An interview with Geoffey Wade from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in the Asia Times online from January 26, 2012
Admiral Zheng He's armadas sailed from Nanjing to as far as East Africa over eight voyages between 1405-1433. Most Chinese lionize the Muslim eunuch as a peace loving ambassador of peace and friendship. But Australian historian Geoffrey Wade tells Victor Fic the admiral was a Ming military commander pursuing gunboat diplomacy, and indicts the commodore for war crimes.
A senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, based in Singapore, Wade's interests include Sino-Southeast Asian historical interactions and related issues such as Chinese expansions and early Islam in Southeast Asia. Wade's work includes an online database  that provides English translations of over 3,000 references to Southeast Asia extracted from the Ming imperial annals. In 2009, Wade's China and Southeast Asia was published, a six-volume survey of seminal works on Southeast Asia-China interactions.
Victor Fic: Geoff, how did you become fascinated with Zheng He?
Geoffrey Wade: I have long been interested in how China and Southeast Asia interacted and did my PhD on Southeast Asia as represented in the Ming reign annals. A key element was the Ming maritime missions to Southeast Asia. China's commemorations of Zheng He in 2005 further piqued my interest.
VF: Summarize the orthodox Chinese claim that he was a peaceful seafarer.
GW: Within Chinese societies, one finds "popular" perceptions of Zheng He. One tribute translates as:
From the age of Zheng He until the new period of socialist construction, the achievements of Zheng He during his voyages to the Western Ocean have been excellent materials for conducting patriotic education for the Chinese nation.
These were thus friendly diplomatic activities. During the overall course of the seven voyages to the Western Ocean, Zheng He did not occupy a single piece of land, establish any fortress or seize any wealth from other countries. In the commercial and trade activities, he adopted the practice of giving more than he received, and thus he was welcomed and lauded by the people of the various countries along his routes.
The speaker here is Xu Zu-yuan, then PRC vice minister of communications, in July 2004. This official was responsible for the Zheng He 600th anniversary celebrations in 2005.
VF: Did you initially believe these glowing tributes?
GW: No, I first came to Zheng He through a critical reading of the Ming annals and thereby was cognizant of his role in Ming China's military exploits.
VF: You amass evidence that Zheng He was "proto-colonialistic" and his treasure fleet was a gunboat armada. Where is the proof?
GW: The primary source material for Zheng He is in the Ming imperial annals. That text plus those written by persons like Ma Huan, a Muslim interpreter who accompanied him, provides all the evidence to validate the accusation.
VF: You focus on the admiral's massive fleet and crew - why are the numbers indicative?
GW: The various missions comprised between 50 and 250 ships, huge armadas, abroad for several years. The sources differ on the number of personnel, but figures between 27,000 and 30,000 are cited for the largest missions. A typical mission comprised, in the senior ranks, almost 100 envoys of various grades, 93 military captains, 104 lieutenants, 103 sub-lieutenants plus associated medical and astrological staff members. In one example, 26,800 out of 27,400 on board were the rank and file, the irregular and crack troops, plus sailors and clerks. Each mission likely carried over 20,000 military men.
In a Ming annals reference of 1427, it notes "10,000 crack troops formerly sent to the Western Ocean," also suggesting a large force of military men.
VF: You also note the armada was heavily armed.
GW: Like the Ming forces sent to Yunnan in South China and Dai Viet or today's Vietnam, they carried the most advanced firearms available in the world such as cannons, rockets and firelances. I underline they were military missions with strategic aims because much current scholarship, both Chinese and non-Chinese, stresses they were "voyages of friendship".
VF: You note that Zheng He engaged in violence in Sumatra. What were his ends and means?
GW: Clearly, this force's major threatening role - "to shock and awe" - encouraged foreign rulers to come to the Ming court to "pay tribute". Also, sometimes Zheng He's voyages brimmed with violence to implement the Ming emperor's demands. The cardinal engagements included his attack on the Old Port at Palembang in Sumatra in 1407 during his first major mission abroad. He returned with a "pirate" named Chen Zu-yi captured for reportedly having "feigned surrender but secretly plotting to attack the Imperial army".
VF: What were the casualties?
GW: The Ming fleet reported 5,000 persons killed, 10 ships burnt and 7 captured. Later that year, the Ming recognized the polity of Old Port. But because of the ex-military Guangdong and Fujian Chinese who lived there, the Ming deemed it not a separate country, but a "pacification superintendency", a common term for polities ruled by non-Chinese on the Chinese borders. The appointed superintendent, Shi Jin-qing, was recognized by Zheng He as the local ruler. References to this polity end in 1430, implying its fortunes were tied to the Ming presence in Southeast Asia and that the rulers were indeed Ming state agents.
VF: You advance evidence that also at Sumatra, the admiral stepped into a civil war.
GW: In 1415, Su-gan-la, the reported leader of the Samuderan "bandits", as the Ming annals called them, was captured and taken to China from Sumatra by Zheng He. Contradictory sources obscure the events of 1414 and 1415, and some of Ma Huan's account is obviously drawn from local folkore. But Zheng He appears to have intervened in a civil war in northern Sumatra and supported the side not hostile to the Ming. Again, the expedition was mainly a military force imposing a "pax Ming" on what became Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
GW: Zheng He's troops went ashore in Java in 1407. Javanese deaths totaled 170 in an altercation with locals under Majapahit, the Ming's chief competitor for regional hegemony in maritime Southeast Asia, or against Javanese forces opposed to Majapahit. The Chinese records suggest that they "went ashore to trade...where the Eastern king had ruled," indicating Chinese involvement - intentional or not - in a Javanese civil war.
