35: China's Disappearing Act


Southeast Asia: “In the past chapter, we saw how Malacca, a tiny back water, became the busiest port in the world. By first cultivating a relationship with China and then the Arab traders, she became the primary entrepôt between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. In this role, she followed Palembang, which followed Vyadhapura. But now Malacca, who was once the center of international trade and the source of diffusion of Islam into the Austronesian population that inhabited my islands is just sleepy little Melaka. You might wonder what brought about this transformation.

As always wealth attracts power. Malacca’s wealth attracted Europe’s power. The arrival of the Europeans, specifically the Portuguese in 1511, signaled the beginning of her end. However, before we delve into the invasion of this barbarian culture, we have a few more stories to tell.

Let us start with China's tale of woe. Malacca understated the importance of the Chinese influence in our part of the world at that time. In fact, the Chinese were crucial to her very formation. Perhaps, Malacca minimized their role due to the brevity of their impact, followed by their disappearing act. I think she might have been a bit bitter that her powerful ally, who some consider to be her father, abandoned her so suddenly.

Here's China to relate the events that led him to desert his child, Malacca, in her infancy.”

Uncle China, as Protector, Business Connection & Empire Creator

China: "I think your characterization of me as a deadbeat father, is a bit harsh. I had personal problems of my own that had to dealt with. In brief, I was overextended. To understand my motivations, let us first talk of the nature of our relationship.

My traders with their commerce had been a significant player in Southeast Asia for over a millenium by the time of Malacca's founding in early 1400s. My influence was different than India's. While his influence was cultural, mine was related to business. If India was Southeast Asia's father, it could be said that I was her uncle. In my part of the planet, Eastern Asia, the uncle plays a significant role in the clan. While the father's duty is to the family, the uncle's duty extends to the greater clan. His role is to provide support, guidance and even connections.

The migrating Indian population intermarried with the indigenous peoples to give birth to a new race on Southeast Asia's mainland and on her islands. India also supplied Southeast Asia with a political structure, a religion combined with literature, and a water technology. I, China, provided little regarding these cultural elements. But I supplied the necessary mercantile connection that could make or break empires.

This business partnership was not automatic. To join my trade network, the participating nation had to also join my political network, my mandala empire. This meant paying dues, which some translate as tribute, and acknowledging the Chinese Emperor as the supreme leader. This included paying obeisance to the Emperor, as the symbol of the entire Chinese state.

Note however, my vassal states in Southeast Asia didn't have to supply troops in times of warfare. Nor were they forced into this arrangement. They joined willingly of their own accord. In fact, they jockeyed to become one of my favored trading partners. We didn't have to force them to join our system. They were fighting to get in.

The rewards were great for joining my political/business network. Wealth and political power followed. Indeed, my influence was so powerful that those kingdoms that were allowed to be my trading partner became Southeast Asian empires. As such, membership was somewhat exclusive. To get into our club, you had to have special attributes. Only the most significant Southeast Asian trading centers were allowed into our network. Most of these were ports that were ideally situated to channel the lucrative trade between the West and my prosperous Chinese population in the East.

Initially, the West was India, but it grew to include Rome, Arabia, Africa and Europe. In other words, those that participated in my system became global trading centers. Not only were goods exchanged between East and West, but Southeast Asia supplied valuable spices, exotic gems and crafts that were highly sought after as well. The international wealth that flowed through these trade nexuses/entrepôts combined with the prestige of being part of the Chinese Empire transformed sleepy ports into the center of their own mandala empire, sometimes within a generation.

Vyadhapura, Funan's port city, was completely Indianized. Even the name is of Indian origin. However, the Khmer's obeisance to me, China, enabled Vyadhapura to become an international entrepôt. Because of the ensuing wealth and prestige of our association, Funan became the mandala empire of Southeast Asia's mainland.

