Hidden History

Belt and Whip9 min read

Did Zheng He always come in peace? – Jeremiah Jenne


In 1911, S.H. Thomlin, an engineer working in Galle along the southwestern coast of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, found a stone tablet lying in a culvert. The old stele was a strange document, inscribed in three languages – Persian, Chinese and Tamil – praising and giving thanks to Allah, the Buddha, and the Hindu god Tenavarai-Nayanar. Lost for centuries, this trilingual inscription was a relic from a long-ago visit to Sri Lanka by the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (1371-1433).

Over a century later, and 120 kilometres down the coast, the Chinese are back. Last year, China Merchants Port signed an agreement for a 99-year lease to run Sri Lanka’s deep-sea Hambantota Port. Chinese companies bankrolled the port project despite feasibility studies suggesting that the it would not be able to recoup its costs. Sure enough, the port drew only 34 ships in its first year of operation. The 99-year lease offered a chance to get out of debt and the $1.12 billion price tag earmarked to reduce Sri Lanka’s debt to the Chinese government. Whether or not the facility is ever economically viable, the deal gives China control of a strategic asset next to one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, and a security foothold a few hundred miles from its regional rival, India.

Shortly after the handover, a Chinese envoy called the port part of a “flagship project of cooperation between China and Sri Lanka under the Belt and Road Initiative.” Chinese leaders are quick to emphasize that the Belt and Road is about cooperation and not an expansion of Chinese strategic interests. To make this point, they’ve enlisted Zheng He as a roving historical ambassador of Chinese goodwill. In May 2017, just two months before the agreement to take control of the Hambantota Port was finalized, President Xi Jinping gave a speech in which he cited Zheng He as an example of China’s peaceful intentions:

In the early 15th century, Zheng He, the famous Chinese navigator in the Ming Dynasty, made seven voyages to the Western Seas, a feat which still is remembered today. These pioneers won their place in history not as conquerors with warships, guns or swords. Rather, they are remembered as friendly emissaries… sailing treasure-loaded ships. Generation after generation, the silk routes [sic] travelers have built a bridge for peace and East-West cooperation.

Yet the Hambantota Port project suggests that Belt and Road is as much about an expansion of Chinese power as it is economic development, and the trilingual inscription found in 1911 is an artifact of a time when the fleets of Zheng He did not always come in peace.

“Leaders of the Belt and Road Initiative have enlisted Zheng He as a roving historical ambassador of Chinese goodwill”

Zheng He was a long-time advisor and ally of Zhu Di, later to become the Yongle Emperor [reign 1402-1424]. Known originally as Ma He, the future admiral had been one of many boys gathered in Yunnan and castrated to serve as eunuchs by the Ming general Fu Youde (1327-1394) in his pacification of that province during the Ming Dynasty’s war against remnants of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. Ma He was assigned to serve the retinue of Zhu Di, and over time showed his usefulness, especially in battle where the tall, broad-shouldered eunuch was a powerful and imposing figure. Ma He demonstrated his loyalty in 1402 when Zhu Di went to war with his nephew the Jianwen Emperor [r. 1398-1402] over control of the Ming throne. On becoming the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di gave his eunuch ally a new surname, Zheng, and made him an essential part of the imperial inner circle.

Wary of his reputation as an usurper, the Yongle Emperor was eager to display his power, and that of the empire he ruled. He ordered expeditions to be sent throughout the known world – seven of them in total, from 1405 to 1433 – distributing gifts that would awe other rulers with the glories and might of the Ming. These sorties comprised 25,000 to 27,000 men spread over 300 to 400 ships, including dozens of “treasure ships,” immense vessels over 130 meters (142 yards) long that incorporated the latest design elements including compartmentalized hulls, waterproof bulkheads, and mechanical steering devices.

The Yongle Emperor needed a man to match his ships, and for his ambassador, he chose the towering eunuch Zheng He. Zheng He’s mission was to be an envoy to the countries of the Western oceans – to make contact, exchange gifts, and convince rulers to send ambassadors to the Yongle Emperor’s court to offer tribute and acknowledge the supremacy of the Chinese throne. Left out of Zheng He’s official orders, but long rumored to be another impetus for the missions, was the Yongle Emperor’s obsession with debunking rumors that his nephew, the former Jianwen Emperor, had escaped China and was hiding in exile, biding his time for an opportunity to return to power.

The route of Zheng He’s voyages, 1405-1433

Zheng He’s voyages were generally peaceful, although he and his captains showed a willingness to fight when necessary. In 1407, his armada famously defeated the fleet of Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia and brought Chen back alive to Nanjing, where he was later executed on orders from the emperor.

