By Kumar David –
Zheng He, and perhaps Nelson (whose fame belonged to a different genus), were the two greatest admirals to sail the seas. The Treasure Fleet visited Ceylon on five of Zheng’s seven voyages to South and South East Asia, the Malabar Coast, Arabia and as far as the east coast of Africa. All this was between 1406 and 1431; the first voyage some 80+ years before Columbus reached San Salvador Island (Bahamas), or Gama, Calicut. Despite awesome naval and military power the Chinese did not colonise Asia, leaving that to Europeans – why? How different would history have been if it had been the other way round? And why did the great fleet disappear as suddenly as it arrived? And what about the curious incident when Zheng took the King of Kotte by his ear to the court in Nanjing because “he was in need of instruction”?
A five day Plenary Session of the Chinese CP’s Central Committee opened in Beijing on Thursday (7 November) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been on steroids promising changes as “momentous” as the December 1978 Plenum which raised Deng Xioping to the leadership and adopted a radical economic turn. What happens in China is crucial for the rest of the world and of earth-shattering significance for hangers on like the Rajapakses, so I presumed readers would like to hear a historical story first. I will deal with the outcome of the Plenum when news leaks out.
The Treasure Fleet
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was a period of centralisation after the tumultuous overthrow of the Mongols. China was the richest nation in the world and following the decline of Rome and prior to the Renaissance it was also peerless as the foremost culture of its time. During the reign of the third Ming emperor Zhu Di, also called Yongle, from 1402 to 1424, there was a new impetus towards trade, diplomacy and the projection of power beyond China’s seas and borders and a proclivity for acquiring vassal states. The voyages were a piece of that set. The eunuch Muslim admiral Zheng He’s fleet consisted of nearly 300 ships and 27,000 sailors and soldiers. The largest 62 ships, Treasure Ships, were behemoths of 400 ft length and dwarfed the paltry European vessels that conquered the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, decades later.
The fleet was laden with porcelain, silk and jade, perfumes, copperware, iron tools and implements, and gold, silver and bronze coins. The voyagers were also a source of technical and agricultural knowledge – it is said, for example, that the large scale cultivation of maize in Malacca started after the visits. It is not known whether these expeditions had anything to do with the spread of the four great inventions of the ancient world (compass, gunpowder, paper and printing) out of China, but they reached Europe, via the Arabs, at about the this time. The expeditions were essentially trading voyages, not for conquest, and they took home pepper, spices, pearls, gems, ivory, rhinoceros horns, medical herbs, and artefacts, not to mention a full grown giraffe from Africa. The experiences were an important source of information for China about foreign lands and people. The fleet’s chronicler Ma Huan records that the inhabitants of Ceylon knew at the time how to make cultured pearls.
However, Zheng He did not shrink from using force with great effect against pirates and in subduing other kingdoms which failed to kowtow before the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, as the following anecdote shows.
The curious incident and the stone tablet
The Lanka Library Forum (LLF) website records that in 1911 a provincial engineer, H.F. Tomalin, discovered a carved stone covering a culvert near Cripps Road, Galle. When deciphered by archeologists with great excitement, it was found to be a trilingual inscription (Chinese, Tamil and Persian) in praise of Buddha, Shiva and Allah erected by Zeng He. This threw additional light on a curious incident that had long been known to historians.
Apparently when Zheng, with great tact and religious veneration, expressed a wish to plant the stone carving which he had brought from Nanjing, Alakeswara, a local chief, rebuffed the offer as an infringement of national sovereignty – yes, this Sri Lankan sovereignty lunacy goes back centuries. There was a brief skirmish and the Chinese were driven back to their ships. They sailed on to India, but returned to avenge the insult to the ambassador sent by the Son of Heaven. Clearly, the King of Kotte was in need of a little tuition in diplomacy; the LLF web site goes on to say:
“What happened next is controversial, and the accounts are confused, but the Chinese abducted ‘the king’ (Alakeswara in the Chinese account, the legitimate king of Kotte according to the Sinhalese account). The captives were taken to the Ming capital at Nanjing, but released by the emperor and returned to Sri Lanka (Added comment: during a later voyage). There are stories of the Chinese taking the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha. Author Louise Levathes, trying to make sense of the conflicting accounts, guesses that the captive was the King of Kotte, who took the relic with him to China in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the usurper Alakeswara, but in any event the Tooth too was soon back in Sri Lanka. The Yongle emperor claimed sovereignty over Sri Lanka and demanded regular tribute and the Sinhalese went along with this for over forty years before refuting the obligation in 1459”.
It is unfortunate that the benefits of that tuition have worn away in intervening centuries and the inmates of this benighted island have returned to their old habits!
Why were we never colonized by the Chinese?
As mysteriously as it had appeared, Chinese naval and military power vanished from the view of the outside world. The ocean going fleet was dismantled and further foreign expeditions halted, leaving the door open for European colonialism in the following centuries. The answer to this mystery can be found at three levels, strategic, ideological and historical materialist; all are true, the third is conclusive.
The Mongol (Yuan) Dynasty had ended in chaos and eventually been pushed out, but Mongol tribes and warlords continued to harry the Empire on its northern borders and in the Gobi Dessert in the west. There was great pressure among court officials to concentrate resources on the border wars and avoid expensive overseas adventures. The massive defeat that the Ming suffered at the hands of an alliance of Mongol tribes in 1449 (the Tumu Incident) seemed to confirm this warning in retrospect. However taking the whole fleet to pieces and turning entirely inward to an autarchic frame of mind would not have happened but for a bitter ideological battle at court.
Though emperor Zhu Di and his party at court were in favour of an outward looking policy of interacting with foreign lands this was bitterly opposed by the entrenched class of Confusion mandarins and scholar-officials. Their influence had been sidelined for decades, but never broken. After Zhu Di’s death (1424) they fought an ideological rearguard offensive with and succeeded in turning the empire back to an inward looking mindset. The Middle Kingdom, they argued, was self-sufficient in all things material and cultural and did not need the outside world. Europe, in the meantime was just rigging up to discover the globe.
There is however a deeper reality that lulled China to slumber and awoke Europe. Something very significant was emerging in Europe; trade and commerce was in the air and mercantile classes were coming to the fore. What drove Europe’s voyage into the world was mercantilism and plunder; the last nakedly in South America. But it was not plunder but trade and investment that was the real powerhouse of the colonial process. One may exemplify this by contrasting British colonialism’s extraction of surplus value created by workers in cotton, spices, timbre, jute and tea, with Spain’s rapacity for Inca gold.
The point is that there were new classes, merchant houses, mercantilists, investors and adventurers driving this process incessantly. There was no such dynamic in the bowels of Chinese society; a bourgeois revolution was not in the making. If the measure was naval and military power the Chinese empire was vastly stronger than the Europeans as the theme of this article has illustrated. The point however is that there was no trading bourgeoisie to drive the global expansion, and for emperor and court the economics of foreign policy was little more than a hobby. Historical materialism teaches that in the final analysis there is no power on earth that can stand in the way of intrinsic material forces. A social revolution in Europe, while ageless monotony prevailed in the Middle Kingdom, determined that we would be a Portuguese, Dutch and British colony, not a Chinese one.