As sailing technology improved, we Chinese shifted our attentions to the port city of Palembang on the island of Sumatra. It was closer to the spices and the West. Due to our significant influence, this entrepôt became an international cultural and business center. Palembang was the financial and religious root of the Srivijaya Empire, the mandala empire of Southeast Asia's islands. Without us to channel business, Funan faded into the mists of time. These are just two of many examples of how important China was to Southeast Asian politics.

Again we exerted virtually no influence on their culture or religion. We Chinese participate in each of our 3 primary religions. We employ Confucianism to deal with political matters; the principles of Taoism for art, longevity and vitality, and the wisdom of Buddhism permeates all our endeavors, including our attitude towards death. We are a pragmatic people, not dogmatic. We want to live a long time to enjoy the finer things that life has to offer. We don't really care what people believe, as long as it doesn't interfere with trade. Our belief system is so non-dogmatic that Europeans initially called them philosophies rather than religions. We are obsessed with the center, the balance point, Tai Chi, rather than extreme positions on anything.

Because of our relative tolerance, we Chinese have had very few religious wars, especially in contrast to the Bible-based countries in the West. Our many wars tend to be based in materialism, rather than religion. Our massive wealth has attracted invaders and inspired political intrigue. Accordingly, we change dynasties every few centuries. And it's always messy – wars, disease, pestilence and starvation.

Our turbulent political history certainly exerts an effect upon our relationships with our trading partners. Some historians say that Funan collapsed due to our internal problems (civil wars during China's Three Kingdoms period) and resulting lack of business. My internal politics certainly had a huge influence upon Malacca's history.

China's Political Stage

Let's set the political stage. The Mongols under Ghenghis Khan and his family conquered China and set up the Yuan dynasty. This Mongol dynasty ruled China for a few centuries. Better warriors than adminstrators, they allowed the China's elaborate canal system to fall into disrepair. This canal system controlled the mighty Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, channeling the abundant water to irrigate enormous rice fields. With the canals filled with silt and banks crumbling, there was a rice shortage. With no rice, there was massive starvation among the Chinese peasantry. An epidemic of gargantuan proportions aggravated the feeling of desperation evoked by the lack of food.

The Chinese revolted. A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang led a popular rebellion against these foreign invaders. With the populace on his side and the Mongols plagued by internal dissension, Zhu was able to expel this Central Asian dynasty and set up the Chinese-ruled Ming Dynasty in 1368 CE. While the Hong wu Emperor, as Zhu was called, had seized control of the capitol, remnants of the previously powerful Mongol army still controlled Yunnan in southern China.

The effort to expel the Mongols had stalled. The Emperor sent his fourth son, Zhu Di, to join the military campaign. He was only 21 years old. After some intense battles, the territory was finally subdued in 1382. His father rewarded Zhu Di for his efforts by proclaiming him the Prince of Yen.

The Prince of Yen governed a northern territory centered around Ta-tu, the Mongol's former capitol. He renamed it Beijing. One of his primary duties was to guard the northern boundaries from the aggressive tribes that frequently invaded China from Siberia and the Central Asian steppes.

After the death of his first son, the Hong wu Emperor named his grandson, Zhu Yunwen – Zhu Di's nephew, as his successor. Despite his military accomplishments, Zhu Di was probably passed over for the throne because his father, the Emperor, suspected that he was of Mongol origin. This could be true, as his mother, a princess, was secretly pregnant when she married the Hong wu Emperor. Regardless of nationality, the father could have easily believed that Zhu Di didn't carry his dynastic blood line.

At the end of his long reign, the Emperor became increasingly paranoid and began executing anyone that he suspected of plotting against him. After his death in 1398, his grandson, Zhu Yunwen, the new Emperor, continued the policy of eradicating enemies. He sent a large group of assassins to execute his uncle Zhu Di, one of his primary rivals.

Zhu Di barely escaped with his life. He went into hiding for a few months, disguising himself as a dirty and deranged beggar, so as not to attract attention. He came back with a vengance. With the backing of his loyal army, he first butchered his executioners and then went on to overthrow his nephew, the new Emperor.

