the all-powerful chinese naval armada -- 4/30/19

Today's selection -- from Why the West Rules -- For Now by Ian Morris. The Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, sent forth a naval armada vastly superior to anything the world had ever seen, with ships that dwarfed those European vessels that would soon take Christopher Columbus to America: 

"Yongle walked softly but carried a big stick. In 1405 he announced that he was sending ambassadors 'to the various foreign countries in the Western [Indian] Ocean to read out the imperial commands and to bestow rewards,' enmeshing commerce in a web of diplomacy, but along with them he also sent the biggest fleet the world had ever seen. To build it he summoned 25,000 craftsmen to add vast new dockyards to his capital at Nanjing. Lumberjacks in Sichuan picked out the best fir trees for masts, elm and cedar for hulls, and oak for tillers, then clear-cut entire forests and floated them down the Yangzi to the ship­wrights. Laborers built giant dry docks, hundreds of feet long, to work on the great vessels. No detail was overlooked; even the iron nails got a special waterproof coat.

"This was no war fleet, but it was designed for shock and awe. At its heart were the biggest wooden ships of all time, perhaps 250 feet long and displacing two thousand tons of ocean; and at its head was history's biggest admiral, the Muslim eunuch Zheng He, said to have been seven feet tall and sixty inches around the belly (in some accounts, nine feet tall and ninety inches in girth).

"More than three hundred vessels set sail, carrying 27,870 men. The plan was to descend on the wealthy cities around the Indian Ocean, whose princes, waking up to find the seas outside their palace windows filled with Chinese sails, would hand over huge 'tribute' payments, channeling trade through official channels. But it was also a grand ad­venture: the sailors seem to have felt they were plunging into a twilight zone, where anything was possible. In Sri Lanka local Muslims showed them the biblical Adam's footprints, while in Viet­nam sailors thought they had to dodge the 'corpse-head barbarian,' a kind of banshee that was

'really a woman belonging to a human family, her only peculiarity being that her eyes have no pupils; at night, when she is sleeping, her head flies away and eats the tapering feces of human infants; the: in­fant, affected by the evil influence which invades its abdomen, inevi­tably dies; and the flying head returns and unites with its body, just as it was before. If people know of this and wait until the moment the head flies away, and then remove the body to another place, the re­turning head cannot unite with the body, and then the woman dies.'

Early 17th century Chinese wood block print, thought to represent Zheng He's ships

"Other than the threats in their own imaginations, though, the sail­ors encountered few dangers. The seven Treasure Fleets dispatched between 1405 and 1433 were the grandest projections of state power the world had seen. They did have to fight three times to secure the Straits of Malacca, then as now the world's busiest waterway and then as now infested by pirates, but otherwise used force only when tricked into taking sides in a Sri Lankan civil war. Chinese sailors walked the streets of Mogadishu, which did not impress them ('If one's eyes wan­der one meets only sighs and sulky glances,' one of Zheng's officers wrote; 'Desolation, the entire country nothing but hills!'), and Mecca, which did (even if another officer inexplicably thought Islam's holiest shrine looked like a pagoda).

"The Treasure Fleets had sailed south and west a good nine thousand miles, but some researchers think this was just the beginning. With their compasses and charts, tankers full of drinking water, and huge stores of food, Zheng's ships could have gone anywhere they wanted."



Ian Morris


Why The West Rules -- For Now




Copyright 2010 by Ian Morris


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