21 Zheng He (1371 – 1433) – an unrecognized genius

Posted on June 26, 2011 by


(a fairy tale?)

Ever since a British retired naval officer published the fiction/story 1421 Zheng He has enjoyed a sort of revival – as the Chinese explorer who might have circumnavigated the earth before the age of Western exploration. I don’t know whether bit is true or not, so let’s skip this take on him.

This trope replaces the previous one that had cast him as the luckless admiral who might have led China in an effort to establish an oversea empire – were it not for the inward looking Confucian bureaucrats in Nanjing and Beijing, who “closed China to the world”[1]. Completing the Great Wall (actually the Chinese called them The Long Wall) is taken to be a symbol of the Ming inward looking attitude.

Could China have profited from an overseas empire? We in the West see “empire building” as such a self-evident policy that we don’t stop a minute and reflect on the fact that China and Europe were different. The first was a unified empire, the second a region of warring statelets.

1. If one is an European warring state keen on profit from international trade, the thing to do is to obtain an import monopoly in Europe – the rest of Europe will have to pay the import prices set by the monopolist (revenues may be then invested (or wasted) in intra-European warring). To protect the monopoly position within Europe one needs to protect the supply chain all the way up to the overseas producer. This is why the Dutch settled in Indonesia, and the British in Bengal. Competitive empire-building reflects the fragmented structure of warring Europe.

China on the other hand was a unified state. It was immaterial where the imports landed – in fact an open trading system ensured China competitive prices. From all over the Indian Ocean and the Indonesian archipelago traders, both foreign and Chinese, brought goods to China unbidden. Canton was in majority Muslim, reflecting their prominent role in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Chinese communities have taken on predominant roles along the coast of Indonesia.

2. Europe needed goods from the Orient. While China certainly appreciated goods from the Indian Ocean trade, it needed foremost horses for its troops. That explains in part the fixation with the nomads to the north it had a “vital interest” there, and was ready to pay for it in silk. The Silk Road at the outset was a way for the nomadic Xiongnu to get rid in India and the West of surplus silk they’d gotten from the Han in exchange for horses under the “tribute system”. Its political roots lie in the realization that neither side could win at war, and thus unilateral rent extraction through conquest resp. pillage was not a viable policy.

Ever since the Song Empire (960 – 1279) China maintained a political presence in South East Asia, and a few political missions on squadrons had been sent into the region. Ming Emperor Yongle’s effort to send a fleet under Zheng He into the Indian Ocean has to be understood as a reinforcement and continuation of this policy. But was it necessary?

Zheng He’s fleet of 250 ships, with 27’000 sailors and soldiers on board, sailed seven times altogether into the Indian Ocean, visiting in turn Indonesia, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, and Africa all the way down to Malindi in today Kenya. It was an effort “to bring the Western Ocean into the Chinese tributary system by overawing, or if need be overpowering, opposition[2]”. So they did, fighting in Ceylon, capturing pirates in Indonesia, and unseating a local pretender there. For the rest, they brought home goods – like the mythical qilin (giraffe) – and other “goods  and treasures without name, which were too many to be accounted for, yet they did not make up for the wasteful expenses” – sneered the Confucian bureaucrats.

And they were right, in a way: the terms of trade for horses were set at China’s northern door and the nomads paid the associated transport costs. Here, the exchange took place at the port of call, far away from China. The terms of trade reflected local conditions and on top of it, China had to pay for transport costs. In economic terms there was no way China could win. The Indian Ocean trading system brought goods to China – unbidden. A policy of dominance could increase the flow (at the risk of creating a supply overhang), but only by shouldering the collateral costs. And as a final point: silk textiles were being produced in India and the Middle East; what was in demand from China by then wa tea and porcelain. Zheng He, as a good bureaucrat, may have missed the prevailing market conditions…

Most profoundly, China’s “tribute system” reflected a strategic choice: it represented a system of peaceful and commercial exchange in dealing with foreign powers – eschewing rent extraction through force. Given this choice, for all its ritual complexity the “tribute system” was no more than a system of public procurement for “vital goods” (army horses from nomads in the north). There were no “vital goods” the Chinese state (or the Chinese court) saw the necessity to procure in the Indian Ocean[3]. Consequently it applied a policy of benign (or malign[4] at times) neglect.

How much did all this cost? Building the fleet absorbed about half the tax receipts for one year, and then there was the expense of running the operation. A doable policy – but not a marginal expense, and therefore it was subjected to scrutiny as to its effectiveness. Showing the flag impressed everyone in sight – but politically they were all dwarfs. These places were duly impressed, went about the required motions of showing respect, and then settled back into their well established routines as  trade nodes.  Even Calicut, or Hormuz, were just platforms of exchange, not of large scale production. In this light, retrenchment is understandable.

What about Zheng He? Zheng He was a genius in his own way – albeit unrecognized to this day. His skill was in the area of logistics and organization – and here he still is unmatched. To my knowledge there has never been (nor is there today) a fleet able to “project power” – an army of over 5’000 marines at the ready – in foreign waters repeatedly, for a period of up to two years each time (turn-around  time of 4-6 months between missions). Along the way, the fleet was essentially self-sufficient – both as to supplies and to upkeep of the ships. These were flat-bottomed wooden vessels with capital ships weighing around 20’000 t each (opinions differ somewhat on this point) – four times the largest ships of the Western line – lumbering at 2-3 knots speeds powered by 9 masts, and able to sail for 20-30 days out of sight of land. And though he may have lost the odd vessel, in the thirty years that the fleet was kept up Zheng He never lost even a fraction of the fleet to storm.

What an engineering and organizational performance!

[1]           In fairness to history: Emperor Yongle was a man of action. He overextended the empire’s resources, and at the end of his reign retrenchment became inevitable, in face of the collapse of the paper money system, which had funded his many adventures. The
abandonment of the Indian Ocean reflects a more realistic view of China’s possibilities.

[2]           Edward L. DREYER (2007): Zheng He – China and the oceans in the early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433. Pearson, Longman. New
York, N.Y. pg. 81.

[3]           When Emperor Qianlong indicated to the British Envoy MacCartney in 1973 that China did not need any British goods, he was using such a “public (or court) procurement” lens. From such an angle the statement was understandable.

[4]           Trade between China and South East Asia continued, disrupted by at times by imperial edicts, and then followed by accommodation.