Constantly at his side was a giant Mongol who had been routinely castrated when Zhu Di's armies had conquered the Mongol stronghold in the south many years earlier. Ma He at his birth, Zhu Di renamed him Zheng He for his military exploits in Zhenglunba near Beijing. With Zheng He's crucial assistance and support during a 3 year civil war, Zhu Di became the Yongle (Eternal Happiness) Emperor in 1402.

Zhu Di, the Yongle (Eternal Happiness) Emperor, was grandiose in all ways. Not only was his primary advisor, the eunuch Zheng He, a giant, purportedly over 7 feet tall, his plans for the future were equally grand. After subduing the Mongols, he expanded China's borders by initiating military campaigns to conquer Vietnam to the south and Korea to the north. To reinforce his position against the rebellious nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppes, he also began the reconstruction of the Great Wall of China. As a further example of his expansive vision, he began constructing a 25 story memorial tablet for his father's tomb for his father, the first Ming emperor. He eventually abandoned this project because, at an estimated 35,000 tons, the stone tablet was impossible to move.

He did however move the Chinese capitol north to Beijing, his stronghold and political base, and began construction upon the Forbidden City, his imperial palace. To feed the enormous workforce, he dredged the canals and constructed new ones. With increased political stability and Chinese administrating the all-important canals, China flourished. As Chinese prosperity grew, international trade also expanded. And the Yongle Emperor set his sights past the mainland onto the global stage. This meant sailing south into what they called the Western Ocean, the present day Indian Ocean.

Further his nephew, Zhu Yunwen, the one who attempted to assasinate him, had never been found. It was suspected that he had gone into hiding outside of China to organize a rebellion. To expand his influence overseas and eliminate his rival, Zhu Di ordered the construction of an enormous fleet, one of the largest ever constructed. Zhu Di put his trusted friend and advisor, the Mongol eunuch Zheng He, in charge of the fleet.

The Voyages of Zheng He & the Ming Armada

The Chinese had established a naval presence in Southeast Asian waters as early as the Song dynasty, many centuries before the arrival of the Mongols. The Chinese Empire sent large naval fleets containing emissaries, merchants, and trading goods. They gradually took over the lucrative spice trade that had previously been the exclusive province of the Arabs. With the recent Mongolian turbulence, the Chinese influence had waned. Zhu Di wanted to reverse the trend. He accomplished this feat in his typically grand style. He constructed the largest armada of their time with the express intent of extending the Chinese Imperial system into the maritime world.

The Ming armada consisted of up to 62 gargantuan vessels, called baochuan, or treasure ships. They were accompanied by perhaps 200 or so smaller sailing vessels. Estimates say that it took 30,000 sailors to man the sails of this enormous fleet. The flat-bottomed ships were so large that they were able to contain gardens and livestock, with which to feed their small city of workers. The dimensions of the treasure ships alone were thought to be 400 feet in length and 170 feet across. In comparison, the ship that Vasco da Gama employed to sail around Africa to India and the East in 1497-1499 was 74 feet by 18 feet. At 5 times longer and 10 times wider, the Chinese boats were 50 times larger than the Portuguese boat that was the first European ship to sail to Southeast Asia almost a century after the Chinese accomplishment.

Although soldiers accompanied the expedition, the boats were more like floating laboratories than they were military vessels. The Ming armada was intended to both extend Chinese influence and explore the world. Scientists, doctors, astrologers and diplomats were also on board. The boats were designed to gather both plant specimens and unique animal species from the areas they visited. There are still giraffes in a Chinese zoo that could be ancestors of these voyages of exploration. In fact, Zhu Di employed the original giraffe to convince his reluctant administrators that Heaven approved of his plan to move the capitol to Beijing. He claimed that the giraffe was a qilin, a mythical creature that had suddenly appeared to ratify his rule.

On July 11, 1405 Zheng He and his floating city set sail on the first of 7 voyages that turned the Indian Ocean into China's bathtub. Beginning in 1405, the last voyage of exploration and diplomacy finished almost 3 decades later in 1433. Zhu Di had effectively increased China's mandala empire to include Southeast Asia, Southern India and Eastern Africa. Remember mandala empires are created through prestige and trade privileges rather than military power.

