Ming Documents (1400s)


A few decades prior (1405-33) to the Portuguese expeditions in West Africa, the Ming (royal family 1360s-1640s) court in China was sending out its own massive state-financed naval ventures. These expeditions, some of which included dozens of ships, sailed from the coast of China to arrive in the ports of Southeast Asia, "India," the Arabian Sea, and even East Africa. The documents below should give you some idea about their stated motivations and claimed activities around the Indian Ocean rim.

Remember, as with the Portuguese documents, practice reading primary documents skeptically

2a) think about the authors and their audiences (how might they slant his writings for expected readers?)
2b) figure out the source material for the information (is some of this second-hand reporting?), and the influence that might have on the reliability of the narrative
2c) note the contradictions, inconsistencies, or suspicious reporting in the writing
2d) read between the lines to--perhaps--uncover historical truths the authors don't know they're revealing

A few direct questions:
How do the texts treat the royal family (Yongle, the Ming)? What are the authors' tones? How similar is this to Azurara's treatment of the Infant [Prince Henry]? Remember, these are essentially government documents.

What justifications do the texts supply for these very long (2-3 year) voyages?

When the Yongle Emperor says "I look on all equally," do you buy his claim? What other parts of the Ming documents suggest that this is not quite true?

How does the supernatural world impinge upon the natural world, according to the author? Is this perception of the world very different from the Portuguese?

What were the relationships between the Chinese and the various people they encountered, according to these texts? How reliable a source of information might the chronicle be for knowing about 15th-century non-Chinese? What does "double translation" mean?

Do these texts describe an imperial venture, as defined by GSS in the introduction?

The inscription below was carved in 1431 on a new temple (for the Celestial Goddess) in the Fujian province (the southeastern coast of China--the mainland opposite Taiwan).

Source: Teobaldo Filesi, trans. David Morison, China and Africa in the Middle Ages (London: Frank Cass, 1972), 57-61.

The Imperial Ming Dynasty unifying seas and continents, surpassing the three dynasties even goes beyond the Han and Tang dynasties. The countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects and to the most western of the western or the most northern of the northern countries, however far they may be, the distance and the routes may be calculated. Thus the barbarians from beyond the seas, though their countries are truly distant, "with double translation" have come to audience bearing precious objects and presents.

The Emperor, approving of their loyalty and sincerity, has ordered us (Zheng) He and others at the head of several tens of thousands of officers and flag-troops to ascend more than one hundred large ships to go and confer presents on them in order to make manifest the transforming power of the (imperial) virtue and to treat distant people with kindness. … We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night continued their course (rapid like that) of a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare. Truly this was due to the majesty and the good fortune of the Court and moreover we owe it to the protecting virtue of the divine Celestial Spouse. … When we arrived in the distant countries we captured alive those of the native kings who were not respectful and exterminated those barbarian robbers who were engaged in piracy, so that consequently the sea route was cleansed and pacified and the natives put their trust in it. All this is due to the favours of the goddess [“Celestial Spouse”].

We, Zheng He and others, on the one hand have received the high favour of a gracious commission of our Sacred Lord [the Ming Emperor, Yongle], and on the other hand carry to the distant barbarians the benefits of respect and good faith (on their part). Commanding the multitudes on the fleet and (being responsible for) a quantity of money and valuables in the face of the violence of the winds and the nights our one fear is not to be able to succeed; how should we then dare not to serve our dynasty with exertion of all our loyalty and the gods with the utmost sincerity? How would it be possible not to realize what is the source of the tranquillity of the fleet and the troops and the salvation on the voyage both going and returning?

The following are official entries in the Ming Dynasty (r. 1360s-1640s CE) government records called the Ming Shi-Lu. They describe some of the Zheng He expeditions and other international relations.

Source: 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, http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl

28 Dec 1416
To the East, extending to the sea, to the West reaching to the shifting sands and stretching to the limits of North and South, culture and civilizing influences reach to the four seas. I [The Yongle Emperor] rule all under Heaven and soothe and govern the Chinese and the yi [an ethnic group in southwestern China]. I look on all equally and do not differentiate between one and the other. I promote the ways of the ancient Sagely Emperors and Perspicacious Kings, so as to accord with the will of Heaven and Earth. I wish all of the distant lands and foreign regions to have their proper places. Those who respond to the influences and move towards culture are not singular. The country of Cochin [southern "India"] is far away in the South-west, on the shore of the vast ocean, further distant than the other fan countries. It has long inclined towards Chinese culture and been accepting of civilizing influences. When the Imperial orders arrived, the people there went down on their hands and knees and were greatly excited. They loyally came to allegiance and then, looking to Heaven, they bowed and all said: `How fortunate we are that the civilizing influences of the Chinese sages should reach us. For the last several years, the country has had fertile soil, and the people have had houses in which to live, enough fish and turtles to eat, and enough cloth and silk to make clothes. Parents have looked after their children and the young have respected their elders. Everything has been prosperous and pleasing. There has been no oppression or contention. In the mountains no savage beasts have appeared and in the streams no noxious fishes have been seen. The sea has brought forth treasures and the forests have produced excellent woods. Everything has been in bountiful supply, several times more bountiful than in ordinary times. There have been no destructive winds, and damaging rains have not occurred. Confusion has been eliminated and there is no evil to be found. This is all indeed the result of the civilizing influences of the Sage.'

3 Mar 1421
The envoys from the 16 countries of Hormuz [Persian Gulf] and so on departed on their return to their countries. Paper money and biao-li of silks were conferred upon them. In addition, the Eunuch Director Zheng He and others were sent with Imperial orders, together with brocades, fine silks, silk gauzes, damasks and thin silks to confer upon the kings of these countries. They departed together with the envoys.

29 Jun 1430
The Eunuch Director Zheng He and others were sent with an Imperial proclamation to go and instruct the various fan countries. The proclamation read: "I have respectfully taken on the mandate of Heaven and reverently inherited the Great Rule from the Tai-zu Gao Emperor, the Tai-zong Wen Emperor and the Ren-zong Zhao Emperor. I rule over the ten thousand states, manifest the supreme benevolence of my ancestors and spread peace to all things. I have already issued a general amnesty to all under Heaven and declared the commencement of the Xuan-de reign. All has begun anew. You, the various fan countries far across the ocean, will not yet have heard. Now I am especially sending the Eunuch Directors Zheng He and Wang Jing-hong carrying this proclamation with which to instruct you. You must all respect and accord with the Way of Heaven, care for your people and keep them in peace. Thus will you all enjoy the prosperity of Great Peace."