In December 1431 an impressive fleet of over a hundred seagoing ships anchored in the harbor of Changle, Fujian, awaiting the northern wind that enabled the first leg of an expedition through Southeast Asia into the Indian Ocean. The principal imperial envoys, Zheng He and Wang Jinghong, took this opportunity to erect a stele in commemoration of six similar voyages during the Yongle reign (1402-1424).
The Yongle emperor took the throne from his nephew, the Jianwen emperor (r. 1398-1402), in a civil war that had long lasting effects on the relationship between the new emperor and the literate elite that staffed the bureaucratic system. The Yongle emperor relied on personal relations with castrated palace servants to circumvent bureaucracy, and in the process he allowed them to become a powerful faction at court. It is telling that the Changle stele was signed by Grand Directors and Regional Military Commissioners, in other words, eunuchs and military men, but not civil officials. According to Dreyer 70 eunuchs were in charge of the fleet that carried 302 military officers and 26,803 soldiers. 180 of the 190 civil officials were medical doctors, which leaves only 10 civil officials. (Dreyer. 2007: 127-8) The maritime expeditions to the Indian Ocean illustrated the personal influence of the Chinese emperor, which goes a long way to explain why six expeditions occurred during the Yongle reign, and one last expedition took place during the Xuande reign (1425-35).
The stele states that the emperor delighted in tribute envoys from foreign lands and so he commanded Zheng He and others to “go to their countries and confer presents on them, so as to transform them by displaying our power while treating distant peoples with kindness.” (Dreyer. 2007: 195) Imperial envoys travelled with foreign ambassadors on detached squadrons to numerous larger and smaller courts in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral. In general they received a warm welcome, not in the least because tribute exchange profited foreign parties. On occasion the fleet met with hostility, or was drawn into local conflict by one or both parties. In the case of Chen Zuyi, a Palembang-based pirate from Guangdong, the detached squadrons reassembled before Chinese troops attacked and captured Chen. The Chinese envoys relied on a display of power, but when push came to shove they used military force to remove those who preyed on economic and diplomatic traffic along the maritime Silk Road.
The maritime expeditions grew out of an expansive policy during the Yongle reign. The emperor sent his eunuchs to known destinations to inform the people of the world that he ascended the throne. As eunuchs traveled they encountered people from more distant regions, usually maritime merchants. They brought them back to China and presented them to the emperor as ambassadors. The emperor received their tribute and then ordered the eunuchs to accompany them back to their home countries. The eunuchs thus expanded the known world for Ming China. The Ming emperor made the universal claim to rule all under heaven and his eunuchs left steles at home and abroad to reinforce this worldview. Eunuch led missions reached as far north as Sakhalin Island opposite the Amur River mouth where a stele was erected to celebrate the official title that the Ming emperor bestowed on a local chieftain. Other eunuchs traveled into central Asia as far as Samarkand and Herat. Numerous maritime voyages carried eunuchs to countries in south and southeast Asia, though the seven large scale expeditions into the Indian Ocean tend to overshadow the shorter voyages.
The Changle stele and a near identical stele at Liujiagang, where the fleet left the Yangzi River to enter the East China Sea, recorded the maritime expeditions in greater detail than most official sources, e.g. Ming Veritable Records, Ming History, perhaps because the civil officials responsible for official record keeping frowned upon the expensive voyages of their bitter rivals, the eunuchs. Furthermore, the inscriptions were commissioned by Zheng He and thus present the viewpoint of someone closely involved in the organization of the maritime expeditions. The inscriptions are therefore essential to a balanced understanding of the maritime expeditions. The two steles were erected near temples of Tianfei, a goddess associated with sailors, fishermen, and maritime merchants. The inscriptions praised her benevolence and at the same time they conveyed to temple visitors the extensive reach of Ming imperial power. A third stele at Galle, Sri Lanka, served a similar purpose. In Tamil, Persian, and Chinese it recorded the gifts that Zheng He bestowed on local temples in the name of the Yongle emperor. The steles are physical expressions of imperial power that remind the people at home and abroad of the extensive reach of the Ming emperor, even when the pious inscriptions give most of the credit to Tianfei and other deities.
Dreyer, Edward L. Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Changle Stele (Zheng He, 1431)
This inscription was carved on a stele erected at a temple to the goddess the Celestial Spouse at Changle in Fujian province in 1431.
Record of the miraculous answer (to prayer) of the goddess the Celestial Spouse.
The Imperial Ming Dynasty unifying seas and continents, surpassing the three dynasties even goes beyond the Han and Tang dynasties. The countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects and to the most western of the western or the most northern of the northern countries, however far they may be, the distance and the routes may be calculated. Thus the barbarians from beyond the seas, though their countries are truly distant, "with double translation" have come to audience bearing precious objects and presents.
The Emperor, approving of their loyalty and sincerity, has ordered us (Zheng) He and others at the head of several tens of thousands of officers and flag-troops to ascend more than one hundred large ships to go and confer presents on them in order to make manifest the transforming power of the (imperial) virtue and to treat distant people with kindness. From the third year of Yongle (1405) till now we have seven times received the commission of ambassadors to countries of the western ocean. The barbarian countries which we have visited are: by way of Zhancheng (Champa), Zhaowa (Java), Sanfoqi (Palembang) and Xianlo (Siam) crossing straight over to Xilanshan (Ceylon) in South India, Guli (Calicut), and Kezhi (Cochin), we have gone to the western regions Hulumosi (Hormuz), Adan (Aden), Mugudushu (Mogadishu), altogether more than thirty countries large and small. We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night continued their course (rapid like that) of a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare. Truly this was due to the majesty and the good fortune of the Court and moreover we owe it to the protecting virtue of the divine Celestial Spouse.