Then there was the matter of kidnapping the self-described King of Ceylon. Zheng He records that he was treated with contempt by the Ceylonese during his first Indian Ocean sortie (1405-1407). On his third voyage (1409-1411), his armada returned to the island, this time bearing gifts, including the ecumenical trilingual stone stele re-discovered by Engineer Thomlin nearly five centuries later.

The island of Ceylon had a reputation around the Indian Ocean as a kind of earthly paradise, rumored to be rich with spices, lumber, elephants, and precious gems and metals. It was a key trading entrepôt between the coast of Africa and Southeast Asia. But it was also an island famous for political division and conflict. A Hindu Tamil kingdom based in the northern Ceylonese city of Jaffna existed in tension with a rival Sinhalese kingdom based in the center and south of the island. In the middle of it all was Alakkeshvara, a member of a prominent family who sought to seize power from the Sinhalese kings, based in the fortified city of Kotte.

It was Alakkeshvara who met Zheng He when the Chinese admiral arrived on his third voyage. He was suspicious of Chinese intentions and insecure of his position in the island’s shifting power dynamic. Alakkeshvara refused to erect the trilingual tablet and was incensed at the idea of paying respects – never mind offering gifts of tribute – to an emperor thousands of miles away. According to The Veritable Records of the Ming, the imperial annals of the Ming Dynasty, Alakkeshvara instead demanded Zheng He pay him a ransom of gold and silver. When Zheng He refused, Alakkeshvara ordered 50,000 troops to seize the Ming ships in their harbor. His soldiers cut trees and bridges to block Zheng He’s retreat from the capital back to the coast.

Cut off from his fleet, Zheng He surprised the Ceylonese by going on the offensive. “The main body of the bandits has already come out,” Zheng He wrote in a report recorded in the Ming annals, “so the interior of the country must be empty.” He led 2000 of his guards to seize the city of Kotte and captured Alakkeshvara, then held off several attempts by Alakkeshvara’s forces to retake Kotte before fighting their way through the now leaderless local resistance back to the coast, taking Alakkeshvara with them as their prisoner.

Model of Zheng He at the Ventura Maritime Museum, California (Mary Harrsch)

Zheng He shipped the recalcitrant monarch back to Nanjing to personally apologize to the Yongle Emperor for his rude treatment of the emperor’s envoy. The Yongle Emperor took pity on his captive and pardoned him, but also ordered that one of his “wiser followers” be appointed to rule in his place. Zheng He returned their hostage to Ceylon on his next voyage to the island a year later.

There is some mystery as to the actual identity of the prisoner. Most of the Chinese records suggest that it was Alakkeshvara who enjoyed a year of the emperor’s hospitality in the lavish residences set aside for diplomats and other bearers of tribute to the Ming capital. Sinhalese sources suggest that it might have been Alakkeshvara’s rival, the legitimate Sinhalese king, who Alakkeshvara tricked into being taken as a Chinese prisoner, thus clearing the way to take the throne for himself. The Ming records suggest that Zheng He was never totally clear on the local power structure, leaving open the possibility of a Ceylonese switch.

It’s true that Zheng He and the Ming expeditions did not leave a wake of war, conquest and subjugation, such as the Europeans would later when they sailed beyond their shores. Yet Zheng He wasn’t always a poster boy for the comity of nations. The Ming sent their ships to shock and awe the civilizations of the Indian Ocean basin with the might of the Chinese empire, bringing back treasure, knowledge and exotic animals – most famously a giraffe for the emperor’s gardens.

When thinking of the historical legacy of Zheng He as a symbol of China’s Belt and Road intentions, it’s worth considering this verse written by the Grand Secretary Yang Rong (1371-1440) and translated by Louise Levathes in When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433, in which Zheng He’s exploits are described as righteous punishment for those who might oppose the Ming:

Straight-away, their dens and hideouts we ravaged
And made captive the entire country,
Bringing back to our august capital
Their women, children, families, and retainers, leaving not one
Cleaning out in a single sweep these noxious pests, as if winnowing chaff from grain
These insignificant worms, deserving to die ten thousand times over, trembling in fear
Did not even merit the punishment of Heaven
Thus the august emperor spared their lives
And they humbly kowtowed, making crude sounds and
Praising the sage-like virtue of the imperial Ming ruler


Header: Zheng He’s fleet, Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, Melaka, Malaysia (Bruno Zaffoni).