Tai Peng Wang’s Zheng He Project Report
1. Foreigners in Zheng He’s fleets
(A) Foreign pilots
Among the elite of the Zheng He crew, there were navigators both Chinese and foreigners. The Chinese navigators were simply called huo-chang. Foreigner navigators were called fan huochang or fanren huochang instead to be distinguished from the Chinese navigators. We don’t know how many of them were among them. But they were of considerable number for sure.
Where did Zheng He get to recruit them? One source was from countries of Western Oceans. According to Gong Zhen, during 1403, two years before the first naval expedition, Zheng He, Yang Min and Li Qi were sent by Zhu Di to visit countries of Western Oceans. According to a hand written copy of Haidi Pu (A notebook on the sea bottom currents) found in Quanzhou, in the reign of Yongle first year, Zheng He, Li Xing and Yang Min and others were sent to visit foreign countries in the East and West Oceans. After announcing the accession of Emperor Yongle to the throne to foreign rulers, they should immediately gave instruction to search for navigation charts, collecting all the information about the sea currents, mountains, islands, straits, and the positions of stars. Their mission was wasting no time to make a book of newly revised navigation charts with compass points and cross-referencing stars and landmarks checked and corrected by their field work in this trip. Meanwhile, their mission was also to recruit those foreign navigators who were capable of ocean navigation by reading the sea-chart with compass points, cross-referencing stars and landmarks. All of these were done in preparation for the coming unprecedented naval expeditions in China’s history.
Another source was tufan or fanke meaning foreign seafaring sojourners residing in China. On the eve of sailing abroad, Zheng He’s team often went to the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Zhejiang to select navigators; both experienced Chinese and sojourning foreign seafarers. Chen Shuiyuan, a Taiwanese writer of Zheng He history, suggests that Quanzhou was the right place for it. Each time before his naval expeditions, Zheng He went to Quanzhou to make prayer for a safe journey in a Muslim mosque over there. One of the reasons why he went to Quanzhou then was that he could recruit best foreign navigators in this one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world during the Song and Yuan times. In Quangzhou, there were a lot of foreign navigators from all over the world. Most of them, especially those from the Islamic countries were very rich in the experience of overseas navigation. During their stay in Quanzhou, they exchanged their experience of ocean navigation and helped spreading the knowledge of ocean navigation among themselves and the Chinese.
The use of a considerably large number of foreign navigators was unprecedented in China’s navigation history. However, all these foreign navigators were rewarded handsomely each and every time when they returned to China after successfully completed their mission. In 1407, for example, foreign navigators were rewarded with monetary notes equivalent to 50 silver taels and a roll of embroidered silk each for their valuable contribution made to the success of the mission. While they were not entitled to official promotion, they got more material rewards in exchange.
B. Hui Hui (naturalized foreign sojourners) officials
It is well known that Zheng He was a Muslim originally surnamed Ma, whose father had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is less well known that there was quite a number of middle ranking naturalized-foreigner military officers under his command. Prominently among them was a military commander (zhihui) named Haji, who was a naturalized foreigner. And a deputy battalion commander (fu qianfu) Shaban, originally named, as Sheban was a man of Calicut from India in origin. He was a Muslim Tamil in all likelihood. Because of his great admiration of China, Sheban came to live in China and joined the military. He served as a sergeant (zhengwu) of the Nanjing embroidered-shirt guard. In 1430 he joined the seventh naval expedition of Zheng He mission. After his return, Xuande emperor promoted him to the rank of deputy battalion commander and conferred his name as Shaban in acknowledgement of his contribution to the mission. Sheban was a Chinese translation from the Arabic word which means August in the Islamic calendar. Arab people also commonly used it as personal name. There would be a lot more Muslim Tamil in the Zheng He fleets; either recruited from Calicut or within China especially Quanzhou, where there was a Tamil-speaking merchant community during the Song and Yuan and early Ming.
