Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Friday, October 26, 2012

Was Zheng He a Colonialist?

Early this year, I was invited to participate in a lively discussion at the Nalanda Srivijaya Centre of the Institute of South  East Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. Key speakers were Prof. Geoff Wade and Prof. Tansen Sen, both eminent Ming/Zheng He scholars. The theme of the talks was that the Ming expeditions to the Western Ocean were part of the regime's imperialistic designs.

Geoff Wade repeated his known position - these expeditions were part of Ming colonial ambitions. Tansen Sen's argument was more subtle : Ming court seems to have been more interested in advancing the rhetoric of a Chinese world order rather than colonizing or just profiting from maritime commerce.

When pointed out that they were speaking of a pre-imperialist era, they amended their description and preferred to describe the Ming conquest as 'Mingism' rather than imperialism.

Prof Wade described the voyages of Zheng He as 'proto-colonialistic', and mentioned the incidents of his conquest of Palembang, Sumatra. Further, the Chinese admiral's forces fought a bitter battle in North Java and invaded the royal city in Sri Lanka and took away the ruler and his family back to the Ming Court at Nanjing.

 The Ming aim, according to the Professors, was not in grabbing territories, as European colonists would attempt later; they were only interested in controlling ports and maritime trade routes on the Western Ocean. Wade's interpretation of the 'tributory-trade system' was that these Asian powers who paid tribute were doing so in exchange for military protection and trade benefits.

This view was vehemently opposed by Dr.Tan Ta Sen, the President of the International Zheng He Society, Singapore and some others. They argued that there was no proof either in the Ming annals or in the writings of co-travellers like Ma Huan to suggest an expansionary agenda for the voyages. It is true that Zheng He had established guan changs (military and trade depots) at places like Malacca, but then Chinese had already established themselves in these locations and this was testified by Ma Huan when the fleet visited Malacca. Dr. Sen repeated his well-known position that Zheng He was the greatest maritime voyager in history and that the voyages had the following five specific objectives:
1. The voyages sought to establish the political legitimacy of  Emperor Yongle who was, in fact, an usurper to begin with;
2. The diplomatic objective of the voyages was to reinforce the Confucian world view of overlord-vassal state relationship by ensuring that the vassal states pay tributes with their local produce in return for China's recognition of their sovereignty. The peace-keeping role of the fleet - as in suppressing piracy in Palembang or arbitrating in inter-state disputes between Siam and Malacca or Malacca and Palembang - should be seen as part of the fleet's objective of keeping the trade routes safe.
3. Yongle had banned private trade and all trade was state-conducted. He also allowed foreign tribute missions to bring and sell duty-free trade goods for private trade in China. The voyages were meant to promote foreign trade which had been flagging during the early Ming period.
4. Zheng He disseminated Chinese culture and promoted cultural exchange between China and the states visited by the fleet.
5. Conducting scientific maritime exploration was the final objective of Zheng He's voyages, according to Dr. Tan Ta Sen.

Where do we stand on this issue? Calicut was the principal destination of many of Zheng He's seven voyages. In fact, Zamorin had been sending envoys to China even before the Ming voyages commenced. The very first voyage had one of Calicut's envoys who was returning from his mission. The following translation from the Ming annals testifies to the importance of diplomatic relations between Calicut and China :
The envoy Ha-bei-nai-na and others who had been sent by Sha-mi-di, the king of the country of Calicut, offered tribute of local products. Paper money and silks were conferred upon them. In addition, silk gauzes, fine silks, gold brocade drapes, porcelain and other goods were conferred upon Sha-mi-di.
(Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource, Singapore: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore,, accessed October 25, 2012.)

The identity of Habeinaina (Nayanar?) need not detain us here. But the fact that there were frequent visits by Calicut's envoys to China shows the vigorous diplomatic and trade relations which the two states had been developing. In fact, according to Geoff Wade's monumental effort of translating Ming Shi-lu ( there are at least 27 references to envoys from Calicut being banqueted by the Ming Court. These references were spread over 31 years, between 1405 and 1436.

