct historical context, Zheng He’s voyages could only lead to a dead end. Given the institutional incompatibility of Ming China to maritime expansion, the unprofitable nature of Zheng He’s voyages, and the financial burdens incurred by extravagant campaigns, only one viable solution existed – terminate unnecessary overseas expansion and unburden the empire from heavy expenditures. Ming China could not possibly transcend its Confucian framework, which put basic civilian welfare above expansionist ambition. Given the historical context, Emperor Hongxi does not deserve blame for shortsightedness; on the contrary, he should be praised for his practical concern of the people. In Hongxi’s words: “Relieving people’s poverty ought to be handled as though one were rescuing them from fire or saving them from drowning.” Had Ming China continued Yongle’s extravagant expansionism, it would drown in endless poverty.
Emperor Hongxi, who reversed Yongle’s expansionist policies
Source: Forbidden City Museum

Political realities also forced the Ming Empire to abandon expeditions to the Indian Ocean. In the early fifteenth century, the Ming capital moved from Nanking, home of Zheng He’s naval headquarters, to Peking, close to the Mongolian frontier. Subsequently, the geopolitical focus shifted northward. Moving the capital to Peking called for reconstructing the Great Wall, which stripped financial and human resources from naval expansion. Unlike Southeast Asian states, Mongol clans refused to recognize Ming sovereignty and posed a serious threat to the empire. Twenty-five years after Yongle’s death, Oyirad Mongols under Esen Khan decisively defeated 500,000 Ming troops at Tumu Fortress, and marched to the gates of Peking. With the Mongol threat becoming more and more apparent, naval expeditions became an afterthought.

Nevertheless, in recognition of his loyal service, Hongxi’s successor Emperor Xuande did grant Zheng He, already in his sixties, one final voyage into the Western Seas. In contrast to his previous grandiose voyages, the elderly admiral only had about 300 men at his disposal. The tall, stately mariner who once defied Poseidon’s wrath no longer held that seemingly unbreakable confidence; he would stand meekly on deck and gaze, sad eyed, at the setting sun on the horizon, knowing that he, and all that he embodied, had become obsolete. Zheng He was attacked by pirates on his last voyage, and died a broken man before he could return to Ming China. He was buried at sea. His tomb in the suburbs of Nanking only contains an official robe; his spirit rests elsewhere – at sea, where it belongs.


Annotated Bibliography

Wang, Gungwu. “Ming Foreign Relations: Southeast Asia.” The Cambridge History of China. Vol 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Professor Wang, from University of Hong Kong, writes extensively about Ming China’s policies in Southeast Asia. My paper relates to the author’s discussion on Hongwu and Yongle’s differing foreign policy.

Rossabi, Morris. “The Ming and Inner Asia.” The Cambridge History of China. Vol 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Professor Rossabi, from Queen’s college, gives a detailed discussion of Ming China’s conflict with Mongols. Discussion of Yongle’s unfruitful expeditions into Mongolia is reflected in my paper.

Levanthes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Levanthes examines Zheng He’s life, his voyages, and the events leading to their termination. Discussion of Hongxi’s policies is reflected in my paper.

Pao, Tsen-Peng. “On The Ships of Cheng Ho.” Collected Papers on History and Art of China. Vol 6. Taiper: National Historical Museum, 1998.

I used this paper as reference for minor details of Zheng He’s fleet, such as ship length.

Dick, Steven J. “The Importance of Exploration.” http://www.nasa.gov. 2005.

Steven J. Dick, N.A.S.A. Chief Historian, asserts that exploration is key to a nation’s success, and severely criticizes the Ming Empire’s decision to discontinue Zheng He’s voyages. His argument is contradicted in my paper.

Chang, Kuei-Sheng. “The Maritime Scene in China at the Dawn of Great European Discoveries.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 1974 : 347-359.

Professor Chang, from the University of Washington, talks about how institutional realities dictated Ming China’s attitude towards maritime expansion. The discussion is reflected in my paper.