The power of the goddess having indeed been manifested in previous times has been abundantly revealed in the present generation. In the midst of the rushing waters it happened that, when there was a hurricane, suddenly there was a divine lantern shining in the mast, and as soon as this miraculous light appeared the danger was appeased, so that even in the danger of capsizing one felt reassured that there was no cause for fear. When we arrived in the distant countries we captured alive those of the native kings who were not respectful and exterminated those barbarian robbers who were engaged in piracy, so that consequently the sea route was cleansed and pacified and the natives put their trust in it. All this is due to the favours of the goddess.
It is not easy to enumerate completely all the cases where the goddess has answered (prayers). Previously in a memorial to the Court we have requested that her virtue be registered in the Court of Sacrificial Worship and a temple be built at Nanking on the bank of the dragon river where regular sacrifices should be transmitted for ever. We have respectfully received an Imperial commemorative composition exalting the miraculous favours, which is the highest recompense and praise indeed. However, the miraculous power of the goddess resides wherever one goes. As for the temporary palace on the southern mountain at Changle, I have, at the head of the fleet, frequently resided there awaiting the (favorable) wind to set sail for the ocean.
We, Zheng He and others, on the one hand have received the high favour of a gracious commission of our Sacred Lord, and on the other hand carry to the distant barbarians the benefits of respect and good faith (on their part). Commanding the multitudes on the fleet and (being responsible for) a quantity of money and valuables in the face of the violence of the winds and the nights our one fear is not to be able to succeed; how should we then dare not to serve our dynasty with exertion of all our loyalty and the gods with the utmost sincerity? How would it be possible not to realize what is the source of the tranquillity of the fleet and the troops and the salvation on the voyage both going and returning? Therefore we have made manifest the virtue of the goddess on stone and have moreover recorded the years and months of the voyages to the barbarian countries and the return in order to leave (the memory) for ever.
I. In the third year of Yongle (1405) commanding the fleet we went to Guli (Calicut) and other countries. At that time the pirate Chen Zuyi had gathered his followers in the country of Sanfoqi (Palembang), where he plundered the native merchants. When he also advanced to resist our fleet, supernatural soldiers secretly came to the rescue so that after one beating of the drum he was annihilated. In the fifth year (1407) we returned.
II. In the fifth year of Yongle (1407) commanding the fleet we went to Zhaowa (Java), Guli (Calicut), Kezhi (Cochin) and Xianle (Siam). The kings of these countries all sent as tribute precious objects, precious birds and rare animals. In the seventh year (1409) we returned.
III. In the seventh year of Yongle (1409) commanding the fleet we went to the countries (visited) before and took our route by the country of Xilanshan (Ceylon). Its king Yaliekunaier (Alagakkonara) was guilty of a gross lack of respect and plotted against the fleet. Owing to the manifest answer to prayer of the goddess (the plot) was discovered and thereupon that king was captured alive. In the ninth year (1411) on our return the king was presented (to the throne) (as a prisoner); subsequently he received the Imperial favour of returning to his own country.
IV. In the eleventh year of Yongle (1413) commanding the fleet we went to Hulumosi (Ormuz) and other countries. In the country of Sumendala (Samudra) there was a false king Suganla (Sekandar) who was marauding and invading his country. Its king Cainu-liabiding (Zaynu-'l-Abidin) had sent an envoy to the Palace Gates in order to lodge a complaint. We went thither with the official troups under our command and exterminated some and arrested (other rebels), and owing to the silent aid of the goddess we captured the false king alive. In the thirteenth year (1415) on our return he was presented (to the Emperor as a prisoner). In that year the king of the country of Manlajia (Malacca) came in person with his wife and son to present tribute.
V. In the fifteenth year of Yongle (1417) commanding the fleet we visited the western regions. The country of Hulumosi (Ormuz) presented lions, leopards with gold spots and large western horses. The country of Adan (Aden) presented qilin of which the native name is culafa (giraffe), as well as the long-horned animal maha (oryx). The country of Mugudushu (Mogadishu) presented huafu lu ("striped" zebras) as well as lions. The country of Bulawa (Brava) presented camels which run one thousand li as well as camel-birds (ostriches). The countries of Zhaowa (Java) and Guli (Calicut) presented the animal miligao. They all vied in presenting the marvellous objects preserved in the mountains or hidden in the seas and the beautiful treasures buried in the sand or deposited on the shores. Some sent a maternal uncle of the king, others a paternal uncle or a younger brother of the king in order to present a letter of homage written on gold leaf as well as tribute.
VI. In the nineteenth year of Yongle (1421) commanding the fleet we conducted the ambassadors from Hulumosi (Ormuz) and the other countries who had been in attendance at the capital for a long time back to their countries. The kings of all these countries prepared even more tribute than previously.
VII. In the sixth year of Xuande (1431) once more commanding the fleet we have left for the barbarian countries in order to read to them (an Imperial edict) and to confer presents.
We have anchored in this port awaiting a north wind to take the sea, and recalling how previously we have on several occasions received the benefits of the protection of the divine intelligence we have thus recorded an inscription in stone.
Sources: Teobaldo Filesi. David Morison trans. China and Africa in the Middle Ages. (London: Frank Cass, 1972). 57-61.
Annotated by Sander M. Molenaar