A study by John Guy indicates that during the period of the Song and Yuan, there had been a strong Indian presence at Quanzhou. It is recorded that in the yongxi period, (984-88) of the Song dynasty a monk from India (Tianzhu) purchased land in the southern suburbs of Quanzhou with the proceeds of gifts from his compatriots and built a Buddhist shrine; it was still in worship in the late thirteenth century, when Zhao Rugua, the superintendent of maritime trade at Quanzhou, was writing his Zhufan Zhi (Description of Barbarian People). The presence of a Tamil-speaking merchant community in the port city of Quanzhou was confirmed in 1956 by the discovery of a Tamil-Chinese bi-lingual inscription dated April 1281. In February of the same year an official Yuan dynasty envoy was dispatched to South India, which underscores the reciprocal nature of this trading relationship. The inscription was an indication of the significant role of South Indian in China’s international commerce in the late thirteenth century. Over 300 architectural and sculptural fragments of Hindu temples have been identified in Quanzhou. The South Indian community was located in the southern suburb of Quanzhou as Zhao Rugua commented that an Indian Buddhist priest who bought land with the support of gifts from merchants did so in the southern suburb of the city. Interestingly, there is every reason to suggest that the temple recorded in 1281 be still in existence up until the fifteenth or sixteenth century. In the Ming period, when the Kaiyuan temple under a major renovation it appears that the Hindu architectural elements found their way into the structure of the temple in the course of that renovation. The Tamil merchant community, it seemed, was still in existence in the 15th century. (See John Guy, “Tamil Merchant Guilds and The Quanzhou Trade” in Schootenhammer, A, (ed.), The Emporium of the World: Maritime Quanzhou, 1000 – 1400. (Leiden: Brill, 2001) pp.281- 308.)
Your book has raised a very interesting question that who had left those stones carved in Tamil calligraphy at Dondra Head, at Cochin on the Malabar coasts of India, at Janela in the Cape Verde Islands and by the Matadi Falls in the Congo delta. Most probably, it was the South Indian traders. Han Zheng Hua considered it possible that South Indian traders already set foot on Australia and New Zealand in the early 14th century. Judging from Wang Dayuan’s report that the natives were wearing short-sleeve or sleeve-less shirts made of colourful tin silk and one-piece skirts made of Bengal cloth, the South Indian traders must have been trading with the natives in Australia long before Wang’s arrival.
There were other naturalized-foreigner military officers getting promotion too. In 1415, embroidered-uniform guard battalion commanders, Lu Tong, Ma Gui, Zhang Tong and Liu Hai were all promoted to military commanders for their contribution to the military victory in Sumatra. Meanwhile, battalion commanders Xu Zheng and Wang Hai were promoted to the rank of military commanders. According to a study by Xu Yihu, a Taiwanese expert on Zheng He history, all of them were naturalized Arab or foreign sojourners in China given Chinese names by the Ming Court. During the early Ming, naturalized foreigners were often given Chinese names such as Wang Gui, Wu Zheng, Ma Zheng, Zhang Gui, Li Gui, Zhou Hai, Wang Hai, Ren Gui, Yang Gui, Liu Hai, Bai Gui, Zheng Tong, Tian Gui, Wang Zheng, Suo Tong etc. During the early Ming, Arabic language was still their first language for them even though they began to take up Chinese names. They were the people who were called tufan (local foreigners) or fanke (sojourning foreigners) in China. Many of them, especially the first and second generation of the local foreigners, even retained their Arabic names along side with the Chinese translation on their gravestones. And surprisingly, some fourth generation descendants from these Arab sojourners in Quanzhou still bore a strong Arab facial features in their look. Clearly, tufan or sojourning foreigners and hui-hui or naturalized foreigners in China were not only a source of supply to Zheng He’s pilots but also to his military officers of the navy.