Although the Chinese employed military force to subdue their mainland, including the Vietnamese and Koreans, they primarily made a show of military force in the maritime empire. The mighty Ming armada merely established the wei, the 'awesomeness', of China's military might, but engaged in relatively few actual battles. The Chinese 'awesomeness' was so intimidating and their terms were so beneficial to the participating parties that there was no need to fight. China came more as a wooer, than as a conqueror.

As mentioned in an earlier article, Chinese business dealings were not based in legal contracts, but were instead founded in positive business relationships encompassing dining, presents and favorable trade agreements. They provided great deals on silk and porcelain. The business deals were combined with soft loans, so that their trading partners were constantly in debt to them. The Chinese felt that it was easier to break a contract than to violate a friendship. How civilized.

However, when Zheng He's armada first arrived in Southeast Asia, he found that the trading arrangement was out of balance. He had to employ military force to set things in order.

The Treasure Fleet, although consisting of a floating laboratory and a military force, was primarily designed to do business. They received their name, treasure ships, because they contained more than a million tons of Chinese silk, ceramics and copper coinage that were to be exchanged for tropical spices, fragrant woods, precious gems, and textiles. For centuries the narrow Straights of Malacca between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra had been a major international trading route between the East and West. At the time of the arrival of the Chinese armada in 1407, the straights were controlled by the infamous Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi from his home base at the port of Palembang. He had taken over the city from the crumbling Majahapit Empire.

The pirate's heavily armed ships were in the habit of intercepting the merchant ships that attempted to sail through. They attempted to do the same with Zheng He's convoy. After pretending to agree to terms, the pirate Chen Zuyi planned an ambush. An informer alerted Zheng He. The Chinese army crushed the pirates, killing as many as 5000 men. As a reward for the timely advice, the individual who supplied it was put in charge of Palembang.

Palembang was incorporated into the far-flung system of allies that recognized China's overlordship in exchange for diplomatic recognition, military protection and trading rights. By the end of his reign more than 30 nations, including Japan, Korea, and Tibet, had sent diplomatic missions along with tribute to the Imperial Court in Beijing. Of course, the tribute was minimal compared to the ensuing benefits.

Paramesvara, the ruler of Malacca, could see the future. As a buffer against the Javanese, he had already befriended the Chinese businessmen in the area by establishing Malacca as a free port, i.e. no duties on commerce. To take advantage of the increased Chinese presence in the area, he established a tributary relationship with the Chinese Ming Empire. The first official Chinese trade envoy led by Admiral Yin Qing arrived in Malacca in 1403. Parameśwara even traveled with his family to China in 1411 to establish a diplomatic relationship. When Zheng He visited in 1414, Malacca was already a tributary state of the Ming. Zheng He even escorted Malaccan officials on other diplomatic trips to China. More importantly, as a Ming protectorate, Malacca was granted protection against attacks from Siam and Majapahit.

The ports of Java and Sumatra continued to charge duties on the exchange of goods. To reward Malacca for their free port, China made this their main port - establishing it as an international entrepôt. They also helped expel the encroaching Thai kingdom from the Malay Peninsula. Most historians consider this the real beginning of the Malaccan Empire. Zhu Di even personally composed a poem for Parmesvara, the Malaccan Sultan.

