Zheng He: A Giant Among World Maritime Explorers

Admiral Zheng He made seven epic voyages to Asia and Africa between 1405-1433, which predated the Westerners’Voyages of Discovery by almost a century. By an extraordinary coincidence, he sailed from Suzhou in 1405 where, 600 years later, Singapore Government is co-owner of a massive industrial park in partnership with China. History has come full circle. This year marks the 600th anniversary of his epoch-making adventures. Singapore will be celebrating it in a big way with multiple international events being planned.

He is relatively unknown world-wide compared with his Western counterparts like Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Why? Sadly, much of the official Chinese records of these voyages were destroyed after his death, by order of his powerful enemies at Court. They were opposed to his expeditions, both on economic and other grounds. Further, Ming History made only scant mention of his exploits. Most surprisingly, not even his date of death and burial place were recorded. Hence, his final resting place is still a matter of conjecture. Nonetheless, he became a legend and folk hero in his life time, and was deified as a god. Even today, the Zheng He Museum in Nanjing is not doing him justice. There is a paucity of important exhibits and those on display are unimaginatively presented, despite China’s enormous resources which have been expended to commemorate men of lesser stature. Compounding these, hardly any Chinese works on him have been translated into foreign languages. Ironically, it was due to a handful of eminent Western researchers like Needham, Levathes and, most recently, Menzies that the world is now more familiar with his greatness.

How should one assess his place in Chinese history? Does he deserve the same recognition as that accorded those famous Western explorers mentioned above? On the credit side, his unprecedented voyages had enabled China to establish both diplomatic and trade relations with more than thirty states in Asia and Africa. Consequently, Chinese goodwill and prestige ran high there.

China’s advanced knowledge in navigation, agriculture, fishery, construction and crafts were transmitted freely to these foreign lands and benefited them. Zheng He succeeded in resolving disputes between some states he visited and helped restore peace and sovereignty in these states. Finally, as a consequence of his expeditions, more Chinese emigrated to this region and those already there enjoyed better protection and respect from the authorities. On the debit side, a major aim of these voyages was to overawe foreigners with the grandeur of Emperor Yongle’s Ming China and its magnanimity to those who  acknowledged its symbolic suzerainty over them. This would enable the “tribute” states to reap both economic and political advantages.This policy was too costly to maintain and could have ruined the national economy if it had continued indefinitely. This heightened opposition to further naval adventures, resulting in the reversal of China’s open-door diplomacy.

China had failed to exploit the potentially mutually beneficial trade relations with these territories under the misguided arrogant belief that it had everything it needed and therefore need not develop sustainable trade links with others. Zheng He’s rightful place in Chinese history has been confirmed by none other than Deng Xiaoping in 1984, when he addressed the nation’s People’s Congress in Beijing: “… the Ming dynasty, under Yong Le Emperor, did wisely pursue an open-door policy resulting in Zheng He’s famous maritime expeditions overseas. However, after Yong Le’s death, China abandoned this policy resulting in foreign intervention and China’s ultimate humiliation during the 19th century.  The open-door policy is therefore the way forward for China.”

Following a more realistic overall appraisal by scholars East and West of Zheng He’s achievements, his standing as one of the greatest maritime explorers of all time has at last been firmly recognised world-wide, albeit belatedly.

Lam Pin Foo

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