Throughout its centuries-old history, the Chinese Empire did not show much interest in distant countries and sea travel. But in the 15th century, her ships sailed seven times across the Indian Ocean, and each time the squadron of giant junks was headed by the same person – the diplomat and Admiral Zheng He, who was not inferior to Columbus in terms of the scale of his expeditions. Figure: Anton Batov
Zheng He was born in 1371 in the city of Kunyang (now Jinying), in the center of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, near its capital Kunming. Nothing in the childhood of the future naval commander, then called Ma He, did not foreshadow a future romance with the ocean: in the 15th century, it was several weeks away from Kunyang to the coast. The surname Ma – a transcription of the name Muhammad – is still often found in the Chinese Muslim community, and our hero was descended from the famous Said Ajalla Shamsa al-Din (1211-1279), also nicknamed Umar, a native of Bukhara, who was promoted during the Mongol great khans Mongke (grandson of Genghis Khan) and Kublai. It was the conqueror of China, Khubilai, who appointed this Umar governor of Yunnan in 1274. It is known that the father and grandfather of the future admiral strictly adhered to the codes of Islam and performed the hajj to Mecca. Moreover, in the Muslim world there is an opinion that the future admiral himself visited the holy city, albeit on an informal pilgrimage.
At the time of the boy’s birth, the Middle Empire was still under the rule of the Mongols, who favored his family. But the beginning of Ma He’s life was quite dramatic. In 1381, during the conquest of Yunnan by the troops of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, who threw off the foreign Yuan, the father of the future navigator died at the age of 39. The boy was captured by the rebels, emasculated and handed over into the service of the fourth son of their leader Hun-wu, the future emperor Yongle, who soon went as governor to Beiping (Beijing).
It is important to note one detail here: eunuchs in China, as well as, for example, in Ottoman Turkey, have always remained one of the most influential political forces. Many young men themselves went on a terrible operation, not only in essence, but also in terms of technique, hoping to get into the retinue of some influential person – the prince or, if they were lucky, the emperor himself. So the “color-eyed” (as the representatives of the non-titular, non-Han nationality were called in China) Zheng He was just lucky according to the concepts of that time. Young Ma He performed well in the service. By the end of the 1380s, he already stood out clearly in the entourage of the prince, who was eleven years younger. In 1399, when Beijing was besieged by the troops of the then emperor Jianwen (reigned from 1398 to 1402), a young dignitary staunchly defended one of the city’s reservoirs. It was his actions that allowed the prince to hold out in order to counterattack the opponent and achieve the throne. A few years later, Yongle gathered a powerful militia, raised an uprising, and in 1402, having taken the capital Nanking by storm, proclaimed himself emperor. Then he adopted the motto of the new reign: Yongle – “Eternal happiness.” On the Chinese New Year on February 11, 1404, Ma He, in gratitude for his loyalty and deeds, was solemnly renamed Zheng He – this name corresponds to the name of one of the ancient kingdoms that existed on the territory of China in the 5th-3rd centuries BC. e.
As for the appearance of the future admiral, “becoming an adult, they say, has grown to seven chi (almost two meters – Ed.), And the girth of his belt was equal to five chi (more than 140 centimeters – Ed.). His cheekbones and forehead were wide, and his nose was small. He had a sparkling look and a voice as loud as the sound of a big gong.
