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 & advanced 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.

Zheng 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.

Statue of Admiral Zheng He in Malacca (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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 & unsurpassed knowledge in navigation, led by marina compass, the most important instrument 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 China’s Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping in 1984, when he addressed the nation’s People’s Congress in Beijing: “… the Ming dynasty, under Yongle Emperor, did wisely pursue an open-door policy resulting in Zheng He’s famous maritime expeditions overseas. However, after Yongle’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.”

Deng then went on to pursue China’s open-door trade policy with the other countries which eventually led to China becoming the second largest economic power decades later & most likely to replace the US as the number one economic power in the foreseeable decades ahead.

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.

Updating of the above article with another more detailed Zheng He article on this subject with new inputs to highlight his well deserved honour & worldwide recognition as, in my view, he is the world’s greatest ocean adventurer & explorer.

The world according to Zheng He (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Following the publication of one of my first articles in Singapore’s English newspaper, The Straits Times, in early 1995 on China’s contributions to science and civilization by the world-renowned sinologist & scientist Dr Joseph Needham of Cambridge University, I was flattered & encouraged to receive a letter from the former President of Singapore, Dr Wee Kim Wee, saying he enjoyed reading it & would look out for more of my articles covering Chinese culture, heritage & sea explorations.

I can vaguely recall having met Dr Wee decades ago in my chamber at the Industrial Arbitration Court when he was a senior administrative manager of The Straits Times. He and other senior management staff were then negotiating with the Singapore National Union of Journalists for a new Collective Agreement. I was then the Registrar of the Court and acted as their mediator.

When my longer & more comprehensive article on “Zheng He and Suzhou: History Comes Full Circle” was accepted for publication as a Cover Story by The Straits Times in due cause, I took the opportunity to post it to him in advance of its eventual publication date together with another Chinese mariner compass article which I hope he would find them interesting.

The above Straits Times edited Zheng He article covering the full page of its Cover story was published on 12 November 1995. It is not technically possible for me to reproduce its entirety here unless I copy it verbatim which will take up a great deal of my time & too laborious in my advanced old age. I therefore decided to highlight its principal points below for the benefits of my local and international viewers.

A China expert says in the days of Zheng He, it was not in the Chinese scheme of things to seek to become a colonizing power. In contrast, the Western maritime powers, as epitomized by Portugal, would never have been satisfied with mere ceremonious acknowledgement of their fame and glory as the Chinese did. From ancient times, the Western powers would resort to force if peaceful means failed to achieve the desired results.

But what about today’s China? Today, some in the West see a resurgent China as a potential military threat. They cite the Spratly Islands dispute as an example. Beijing, however has repeatedly reassured that it poses no military threat to Asia-Pacific’s progress. Indeed there is a view that as China has many priorities, such as expanding its economy and improving the standards of living of her people, it is not in her interest to push a policy that will make it a military threat.

One question that has been uppermost on the minds of many is: what would have been the course of world history if the Chinese had been more interested in acquiring a colonial empire and to explore terra incognito, like the Europeans did from the latter part of the 15th century, instead of being content with a ritual recognition of its superiority over other states?

The simple answer must be that China, with her then unparalleled naval and military might, could easily have accomplished this had she been so inclined towards territorial expansion. Also, had China produced successors to Yongle and Zheng He of their calibre and vision, Chinese and world history would certainly have taken a different course. The humiliation that China suffered at the hands of Western powers, especially during the 19th century, would perhaps have been averted.

I would now like to share with all my viewers an insightful self explanatory letter from Dr Wee Kim Wee, which perfectly sums up the salient points of this Straits Times Zheng He article much better than I can. It is reproduced below.

Lam Pin Foo

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