The Zheng He Voyages: A Reassessment
By Geoff Wade
Paper given at the New Dimensions in Humanities Education conference, 2008
Abstract: The Ming eunuch navigator Zheng He is lauded in contemporary China as a great maritime voyager, an ambassador of peace and friendship, and a potent symbol for Chinese patriotic education. The eunuch and his voyaging colleagues received more than their fair share of public attention over the year 2005, a year marking the 600th anniversary of the first voyage commanded by Zheng He. The attention they garnered was in part celebratory, but at the same time there was some critical, scholarly notice paid to the nature of the voyages and how they might be perceived both in East Asian and world history. This paper is a continuation of that theme. On the basis of Ming texts, this paper will examine Zheng He as an agent of the Ming state, pursuing one strand of that state’s proto-colonial expansion in the early 15th century. In conjunction with the successful colonial enterprise which the Yong-le emperor pursued in Yun-nan and the ultimately unsuccessful colonial venture in Đai Viӗt, the Zheng He voyages will be here examined as an alternative form of protocolonialism— one which the Portuguese were to pursue almost a century later. The argument to be advanced is that these voyages were military expeditions with both political and commercial purposes, aiming to achieve a pax Ming throughout Southeast Asia and, by controlling the maritime trade centres, to take control of the trade routes and thereby the trade controlled until then mainly by Muslim traders.