The Voyages Of Zheng HeThe fleet of the dragon in the Yemeni waters [Archives:2005/874/Culture]

September 5 2005
Photo from archived article: photos/874/culture1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/874/culture1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/874/culture1_2
Photo from archived article: photos/874/culture1_2
By Irena Knehtl
Email: [email protected]
For the Yemen Times

This years marks the 600th anniversary of the first of seven great voyages to south and west seas by China most celebrated admiral Zheng He, (pronounced Jung Hug), a Muslim eunuch in the imperial Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Exactly 600 years ago this month the great Ming armada weighed anchor in Nanjing, on the first of seven epic voyages as far west as the Gulf of Aden and Africa. The anniversary is being widely celebrated inside and outside China with exhibitions and articles. A replica of an ancient ship used by the Chinese sea voyager, who established the maritime silk route 600 years ago will set sail this month from the Chinese port city of Qingdao.

Zheng He was a remarkable commander whose voyages of trade exploration and goodwill led to the exchange of knowledge and goods as far a field as Yemen and the east coast of Africa. As the “Admiral of the Western Sea”, Zheng He lead Chinas most ambitious voyages of discovery. Ordered by the Ming Emperor to sail to “the countries beyond the horizon” and “all the way to the end of the earth”, under his command, the royal fleet of the Ming Dynasty set off for the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, heading for Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden and East Africa. An unprecedented massing of naval power and boasting of the most advanced nautical technology and the biggest maritime fleet in the world in the 15th century. His armada of giant junks was several times bigger than any of the fleets Columbus commanded nearly a century later. And his ships were five times longer than those of the celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. With more than 300 oceangoing vessels and a crew of nearly 30.000 men, Zheng He helped transform China into the regions and perhaps the worlds, 15th century superpower. By the end of his fleets seven voyages, China had become an unrivaled naval power. It has established itself as a trade and diplomatic force, its authority backed up by the thousands of troops who accompanied Zheng He on his travels. .

Exactly 600 years ago this month, a huge fleet left port in 1414 and sailed westward on a voyage of trade, exploration and discovery. Its commander was, without question, the most towering maritime figure in the four thousand years annals of China. A visionary who imagined a new world and set out consciously to fashion it. He was also a profoundly unlikely candidate for admiral of the Dragon Throne. Born and raised in the mountainous heart of Asia, several weeks travel from the closest port, in 1371 in Kunyang, a town in south west Yunnan Province as Ma He. Ma stood for Muhammed. Son of a rural official in then Mongol province of Yunnan, his family were part of minority group known as Semur and were Muslims. They originatelly came from Central Asia. Both his grandfather and father had made onland the pilgrimage to Mecca Mukarrama. Their travels and tales contributed much to young Mas knowledge of the far off lands. He grew up speaking fluent Arabic and Chinese. Yunan then was one of the last strongholds of Mongol support, holding out long after the Ming Dynasty begun. After Ming armies conquered Yunnan in 1382, Zhen He was taken captive and brought to Nanjing. The eleven year old boy was made a servant of the prince who would become the Emperor. Ritually castrated, he was trained as an imperial eunuch. Renamed Zheng He, “The Three Jeweled Eunuch”, he was eventually chosen to lead one of the most powerful naval forces ever assembled. Says Professor Liu Ying Shenkg of Nanjing University, he was ashamed of being a eunuch, adding there was little information about this aspect of Zhneg He life. Described as tall and handsome with long earlobes, fierce eyes and skin, rough like the surface of an orange..

This was a China on the rise. His fleet included 62 baochuan ships that were 400 feet in length, 170 feet across, had nine masts and a deck space of 50.000 square feet. There were 300 total vessels in the fleet. This vast fleet set sail in July, 1405 from Liujia Harbor near Suzhou on a distant voyage. More than 27.800 men included sailors, clerks, interpreters, officers and soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. One board the ships were large quantities of cargo that could be broken down into over 40 different categories, including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silver ware, copper utensils, iron implements, cotton goods, mercury, umbrellas and straw mats. The ships, described collectively as the “swimming dragons” boasted as many as nine masts apiece, and the largest could hold 1000 people. Dotted with dragons eyes in order to help them “see”, they carried soldiers, doctors, cooks, astrologers, traders and holy man. The senior captains were eunuchs. Zheng He himself was seven feet tall with a waste five feet in circumference, and a voice as loud as a huge bell. He was described as a deeply spiritual man who believed in the unity of all religions. For China, the expeditions were an important source of information about foreign countries. In all, the fleet landed in more than 40 countries and the crew members brought back tales of exotic places and customs.

