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From the Archives: The Ghost of Zheng He rises…again

Map of Zheng He’s voyages

July 11 is Maritime Day in China. A holiday created in 2005 to commemorate the ocean voyages of Zheng He. This is an updated piece from 2010 on those voyages and whether or not Zheng He’s intentions then were entirely peaceful.


Perhaps no Chinese historical figure causes more eye-rolling among historians than the super-naval-bad-ass-7-foot-tall-could-have-discovered-America-but-didn’t-even-if-I’m-a-eunuch-Columbus-still-couldn’t-carry-my-jock admiral Zheng He.*  He’s someone that students often ask about, and I’ve written a few posts over the years on the different Zheng He controversies which bubble to the surface of the popular press from time to time.

Like a lot of other historical figures, Zheng He’s story and image are often appropriated as stand-ins for the controversy du jour, whether it’s China in Africa, or China’s rise as a regional naval power capable of projecting force into the waters of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean…coincidentally, Zheng He’s old sailing ground.  This past week, a team of Chinese archaeologists have been searching off the coast of Kenya for a shipwreck that some believe was a part of Zheng He’s Ming-era armada.

But what was Zheng He’s mission?

In China, Zheng He is usually depicted as an explorer and diplomat, as in this  People’s Daily editorial from 2005 marking the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s departure:

Zheng He led the ancient world history and the friendly exchanges among different nations, setting a shining example of the history of the exchanges of human civilization.

More recently, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo told a meeting of ASEAN leaders that Zheng He was a symbol of China’s openness and benevolent intentions, even as China expands its economic and military reach overseas.

“I want to assure you that China is not to be feared.

“The voyages of Zheng He, he said, had brought “porcelain, silk and tea rather than bloodshed, plundering or colonialism” – a reference to violent coercive measures used by Western colonisers.

“To this day, Zheng He is still remembered as an envoy of friendship and peace,” Mr Dai said.

In the same article, however, Geoff Wade, an Australian historian and one of the leading experts on Zheng He and his voyages, offered a different interpretation of Zheng He’s expeditions.

Prof Geoff Wade, a historian who has translated Ming documents relating to Zheng’s voyages, disputes the portrayal of a benign adventurer.

He says the historical records show the treasure fleets carried sophisticated weaponry and participated in at least three major military actions; in Java, Sumatra and Sri Lanka.

“Because there is virtually no critical analysis of these texts even now – history writing is still in the hands of the state – it’s very difficult for Chinese people to conceive of the state as being dangerous, expansionist, or offensive in any way to its neighbours.

“Chinese nationalism is fed on ignorance of its past relations. The way Zheng He is being represented is part of this.”

To say that Zheng He was an “envoy of friendship and peace” is a bit disingenuous.  To paraphrase a bit from one of my all-time favorite movies, Snatch: “Nobody brings a boat like that unless they’re trying to say somethin’ without talkin’.”

The Ming court was trying to prove a very specific point.

On the other hand, these expeditions were of a very different nature than the armed traders/raiders who set sail from Western European ports a few decades later.  Zheng He had no interest in colonizing Africa or Southeast Asia, just as long as the people he met could agree that the Ming emperor was the baddest Mofo in the world, he was happy.  And the tribute they gave was a nice touch too…

I suspect though, given the ongoing brouhaha of China’s rise and its regional intentions, this isn’t the last time that old Zheng He’s legacy will be hotly contested.

End Notes

Please check out the following websites compiled by Professor Geoff Wade:

The first is an index of Zheng He references in the Ming shilu, translated by Professor Wade.

The second is a paper by Professor Wade entitled “The Zheng He Voyages: A Reassessment.”


*I have no idea where the whole seven feet tall thing started.  Of the many stories I’ve read about Zheng He, the fact that he could have played power forward for the Celtics is not one of them.