A background essay on the Ming Dynasty, its powerful trade networksand diplomatic missions as far as Africa and the Red Sea, and thedomestic tensions that ultimately changed the course of world history.
In Chinese, China knows itself as Zhong Guoor the "Middle Kingdom." It thought of itself as not only the largestand oldest power in the world, but also as the source of all civilization. Written Chinese, the Confucian code of conduct, and leadership based on moral virtue were all signs of China's cultural as well as material superiority. For centuries China had had a long-established tribute relationship with surrounding areas. Rulers of neighboring states, after acknowledging their "humble submission" and performing ritualized actions such as the ketou (or "kowtow," bowing so that the head touches the floor), exchange of envoys, and trade regulations, gained recognition and were given legitimacy by the Chinese court which might even send aid to them should the need arise.
After defeating the Mongol Empire in 1368 and establishing the Ming dynasty, the Chinese emperor attempted to reestablish the tribute relationship with neighboring states. In 1402, during a devastating civil war, Zhu Di seized the throne from his nephew. Since he had seized the throne by force, Emperor Zhu Di was especially anxious to demonstrate and prove his legitimacy.
In 1403 Emperor Zhu Di ordered construction of an imperial fleet that was to include trading ships, warships, the so-called "treasure ships," and support vessels and ordered the fleet, under the command of Admiral Zheng He, to embark on a major voyage that same year. The emperor and Admiral Zheng He had been friends since the admiral was in his teens, and they trusted one another.
The voyage had multiple objectives. It would permit the Chinese to explore new areas and expand commercial and diplomatic relations. The grandeur of the fleet would dramatize the superior majesty and power of the Ming empire to peoples of distant lands, causing states of Southand Southeast Asia to be incorporated into the tribute system. The fleet expected to receive demonstration of submission from rulers of areas it visited, and many foreign countries surely would acknowledge China's superiority in order to increase their trade. If people did not recognize Chinese greatness, the admiral might have to use force, but the Chinese expected that the encounters would be peaceful since it was only fitting that as many people as possible should come under the sway of the Chinese emperor, also known as the "Son of Heaven."
Opening trade routes and establishing trade through the exchange of tribute and gifts was a major goal of the voyage. Since Zheng He was a Muslim, he would be able to establish good relations with Muslim trading communities as well as with Chinese traders in the ports the ships visited. Medical research appears to have been another motivation for the voyages. Several devastating epidemics had swept through the Middle Kingdom, and many doctors and pharmacists went on the voyage, instructed to look for herbs and other medicines. Finally, Zheng He was to look for any signs of the deposed Emperor, whom some people believed was still alive and attempting to build up a power base somewhere in Southeast Asia.
The fleets were impressive, and many ambassadors and rulers from areas the fleet visited came to the Ming court with tribute, acknowledging Chinese superiority. However, several factors contributed to making many in the court, particularly the Confucian scholars around the Emperor, oppose the voyages. Once the tribute relationship had been reestablished, and the explorations completed, some questioned the need to send repeated voyages. Maintaining and manning the fleet was expensive. After the Grand Canal had been repaired, funds were expended to make it easy for grain to travel from the south to northern China on the canal, eliminating the need for war ships that would protect grain shipments from pirate raids. Was it really worth continuing these voyages?