Friday, March 27, 2009

Remembering Zheng He

While in Nanjing recently I visited the Jinghai Temple, in the northwest of the city, which was built during the Ming dynasty to commemorate Zheng He, the great Chinese mariner who made seven voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and parts of the African coast in the early fifteenth century. Zheng He is usually remembered in contrast to European explorers, whose discovery of foreign lands was quickly followed by colonization. Zheng He’s fleets consisted of dozens of huge ships and tens of thousands of men, but the most he demanded was tribute to the Ming emperor. His voyages were not the harbinger of aggressive imperialist policies, unlike early European explorers such as Christopher Columbus, whom Zheng He is most often compared with.

Such historical imagery was probably not on the minds of the British when, in 1842, they negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing in Jinghai Temple, the first of the so-called “unequal treaties” that helped cripple the Qing government. It is somewhat ironic that the beginning of European imperialism in China—and, in many textbooks, the beginning of modern Chinese history itself—occurred in a place dedicated to what amounted to peaceful exploration (even if relations between China and other states in the fifteenth century assumed a culturally superior position on the part of the Ming).

If the British missed this implicit comparison between European and Chinese maritime exploration, the Chinese Communist Party certainly did not. In one part of the temple is an exhibit glorifying the peaceful voyages of Zheng He; in another, an exhibit denouncing, in a predictably hysterical way, the imperialism of the British. A full third of the exhibit is devoted to the reclamation of Hong Kong in 1997. The Zheng He exhibit, in contrast, emphasizes the friendly nature of China’s exchanges with other peoples, though what it leaves out is as interesting as what it includes: for example, there is no mention (at least that I could find) of the fact that Zheng He was a Muslim who was captured by the victorious Ming army at the age of eleven in what is now Yunnan province, made a eunuch, and brought to the Ming court, where he gained favor with the Yongle emperor. Perhaps that would complicate the image of him as a hero of the Chinese nation.

On the wall of the Zheng He exhibit is a set of three quotes that pretty aptly summarizes how China’s masters hope he will be remembered:

孙中山:乃郑和竟能于十四个月之中,而造成64艘之大舶,载运二万八千人巡游南洋,示威海外,为中国超前轶后之奇举;至今南洋人犹有怀想当年三保之雄风遗烈者,可谓状矣。 “And so when Zheng He was able to build 64 large ships in just 14 months, which carried 28,000 people to make a voyage around the southern seas [i.e., Southeast Asia], he demonstrated to the outside world the wonder of China’s advancement; the people of the southern seas, at least, still cherish the memory of [Zheng He’s] stately bearing [雄风遗烈者].” – Sun Yat-sen

邓小平:明成祖时候,郑和下西洋还算开放的。 。。。 不开放不行。你不开放,再来个闭关自守,五十年要接近经济发达国家水平,肯定不可能。 “In the time of our accomplished Ming ancestors, Zheng He’s voyage was one of opening up [开放]. … Not opening up does no good. If you don’t open up, and instead adopt a closed-door policy, it is impossible to come close to a developed national economy even in fifty years.” – Deng Xiaoping

江泽民: 就古代而言,中国对外交往可以追溯到公元前二世纪的‘丝绸之路’和公元十五世纪的郑和七下西洋,这些都给我留下了深刻的印象,这说明,中华民族在历史上就致力于同各国人民的友好往来,进行文化和经济交流,共同创造美好的未来。 “With regard to ancient times, we can trace back China’s relations with the outside world to the second century BCE, when the silk road [began], and to the fifteenth century CE, when Zheng He went to the western seas seven times. These [events] have given me a deep impression, because they show that the Chinese nation [中华民族] has historically devoted itself to establishing friendly contact with the people of every country, to carry out cultural and economic exchanges and to create a glorious future for everyone.” – Jiang Zemin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

now I see it!