Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

The Zheng He Voyages Reconsidered: A Means of Imperial Power Projection1

Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

The Zheng He Voyages Reconsidered: A Means of Imperial Power Projection1

Article excerpt

The Zheng He voyages of the Ming Dynasty are becoming an increasingly popular area of study. However, a number of original theories concerning the voyages require revision. One of these theories is that the treasure fleet's voyages were peaceful explorative ventures; commissioned out of benevolence and an interest in gaining knowledge. "The military aspect of these voyages needs underlining, in part because of the stress placed on these missions in much current scholarship, both Chinese and non-Chinese, as 'voyages of friendship'" (Wade, 2005, 45-47). Another theory is that oversea voyages, such as Zheng He's, are singular to the Ming dynasty and serve as evidence to Ming advancement in comparison to previous dynasties. These two theories constitute a large portion of the misconceptions surrounding Zheng He's treasure fleet voyages.lt is imperative to address these theories to achieve a better understanding of the history of Chinese maritime tradition during the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. Also, understanding the role this tradition served through those dynasties, examining the changes in the tradition implemented by the Ming, and identifying rising trends within the Ming Dynasty that leads to the end of the treasure fleet voyages provide a solid beginning period for the, normally elusive, deterioration of Chinese innovation and achievement.

The voyages were neither peaceful nor explorative ventures. Additionally, this maritime tradition did not belong solely to the Ming. The treasure fleet voyages of Yongle, the Ming emperor responsible for commissioning all but one of the voyages, existed to spread Ming imperial dominance and influence throughout the immediate region and eventually the larger world. The tributary system existed well before the Ming Dynasty and its historic role was to reinforce the centrality if not supremacy of historic China over the surrounding kingdoms. This tributary system, however, should not be mistaken for a form of trade. It is true that during the Ming Dynasty the treasure fleet carried and exchanged goods with foreign kingdoms and delivered them back to the Ming court. This system was not a version of government controlled trade. Instead, this exchange of goods served a symbolic purpose for the Ming emperor. Submissive kingdoms sent goods from their areas to the Ming court and in return they received acknowledgement and legitimization from the Ming court.

The treasure fleet's designated task was to travel to various foreign kingdoms and persuade the local rulers, by show of sheer numbers or direct military force, to "recognize the unique and superior status of the Chinese emperor as the Son of Heaven and the mediator between Heaven, earth, and mankind" (Dreyer, 2007, 34). Those foreign rulersdemonstrated their recognition by paying a tribute to the emperor in local products, adopting the use of the Chinese official calendar, andeither accompanying the treasure fleet themselves or sending emissaries to the Ming court. In exchange for this recognition the Ming emperor provided supplicant rulers with Imperial edicts and status, thereby appointing them rulers of kingdoms they already controlled (Dreyer, 2007). If a local power resisted the emperor's demands the Ming forces under the command of Zheng He would depose the anti-Ming elements and establish a new, pro-Ming ruler.

The seven voyages under the command of Zheng He can be organized into three sections: the early voyages, the middle voyages, and the final voyage.The three stages of voyages are classified chronologically and in accordance to the areas that were visited. The early voyages are comprised of the first, second, and third voyages: 1405-1407, 14071409, and 1409-1411, respectively. The treasure fleet's route was essentially identical during the early voyages. For all of the early voyages, as well as subsequent voyages, the fleet had the same beginning itinerary. First the fleet sailed from Nanjing to Fujian. Here the fleet loaded the supplies required by the upcoming journey while awaiting the winter monsoon winds. …

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