China's Hunt for Zheng He's Treasure Fleet Seen as Effort to Appropriate History for Political Propaganda
At the beginning of the century, British writer Gavin Menzies wrote the bestseller 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002), in which he alleged, without sufficient evidence, that the Chinese admiral Zheng He had crossed the Pacific Ocean and reached the New World. While archaeologists dismissed the claim as fantasy, there was a widespread suggestion at the time that Menzies was inadvertently doing the work of Chinese propaganda, and that the country’s Communist regime would use the claim to support its growing role on the global stage by inventing a historical precedent. China secured Menzies’s cooperation by making him an honorary professor at Yunnan University, despite the fact that he does not speak Mandarin. He continued to write about supposed Chinese primacy over Europeans in various ventures for the next decade and a half.
Now the fruits of this poisoned tree are beginning to ripen. Australian media reported this week that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently secured parliamentary permission to seek unlimited terms of office, had made scouring the world for evidence of Zheng’s great treasure fleet a priority of the Chinese state. While China is not endorsing Menzies’ view (yet), Xi recently said that he sees Zheng as a symbol of Chinese-led East-West cooperation, and using history to serve modern politics is part of the grand plan.
Zheng He (1371-1433 or 1435) is a national hero in China. A eunuch born to a Muslim family, he rose to the top of China’s imperial bureaucracy and led a fleet across the Indian Ocean, visiting several ports of call known to Arab traders in southeast Asia, India, and east Africa across seven voyages. The emperor who commissioned these voyages, Yong Le, saw the voyages as a huge propaganda coup, projecting Chinese power to neighboring countries and, more importantly, using the treasures Zheng brought back (which included a giraffe!) to awe Chinese people with the emperor’s reach and strength. Any countries that resisted the fleet, like Ceylon (Sri Lanka), were attacked and subjugated. Yong Le was seen as illegitimate because he was a usurper, so Zheng’s triumphs helped convince a domestic audience that Yong Le had the Mandate of Heaven.
In the centuries that followed, however, China’s isolationist policies consigned this history to neglect, and Zheng’s accomplishments remained widely ignored until 1904, in the last years of the imperial era, when a biography resurrected his image at a time when China was taking a beating from Western imperialists.
It is hard not to see the rehabilitation of Zheng’s image in those years as an outgrowth of the anti-Western and anti-colonialist forces on display in the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion, and a response to the national humiliation suffered when a joint expeditionary force of eight Western powers effectively conquered Beijing, executed imperial officials who supported the Boxers, looted the capital, and imposed an indemnity of 450 million taels (roughly $10 billion in today’s dollars). The author of Zheng’s 1904 biography, Liang Qichao, was an advocate of political reform who supported constitutional monarchy and played a role in the first Chinese Republic after the overthrow of the monarchy.
The modern reappraisal of Zheng He has a similar political purpose. Xi wants to make China the paramount power over Africa, the Middle East, and the southern tier of Asia, and Zheng serves as a historical precedent for Xi’s ambitions. Xi has been using Zheng as a symbol of China’s cultural exchange with the West for years. In 2014, he gave a speech to UNESCO that painted Chinese and European interactions of the period as a meeting of equals, clearly meant as propaganda:
Exchanges of such a magnitude helped the spread of the Chinese culture to the rest of the world and the introduction into China of the cultures and products from other countries. In the early 15th century, Zheng He, the famous navigator of China’s Ming Dynasty, made seven expeditions to the Western Seas, reaching many Southeast Asian countries and even Kenya on the east coast of Africa. These trips left behind many good stories of friendly exchanges between the people of China and countries along the route. In late Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty, the Chinese people began to learn modern science and technology with great zeal, as the European knowledge of astronomy, medicine, mathematics, geometry and geography were being introduced into China, which helped broaden the horizon of the Chinese people. Thereafter, exchanges and mutual learning between the Chinese civilization and other civilizations became more frequent. There were indeed conflicts, frictions, bewilderment and denial in this process. But the more dominant features of the period were learning, digestion, integration and innovation
Note that Xi minimized the violence and conquest, the imperialism and colonialism.
According to News.co.au—a brand owned by News Corp. Australia, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, who has a history of business challenges in China—Chinese scholars have been hunting for evidence of Zheng’s voyages since 2010 and a couple of months ago launched a renewed effort to find proof of his arrival at various ports of call. The South China Morning Post said that the current focus in on Sri Lanka, according to the News: “It quoted a Sri Lankan archaeologist as saying China was going to supply advanced sonar systems capable of generating very high resolution images of the seabed. A new Chinese submersible capable of diving up to 7km beneath the waves was also to be deployed.”
But why go through the trouble of investing so much money in a project with negligible returns? According to an article in The Diplomat a few months ago, Xi is looking to use Zheng to provide the imprimatur of history to legitimize his presidency, a case made stronger by his recent assumption of basically unlimited power for life. “Xi has staked significant political capital on his ability to shepherd China’s emergence as a world power. There’s an irony that the treasure fleets—an effort to bolster the legitimacy of a ruler worried about his job security—now underpin a mythology legitimating a similar effort.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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