2. 1421 Yang Min ventured into unknown world
Zheng Yijun, an authority of Zheng He history in the 80s, was well aware of Fra Mauro map’s appended notes stating a Chinese junk had rounded the Good Hope Cape. He thinks it was Yang Min’s ship. What makes him think so is the surviving handwritten copy of Zheng Wei Pian (compass navigation sea charts) published in early Qing. The navigation book says that “in the ninetieth year of Yongle reign. In 1421,Yongle Emperor ordered Yang Min, Zheng He and Li Qi to make voyage to Bengal and others altogether 36 countries. Until the 23rd year of the Yungle reign, Yang Min was sailing in the middle of Wu Qiu Ocean (Tortoise Ocean). All of a sudden, the calm sea turned stormy.” But in fact Yungle reign ended in August of 1422. There couldn’t possibly be the 23rd year of Yungle reign as it was changed to Hongxi reign since then. However as Yang Min was still on his sea journey of great discovery, he was unaware of this change of a new reign in China. So, Zheng Yijun reckoned that Zheng Wei Pian (Chapters on navigation by compass points) confirmed that some divisions of Zheng He fleets were given freedom to act independently. So much so that some squadrons of Zheng He fleets were sailing in the unknown seas four years that long. This would gave them enough time to sail across the whole of Indian Ocean, especially exploring the vast area of South Indian Ocean and went into the Atlantic sea to reach the seacoast of Southwest Africa and then sailing eastward to the Pacific Ocean and reached the coast of Australia. (See Zheng Yijun: Lun Zheng He Xia Xiyang, p.228)
Zheng He navigation chart shows the sea route from Java and Gilimun can be extended to Australia and Madagascar Island. This is an indication that during the sixth voyage, some division of Zheng He fleets set sail from Malacca eastward crossing the equator and exploring the sea in the southeast of Java. An old man with the surname Zhou who joined Zheng He naval expedition during the reigns of Yungle and Xuande told Sheng Mao Sheng, the Ming author of Haiguo Guangji (notes on overseas countries) that they had paid official visits to the following countries; Sumatra, Teboli, Mantoulang, Sujitan, Mahashiri, Jialina, Manali, Maha, Fangpai and Pangela. Apart from Sumatra, which is clearly in Indonesia, Zheng Yijun suspected that the rest of the unidentified countries seemed to have been lying within the regions of New Guinea, Solomon Island and Australia. (See Zheng Yijun, Lun Zheng He Xia Xiyang, p.227)
Zheng Yijun’s suspicion is proven right, however. Among these relatively little known countries, Manali was identified as Northern Australia by a study of the late Professor Han Zheng Hua. In his opinion, Wang Dayuan, one of the greatest Chinese world travellers during the Yuan, had been to North Australia. In his travelogue entitled Daoyi Zhilue (A Brief Record of Island Barbarians) that was written in 1349, Wang mentioned about Australia’s dancing Brolga, camel and flametree. He called Mareje at the seacoast of North Australia as Milizhi and its southeast neighbouring area Manali meaning the kingdom of Queen. He said Manali was surrounded by water and swarms just like today east of Darwin. There were oyster beds grew on the mountain rocks. According to Wang, few people had ever come to visit Manali. The soil was of poor condition, not suitable for the cultivation of rice. The natives loved decorating themselves. Men and women plaited their hair tied with strings. They used golden bracelets. Most interestingly, the natives were said to have been wearing short-sleeve shirts made of colourful silk and one-piece skirts made of Bengal cloth. Australian aborigines were seen wearing one-piece skirts. Adjoining to Manali is lousasi or nusasu in Indonesian meaning the last island in the known world. Wang’s romantic description of the steep sea-cliff matches the landscape of Northwest seacoast of Australia. There is no doubt that his description of the natives of Manali as leading a primitive life without housing and clothing was so true of the Australian aborigine way of life until being Westernised. (See Han Zheng Hua: Selected Work of Han Zheng Hua, volume one (Hong Kong University Press, 1999) p.369 –379, Wang Dayuan’s work was largely translated by W.W. Rockhill: “Notes on the Relation and Trade of China with the Indian Ocean during the Fourteenth Century,” Toung Pao (1914-1915), vol.15, pp.419-447; vol.16, pp. 61-159, 234-271, 374-392,435-457,604-626.)
In 1330 Wang Dayuan was only at the age of 20. And in the years between 1330 and 1334, the young Wang Dayuan made a voyage from Quanzhou to Hainan to Jambia to Maleka, Java, Sumatra, Burma, India, Persia and Arab Peninsula and Egypt and then sailed across the Mediterranean Sea reaching Mulanpi or Morocco of North West Africa. And then he returned to Egypt. From there on he got out of the Red Sea en route for Somalia and Mozambique. From Mozambique, he made the voyage across the Indian Ocean returning straight to Sri Lanka and then to Sumatra, Java, Australia, Kalimantan and then finally returned to Quanzhou via the Philippines in 1334. Indeed, Wang Dayuan set foot on Australia more than three hundred years long before the Europeans. (See Li Yongcai etc: haiyang kaitou zhengba jianshi (A brief history of the rivalry of the sea powers) (Beijing, 1990). pp.108). A squadron of Zheng He fleets was only following the footsteps of Wang Dayuan to visit Manali or Darwin of North Australia in the sixth voyage.
