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Ming Dynasty


Rivalry among the Mongol imperial heirs, natural disasters, and numerous peasant uprisings led to the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was founded by a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk turned rebel army leader. Having its capital first at Nanjing which means Southern Capital and later at Beijing (Northern Capital), the Ming reached the zenith of power during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The Chinese armies reconquered Annam, as northern Vietnam was then known, in Southeast Asia and kept back the Mongols, while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising as far as the east coast of Africa. The maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Internally, the Grand Canal was expanded to its farthest limits and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade.

The Ming maritime expeditions stopped rather suddenly after 1433, the date of the last voyage. Historians have given as one of the reasons the great expense of large-scale expeditions at a time of preoccupation with northern defenses against the Mongols. Opposition at court also may have been a contributing factor, as conservative officials found the concept of expansion and commercial ventures alien to Chinese ideas of government. Pressure from the powerful NeoConfucianism bureaucracy led to a revival of strict agrarian centered society. The stability of the Ming dynasty, which was without major disruptions of the population (then around 100 million), economy, arts, society, or politics, promoted a belief among the Chinese that they had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome.

Long wars with the Mongols, incursions by the Japanese into Korea, and harassment of Chinese coastal cities by the Japanese in the sixteenth century weakened Ming rule, which became, as earlier Chinese dynasties had, ripe for an alien takeover. In 1644 the Manchus () took Beijing from the north and became masters of north China, establishing the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911).

In the early 1400s, a sailor named Zheng He (with a fleet of some 300 plus ships) sailed as far west as Mogadishu and Jiddah, and he may (or may not) have gotten to Madagascar. This is nearly 100 years before Columbus had the idea of trying to sail to Asia the long way around. But once the sailors came back, the trips were never followed up on. Conservative scholars at court failed to see the importance of them. For the first time in history, China was turning inwards, clinging to an incorrect interpretation of an outmoded philosophy.

Among other things, they moved the capital to Beijing, fortified the Great Wall (the massive masonry structure that you see in all the pictures and postcards is, with some recent, Communist era repair, an all-Ming construction), built the Forbidden City. It is also in this Dynasty, Macao was ceded to the Portuguese, which returned back to China on the 20th of December, 1999.

Columbus sailed to America in St. Maria (eighty-five feet) in 1492. Zheng He sailed from China to many places throughout South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Taiwan, Persian Gulf and distant Africa in seven epic voyages from 1405 to 1433 ,some 80 years before Columbus's voyages.

Note: Zheng Ho is an old spelling. Today's correct spelling is Zheng He. History Comes Full Circle - From The Straits Times on 12 November 1995 Whenever one talks about famous voyages of discovery, great seafarers such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan spring to mind. The world, however, knows far less about Zheng Ho, the most important Chinese seafarer of all time and one of the world's greatest. His seven epoch making voyages, from AD 1405 - 33, took him to practically all the inhabited lands bordering the South China Sea, including Singapore, and the Indian Ocean, as far as the east coast of Africa.

By an extraordinary coincidence, Zheng Ho sailed from Suzhou in 1405 where, almost 600 years later, the Singapore Government is developing a massive industrial park in partnership with China. History has come full circle.

His exploits predated the voyages of discovery made by his European counterparts by almost a century. His fleet was far larger in size and crew strength than those of the Europeans. Each of his seven flotillas had more than 200 vessels, a crew of 27,000 and the largest ships were at least 1,500 tonnes each. Columbus' first expedition had three ships, an 87 crew and the largest ship weighed 100 tonnes.

Zheng Ho was born in 1371 in Yunnan province. A Chinese Muslim, his ancestors came from Central Asia and intermarried with the Han Chinese.

When the Yuan dynasty (1279 - 1368) gave way to the Ming (1368 - 1644), his father was killed in battle. The young Zheng Ho was captured by Ming troops who castrated him. He became a household servant of Prince Zhu Di, destined to be the third Ming emperor and one of China's most illustrious.

Zheng Ho worked his way up to become one of his most trusted confidants. He was highly intelligent and brave, of impressive physical stature and utterly loyal. When the prince became Emperor Yongle (1402 - 24) in 1402, after having usurped the throne of his nephew, he made Zheng Ho a senior eunuch for his devotion and prowess in war.

Unlike his European counterparts, all professional seafarers, Zheng Ho had the naval commander's job thrust upon him at 34. While the European missions were for trade, territorial expansion and to spread Christianity, his was primarily to publicize the superiority of Ming China.

Yongle, a power seeking and self glorifying emperor, was determined his reign should rival, if not surpass, those of the Tang (AD 618 - 910) and Song (AD 960- 1279) dynasties, generally regarded as golden ages in Chinese history. He believed passionately that the country's greatness would be much enhanced through an open-door policy in international diplomacy and trade, while maintaining universal peace and prosperity at home. Yongle decided to dispatch grand maritime expeditions, charged with the principal mission to spread messages of his power and glory to all the seas surrounding China and beyond.

The success of his unprecedented scheme called for a naval commander who had not only superior knowledge of the sea and navigational skills, but also other qualities such as familiarity with the disparate cultures and religions of the countries the fleet would visit. Zheng Ho was personally chosen by Yongle to undertake this gigantic task.

Within a little over a year, he was ready to set sail from Suzhou. The likes of these expeditions (1405 - 33) had not been seen before or since until the coming of larger fleets in World War I. Besides being the largest, Zheng Ho's fleet was also the best equipped of his time. The magnetic compass, a 10th-century Chinese invention, and other sophisticated Chinese navigational aids, such as the ship's rudder and accurate maps, helped make these expeditions possible.

Zheng Ho's first expedition, which set out in 1405, visited Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and India, to name a few. The ensuing expeditions called at Siam, made Malacca headquarters for visiting the East Indies, then proceeded to Bengal, the Maldive Islands and went as far west as the Persian sultanate of Ormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Part of the fleet also visited Ryukyu and Brunei, while others went further westward from Ormuz to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, then southward down the African coast to Somaliland, Mombasa and Zanzibar.

Unfortunately for Zheng Ho, Yongle died suddenly in 1424. His successor sided with the anti- maritime clique by cancelling the seventh voyage already planned for that year, and all future expeditions. For six years, Zheng Ho languished in relatively minor assignments overseeing the renovation and reconstruction of temples and pagodas.

Fortunately, the anti-maritime emperor's reign was short. His successor, who shared Yongle's vision for grand maritime expeditions, supported the seventh and largest of all the voyages. Zheng Ho's seventh voyage was China's last government-sponsored seafaring adventure. After that, the country closed its doors.

Despite a most understated recognition accorded him in the official Ming Chronicle, Zheng Ho became a legend, both in his lifetime and after his death. He is a folk hero and was deified as a god. Many supernatural powers have been attributed to him and places of worship were built to perpetuate his fame. These places of worship, which still draw many devotees and have become tourist attractions, can be found in Malacca, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China. His rightful place in Chinese history was further enshrined when glowing tributes were paid to him by such Chinese luminaries as the late Zhou Enlai and Mr Deng Xiaoping.


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