Wednesday, July 11, 2012

It Could Have Been—What If the Chinese “Discovered” Europe?

The giant Junks of Zhen He's vast flotillas dwarfed not only the small coasting Junks of more modern times, but the tiny and crude caravels of contemporary Portuguese explorers as illustrated in this drawing.

At the recent Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona delegates went on record joining the Episcopal Church and Quakers in denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery.  That is the notion, originating in agreements between maritime powers Portugal and Spain and enshrined with the theological approval of the Pope, that “new” lands and the indigenous people living in them became the rightful property of their European “discoverers.”  By extension it could also be called a doctrine of conquest.

Indigenous people around the world regard the Doctrine as the root of their displacement and exploitation.  And by extension, it affects not just those peoples, but modern issues of borders and immigration as evidenced between the United States and Mexico.

Most Americans and Europeans, even those sympathetic to the plight of native peoples, take the Doctrine for granted as if it was the natural order of things.  It is so wrapped up in our history and culture, that it is difficult, almost impossible, to intellectually extricate ourselves from it and its implications.

But let’s for a minute play a game of historical “what if.”  What if the shoe was on the other foot and Asians “discovered” Europe?  Would that give them legitimate claim on Spain, or France, or even England?  Farfetched you say?  Not as much as you might think.  Indeed it almost happened.  Here’s how.

On July 11, 1405 Chinese Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho in earlier English transliterations) set sail from Suzhou a city near modern Shanghai with a fleet of 317 ships with crews totaling almost 28,000 men.  His mission from the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty was to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin and extend the empire’s tributary system. 

He may also have been on a hunt for the deposed the Jianwen Emperor believed to hiding somewhere in the region.  For that reason this voyage has been called the “largest manhunt in history.”

Zheng didn’t find the erstwhile emperor, but he did visit Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Kollam, Cochin, and Calicut.

Over the next 28 years Zheng and large fleets would make six more voyages extending his contacts to the Straits of Hormuz, the Arabian Peninsula and the coast of East Africa.  On these voyages he traded, engaged in diplomatic exchanges with local rulers—he brought back dozens of princes and ambassadors to the Ming court on one expedition—and made war on pirates and recalcitrant local princes.  His fleets of treasure ships brought untold wealth back to China and Zheng was showered with honors.

The routes he first sailed were not totally unknown.  Chinese merchants had been trading sporadically along many of these routes to Ceylon, India and the Arabian Peninsula since the Han Dynasty nearly 1000 years earlier.  But these voyages cemented virtual Chinese command of South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

But on Zheng’s 6th and penultimate voyage in 1420 and ‘21, he did explore new routes, following the east coast of Africa south.  At least some of his ships may have rounded the Cape of Good Hope.  One European source, the Venetian monk and cartographer Fra Mauro in a 1457 map, reported the sighting of a huge “Junk from India” 2,000 miles into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420If that report is accurate, the ship could only have come from Zheng’s fleet.

After that voyage a new Empower suspended Zheng’s explorations.  He resumed sailing one more time in 1430 when another Empower ascended the throne.  His intentions may have been to consolidate the trade routes already established, but some historians believe he may have planned to sail around the Cape.  But the great Admiral died and was buried at sea in 1433 before he could make that journey.  If he had lived, or if the Chinese had followed up on his voyages, it is entirely possible that the huge, sea worthy Junks Zheng sailed could have reversed the course of the Portuguese explorers north along the coast of West Africa, perhaps ultimately to Europe itself.

Had he done so, his fleet would have been more than a match for the tiny tubs being sailed by Europeans.  How would those Portuguese or Spaniards feel if he laid claim on their lands and lives?

But it never happened.  For unknown reasons the Ming never again sent out a fleet.  Indeed China almost completely ceased to be a naval power except along its own coast.  The Empire began its long retreat into itself and isolation.

As for Zheng himself, he was an example of the astonishing diversity of the Chinese Empire.  He was born as Ma He in a wealthy Muslim family in 1371 in Yunnan, the large province just north of the Himalayas bordering modern Tibet and Nepal.  He was the descendent of a Persian general who came into the service of the Mongol Empire.  His family was devout and both his great grandfather and grandfather carried honorific titles indicating that they had made the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.  From childhood he was undoubtedly literate in both Chinese characters and in the Arabic of the Quran.  It is likely he also knew some Persian and Indian dialects.

Unfortunately, his father fought on the side of a Mongol loyalist when the Mings invaded Yunnan.   Eleven year old Ma He was captured by Muslim generals in the Ming service and was sent to the Emperor’s court as a slave.  There he was made a eunuch.

As painful as that might have been, it opened up opportunities for the very bright and capable boy.  Imperial eunuchs were often elevated to the top ranks of civil and military service.  So it was for the renamed Zheng.  He became a trusted adviser to the Prince of Yan and became an officer in the Prince’s army of rebellion against his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor.   When the Prince ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor, Zheng was elevated to the highest possible post, Eunuch Grand Director.  It was likely Zheng himself who cooked up the scheme for a mighty armada and the Emperor was pleased to put his most trusted adviser in charge with the diplomatic title of Chief Envoy, and the de facto rank of admiral.

In keeping with the traditions of religious toleration that helped keep the multi-ethnic empire together, Zheng was always allowed to practice his Muslim faith and surround himself with other Islamic officers.

In fact Zheng’s most lasting contribution to the world might well be religious.  Islamic scholar Hamka wrote in 1961: “The development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaya is intimately related to a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He.”  Another scholar has written “Zheng He built Chinese Muslim communities first in Palembang, then in San Fa…subsequently he founded similar communities along the shores of Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. They preached Islam according to the Hanafi school of thought and in Chinese language.”

Fairly large settlements of Chinese Muslims in Java assimilated into the local culture and eventually lost contact with increasingly isolated China.  But their religion persisted.  Today the largest Muslim population in the world is in Indonesia, and there are large Muslim populations in Malaysia, the Philippines and other island states.  

All thanks to a Ming sailor.


  1. Have you read the book "1421:The Year China Discovered America" by Gavin Menzies? If you haven't, you should pick it up. It has a interesting hypothesis.

  2. Nope, haven't read that one. Given the date, I assume he is arguing the ships from Zheng He's fleet made the contact. I know of no record of explorations further east (of China) than the Philippines and there is a hell of a lot of water between that and the mainland of the Americas. But given the size and seaworthiness of his ships, I suppose it is possible. Thanks for the tip.