When looking at the expeditions of Zheng He over time, it is most surprising that such serious in scale expeditions were completely forgotten by contemporaries and descendants at the end of them. The ambitious Yongle sent a fleet to distant countries at the very beginning of his reign, and the last great expedition returned to the reign of his grandson Xuande, after which the sea glory was forgotten in China for a long time. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, Western scientists discovered references to these voyages in the chronicles of the imperial Ming dynasty and asked the question: why was this huge flotilla created? Different versions were put forward: either Zheng He turned out to be a “pioneer and explorer” like Cook, then he sought colonies for the empire like the conquistadors, then his fleet represented a powerful military cover for developing foreign trade, like the Portuguese in the 15th-16th centuries. However, the countries of the South Seas and the Indian Ocean were connected by sea trade with the Celestial Empire during the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). Then from the ports of Fujian, Guangdong, Zhejiang and Guangxi, sea routes already stretched to Indochina, India and even Arabia. We went by sea from Liaoning province to the Korean Peninsula and to Japan. So the admiral did not plan to open new trade routes. Did he want to conquer new lands? On the one hand, the Chinese empire from time immemorial has sought to annex the lands of its closest neighbors. Moreover, Zheng He’s armada up to the gunwales was packed with weapons and warriors. But on the other hand, throughout history, the inhabitants of the Celestial Empire settled in distant countries peacefully, formed diasporas, not experiencing any need for colonization. The “Sons of Heaven” have never undertaken naval campaigns of conquest. And if the gifts that the naval commander was taking back to the court were habitually interpreted as tribute, then their flow stopped exactly at the moment when the admiral’s ships returned to their home harbor. No, Zheng He’s mission was neither military nor aggressive. The famous Russian Sinologist Alexei Bokshchanin in his book “China and the countries of the South Seas” gives an interesting consideration about the possible purpose of these travels: by the beginning of the 15th century, relations between China in the Minsk era and the state of Tamerlane had become extremely aggravated. The frantic warrior even planned a campaign against China. Accordingly, Zheng He could instruct the diplomatic mission to find allies across the seas against Timur. After all, when he fell ill in 1404, already having conquered and destroyed cities from Russia to India behind him, there would hardly be a force in the world that could compete with him alone. But after all, in January 1405, Tamerlane died. It seems that the admiral was not looking for friends against this enemy.
Perhaps the answer lies in a certain inferiority complex of Yongle, who was ascended to the throne in a palace coup. It seems that the illegal “Son of Heaven” simply did not want to wait with folded arms until the tributaries themselves come to him to bow.
The winds of the southern seas
Monuments to the great Chinese navigator stand not only in Nanjing – he is revered in Malaysia and Indonesia, in Thailand and on the Malabar coast of India. Photo: IMAGINECHINA / PHOTAS
The first three expeditions of Zheng He followed continuously one after another from 1405 to 1411 with short breaks in 1407 and 1409. At first, Emperor Yongle himself took an active part in the project. He then still lived in Nanjing, where they built ships and from where the first voyages started. This later arrangement of the new capital in Beijing and the Mongol campaigns will cool the emperor’s ardor, but while he personally delves into every detail, closely watching every step and order of his admiral. After all, he put a trusted eunuch at the head of not only the flotilla itself, but also the House of palace servants. This means that he also had to be responsible for the construction and repair of many buildings, and then ships.
The ruler was in a hurry – the armada was built in great haste. The first order to create ships was issued in 1403, and the voyage began two years later. By special high orders, fishing parties for timber were dispatched to Fujian Province and the upper Yangtze. The beauty and pride of the squadron, baochuan (literally “precious ships” or “treasures”), were built at the so-called “precious ship shipyard” (baochuanchang) on the Qinhuai River in Nanjing. It is this last fact, in particular, that determines the fact that the draft of the junks with their gigantic size was not very deep – otherwise they simply would not have passed into the sea through this tributary of the Yangtze. And finally, everything was ready. On July 11, 1405, in the Chronicle of Emperor Taizong (one of the ritual names of Yongle), a simple entry was made: “The palace dignitary Zheng He and others were sent to the countries of the Western (Indian) Ocean with letters from the emperor and gifts for their kings – golden brocade, patterned silks, colored silk gauze – all according to their status. ” In total, the armada included up to 255 ships with 27,800 people on board.
