January 10, 2006

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Zheng He Redux

We have all heard, ad nauseam, about how Zheng He (Cheng Ho) the Muslim Chinese eunuch admiral made a number of naval visits to Southeast Asia and various countries in the Indian Ocean. The blinkered view of these visits as entirely peaceful and altruistic have then been generalized and interpreted that Chinese foreign policy has always been entirely peaceful to its neighbors.

Fear not, though, I am not descending into one of my rants on the subject. An Indian defense analyst has written about a new gambit by China in Sino-Indian relations. India is keen to improve its relations with its Central Asian neighbors to the north and west (starting of course with Pakistan). China has certainly stolen a march on India in negotiating gas pipeline deals with Central Asian countries and Iran to keep itself well supplied with oil. In return for sharing the benefits of power projection in Central Asia, China apparently wants India to share power with it in the Indian Ocean.

A brief note, but an interesting perspective from outside our area...

posted by HK Dave on 01.10.06 at 04:21 PM in the China politics category.


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You forgot to mention that Zheng He and his fleets also, without a doubt, visited east Africa and aboriginal Australia and New Zealand. There is also, as you no doubt know, good evidence that his fleets also visited the American continent at least 50 years before Columbus or Magellan first did.

posted by: Minister on 01.10.06 at 04:35 PM [permalink]

Except that there isn't really any evidence that is compelling that he visited America, or Australia for that matter. I have not seen a single credible academic source that would stake his or her career on it.

And please don't quote Gavin Menzies, he is not a credible source because even in his book it is clear that those destinations were very speculative.

posted by: HK Dave on 01.10.06 at 04:38 PM [permalink]

Many scholars who are critical of Menzies' work generally do at least concede that Zheng He probably did visit Australia / NZ.

The Americas are a more controversial claim, but there is still, at the very least, enough evidence to raise at least a reasonably arguable case.

But no doubt what is considered to be "compelling" evidence or not varies depending on how determined one is to maintain myths of universal Western (white Caucasian) superiority and dominance.

posted by: Minister on 01.10.06 at 05:11 PM [permalink]

I shall ignore the sinister implication in what you are suggesting I am saying for the moment.

I shall instead say only this - that Zheng He is made up to be much more meaningful a statement about the eternally peaceful intentions of China today than is reasonable or that is borne out by facts.

I do not like it when a mish mash of truths and half-truths are presented as evidence of such eternally peaceful intentions, and to pander to Chinese beliefs of greatness. I acknowledge that Zheng He's voyages were impressive, in terms of what has been documented. I also believe that the fact that they were discontinued because of Imperial Palace politics, and their discoveries not used to improve the lives of the Chinese people.

Fact is, the fact that Italians once ran much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East does not change the way I see the country today. The facts of Cheng Ho do not annoy me, but what does annoy me is how this voyage is today being manipulated for political purposes of every variety.

posted by: HK Dave on 01.10.06 at 05:25 PM [permalink]

India's the last country in that part of the world which China is not building ports in - Gwadar in Pakistan, Hanbantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and a couple of places in Myanmar. They vary in size, and doubtless not all will have any military implications, but I think India is sufficiently paranoid that it's unlikely to be rushing into any Indian Ocean partnership with the Chinese soon...

posted by: duncan on 01.10.06 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Peaceful intentions? Maybe im lapsing in my daily dosages of Xinhua but Zheng He's boats were warships not pleasure barges. He didn't take 20,000 soldiers with him because he was out for a evening stroll either.

posted by: Jing on 01.11.06 at 05:58 AM [permalink]

In any case, the strength of the Chinese strategic position in Central Asia, vis-a-vis the US as well as India, has become more significant with the revelation today of another milestone - that China has become the second largest consumer of oil after the United States.

The Central Asian dictators will doubtless feel more comfortable working with China than with democratic customers that are also putting pressure on them to open up their regimes.

posted by: HK Dave on 01.11.06 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

Besides everything else mentioned above, doesn't anyone find it ironic that China is talking about how peaceful it is using Zheng He as an example? This a guy guy whose homeland was captured by a foreign army at the time--the Chinese of the Ming. His balls were cut off because he was not Chinese. The Ming killed the male adults of those captured and lopped off the balls of the young boys. Yes, he rose to prominence, but he 'became Chinese' as a direct result of Chinese warfare and expansionism.

How else did China become so big?

posted by: Shenzhen Whitey on 01.11.06 at 04:48 PM [permalink]

If memory serves, Zheng He's homeland was Yunnan province, i.e. Chinese territory since the time of the First Emperor.

At the time, Yunnan was being occupied by the Mongols, i.e. a foreign power.

The reconquest of Yunnan (and all other Mongol-occupied Chinese territory) by the Ming could not be considered expansionism, no more than, say, the liberation of continental France from English rule at the end of the Hundred Years War could be considered expansionism.

posted by: Po Fu on 01.11.06 at 07:58 PM [permalink]

Actually Yunnan was one of the last areas to fall under Chinese sway. The reason why the Ming dynasty invaded Yunnan was not to recover territory, but to squash the last vestiges of Yuan resistance.

posted by: Jing on 01.12.06 at 05:58 AM [permalink]

Ming Dynasty was highly pro-Muslims, whereas, the Qing dynasty was strongly anti-Muslims, over 10 millions Chinese Muslims were murdered by the Qing government during the Muslims uprisings in the 19th Century.

posted by: David on 01.12.06 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

All true, although David the 10 million murdered is a bit of a difficult description when basically the Chinese troops were enforcing their mandate over an area over which they had nominal sovereignty. It is true that the Chinese troops, under the command of their successful and ruthless general, did kill civilians as well as soldiers, it was similar to the holocaust of the Taiping Rebellion which was close to the same time.

Anyway, to put my thoughts on the subject to bed, Zheng He is an interesting, admirable historical figure, but rather a great deal is made of his achievements these days. It is so because he seems to be a very effective tool, in vast swathes of the world in which China would like to increase its influence.

posted by: HK Dave on 01.12.06 at 03:39 PM [permalink]

Now there is an ancient map to prove that Chinese did first discover America.

posted by: David on 01.15.06 at 12:50 PM [permalink]

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