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Admiral of the Chinese fleet

September 04, 2005

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ONE never ceases to learn, and to often be amazed. China, that great land, is not generally renowned for its seafaring triumphs, nor is it too widely known that decades before Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama sailed the oceans and made their discoveries, a Chinese admiral undertook seven sea journeys westwards from China in the space of 28 years during which he covered over 50,000 kilometres and visited 37 countries.

The other day the Pakistan Institute of Maritime Affairs, founded by our great admiral, the late Haji Mohammad Siddiq Choudri, the first Pakistani commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Navy, hosted a seminar to celebrate the 600th anniversary of a remarkable sea journey undertaken by the Chinese navigator, Admiral of the Chinese Fleet Zheng He (Cheng Ho), who in 1405 set sail and led the largest fleet ever to have sailed the oceans up to that point in history — 317 ships carrying 27,870 men.

They sailed down the coast from Nanjing, the then capital of China, crossed the South China Sea, then on to Java, Sumatra, Sri Lanka and the west coast of India, and then back home, on the way picking up envoys from the various countries who wished to visit the Chinese court.

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Yunnan province, into a family of the Semu caste who practised Islam. He was a sixth generation descendant of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a famous Yuan governor of Yunnan. His father and grandfather had both done the overland trip to Makkah and it is said that young Zheng, or Ma He which was his original name, grew up speaking both Chinese and Arabic.

One version of his life has it that at the age of 10 he was recruited into the imperial household as a servant and attached to the retinue of Duke Yan, who would later usurp the throne and rule as the Emperor Yong Le (1403-1424). He was involved at a young age in a series of military campaigns initiated by the Duke, and rewarded when Yan became emperor by the bestowal of the name Zheng He.

Another version has it that after the Ming army conquered Yunnan, he was captured and castrated, thus becoming a eunuch, and was then taken to the imperial court where he became a close confidante of the man who was to become emperor, and sent to study at Nanjing’s Imperial Central College. Six of the admiral’s sea ventures were completed during the reign of Yong Le.

When Yong Le died, his successor Hongxi (1426-1435) decided to curb the influence of the eunuchs at court. However, Hongxi’s reign ended in 1425, and the succeeding emperor Xuande was far more accommodating towards Zheng. In 1430 he sailed off on his seventh and final voyage to the Gulf, the Red Sea, up the East coast of Africa, back down again, and up the east coast of India. Somewhere along that coast, in 1433, Zheng died. He was brought back to China and buried at the foot of Bull’s Head Hill in Nanjing, where his grave still stands. The tomb was restored in 1985 and on its top are inscribed in Arabic the words ‘God is great’.

Of his voyages, Zheng himself wrote : “We have travelled more than 100,000 li (50,000 km) of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course as rapidly as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.”

Some historians have suggested that Sinbad the Sailor and the collection of travel-romances about his adventures in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights were inspired by the tales of many seafarers who had sailed with, or worked for, or traded with the great armada of the Chinese Ming Imperial Treasure Fleets under Admiral of the Chinese Fleet Zheng He. There are also similarities between Zheng and Sinbad in the number of voyages, seven, and the general locations of the voyages, and further support is lent by the various iterations of Zheng in Arabic and Mandarin.

Anyone interested in reading in detail about Zheng and his adventures can do so in Louise Levanthes’ book, ‘When China Ruled the Seas’ (Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-195-112075).

State sponsored Ming naval exploration declined dramatically after Zheng He’s death. Pressure from the resurgent Mongolian tribes from the north was one contributing factor, as was the 1421 move of the capital from Nanjing up north to Beijing which made easier imperial defence of the northern borders. Military expeditions replaced China’s great naval ventures of the first half of the 15th century.

However, Chinese ships sailed the seas long before Zheng. That great Muslim geographer, Ibn Battuta, visited China in 1347 and described the enormous characteristics of the ships he saw : “...We stopped in the port of Calicut, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. On the China Sea travelling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called chunks ( junks), middle-sized ones called zaws (dhows) and the small ones kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited into mats. They are never lowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind.

“A ship carries a complement of a thousand men, six hundred of whom are sailors and four hundred men-at-arms, including archers, men with shields and crossbows, who throw naphtha. Three smaller ones, the ‘half’, the ‘third’ and the ‘quarter’, accompany each large vessel. These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun and Sin-Kalan. The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants.

“This is the manner after which they are made; two (parallel) walls of very thick wooden (planking) are raised and across the space between them are placed very thick planks (the bulkheads) secured longitudinally and transversely by means of large nails, each three ells in length. When these walls have thus been built the lower deck is fitted in and the ship is launched before the upper works are finished.”

It was Napoleon who famously said ‘Let China sleep,’ and suggested that the sleeping giant not be awoken. It sleeps no more. Hong Kong was taken without a single shot being fired, Taiwan will be taken when the time is ripe. And China now has a pearl in Pakistani waters — the warm water port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, in the province of Balochistan.