On all voyages, the grandiose armada was sent from the South China Sea. Through the Indian Ocean, ships sailed towards Ceylon and southern Hindustan, and recent voyages also covered the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa. Zheng He walked along the “rolling” path every time: catching the repetitive monsoon winds that blow from December to March at these latitudes from the north and northeast. When humid subequatorial air currents rose over the Indian Ocean and, as it were, in a circle turned back to the north – from April to August – the flotilla accordingly turned towards the house. Local sailors knew this monsoon timetable by heart long before our era, and not only sailors: after all, it also dictated the order of agricultural seasons. Taking into account the monsoons, as well as the pattern of the constellations, travelers confidently ferried from the south of Arabia to the Malabar coast of India, or from Ceylon to Sumatra and Malacca, adhering to a certain latitude.
The Chinese expeditions returned home by the same route, and only incidents on the way make it possible in the chronicles to distinguish between voyages “there” from the return ones. So, on the maiden voyage on the way back, the Chinese expeditionary forces captured the famous pirate Chen Zu’i, who at that time captured Palembang, the capital of the Hindu-Buddhist state of Srivijaya in Sumatra. “Zheng He came back and brought Chen Zu’yi in chains. Arriving at the Old Port (Palembang – Ed.), He called on Chen to obey. He pretended to obey, but secretly planned a riot. Zheng He understood this … Chen gathered his forces and marched into battle, and Zheng He sent troops and took up the battle. Chen was utterly defeated. More than five thousand bandits were killed, ten ships were burned and seven were captured … Chen and two others were taken prisoner and taken to the imperial capital, where they were ordered to be beheaded. ” So the messenger of the metropolis protected peaceful compatriots-migrants in Palembang and at the same time for the first time demonstrated that his ships carried weapons on board not only for beauty.
By the way, about weapons. Historians did not agree on what exactly the admiral’s subordinates fought on. The burning of Chen Zu’yi’s ships seems to indicate that they were fired at from cannons. They, like primitive guns, were already used then in China, but there is no direct evidence of their use at sea. In any case, it is obvious that in battle the admiral relied on manpower, on personnel who were disembarked from huge junks ashore or sent to storm fortifications. This kind of marines were the main trump card of the flotilla, so it’s probably not worth imagining the battle of Palembang in the manner of Trafalgar (as some researchers do).
Baochuan: length – 134 meters, width – 55 meters, displacement – about 30,000 tons, crew – about 1,000 people
- Admiral Zheng He’s cabin
- The ship’s altar. The priests constantly burned incense on it – so they appeased the gods
- Hold. Zheng He’s ships were full of china, jewelry and other gifts for foreign rulers and a demonstration of the power of the emperor.
- The rudder of the ship was equal in height to a four-story building. To activate it, a complex system of blocks and levers was used.
- Observation deck. Standing on it, the navigators followed the pattern of the constellations, checked the course and measured the speed of the vessel
- Waterline. The displacement of the Baochuan is many times greater than that of contemporary European ships.
- The sails woven from bamboo mats opened like a fan and provided a high sail of the ship
- Columbus ‘Santa Maria’: length – 25 meters, width – about 9 meters, displacement – 100 tons, crew – 40 people
Treasure ships in numbers
Historians and shipbuilders cannot yet reliably determine all the characteristics of the ships of Zheng He’s armada. A lot of speculation and discussion in the scientific world is caused by the fact that scientists know how similar junks were built before and after Zheng He. However, the South Seas and the Indian Ocean were sailed by specially built vessels, about which only the following is certain (taking into account the calculations made on the basis of the excavations of the ruder post in the Nanking shipyard).
The length of the large Baochuan ships was 134 meters, and the width was 55.
Draft to the waterline was more than 6 meters. There were 9 masts, and they carried 12 sails of woven bamboo mats. Baochuan in Zheng He’s squadron at different times ranged from 40 to 60. For comparison: the first transatlantic steamer of Izambar Brunel “Great Western”, which appeared four centuries later (1837), was almost half the length (about 72 meters). The measurements of the medium ships were 117 and 48 meters, respectively. There were about 200 such junks, and they are comparable to ordinary Chinese ships. The crew of such a ship, which carried Marco Polo to India in 1292, consisted of 300 people, and Niccolo di Conti, a Venetian merchant of the XIV-XV centuries who traveled to India and Hormuz, mentions five-masted junks with a displacement of about 2000 tons. The admiral’s fleet consisted of 27-28 thousand personnel, which included soldiers, merchants, civilians, officials and artisans: in terms of number, this is the population of a large Chinese city of those times.