And yet, there is no statement indicating that the Ming Empire sought to subjugate Calicut. In fact, a fleet of more than 200 ships and 27000 sailors could walk all over Calicut which did not have a maritime fleet. There is a reference to a Chinese fort  in Calicut and a Chinese compound (guan chang?) in Panthalayini  -Kollam, but no evidence of any cultural domination.

We feel that there was a subtle difference in the way the fleet treated the states of South East Asia and Calicut. The SEA states already had Chinese enclaves and it was easy for Zheng He to enforce their diktat. We should not gloss over the atrocities committed by the fleet in SE Asia. For instance, Zheng He and the Ming fleet behaved like International Policemen in fighting Sekander, the usurper of the Semudera throne and in taking him and the family back to Nanjing to be executed there.

But, with Calicut, the approach appears to have been different. We find that during the first of the seven voyages, Zamorin had presented his visitors with sashes made of gold and studded with precious stones.During the four months that the fleet stayed waiting for favourable monsoons winds, the Chinese were entertained with song and music. Records show that, unlike many other Indian Ocean states, the Chinese treated Calicut with respect and on an equal footing : Though the journey from this country to the Middle Kingdom is more than a hundred thousand li, yet the people are very similar, happy and prosperous, with very identical customs.

Then, there is the vexed issue of Chini Bachagan  (the children of Chinese), presumed to be a snide reference by the Persians to the mixed population as a result of the Chinese stay in Calicut. Another interpretation of the appellation is that the sailors of Calicut on the eastern route (after the decline of the Ming expeditions) were derisively called by the Persians as Chini-bachagan. (The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol I, 1200-1700).

We need to conduct a DNA test of the population of Calicut (as politely suggested to me by Dr. Wong Ah Long, Deputy Chairman, Board of Trustees, ISEAS) to ascertain whether they carry any Chinese genes. But, unlike many South Eastern nations where the influence is obvious from physical appearance, the people of Calicut do not show evidence of such liaison!

We also read about the strict injunction by the Ming Emperor against the fleet mixing with the local population. The ban, however, could not have affected the Chinese traders who used to frequent Calicut before and after the Ming era. The policy of the first imperialists to visit the Calicut shores - the Portuguese - was vastly different; they encouraged marriage with locals resulting in a large army of Topazes who continued to aid and abet imperialism as interpreters and foot soldiers.

In sum, Calicut cannot subscribe to the theory that the Zheng He fleet was out to conquer and colonise. That was not the experience of medieval Calicut, at least. They did nothing to dominate or control the ports or maritime trade routes of either Quilon or Calicut. Perhaps, as in the case of Vasco da Gama ( who thought that the ruler and people of Calicut were Christian because he mistook the temple of Devi in Puthoor for a Church of Mother Mary), the Chinese mistook the polite exchange of gifts by the Calicut ruler for a tacit recognition of Chinese sovereignty! But, proto-colonialism - sorry, we do  not share the view point.


  1. This is an interesting note. I would take the view that the aim of the Chinese expeditions were cultural contacts and an expression of core periphery relationships that they might have conceived. Imperialism was western in its content.
    jaiprakash Raghaviah

  2. hi ckr

    You have quite some interesting observations here...

    perhaps you will find parallels with the present day situation where the Chinese claim control over the south china seas..and are arguing about the US excercises in the area. And therein lies the core of the arguments that KM Panikkar put up many decades ago..

    IMHO it was pretty much the same situation, and a method of restricting arab navigators into the south china seas by promising stocks of required goods at a friendly port such as Calicut.For this purposer they established the factory at Calicut

    The Ming voyages were perhaps equivalent to the voyages that modern powers launch towards the moon, mars and so on, mostly symbolic...

  3. Thanks Maddy, for the new perspective. There is no doubt that the Ming trade intrusions must have disturbed the fine equilibrium established between the Venetians and the Arabs in international trade. This perhaps accounts for the derisive comment by the Persian Abdul Razzak about the 'children of Chinese'. Also the tradition that the Chinese finally left Calicut shores after a bloody massacre in which the Zamorin sided with the Arabs.

  4. Thank you, JP for the perceptive comment. Indeed spreading their 'superior' culture was one of the stated aims of the Ming Expedition. You have rightly pointed out that imperialism is a western concept. That was why the Professors sought to amend it to 'Mingism'. I suspect if they tried even cultural domination with Calicut - otherwise we would have more visible manifestation of their influence. My reading is that they considered Calicut as culturally their equal and were content to let things be.