VF: But the Javanese beat the Chinese. How did the latter react?
GW: The Ming demanded an indemnity from the Western king of Java: "Immediately pay 60,000 liang of gold in compensation for their lives and to atone for your crime ... Fail to comply and there will be no option but to dispatch an army to punish your crime. What happened in Annam can serve as an example." A liang is about a Chinese ounce.
VF: Now China is cultivating Myanmar, but you find that once upon a time, the latter was aggressive.
GW: As his reign started, [Emperor] Yong-le especially vied for influence over the polity of Mu-bang, the Chinese name for Hsenwei, part of Shan State today. The Mu-bang envoy came to the Ming court in 1409 reportedly complaining about the Burmese ruler named Na-luo-ta.
Yong-le's response included the following: "Na-luo-ta, with his petty piece of land, is double-hearted and wrong. I have long known this. I have not sent troops there because I am concerned that good people will be hurt. I have already sent people with instructions requiring him to change his ways and start anew. If he does not reform, I will then order the generals to dispatch the army. The troops will attack from the ocean route and you can arrange to have your native cavalry attack overland. The despicable fellow will not be equal to that."
VF: The order went to Zheng He?
GW: This reference to a maritime force was to Zheng He's Western Ocean ships. The Ming emperor's threat shows the voyages' militaristic role.
VF: As for Sri Lanka, you note that the Chinese invaded it.
GW: Zheng He invaded Sri Lanka's royal city, destroyed its military and carried the king and his family members back to the Ming court at Nanjing.
VF: Advance the proof for your assertion that he established garrisons or guanchang in Melaka [Malacca, Malaysia].
GW: Ma Huan attests to the garrisons at Melaka and Samudera atop the Straits of Melaka in a work entitled Ying-yai sheng-lan, meaning A Supreme View of the Ocean's Shores. Maps made during these voyages also support this.
VF: Why do you compare Zheng He to the Portuguese who came later?
GW: The Ming engaged in maritime proto-colonialism, an early form of maritime colonialism where a dominant sea power controlled through force or threats the main port polities along the major East-West ocean trade network, plus the waters between for economic and political benefits. The goal of the Portuguese was also to control the port cities and thereby dominate the commerce that flowed along the trade routes between them.
VF:What was the overriding aim of the Ming missions?
GW: Their end was regional dominance, a "pax Ming" and also control of ports and shipping lanes. They did not seek domination of territory - as did later later European colonialism. Rather, they wanted political and economic command across space - of economic lifelines, nodal points and networks. By holding ports and trade routes, one controlled trade, essential for the missions' treasure-collecting tasks. The armies aboard ensured this.
VF: Your detractors insist that you force the benign Chinese case into the insidious framework of Western imperialism ... please respond.
GW: Many Asians believe that the use of force in international relations started with European colonialism in the 15th century. No. Violence occurred in world history from its beginnings - everywhere. Every year in Chinese history, there was fighting on the borders. During the early Ming, Yong-le waged campaigns against the Tai polities of Yunnan, occupied the Vietnamese polity, making it a new province, and sent a third prong, this time sea-borne forces, led by Zheng He and other eunuch skippers.
VF: Others accuse you of eliding how Southeast Asian paid "tribute" to the Mings in exchange for protection ...
GW: The official Chinese texts record the arrival of state-sponsored traders as "tribute missions". The Southeast Asian historical texts do not record that idea of subservience at all.
VF: How about the notion that he advanced cultural exchange and understanding?
GW: His gunships promoted such so-called cultural exchange. European colonialism also facilitated "cultural exchange and understanding" but in a context of political domination.
VF: How is Zheng He remembered in areas of his proto-colonialism? His defenders claim that in Southeast Asia, people deified him.
GW: Some Southeast Asian Chinese worship him precisely for protective force. We have many examples of local warriors in Chinese history being deified as defenders of Chinese in "barbarian" lands. Non-Chinese people in Southeast Asia lack memory of Zheng He and have only recently began to use him as a tool for linking with China and for extolling Islam as a universal religion - Zheng He was a Muslim.
VF: Could the truth be a mixture of the laudatory and negative views?
GW: History-writing requires one to provide an account based on the sources one has at one's disposal. The historical records do show Zheng He was an agent of Ming Chinese state power using massive violence to dominate regional polities and oceans. The representations of Zheng He as an ambassador of peace and friendship are modern inventions intended to serve People Republic of China's diplomacy.
VF: As a historian, do you see history repeating itself, meaning that China is again attempting to dominate the southern seas?
GW: The South China Sea region and Southeast Asia more generally are certainly becoming areas of contention between US-led forces and a burgeoning China. This is partly because of China's attempts to develop a blue-water navy which it will need if it is to become a super-power.
VF: Geoff, it is unlikely that Beijing will invite you to any big "friendship" banquets...how are your ideas received there?
GW: Fortunately, a younger generation of Chinese scholars is beginning to question the state-sponsored interpretations of Zheng He. They examine the voyages as military expeditions. But given the Beijing's desire to publicly contrast the idea of China's historic and future peaceful internationalism versus violent European colonialism, this is a hugely sensitive issue within China. The party may not invite me, but others can reach me at email@example.com.
Notes 1. See HERE.
Wade's study of Zheng He is available HERE.