Chinese ships were built in a completely different way than European ones. Firstly, they did not have a keel, although sometimes a long beam, called lungu (“dragon bone”), was built into the bottom to soften the impact on the ground when docking. The strength of the ship’s structure was achieved by adding wooden fortifications-wels on the sides along the entire length at or above the waterline. The presence of bulkheads stretching from side to side at regular intervals was very important – they provided protection of the ship from flooding in the event of damage to one or more premises.
If in Europe the masts were located in the center of the ship, built into the keel with the base, then in the Chinese junks, the base of each mast was connected only to the nearby bulkhead, which made it possible to “spread” the masts along the deck regardless of the central axis of symmetry. In this case, the sails of different masts did not overlap each other, opened like a fan, the windage increased, and the ship received correspondingly greater acceleration.
Chinese ships, designed to operate in shallow waters, differed in proportion from European ones: their draft and length were proportionally inferior to their width. This is all we know for certain. The translator of the notes of Ma Huang, Zheng He’s companion, John Mills supplements this data with the assumption that the Baochuan had 50 cabins each.
The main mission of the admiral was diplomatic. The emperor commanded him to maintain order in the four cardinal directions, wherever the ships could sail, the carts could reach, as far as they could. Photo: IMAGINECHINA / PHOTAS
Muscle flex and the Buddha’s tooth
But back to the chronology. During the second voyage, geographically similar to the first, only one event took place, the memory of which is preserved in history: the ruler of Calicut provided the ambassadors of the Celestial Empire with several bases, relying on which the Chinese could later go even further west. But the third expedition brought more interesting adventures. Under the date of July 6, 1411, the chronicle says: “Zheng He … returned and brought the captured king of Ceylon Alagakkonara, his family and parasites. During the first trip, Alagakkonara was rude and disrespectful and determined to kill Zheng He. Zheng He realized this and left. Moreover, Alagakkonara was not friendly with neighboring countries and often intercepted and robbed their embassies on the way to China and back. Since the other barbarians were suffering from this, Zheng He returned and once again showed contempt for Ceylon. Then Alagakkonara lured Zheng He into the interior of the country and sent his son Nayanar to demand from him gold, silver and other precious goods. If these goods had not been issued, more than 50,000 barbarians would have risen from cover and captured Zheng He’s ships. They also sawed down trees and set out to block the narrow paths and cut Zheng He’s escape routes so that separate Chinese units could not come to each other’s aid.
When Zheng He realized that they were cut off from the fleet, he quickly deployed the troops and sent them to the ships … And he ordered the messengers to secretly bypass the roads where the ambush was sitting, return to the ships and pass the order to the officers and soldiers to fight to the death. In the meantime, he personally led the two thousandth army by detour routes.
They stormed the eastern walls of the capital, taking it in fright, broke through, captured Alagakkonara, his family, parasites and dignitaries. Zheng He fought several battles and defeated the barbarian army utterly. When he returned, the ministers decided that Alagakkonar and the other prisoners should be executed. But the emperor took pity on them – over ignorant people who did not know what the Heavenly Mandate to rule, and released them, giving food and clothing, and ordered the Chamber of Rituals to choose a worthy person in the Alagakkonara family to rule the country. ”
It is believed that this was the only case when Zheng He deliberately and decisively turned away from the path of diplomacy and entered the war not with the robbers, but with the official government of the country in which he arrived. The above quote is the only documentary description of the actions of the naval commander in Ceylon. However, besides him, of course, there are many legends. The most popular of them describes the scandal associated with the most revered relic – the tooth of the Buddha (Dalada), which our hero was either going to steal, or really stole from Ceylon.
