Sunday, June 12, 2005


Otterman posted about the controversial theory propagated by Gavin Menzies that Zheng He might have discovered the Americas and circum-navigated Australia and how STB would be launching an exhibition based on Menzies' "discoveries" in Singapore.

I chatted with Siva over iChat last night over this. Interestingly I mentioned to Siva that I thot that Menzies' book was comparable to von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods; concidentally this point was also made by historian, Geoff Wade.

I am not a historian, but as a student of Chinese history, I must say that Zheng He's voyages were fantastic enuff even without attaching Menzies' somewhat extravagant claims that has little backing. It was like making claims based on an extrapolation of an extrapolation. Even Chinese historians were either faintly amused or came out to dismiss Menzies' claims. The more polite response was that Menzies work "required more research", and these came from Chinese historians who might have vested interests in glorifying Zheng He's "peaceful voyages of establishing regional dipomatic relationships". Other Chinese researchers also pointed out factual errors in his book. Like the exit of the Yellow River, 600 years ago in 1421 was not in Bohai bay, it should be in Shangdong.

another angle towards whether Zheng He "discovered" America in 1421 might be to look at the background Zheng He's voyages. The 7 voyages were not made for discovery or even diplomacy. Eunuch Zheng He was the trusted aide of Ming Emperor Yong Le (Zhu Di). Zhu Di was the fourth son of the founding Emperor Hong Wu (Zhu Yuanzhang) but was not slated to succeed as the next emperor. However, the crown prince died and Zhu Le's nephew succeeded the throne as Emperor Jian Wen. but by then Zhu Di (Prince Yan at that time) was a power lord guarding the northern border (present day Beijing) against the Mongols. Prince Yan led a campaign to seize the throne from Jian Wen. So it turns out that Emperor Yong Le was actually a usurper without legitimacy in the orthodox confucian way with the eldest inheriting the throne. Even after seizing the throne, Yong Le was insecure and was well aware of him being the usurper.

Therefore, the voyages of Zheng He has one prime objective: to bring back tribute and recognition from Southeast Asian kingdoms. One sign of imperial legitimacy was tributes from "vassal states from eight directions". For instance, the sultans of Brunei, Malacca (Parameswara) and the Sulu kingdoms visited Beijing to pay homage. The Sultan of Brunei fell sick and died in China and his tomb can still be visited in Nanjing. The fleet also brought back exotic animals, not so much for curiosity but more for their symbolic effect. For instance, the giraffe was called the "Chilin", an auspicious mythical beast that would only appear during the reign of a just and wise emperor.

the other reason was probably to search for the lost Emperor Jian Wen who disappeared after the "rebel" forces stormed Nanjing. Rumour has it that Jian Wen had escaped to Southeast Asia, probably Siam (Thailand).

My point is that the Chinese don go around sailing the world charting the seas, or to establish bases in far-off Nova Scotia. Otherwises, nearby Japan, Okinawa or Southeast Asia would have been "dotted" with Chinese bases. Chinese dynasties are not interested in foreign barbarian lands, unless for tributes and recogition for overlord status.

But eventually, the voyages were stopped largely due to a combination of factors: but mainly due to the opposition from conservative officials since the voyages were bankrupting the government and the agrarian, continental philosophy of China. To encourage the homages and tributes, Yong Le were dishing out lavish gifts like gold and precious silks and jewelry. The costs of outfitting and supplying the fleet was also astronomical. At the height of the voyages, it was estimated that 300,000 workers were involved in shipbuilding and providing logistic support. another factor was probably because the mongols up north were getting restless again.

To me that the saddest thing that all these achievements were a flash in the pan. All the impressive technical innovations that were ahead of its time like water-tight compartments, advanced sailing technology like tacking system that could sail up-wind were lost and forgotten, the shipyards and shipwrights were disbanded. China turned inwards on itself after that, this indirectly led to the weakened and technological backward China that was ready to be carved up by the western powers by the time of the Opium Wars in 1840.

interestingly, Ming manuscripts recorded that the fleet brought along lots of vegetables, fruits and animals as provisions. One of the "live" fish brought along was the snakehead (Channa sp) since it was very hardy and could even survive out of water. Zheng He's fleets also brought back previously unknown vegetables like the bittergourd. The fleet also brought back precious stuff like shark fin, bird nests and durian from Sumatra (I'm sure the durians were well received...).


At 6:34 PM, Blogger Sivasothi said...

"von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods" - Yeah I burst out laughing when you mentioned that!! Don't give chance one!


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