In the ancient and medieval worlds, the Chinese were intrepid sailors. Their junks traveled the eastern oceans and were of a size and splendour that excited admiration and even disbelief in the western people who saw them, so much bigger were they than any vessels yet built in the western world. Junk fleets were involved in trade, receiving tribute and engaging in diplomacy and warfare around the world. Chinese naval power perhaps reached its greatest peak with the voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho – with fleets traveling from Vietnam to Mecca. Yet within a few years, the Emperor Ch’eng-Tsu had prohibited any further voyages and naval power rapidly diminished – this created a lack that was influential in the subsequent long economic and political decline of the empire.
Admiral Cheng Ho started his life as Ma Ho and was born about 1371 in the southern province of Yunnan. Yunnan had previously been the centre of the Nan Chao kingdom, which was a powerful militaristic society that had resisted Chinese domination for hundreds of years, until it was destroyed by the Mongols under Kublai Khan in the 1250s. In order to try to pacify the region, which ranged in terrain from mountainous uplands on the border of Tibet to the sub-tropical Xishuangbanna on the fringes of Burma and Laos, where wild elephants still roam, the Mongol dynasty (known as the Yuan) had stationed many troops in the region and settled many Muslim people there. Ma Ho came from one of these families and grew to prominence as a military rather than a learned man. This came at some personal cost since, as Cheng Ho, he was required to become a court eunuch.
While Ma Ho rose in rank, China was suffering internationally from a number of military reverses which had had the effect of greatly diminishing her reputation and the fear and respect with which the imperial court had traditionally been held throughout the region. These reverses were instrumental in the creation of the Admiral’s voyages and the massive amounts of labour and resources necessary to outfit them. The length of time required to prepare for the voyages was sufficient for numerous political intrigues to break out – after all, the power and influence that Mandarins in the court could wield (to say nothing of the money that could be diverted into personal coffers) might be radically changed by such an event. Changing emperors also had their own preferences and priorities. However, eventually the voyages did take place.
The ships were launched at the ‘Treasure-ship Yard’ located north-west of Nanking close to the Yangtze river. The ships were assembled into a fleet with many sacrifices and prayers to the goddess T’ien Fei, patron of sailors. From there they sailed south and around the coast of southern China, Vietnam, Thailand, parts of modern Malaysia and Indonesia and on to the west with India and Arabia. In all, five voyages were completed and the Admiral became known for his firm and fair diplomacy, his commercial acumen and his appreciation of local people and their customs. The history of his voyages was compiled by Ma Huan, of whom little is known apart from his official work as translator, particularly his apparent ability in Arabic and Persian , which is taken to suggest that he was also a Muslim.
Ma Huan’s history is somewhat unusual among Chinese chronicles in that there is much less disapproval of foreign customs and unfavourable comparison with the culture of China than is generally the case. The eyewitness observations provide many very useful contributions to our understanding of C15th century Asia, most especially in the cases of those countries where few if any written records remain. Here, for example, is a brief vignette from life in Malacca:
“As to the king’s dress: he uses a fine white foreign cloth to wind round his head; on his body he wears a long garment of fine-patterned blue cloth, fashioned like a robe; [and] on his feet he wears leather shoes. When he goes about, he rides in a sedan-chair.
The men of the country wrap the head with a square kerchief. The women dress the hair in a chignon behind the head. Their bodies are [only] slightly dark. Round the lower part they wrap a white cloth kerchief; [and] on the upper part they wear a short jacket of coloured cloth.” (Ma Huan, 1997, p.110)
Despite the great success of the voyages and the invaluable information and prestige they afforded, the Ming court turned its attention elsewhere and subsequent activities were cancelled. Perhaps the emperors looked at the outside world and saw nothing with which they needed to concern themselves. If that was the case, it was a great mistake.
- Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores , translated and edited by Feng Ch’eng-Chun, introduced and annotated by J.V.G. Mills (Bangkok: White Lotus Co. Ltd., 1997).