The story is this: as early as 1284, Khubilai sent his emissaries to Ceylon in order to get one of the main sacred relics of Buddhists in a completely legal way. But the Mongol emperor – the famous patron of Buddhism – was still not given a tooth, compensating the refusal with other expensive gifts. This was the end of it for the time being. But according to Sinhalese myths, the Middle State did not secretly abandon the coveted goal. They generally argue that the admiral’s voyages were undertaken almost specifically to steal a tooth, and all other wanderings were intended to divert eyes. But the Sinhalese allegedly outwitted Zheng He – they “slipped” a false relic into his prisoner instead of the real king, and hid the real one while the Chinese were fighting. The compatriots of the great navigator, naturally, hold the opposite opinion: the admiral nevertheless got the priceless “piece of Buddha”, and he, even in the manner of a guiding star, helped him safely get back to Nanjing. What really happened is unknown.
As little as we know about Zheng He, there is no doubt that he was a very broad-minded man. It is known, for example, that being a Muslim by origin, he discovered Buddhism in adulthood and was distinguished by great knowledge in the intricacies of this teaching. In Ceylon, he built the sanctuary of Buddha, Allah and Vishnu (one for three!), And in the stele erected before the last voyage to Fujian, he expressed gratitude to the Taoist goddess Tien-fei – “divine wife”, who was considered the patroness of sailors. One way or another, the admiral’s Ceylon adventures were perhaps the culmination of his overseas career. During this dangerous military campaign, many soldiers died, but Yongle, assessing the scale of the feat, generously rewarded the survivors.
Zheng He’s riddles
Six years ago, the book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World” was published. It was written by a retired British officer, commander of a submarine Gavin Menzies, who assured that Zheng He was ahead of even Columbus, having discovered America before him, he was supposedly ahead of Magellan, circling the globe.
Professional historians reject these constructions as untenable. And nevertheless, one of the admiral’s maps – the so-called “Kan’nido map” – testifies at least to the fact that he had reliable and reliable information about Europe. The search for the truth is greatly complicated by the complete destruction of official information about the last two voyages, which, most likely, were the farthest. Did the Chinese make it to the Mozambique Channel in East Africa? Researchers also know the testimony of Fra Mauro, a cartographic monk from Venice, who wrote in 1457 that a certain “junk from India” had swam two thousand miles deep into the Atlantic thirty years earlier. It is also believed that Zheng He’s maps served as the basis for European nautical charts during the era of the great geographical discoveries. And finally, the last riddle. In January 2006, a 1763 map was presented at one auction, allegedly an exact copy of the 1418 map.
The owner, a Chinese collector, who bought it in 2001, immediately correlated it with Menzies’s conjectures, because it featured the outlines of America and Australia, and with Chinese transcriptions of the names of the aborigines there.
The examination confirmed: the paper on which the scheme is made is authentic, from the 15th century, but doubts remain about the ink. However, even if this is not a fake, then, perhaps, just a translation of some Western source into Chinese.
The sea capital of Calicut in western Hindustan was the admiral’s second home. Chronicler Ma Huan called it “the greatest state in the Western Ocean.” Here the Chinese traded, replenished stocks, and prepared to sail further west. Photo: IMAGINECHINA / PHOTAS
Imperial giraffe, or Who are the Afro-Chinese
In mid-December 1412, Zheng He received a new order to bring gifts to the courts of overseas rulers. Moreover, this fourth expedition, which sailed in 1413, was prudently assigned a translator, a Muslim, Ma Huan. This Hangzhou native spoke Arabic and Persian. Later, he will leave rather detailed stories about the last great voyages of the Chinese fleet, not forgetting about all sorts of everyday details.
For example, he carefully described the diet of the sailors: they ate “shelled and unshelled rice, beans, grains, barley, wheat, sesame seeds and all kinds of vegetables… From fruits they had… Persian dates, pine nuts, almonds, raisins, walnuts, apples, pomegranates, peaches and apricots … “,” many people made a mixture of milk, cream, butter, sugar and honey and ate it. ” It is safe to conclude that Chinese travelers did not suffer from scurvy.