“You, king (referring to Parameswara), traveled tens of thousands of li across the ocean to the capital, confidently and without anxiety, as your loyalty and sincerity assured you of the protection of the spirits. I (emperor Yongle) have been glad to meet with you, king, and feel that you should stay. However, your people are longing for you and it is appropriate that you return to soothe them. The weather is getting colder and the winds are suited for sailing South. It is the right time. You should eat well on your journey and look after yourself, so as to reflect my feelings of concern for you. Now I am conferring upon you, king, a gold and jade belt, ceremonial insignia, two "saddled horses", 100 liang of gold, 500 liang of silver, 400,000 guan of paper money, 2,600 guan of copper cash, 300 bolts of embroidered fine silks and silk gauzes, 1,000 bolts of thin silks...... ”

[Continuing from the Imperial histories]: "The tributes that Malacca paid to the Ming included: agate, carnelian, pearl, hawksbill, coral, crane beak, golden female crane beak, suit, white cloth, Western fabric, Sa-ha-la, rhino horn, ivory, black bear, black ape, white muntjac, turkey, parrot, pian-nao, rosebush dew, su-he oil, gardenia flower, wu-ye-ni, aromatic wood, incense sticks, gold silver incense sticks."

The advantages of a vassal/tributary relationship with Chinese are obvious.

China's Abrupt Withdrawal from the International Scene

How quickly things change. The Buddhists are right. Life is transient. Just when he considered himself the supreme ruler of the planet, the world turned upside down for our Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di. Perhaps Heaven felt threatened by his hubris, his overweening ambition.

Zheng He's voyages of exploration coincided with the expansion of China's boundaries, the reconstruction of the Great Wall, the renewal of the all-important Canal System and the building of Forbidden City. Life was good for the Emperor. It was obvious that he had the Mandate of Heaven.

For nearly 3 millennia, the Chinese, from the Chou dynasty circa 1000 BCE through to Mao, have believed that it was necessary to have the Mandate of Heaven in order to rule the enormous Chinese Empire. Zhu Di's giraffe was just one way of establishing to the administrators and populace that Heaven was on his side. The fact that he had escaped execution and risen from his family position as 4th son with uncertain heritage to rule the Empire was obvious evidence that Heaven loved him. But everything comes to an end, even the favor of the gods. Zhu Di's honored position with Heaven was no different. The gods signaled their displeasure with his rule in one horrible day.

On the night of May 9, 1421, a lightening storm of epic proportions broke out. God-like lightening bolts struck and started a fire on the roof of the Emperor's newly constructed Imperial Palace. The conflagration rapidly spread down the axis of his treasured Forbidden City. Besides burning down the Halls of Great Harmony, Central Harmony, and Preserving Harmony. These seemingly divine fires also destroyed the women's quarter including many inhabitants and the emperor's throne. Zhu Di's favorite concubine died from the shock. The heavenly signs couldn't be more obvious. Heaven wasn't happy with the Yongle Emperor and had withdrawn their divine Mandate.

Zhu Di was acutely aware what this divine omen meant.

"The God of Heaven is angry with me. And, therefore, has burnt my palace, although I have done no evil act. I have neither offended my father, nor mother, nor have I acted tyrannically."

Although he understood the dire nature of the heavenly statement – that they had withdrawn their favor, he didn't really understand why the gods were unhappy with him. In an edict, he posed his question to the population at large. The response was immediate. Zhu Di's grandiose plans had bankrupted the country and denuded once magnificent forests. Further, peasants, the backbone of the Chinese economy, were starving or forced to eat grass, while foreign dignitaries were treated to sumptuous banquets and given extravagant gifts in the Emperor's Grand Palace.

The construction of the Forbidden Palace combined with the Treasure Fleet required an extravagant amount of wood. Vietnam's seemingly endless hardwood forests supplied the material. The Vietnamese revolted in response to this environmental outrage. The revolt was not easy to quell and further depleted the exhausted treasury. Perhaps more importantly, the Ming Army lost its first battle. Not a good omen.

Rounding out the communication of divine dissatisfaction, a ferocious plague had broken out in southern China, killing upwards of 200,000 people. To complete the fateful picture, Zhu Di hadn't born a child for over a decade, and it was claimed that he was impotent. He also had a series of strokes. The signs were obvious.

