He was a six-foot-five Muslim eunuch who sailed from China to the coast of Africa. The greatest explorer you’ve never heard of.
- Zheng He has been promoted as a symbol of China’s peaceful rise
- His fleets sailed from China through South-East Asia, the Middle East and Africa
- Some dispute the ‘peaceful explorer’ narrative and say he represents aggressive expansion
While it presides over a major crack down against Muslims, the Chinese Communist Party is also revitalising the myth of Zheng He — a naval admiral who commanded epic voyages in the early 15th century throughout South-East Asia, India, the Middle East and beyond.
As he spruiks the Belt and Road Initiative from Asia to Europe, President Xi Jinping has regularly invoked Zheng as a symbol of friendship with the world, particularly in South-East Asia, and peaceful Chinese ascendency.
Dubbed “Chinese Columbus”, the explorer has even inspired a trendy coffee shop in Melbourne.
But was he truly the symbol of diplomacy that Beijing would have us believe?
The 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony had a large segment dedicated to the voyages of Zheng He. (US Army: Tim Hipps)
Who was Zheng He?
Leading voyages across the globe a century before Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, Zheng has been described as one of the greatest explorers of all time.
Zheng He is seen to embody the spirit of Chinese exploration and diplomacy. (ABC News: Quentin McDermott)
He was born Ma He in 1371 in China’s southern Yunnan province to parents from the ethnic Hui minority, who are majority Muslim.
While little is known about his family, Zheng’s father and grandfather both made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia — more than 5,000 kilometres from China.
His name Ma — the Chinese derivative of Muhammad — would later be replaced by Zheng, a name conferred on him by the Ming emperor as he rose to the highest possible rank for a eunuch.
Zheng He’s ship is shown to scale compared with that of Columbus at an exhibition in Dubai in 2006. (Flickr: Lars Plougmann)
Zheng undertook a series of epic voyages between 1405 and 1433, leading more than 20,000 men aboard a fleet consisting of more than 100 ships — easily the most advanced navy of its day.
He is thought to have become interested in Buddhist teachings later in life and died in India.
While Zheng’s fleet showed off Chinese might and naval prowess, orthodox Chinese histories depict him as never engaging in gunboat diplomacy, rather developing friendships with foreign leaders.
Zheng He sailed to Africa a century before Columbus reached the Americas. (ABC News: Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser)
“He did not occupy a single piece of land, establish any fortress, or seize any wealth from other countries,” China’s then-deputy minister of communications Xu Zu-yuan said in 2004.
“In the commercial and trade activities, he adopted the practice of giving more than he received, and thus he was welcomed and lauded by the people of the various countries along his routes.”
This is clearly how Beijing would like to be viewed internationally today, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy naming one of its ships the Zheng He.
In 2012, the vessel undertook a “harmonious mission” to countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Italy, Canada and Indonesia, with the aim of strengthening ties with foreign navies.
Chinese naval vessel Zheng He moored in Pearl Harbour in 2015. (US Indo-Pacific Command: Laurie Dexter)
What is his significance for Chinese foreign policy?
Xi Jinping drew upon Zheng’s fleet during his opening speech to the Belt and Road forum in 2017.
“These pioneers won their place in history not as conquerors with warships, guns or swords. Rather, they are remembered as friendly emissaries,” Mr Xi said.
“Generation after generation, the silk routes travellers have built a bridge for peace and East-West cooperation.”
Zheng is the “key person that represents the maritime Silk Road”, said Sow Keat Tok of the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.
The explorer’s legacy looms large in South-East Asia — a fact Beijing has sought to leverage in its dealings with the region.
“If you look how Zheng He is spoken about in folklore and oral accounts, it was generally positive,” Dr Tok told the ABC.
In Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, Zheng holds special status for his role in propagating Islam, remembered with mosques, temples and museums across the archipelago.
Xiamen University historian Liao Dake has written that he “supported the independence of the Melaka kingdom, injecting a driving force to the diffusion of Islam”.
While reporting on an Indonesian parliamentarian’s visit to the country last week, Chinese state media noted that Zheng’s “legacy in places like Indonesia continues to show that his expeditions established important links that went beyond diplomacy and economics to include cultural aspects and other ties”.
Prior to visiting Manila in November 2018, Mr Xi wrote an opinion piece widely published by Philippine newspapers that declared: “Over 600 years ago, Chinese navigator Zheng He made multiple visits to the Manila Bay on his seven overseas voyages seeking friendship and cooperation.”
Xi Jinping has particularly emphasised Zheng He in dealings with the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. (Kyodo News: Kenzaburo Fukuhara via AP)
But Philippine Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio claimed last month that historians had proven Zheng never came to the Philippines, and that his myth was simply part of China’s attempts to justify its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“I call this the fake history of the millennium, the fake news of the century,” he said.
Was Zheng a peaceful explorer or something more sinister?
According to Dr Tok, Beijing’s drawing upon the memory of Zheng “conveys the message that China is becoming a more powerful country without being more threatening”.
While Beijing has emphasised the allegedly pacifist nature of his exploration, however, some Western observers see Zheng as representing something else.
Last year, the United States’ then-secretary of defence James Mattis declared China had “long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order”.
“The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing; espousing One Belt, One Road.”
Geoff Wade, an Australian historian focused on China’s engagement with South-East Asia, has argued that Zheng’s voyages represented a violent form of “maritime proto-colonialism”.
China has continued to promote history of Zheng He’s voyages, which took him as far as the mouth of the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa. (Reuters)
In the case of Vietnam, for example, Dr Wade has written: “There was invasion, occupation, the imposition of a military and civil administration, economic exploitation, and domination by a court in the capital of the dominating power.”
Ming rule of Vietnam is part of 1,000 years of Chinese domination of the South-East Asian country, which continues to anger Vietnamese nationalists to this day.
Dr Wade has written that the Zheng He voyages “involved the use of huge military force to invade peoples who were ethnically different from the Chinese, to occupy their territory, to break that territory into smaller administrative units, to appoint pliant rulers and ‘advisers’, and to economically exploit the regions so occupied”.
Zheng He’s maps have been the topic of debate, with some claiming to prove he made it to the Americas. (ABC News: Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser)
Is China a benevolent power seeking win-win relations with smaller states, or a bully seeking to economically exploit them?
Can a Muslim figure be a Communist Party-endorsed icon?
While Zheng’s cosmopolitan image is being boosted on the world stage, the Communist Party is cracking down against Islam at home.
The Hui are culturally more similar to the ethnic Han majority, and thus, until recently, had not been targeted by Beijing to the extent of Turkic Uyghurs.
But Human Rights Watch has described “increasing scrutiny” of Hui people in their home region of Ningxia in north-central China.
Authorities have ordered mosques deemed too Arabic in style to be altered or demolished, as part of a broader policy to “Sinicise Islam”.
Last year, thousands of Hui people protested the demolition of the Grand Mosque in the Ningxia town of Weizhou — a rare display of defiance from a group often described as a “model Muslim minority”.
“Chinese authorities’ exploitation of the great expeditions of Zheng He, a Muslim, for diplomatic and commercial gains — while interning millions of Muslims in the Xinjiang region — is the height of hypocrisy and shamelessness,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, told the ABC.
“It also exposes the real goal of empire building and creation of vassal states along the Belt and Road route.”
“The Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing ideological indoctrination of all sectors of Chinese society with ‘Xi Jinping thought’ and efforts to ‘Sinicise’ religion make a mockery of any claims by authorities to respecting pluralism,” Ms Hom said.
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