The fleet sailed along the coast of Fujian, and after crossing the South China Sea reached such places as Vitenam, Java and Sri Lanka, along the west coast of India and further west into the Indian Ocean. Sailing north west in the Indian Ocean, they had visited Yemen, Iran and the Holy Cities of Islam Mecca and Medina, in the Western Indian Ocean Somalia and East Africa. No matter what country Zheng He visited, he called on the ruler of the land, presenting him valuable gifts in token of Chinas desires to develop friendly relations and inviting the host sovereign to send emissaries to China. Wherever he was, he made a careful study of the customs and habits of local residents. His was en epoch when in Asia entire cities were put to the sword. It is the epoch of the Inquisition in Europe, when thousands of Muslims and Jews were burned at the stake. In the context of his century religious fanaticism. Zhen Hes was far ahead of its time and indeed ahead of our own fanatic times, with his plea for tolerance, and peaceful co-existence.

The main destination of the Chinese treasure fleet in the Indian Ocean was the Malabar Coast of India and its cities Calicut and Cochin. Cochin was described as his favorite city, reportedly because of the religious tolerance. Viewed from the rocky outcropping of Dondra head at the southernmost of Sri Laka, the first sighting of the Ming fleet was a massive shadow on the horizon. As the shadow rose, it suddenly became a moving cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. The cloud draws closer and an enormous city appears. A floating city, nothing the world has ever seen before. Stretched across miles of the Indian Ocean in terrifying majesty lays the armada of Zheng He.

In late 1942, Zheng Ho was ordered to make a fourth and most ambitious voyage to Arabia. It wasn't until late 1413 or early 1414 that Zheng He embarked on his expedition with 63 ships and 28.560 men. The goal of this trip was to reach the Persian Gulf at Hormus, Salalah, Aden, and Jiddah, Hormus then was known as the city of unparalled wealth and goods, including pearls and precious stones that would drew the Chinese voyagers Detachments of this expedition sailed south along the eastern coast of Africa almost as far south as Mozambique. During each voyages, Zheng Ho brought back diplomats from other countries or encouraged ambassadors to visit Nanjing on their own. On each return voyage the fleet anchored at the Malacca base, where provisions, tribute, and gifts were stored in warehouses. From Hormus he fleet proceeded to Salalah, in present day Oman.

Those were the days white dhows were still built and repaired in the ship yard, the glory that once made Arabia the stuff of poetry and legend. Passed the present Omani province of Dhofar, yet only a few doors away, the glorious town of Mukalla, once a center of the world, torpid, sand – colored town. Those were the cities whose wealth and fame drew the Chinese treasure ships 580 years ago. A Manhattanite looking Shibam in Hadramwut. Here entire cities are build out of mud brick, he observed in his diary. Onwards to Aden, the greatest port in the world. A great and noble and fine city. When the Chinese fleet arrived in what is now southern Oman and Yemen, proud perhaps to have traversed the South China Sea all the way to the Indian Ocean, they were greeted by master Arab navigators, who had been traveling to China, to Guangzhou, for centuries.

But now the Admiral was remarkable silent. His grandfather came to mind. He remembered how his grandfather had told him that that once upon the southern stretches of Arabian Peninsula, in particular Yemen, were known as Arabia Felix or Happy Arabia, thanks to its strategic location overlooking the sea – lanes linking Asia to Europe, and thanks too, to the frankincense trees nurtured by their monsoon rains. His grandfather used to say that here money was growing on trees, or at least in them. Frankincense, coveted for religious ceremonies in Rome, Egypt and Jerusalem, was more valuable than gold. And how the 1st century A.D. Pliny the Younger called Yemen the richest area in the world.