3. Chinese Official visit to Mulanpi (Murabits or Al Murabitum)
Did Zheng He fleets ever visit any European countries at all? Of course, it did. Entering Mediterranean Sea from Persia, a division of his fleets sailed for more than three months to reach Mulanpi, or Murabits in Arabic. Mingshi Waiguochuan (Profiles of foreign countries in the Ming history), confirmed the mission to visit Mulanpi. It mentioned that during Zheng He voyages, there were some remote foreign countries although officially called upon by them to pay tribute to China, failed to come anyway. Mulanpi was one. This country name came up quite often in those Chinese travelogues written during the Song and Yuan. During the Song, mulan means the most remote country in the West. Even written more than two centuries later on, as a rule, Mingshi Waiguochuan added nothing new to what was already said about Mulanpi by Zhao Rugua in the late 13th centuries in Zhufan Zhi. (For an English Translation, see F. Hirth and W.W. Rockhill, Chua Ju-kua: His Work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in the 12th and 13th centuries. Entitled Chu-Fan-Chih (St. Petersburg: Imperial Academy of Science, 1911). Mulanpi is indeed a Chinese translation of Murabits, which were a sect of Islam that started in Mauritania in the early 11th century. By 1080 their empire stretched from Ghana (in the African Gulf of Guinea) to much of Spain and Portugal including as far North as Lisbon and Barcelona. By 1408 when Geeing He’s ship visited Spain, the territory of Muslim Spain under the rule of Muralist had already shrunk to only the region of Granada and Malaga.
In those days of Zhao Ruqua, much of the stories told about remote places such as Mulanpi was nothing but sailor yarns indeed. Zhufan Zhi says the ship sailing to Al Murabitum was huge, so huge that it allowed more than a few thousand people in the ship. There were shops and machines in the ship. Every thing there was incredibly huge, a wheat grain 3 inches as long, melon 6 foot as big and enough for twenty to thirty people to eat, Rice and wheat kept in the underground storeroom could last for decades. The sheep were several feet tall with tails as big as fans. In spring, the farmers had to take out tens of catty of fat from inside the stomach of the sheep, or else the sheep would die of stomach fat bloating. However, Zhao also mentioned of the volcano in the country of Sijia Liye, which Zhang Xinglang identified as Sicilia or Sicily. In 1408 when the Ming envoy was sent by Zhu Di to call upon Mulanpi, they probably would follow the same route as Wang Dayuan who had visited Mulanpi during the Yuan.
4. The accurate longitudes of Africa in Kangnido
During the period of the Yuan dynasty, the territory of the Mongolian Empire spanned both Europe and Asia. The concept of a round earth began to spread to China. The Arab astrologist Zamarudin made a terrestrial globe to represent the earth in China. The Arab also introduced Arab calendar into China. By this period of time, they must have introduced their method of how to calculate longitude by lunar eclipse to China as well. Furthermore, during the reign of Zhi Yuan 24 year, the Yuan court ordered Quanzhou officials to collect huihui Zhengqing or Arab compass navigation charts from the visiting Arab navigators, according to Yuan mishu Jianzhi. The Arab influence was pervasive in China especially in the realm of navigation during the Yuan. You are certainly quite right in saying that the Chinese were using lunar eclipse to determine longitudes.
As you have pointed out, the Portuguese had no accurate method of calculating longitude until 1498-9 when Vasco da Gama took the legendary Arab pilot Ibn Majid at Malindi to guide him across the Indian Ocean directly to Calicut. Without the indispensable help of Ibn Majid and his method of calculating longitude, Da Gama wouldn’t have been able to make the first ever European’s cross-ocean navigation in history. Bur more than one and half century earlier, Wang Dayuan already succeeded in sailing across the Indian Ocean from Mozambique directly to Sri Lanka. By then, the Chinese navigators who were good at the cutting-edge astrological navigation technology in crossing the Indian ocean must have already known how to determine the longitudes between Mozambique and Sri Lanka across the Indian Ocean. And by then, the Chinese already knew East Africa and Indian Ocean so well that the Kangnido map produced by Zhu Siben(1273-1333) so accurately depicted the coasts of East, South and West Africa. As Joseph Needham pointed out, Zhu and his contemporary Chinese all knew very well that the shape of Africa is triangular whereas in all of those contemporary Arab or European maps, the South of Africa was always depicted as an extension to the East. Such an error continued until mid 15th century. In 1421, one squadron departed from Sumatra sailing ten days in full wind to reach Maldives or Liu Shan and from there it sailed across the Indian Ocean in full wind for 15 days to reach Mogadishu of East Africa. However, this spectacular cross-ocean trip was only following established routes of Arab and Chinese trade in the seas east of Africa indeed.