  5. The possibility of China having any imperialistic intentions in those days are absurd. More to do with cultural and trading activities as CKR and others here have expressed. By the way I do not think that imperialism is entirely western.May be with its origin in the west, IMHO there are enough elements of imperialism in the present Chinese make up also. As power corrupts, power also leads to imperialistic ideas.

  6. Thanks CHF..
    I do believe there was a small Chinese(minority)settlement of sorts in Calicut and some remaining members of that group spoke up much later.But most of them quickly moved on to other places, including Malaya after the skirmish with the Zamorin as Joseph testifies. That was later after the Ming dynasty collapsed.

  7. Many thanks, Maddy. It will be useful if you could indicate the source for this information about later Chinese presence (other than Joseph the Indian). I am not convinced about the historicity of Joseph because of the references to St. Thomas Mount. I would rather that we have some other evidence of Chinese presence in Calicut in the post-Ming era. In fact, Forbes mentions about the flourishing trade in birds nest from Thikkodi (Sacrifice Rock) and the presence of Chinese ships in Goa and the western coast in late 18th Century. But we have BIG gaps in our knowledge!

  8. Chinese expeditions may be a part of scouting the area for good trade partners and expanding their trade?
    The Chinese had probably a trading post in Calicut .In the present day we can hardly find a "Chinese"look in any segment of the society.

  9. We agree wholeheartedly with Premnath. If the Mings were imperialists, they would have left some visible marks on the local population, considering that the Peranakan population (Chinese- local admixture)is widespread in SE Asia. Only a DNA screening can clinch this issue!

  10. Thank you for posting this. Two important issue are left out in this summary of the talks that Dr. Wade and I did with regard to the use of military force by the Zheng He expeditions. First, the Ming intervention in the conflict between Calicut and Cochin is important (Zheng He seems to have died in the military skirmishes between the two; and there are Portuguese reports of Chinese being expelled from Calicut around about the same time). Second, the regime change initiated in Sri Lanka is clearly an evidence of how the Ming used naval force to control key choke point of the Indian Ocean. Those interested in Dr. Wade and my talks could perhaps come to Calcutta on 18th December.

  11. Many thanks, Prof. Sen for the clarification. As you may have noticed, our ambivalence on the military role of the Ming fleet springs from Calicut's own experience. The evidence is, of course, scanty. We have been advocating systematic archaeological exploration in some of the important sites like Chinese fort in Calicut and the Chinese compound in Panthalayini-Kollam only to help gather more evidence on the nature and extent of Chinese involvement in Calicut's polity. Unfortunately, the pioneering work by Prof. Karashima in the 1970s has not been followed up by scholars. We do hope to get scholars (perhaps ISEAS)to get interested in further enlarging our knowledge of the Ming fleet's 'political' activities in South Asia.

  12. Thanks. May I suggest that "Chinese" not be always equated with "China." It is possible that the Chinese who resided in Calicut came from Southeast Asia. If so, the evidence cannot be used to argue for a Calicut-China relations during the Ming period. Also, what would be the evidence of the Chinese residing in that area? The prefix Cina- did not necessarily mean China. BTW, the Dec. 18th talk by Geoff and I is the same we presented in Singapore.

  13. hello mr sen and chf....
    my reading of the joseph narratives and the details in the 3 versions make it somewhat clear that he is talking of traders from the mainland. Then again I thought there is no reason for him to stress about the presence of chinese if that were not a fact.

    also it is again MHO that we are talking of zeytoun traders, not malays. The malay chinese may not have had any advantages over zeytoun chinese in a calicut factory or fort.

    and then again, lack of physical evidence makes all or most of this circumstantial or conjencture anyway!!

    some circumstantial evidence though not in any way firm or conclusive can be collated, more on that later.when I have a better handle on it

  14. Hi Sri CKR,
    The invitation to ISEAS is a recognition of your work but is also a feather in the cap of CHF through you.Congrats.
    To say that Ming expeditions were part of imperialistic expansion programme seems to be a little far fetched as every body has already expressed; but an element of expansionism can be injected to any expedition if one looks at these with such a track in mind. Those were not yet the days of imperialism and the west also did not have such ideas then. It might have been trade, culture and a sense of adventure of sorts that led to these expeditions. By the way to say that imperialism is exclusively the product of the west is only a half truth. IMHO As power corrupts, it also brings in elements of imperialism, as we can see later in the case of China also.