The main event of this campaign was the capture of a certain rebel leader named Sekandar. He had the misfortune to oppose the king of the Semuder state in northern Sumatra, Zain al-Abidin, recognized by the Chinese and associated with them by the treaty of friendship. The arrogant rebel was offended that the emperor’s messenger did not bring him gifts, which means that he did not recognize him as a legal representative of the nobility, hastily gathered supporters and attacked the admiral’s fleet himself. True, he had no more chances of winning than a pirate from Palembang. Soon, he, his wives and children were aboard the Chinese treasuries. Ma Huan reports that the “robber” was publicly executed in Sumatra, without honoring the imperial court in Nanjing. But the naval commander brought from this voyage to the capital a record number of foreign ambassadors – from thirty powers. Zheng He took eighteen diplomats to their homes during the fifth expedition. All of them had with them gracious letters from the emperor, as well as porcelain and silks – embroidered, transparent, dyed, thin and very expensive, so that their sovereigns, presumably, were satisfied. And this time the admiral himself set off into uncharted waters, to the shores of Africa.
The further to the west, the further the readings of the sources diverge. So, it is still unclear where the mysterious fortified Lasa is located, which offered armed resistance to the expeditionary corps and was taken by the Chinese with the help of siege weapons, called in some sources “Muslim catapults”, in others – “Western” and, finally, in the third – “huge catapults shooting stones. ” Some sources report that this city was in Africa, near Mogadishu in present-day Somalia, others – in Arabia, somewhere in Yemen. In any case, the way to it from Calicut took twenty days in the 15th century with a favorable wind, the climate there was always hot, the fields were scorched, the traditions were simple, and there was almost nothing to take there. Frankincense, ambergris and camels per thousand li (li is a Chinese measure of length equal to approximately 500 meters).
The fleet rounded the Horn of Africa and really went to Mogadishu, where the Chinese met with a real miracle: they saw how, for lack of wood, black people build houses of stones – four or five stories high. The rich were engaged in sea trade, the poor threw their nets in the ocean. Small livestock, horses and camels were fed with dried fish. But most importantly, the travelers took home a very special “tribute”: leopards, zebras, lions and even a few giraffes. Unfortunately, the African gifts did not satisfy the emperor at all. Indeed, goods and offerings from the already familiar Calicut and Sumatra were of significantly greater material value than the exotic new settlers of the imperial menagerie.
When in the spring of 1421, having reinforced the fleet with 41 ships, the admiral sailed again to the Black Continent and returned again without any convincing values, the emperor was completely annoyed. In addition, criticism of his ruinous wars has intensified in the Celestial Empire itself during this time. In general, further campaigns of the great flotilla turned out to be a big question.
As for the trace that the Chinese left in Africa, today, of course, it is not traced. Unless a legend has survived in Kenya: not far from Malindi (apparently, this port turned out to be an extreme point of travel), near Lamu Island, one of the ships ran into the reefs. The surviving members of the team made it to the coast, married local girls and allegedly laid the foundation for the Afro-Chinese community. It does exist in Kenya and maintains close ties with the PRC, but its origin, apparently, is still later.
Caravels vs junks
A logical question arises: why was the planet discovered, explored and populated by the Portuguese, Spaniards and the British, and not the Chinese – after all, the voyages of Zheng He showed that the sons of the Celestial Empire were able to build ships and provide for their expeditions economically and politically? The answer is simple, and it boils down not only to the difference between the ethnopsychology of the average European and the average Chinese, but also to the historical and cultural situation of the era of the Great Geographical Discoveries.
Europeans always lacked land and resources to maintain their thriving economy, they were driven to seize new territories by cramped conditions and an eternal shortage of material goods (gold, silver, spices, silk, etc.) for everyone who thirsted for them. Here you can also recall the free spirit of the heirs of the Hellenes and Romans, who since ancient times have sought to populate the Mediterranean, because they went to conquer new lands even before the first dhows and caravels left the stocks. The Chinese also had their own problems – overpopulation and land hunger, but despite the fact that only narrow straits always separated them from the tempting adjacent territories, China remained self-sufficient: the subjects of the son of Heaven spread across Southeast Asia and neighboring countries as peaceful settlers. not as missionaries or hunters for slaves and gold. The incident of Emperor Yongle and his admiral Zheng He is the exception, not the rule.
