Through strong factual evidence I’ve concluded that Zheng He’s voyages were an expression of power by the Chinese empire. While it may have been a show of force many forget to point out the threat of the Xiongnu who at the time ruled the Mongolian steppes.1 The connection begins with Tamerlane, nominally vizier and son-in-law of the Chaghatai Horde Khan, who defeats Tokhtamysh, Khan of the golden hoard (1391) and former subordinate. He begins consecutive invasions of Bagdad (1393), India (1398-99) and then proceeds to defeat and capture the Ottoman Sultan (1402).1 Tamerlan has cut off their connection of land communication, in linear response Yongle approves the construction of Zheng He’s fleet in 1403. Tamerlane mobilizes an army in preparation of invasion in 1404 but later passes away in 1405 before any action is taken.
The threat of Invasion caused Emperor Yongle and Chinese society to reconsider foreign threats, the simplest solution came in the form of Zheng He’s fleet, 255 ships carrying 27,800 men.2 The main fleet consisted of 62 treasure ships which were estimated to be 44 zhang long and 18 zhang wide. This impressive fleet far outstrips Zhengs western counterparts Columbus (3), Da Gama (4), Magellan (5).3 Several instances over 7 voyages occur where China enters different disputes and Zheng demonstrates Chinas power. One such example was Zheng’s interference in Palembang. Zheng would clash with a small pirate fleet led by a former Chinese merchant Chen Zuyi which ended with “five thousand pirates being killed, ten pirate ships burned, and seven ships being captured”.4 Chen Zuyi and his two lieutenants were escorted back to China and executed. During the battle China’s modernization was displayed by the use of cannons, as evident in the burning of the ships. The expression of authority by China continues through the appointment of a new ruler. Shi Jinqing, assisted Zheng in Chens capture, is awarded with a cap and belt. The two objects signify the recognition of the Ming dynasty.
Like Palembang, Zheng similarly dealt with the King of Ceylon, Alagakkonara. Alagakkonara lured Zheng away from his fleet and trapped him on land with only 2,000 of his soldiers. Meanwhile Zheng’s navy was surrounded by 50,000 bandits, and all passages connecting were blocked by felled trees. Instead of retreating Zheng brilliantly attacked the city of Ceylon successfully capturing Alagakkonara and the rest of his family. Zheng would then defend the city and heavily injured them causing them to flee. The emperor was merciful and pardoned Alagakkonara, but he had his minister appoint a new king to continue tributes to China. Though this new king was selected, Ceylon had naturally filled the empty dynasty, this new ruler fit the requirements so there was no need for replacement, China no longer interfered with that situation. China maintains its policy of power exhibition.
Not all of China’s display of power concluded in violence, Zheng’s stop at Pulau Sembilan included the ceremonial burning of incense. Chinese soldiers introduced themselves with “We are the soldiers of the Heavenly court, and our awe-inspiring power is like that of the gods.”5 Outside of forceful words there was no use of physical force from China which seems to point to the fact that this is indeed just a show of power.
Zheng He travels to Hormuz for an important objective, the display of power. “While prohibiting foreign trade by his own subjects , the emperor nonetheless wished to display Chinese power to foreign countries whose own wealth was gained from such trade.”6 During a return voyage Zheng He captures Sekandar in Sumatra. This event is important and relates heavily on China’s social influence. Sekendar attacked Zheng He because he didn’t receive any presents from the emperor, if he had received anything then it would signify that he was recognized as a ruler.
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