“We have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course rapid like that of a star writes Zheng He in his diary.

Darkness, cold and silence of the Arab Sea. He will soon be there. The white minarets of Aden, their shade that oblivion awaiting him and calling him, and it was towards them that his life was drifting. He seem to have reached the end of a long journey. He established the silk route of the sea. He had spoken the first words in Arabic and then continued in Chinese. He did not want the soldiers accompanying him to be aware of his doubts. The name Zheng He hung like a balast on him. He was again Ma, Mohammed, the name his father had given him. The great Admiral of the Western Seas, now his hand folded, and five times a day, prayed to the God of his childhood. He will soon be there. His eyes will repeat tirelessly the cry of the pilgrims

Labbaika, Alahuma! Labbaika, Allahuma! Here I am, Lord!

His eyes searched for Mecca Mukarrama on the horizon, but it was not until the end of another day journey that he saw the holy city, and then only when he arrived before its walls. The town where the Prophet was born, peace and blessing be upon him, which is situated at the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains which protect it from prying eyes. He entered the city through Bab al-Umrah, the busiest of its three gates. The streets was very narrow, and the houses clang to one another. But better constructed and richer than those of Jiddah. The suq was full of fresh fruit, in spite of the aridity of the environment. Henceforth his every step, was transported into a world of dreams. This city, built on this sterile soil, seemed never to have had any destiny other than contemplation. At the center, the Noble Mosque, the House of Abraham, and at the heart of the mosque, the Kabba, an imposing building which longed to walk round until one become exhausted, each of whose corners bear a name: the corner of Iraq, the corner of Yemen, the Black Corner, the most venerated, facing eastwards. It is there that the Black Corner is embedded. He will be touching it and touching the right hand of the Creator. He would cover the Stone at leisure with his tears and kisses. He will drink the blessed water of Zamzam.. His spirit would be simply open to the spirit of God as a flower to the morning dew. He would be returning with joy each morning.

His eyes were full of silence.

The sea has brought the Chinese people to the summit of the rock, the earth shaken with their cries of triumph. His achievements show that China had the ships and navigational skills to explore the world. China has a very old seafaring tradition and

Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as during the Han Dynasty. The Chinese compass started out as a fortune telling instrument. In dark weather they look to the south pointing needle, and use a sounding line to determine the smell and nature of the mud on the sea bottom and so they knew where they are.

And so it was. When Zheng He returned from his seventh voyage in 1433, he was sixty two, and he was heading to the final Place. Where no man is a stranger before the face of the Creator. But he opened up trade routes that are still flourishing today, and gained strategic control over countries that are once again looking to China as undisputed regional leader. After Zheng Hes voyages, China turned away from the seas and underwent a period of technological stagnation. It lost the technological lead in navigation and gradually became weak. China today is facing the challenge of the Ocean. China has set July 11, the date Zhneg He set out on his first voyage, as its Maritime Day. The Zheng He expedition 600 years ago offers much to think about. As for the ports that launched Zhen Hes fleets, they are long gone.

Through the centuries, China has struggled to find its proper place in the world. The pendulum has shifted back and forth between openness and insularity, between the spirit embodied in Zheng He and that of others who argued for rolling back into insularity. China would not emerge again as a naval force until the past decade or so. As the 21st century dawns, China again is on a mission to open itself to the world. China, meanwhile, is clamoring for membership in the World Trade Organization, which will make the nation an equal partner in a transparent, globalized economy. The big picture now is that China is open. The message is that Zheng He foreshadowed Chinas 21st century emergence as a world power. China today is once again growing stronger all the time, and Chinas style of peaceful development has been welcomed all over the world. Zheng He was Chinas first big ocean trader, who stands for peaceful coexistence and scientific navigation

China is an important trading and investment partner to Yemen. So far the Chinese investment includes fields such as shipping, oil, fishing, transport, construction etc. Many more Chinese companies are viewing Yemen as distribution center and gateway to their target markets in Africa. President Saleh is due to visit China in early spring 2006.