The fact that the baochuan were large and that there were many of them did not mean that China sent them to distant countries to seize lands and establish overseas colonies. The brisk caravels of Columbus and Vasco da Gama beat Zheng He’s giant junks in this regard on all fronts. It was this disinterest of the Chinese and their supreme power in the outside world, their self-concentration that led to the fact that the grandiose passionary outburst of the times of Emperor Yongle did not find a continuation after his death. Yongle sent ships over the horizon, contrary to the main imperial policy, which ordered the son of Heaven to receive ambassadors from the world, and not send them out to the world. The death of the emperor and the admiral returned the Celestial Empire to the status quo: the shell doors that had opened for a short time slammed shut again.
The last parade
In the tomb of Zheng He at the foot of Mount Nyushoushan in Nanjing, the body of the admiral is not – it is believed that he was buried at sea near the Indian Calicut. Inside this typical Muslim tombstone are a sword and other personal belongings of the great navigator. Photo: IMAGINECHINA / PHOTAS
In 1422-1424, there was a significant break in Zheng He’s voyages, moreover, in 1424 Yongle died. But still, the Chinese maritime epic was not over yet: in 1430, the new, young emperor Xuande, the grandson of the deceased, decided to send another “great embassy.”
Apparently, sensing that the final was close, the admiral, who had exchanged his seventh decade, before sailing on the last expedition, ordered to knock out two inscriptions in the port of Lujiagang (near the city of Taicang in Jiangsu province) and in Changle (eastern Fujian) – a kind of epitaph in which the results of the long journey were summed up …
And the voyage itself, as usual, followed the milestones of the previous ones, except that one day the fleet landed a detachment under the command of Hong Bao, who made a peaceful sortie to Mecca. The sailors returned with giraffes, lions, a “camel bird” (an ostrich, giant birds were still found in Arabia at that time) and other wondrous gifts that were carried by ambassadors from the sheriff of the Holy City.
It is not known where the compatriots of the Prophet Muhammad went back to their homeland, the chronicles during this period noticeably cool down to the deeds of the great armada.
It is especially surprising that no one knows for certain when the famous Admiral Zheng He died – either during the seventh voyage, or soon after the return of the fleet (July 22, 1433). In modern China, it is generally accepted that he was buried in the ocean as a real sailor, and the cenotaph, which is shown to tourists in Nanjing, is just a conditional tribute to the memory.
As for the results of the seventh voyage, five days after its completion, the emperor, as usual, presented the crew with ceremonial robes and paper money. According to the chronicle, at the same time Xuande said: “We have no desire to receive things from distant countries, but we understand that they were sent with the most sincere feelings. Since they have come from afar, they should be received, but this is not a reason for congratulations. ”
Diplomatic relations with the countries of the Western Ocean ceased this time – for centuries. Some merchants continued to trade with Japan and Vietnam, but the Chinese authorities refused from the “state presence” in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of Zheng He’s sailing routes. The decommissioned ships rotted away in the port, and the Chinese shipbuilders forgot how to build baochuan.
The inhabitants of the Middle Empire resumed their long voyages much later, and even then only occasionally. Thus, in 1846-1848, a huge trading junk “Qi’ing” visited England and the United States, which successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope. And yet, one should not blame the country for navigational indecision – China simply had to choose where it was more important to defend its vast territory, on land or at sea. The forces were clearly not enough for both, and at the end of the Zheng He era, the land again took over: the coast was left defenseless – both against pirates and against the Western powers. Well, the energetic admiral remained the only great navigator for the country, a symbol of the unexpected openness of the Celestial Empire to the world. At least that’s how the lessons of these seven voyages are taught in China itself.
Around the World Magazine: Treasures of Admiral Zheng He