  15. I would very much like to know how can one assign "mainland" as the place of origin for "Chinese" traders in South Asia after the Ming ban? My essay "Maritime Interactions between China and India: Coastal India and the Ascendancy of Chinese Maritime Power in the Indian Ocean" can be download from this site:

  16. Thanks
    I guess I should have been explicit as it seems that you all do not have the words of Joseph in front of you. I will cover that in detail shortly. Joseph mentions the Chinese who lived in Calicut and came to trade from China and also those Chinese who came to attend the Mamankham trade festival. Joseph left India with Cabral around 1500 & the accounts were published around 1520. What is not clear is if the fight with the Zamorin took place during or after the 1433 visit by Zheng He. I think it was after, I remember reading about this fight having taken place in 1450 or so, some 40 years before Joseph left with Cabral.

    Reading together with Chau ju Kha and other accounts of the Ming & pre Ming period, it is apparent that Joseph is talking about junk trade between Quilon & Calicut with the Chinese mainland, not trans-shipment or intermediate locations like Malaysia. So we can assume that Joseph’s mentions relate to Ming & pre Ming period, not post Ming. Of course post Ming period exhibited limited mainland trade due to the closure of ports, and so Joseph could not have talked about it expansively!

    Regarding the tenuous proof, we can look at the McKenzie manuscripts and the interview with Coya Veetil Koya, (I had briefly mentioned it in an earlier article – see links below) who confirmed that his ancestors came from China in boats. Taylor does suspect that it could be some place in SE Asia, but I would assume it is mainland China. Also I was surprised to see the surname Coya used, for I had believed that they are of Arab extract. I will discuss this in more detail separately in another article.

  17. Indians are satisfied with land history and disinterested with maritime history since maritime history will give a severe blow to Indian history. Traditionally the kings of east coast from Satavahanas to Vijayanagar kings gave importance to maritime trade. Unfortunately except Broach Brigu Kachcha the coastalline from Baroda to Mangalore was deserted due to sea pirates and general indifference of Chalukya/ Rashtrakuta kings. After the fall of early Cheras there was no central authority in Kerala but there was tremendous growth of ports in Kerala due to locational advantage and absence of imperial power. Further there was shift from Jaffna to Kerala for maritime activities since Jaffna and Malabar was interchangeably used. The emergence of Pallavas followed by Eastern Chalukyas in Andhra resulted in large scale trade in the eastern ocean. However the transnational ports shifted to Kerala from Jaffna due to dominance of Pallavas.During the Pallava period the South Indian trade was centralized and Tamil was preferably used by south Indian merchants. However the transhipment from eastern sector to western sector was carried out in Kerala ports. The discontinuance of Kerala from Tamil began during the reign of Kadambas and Gangas which saw the shifting of Cheras to Karur via Palakkad which facilitated the Ay kings of Venad and branches of Ganga and Kadamba dynasties through Tulu NAD completely eclipsed Tamil even after Alwars paying visit to Malainattu Sthalas. Thus from ninth century onwards west Asian guilds became powerful since they controlled entire transhipment to middle east. The imperial Cholas challenged this since the entire merchant guilds of south India stood solidly behind Cholas and provided everything. The war on Maldives Kerala ports by Cholas was for maritime supremacy only but after assassination of Adhi RAJENDRA Kulotunga I just managed it and afterwards though Cholas could manage maritime trade they could not gain supremacy. When Zhao Raghu made visit it was absolutely clear that Cholas could manage only in land and Malabar became transnational maritime port. Thus if one analyses maritime history of Kerala one can easily understand how Tamil was lost in Kerala. From twelfth century onwards separation of Kerala from Tamilnadu was complete only due to maritime war and disinterest shown by other Deccan kings to gain maritime supremacy unlike Pallava/Chola/Eastern Chalukya.


Powered by Blogger.