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Zheng He (1371–1433): China’s masterful mariner and diplomat

Published on 24 September 2023
Updated on 08 April 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

(A fairy tale?)

Ever since Gavin Menzies, a British retired naval officer, published the fictional story 1421: The Year China Discovered America, fleet admiral and diplomat Zheng He (1371–1433) has enjoyed a sort of revival as the Chinese explorer who might have circumnavigated the Earth before the age of Western exploration. I don’t know whether this is true or not, so let’s skip this take on him.

This trope replaces the previous one that had cast Zheng He as the luckless admiral who might have led China in an effort to establish an overseas empire, were it not for the inward looking Confucian bureaucrats in Nanjing and Beijing, who closed China to the world.

A statue of Zheng He at the Tay Kak Sie Chinese Taoist temple in Semarang on the island of Java, Indonesia.
A statue of Zheng He at the Tay Kak Sie Chinese Taoist temple in Semarang on the island of Java, Indonesia.

In fairness to history, the third Ming emperor, Yongle (1402–1424), who selected Zheng He to be the commander in chief of what became a series of missions to the ‘Western Oceans’, was a man of action. He overextended the empire’s resources, and at the end of his reign, retrenchment became inevitable in face of the collapse of the paper-money system which had funded his many adventures, and those of Zheng He. The abandonment of the Indian Ocean reflects a more realistic view of China’s possibilities. Still, completing the Great Wall of China (which the Chinese actually called The Long Wall) is taken to be a symbol of the Ming dynasty’s inward looking attitude.

Trade monopoly: Europe vs China

Could China have profited from an overseas empire? We in the West see empire-building as such a self-evident policy that we don’t stop a minute and reflect on the fact that China and Europe were different. The first was a unified empire, the second a region of warring statelets.

1. If one is an European warring state keen on profit from international trade, the thing to do is to obtain an import monopoly in Europe, and the rest of Europe will have to pay the import prices set by the monopolist (revenues may be then invested (or wasted) in intra-European warring). To protect the monopoly position within Europe, one needs to protect the supply chain all the way up to the overseas producer. This is why the Dutch settled in Indonesia, and the British in Bengal. Competitive empire-building reflects the fragmented structure of warring Europe.

China on the other hand was a unified state. It was immaterial where the imports landed. In fact, an open trading system ensured China competitive prices. From all over the Indian Ocean and the Indonesian archipelago, traders, both foreign and Chinese, brought goods to China unbidden. Canton (Guangzhou) was a majority Muslim, reflecting their prominent role in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Chinese communities have taken on predominant roles along the coast of Indonesia.

2. Europe needed goods from the Orient. While China certainly appreciated goods from Indian Ocean trading, it needed foremost horses for its troops. That explains in part the fixation with the nomads to the north: it had a vital interest there and was ready to pay for it in silk. The Silk Road at the outset was a way for the nomadic Xiongnu to get rid, in India and the West, of surplus silk they’d gotten from the Han in exchange for horses under the tribute system. Its political roots lie in the realisation that neither side could win at war, and thus unilateral rent extraction through conquest respective pillage was not a viable policy.

Ever since the Song Empire (960–1279), China maintained a political presence in Southeast Asia, and a few political missions on squadrons had been sent into the region. Ming Emperor Yongle’s effort to send a fleet under Zheng He into the Indian Ocean has to be understood as a reinforcement and continuation of this policy. But was it necessary?

Zheng He’s fleet and voyages

Zheng He’s fleet of 250 ships, with 27,000 sailors and soldiers on board, sailed 7 times altogether into the Indian Ocean, visiting in turn Indonesia, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, and Africa, all the way down to Malindi in present-day Kenya. It was an effort ‘to bring the Western Ocean into the Chinese tributary system by overawing, or if need be overpowering, opposition’ (from Edward L. Dreyer’s book Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405–1433). So they did, fighting in Ceylon, capturing pirates in Indonesia, and unseating a local pretender there. For the rest, they brought home goods – like the mythical qilin (giraffe) – and other ‘goods and treasures without name, which were too many to be accounted for, yet they did not make up for the wasteful expenses’, sneered the Confucian bureaucrats.

The expeditions of Zheng He
The seven expeditions of Zheng He (Cambridge University Press).

China and trade

And they were right, in a way: the terms of trade for horses were set at China’s northern door and the nomads paid the associated transport costs. Here, the exchange took place at the port of call, far away from China. The terms of trade reflected local conditions, and on top of that, China had to pay for transport costs. In economic terms, there was no way China could win. The Indian Ocean trading system brought goods to China – unbidden. A policy of dominance could increase the flow (at the risk of creating a supply overhang), but only by shouldering the collateral costs. And as a final point: silk textiles were being produced in India and the Middle East; what was in demand from China by then was tea and porcelain. Zheng He, as a good bureaucrat, may have missed the prevailing market conditions.

China’s tribute system

Most profoundly, China’s tribute system reflected a strategic choice: it represented a system of peaceful and commercial exchange in dealing with foreign powers – eschewing rent extraction through force. Given this choice, for all its ritual complexity, the tribute system was no more than a system of public procurement for vital goods (army horses from nomads in the north). There were no vital goods the Chinese state (or the Chinese court) saw the necessity to procure in the Indian Ocean.1 Consequently it applied a policy of benign (or malign2 at times) neglect.

Zheng He's treasure ship
Treasure ships were the largest vessels in Zheng He’s fleet. A description of them appears in the adventure novel by Luo Maodeng, The Three-Treasure Eunuch’s Travels to the Western Ocean (1597). The author writes that the ships had nine masts and measured 460 feet long and 180 feet wide. It is hard to believe that the ships would have been quite so vast. Authorities on Zheng He’s maritime expeditions believe the vessels more likely had five or six masts and measured 250 to 300 feet long.

How much did Zheng He’s explorations cost?

How much did all this cost? Building the fleet absorbed about half the tax receipts for one year, and then there was the expense of running the operation. A doable policy, but not a marginal expense, and therefore it was subjected to scrutiny as to its effectiveness. Showing the flag impressed everyone in sight, but politically they were all dwarfs. These places were duly impressed, went about the required motions of showing respect, and then settled back into their well-established routines as trade nodes. Even Calicut, or Hormuz, were just platforms of exchange, not of large scale production. In this light, retrenchment is understandable.

A unique, self-sufficient fleet

What about Zheng He? Zheng He was a genius in his own way, albeit unrecognised to this day. His skill was in the area of logistics and organisation, and here he still is unmatched.

To my knowledge, there has never been (nor is there today) a fleet able to ‘project power’ (an army of over 5,000 marines at the ready) in foreign waters repeatedly, for a period of up to 2 years each time (with a turn-around time of 4–6 months between missions). Along the way, the fleet was essentially self-sufficient, both as to supplies and to the upkeep of the ships. These were flat-bottomed wooden vessels with capital ships weighing around 20,000T each (opinions differ somewhat on this point), 4 times the largest ships of the Western line, lumbering at 2–3 knots of speed powered by 9 masts, and able to sail for 20–30 days out of sight of land. And though he may have lost the odd vessel, in the 30 years that the fleet was kept up, Zheng He never lost even a fraction of the fleet to storm.

What an engineering and organisational performance!

1. When Emperor Qianlong, who reigned 1735–1796, indicated to the British Envoy Macartney in 1793 that China did not need any British goods, he was using such a ‘public (or court) procurement’ lens. From such an angle, the statement was understandable.

2. Trade between China and Southeast Asia continued, disrupted at times by imperial edicts, and then followed by accommodation.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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