Although the Emperor makes all the decisions in Chinese politics, he takes advice from his many counselors. His advisors fell into two camps, the palace eunuchs and the mandarins. The palace eunuchs specialize in foreign affairs and military matters, while the mandarins specialize in domestic affairs. The Confucian trained mandarins govern the countryside, concerning themselves with needs of the peasantry. The eunuchs were more focused upon the needs of the merchants and the army along with their soldiers. As such, it was not surprising that Zhu Di would appoint Zheng De, the giant eunuch, to be in control of the Treasure Fleet, in that it combined diplomacy, business, politics and the military in one complete package.

Prior to this personal disaster, Zhu Di had aligned himself with the eunuchs. In fact, their support had been crucial to his rise to power. After receiving the public feedback, he began to listen more intently to the advice of his mandarins. They were unanimous in requesting a cessation of foreign exploration, military expansionism, and expensive building projects. They suggested that the Emperor instead spend time and money on China's infrastructure. Take care of the peasantry, rather than the merchants and the military. Serve the people, rather than the wealthy. Due to this growing pressure, Zhu Di shifted course.

The political situation seems strangely reminiscent of modern times. The United States, the military arm of the Company, spends an exorbitant amount of money policing the world to protect Corporate profits, but is unwilling to provide the medical care for its citizenry that is standard in most countries.

The sixth voyage of the Treasure Fleet had just set forth two months before the Emperor's disaster. According to credible evidence presented by Gavin Menzies in his book, 1421, this voyage of exploration traveled around Cape Horn in Southern Africa and eventually explored the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of both North and South America. By the time they returned from their epic and historic trip in 1423, the political climate had about-faced. In the meantime, Zhu Di had issued decrees banning foreign travel and future voyages of the expensive Treasure Fleet. The mandarins had convinced him that Heaven disapproved of outward expansion.

In his early 60s, Zhu Di was weary from a life of military campaigns and a series of medical setbacks. However, a Mongol tribe refused to pay tribute. Zhu Di saw this as an opportunity to establish that he still had the Mandate of Heaven. He raised a huge army to teach the Mongols a lesson. His most trusted advisors warned against the military action; one even committed suicide to show the strength of his convictions. The Emperor ignored their advice and died in the futile and expensive campaign. The Mongols didn't engage, and instead disappeared into the mountains with their nomadic community.

His son and then grandson took over the Empire. Both listened to the mandarins rather than the eunuchs. Their priorities were in accord with traditional Confucian values.

"Relieving people's poverty ought to be handled as though one were rescuing them from fire or saving them from drowning. One cannot hesitate."

The Imperial gaze turned inwards. Foreign trade and travel was further restricted. Zhu Di's grandson, Zhu Zhanji, allowed Zheng He to go on one final voyage to visit Mecca in 1435. In his late 60s, Zheng He died at sea. Following his death, the famous Treasure Fleet was burned or laid to rot. Supposedly to appease Heaven, the mandarins burned all records of the marine exploits.

From this point onward, Ming China focused upon the welfare of their people. The mandarins became all powerful, while the influence of the merchants, bankers and military was almost nil. While this policy had fateful consequences in the ensuing centuries, the peasantry's suffering was relieved for the time being, as they at least had enough to eat.

The Manchu-based Qing dynasty followed the Ming dynasty in 1644. Adhering to traditional Chinese values, the foreign rulers intensified the mandarin policies. To discourage foreign travel by sea, they moved the citizenry inland and burned a strip of the southern China coastline 30 miles wide by 700 miles long. It is no wonder that the Chinese presence in my territory disappeared as suddenly and completely as the morning fog.


Southeast Asia: “It seems that China abandoned Malacca and my people so that the government could take care of their own people. That is definitely a noble cause. Relieving the suffering of the masses is always a worthy endeavor.

China's disappearing act had a huge impact upon Southeast Asians. The Chinese merchants had been regular and significant visitors to my part of the planet for a millennium and a half. Then because of a single night, they vanish. Their sudden absence was like a death in the family - a type of culture shock.

Although their influence was never as grand, Arab traders took up the slack. To show our gratitude, my island cultures led by Malacca converted to Islam, the Arab religion. To find out what this conversion meant for our culture, check out the next chapter."


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