Indonesia Expat
History/Culture

Zheng He, The Chinese Muslim Eunuch

Zheng He is renowned today as a great explorer, honoured by both Chinese and Muslims throughout South East Asia.

But while his name may be familiar, details of his exploits remain less so. In the early 15th century, while Europe was slowly emerging from the Dark Ages and Native Americans were unsullied by claimants to their ‘New World’, Zheng He, backed by the might of the Ming Dynasty, set out from China on seven mighty voyages that spanned Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Sub Continent, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa.

These journeys would number some 300 ships, with the largest more than four times the size of the vessels Magellan used to circumnavigate the globe decades later, and were manned by something like 30,000 crew.

Setting out from Nanjing, Zheng He’s Treasure Fleets were designed to project Chinese power to the world and ensure loyalty to the throne in Peking. The fleet carried gifts from the Chinese emperor to show his munificence while they returned laden with the exotic from rulers wishing to show their respect to the ultimate power. These ships were not built to destroy but to impress.

Such a mighty fleet demanded a larger than life leader and Zheng He, a eunuch, was certainly that. Standing seven feet tall, he was born in Yunnan province in the south west of the country in 1368, far from any maritime influence. As a member of China’s Muslim community, Zheng He was born Ma He.

Nearly two centuries before the Europeans arrived to stake their claim on the regions’ souls and spices, Zheng He and the Chinese were intimately familiar with the waters around what was to become the Indonesian archipelago. He would make frequent stops at well established trading ports like Gresik (which had a thousand Chinese families living there and was ruled by a Chinese from Guandong province), Semarang, Cirebon, Palembang and Aceh at a time before the Wali Songo (nine Islamic saints widely accepted as having introduced Islam to Java) were starting to propagate Islam.

Maulana Malik Ibrahim, the first of the Wali Songo, arrived in Java in 1404, the year before Zheng He’s first journey and spent most of his time in East Java, including Gresik where he was ultimately buried in 1419. It is tempting to think that the great explorer and the propagator of the faith met but there is no known record of them having done so.

Interestingly the treasure fleet passed by Palembang on their first journey in 1404. The fall of the Sriwijaya Empire at the end of the 13th century had left a vacuum that the Siamese in the north and the Majapahit to the south east rushed to fill, effectively bypassing Palembang. A few years before Zheng He sailed the Malacca Straits for the first time, Java had installed a puppet on the throne in Palembang, effectively turning the one time seat of an empire into a vassel. The locals weren’t too keen and kicked out the usurper and into the chaos that followed a Chinese pirate named Chen Zuyi took over, making the waters treacherous for vessels using them. The treasure fleet would wait for the journey back before taking on and defeating the pirates in battle.

Ma Huan accompanied Zheng He on one of his journeys and much of what we know today comes from his chronicles. He describes the Javanese population as being divided into three groups: the natives who clung on to their Hindu Javanese beliefs, Muslims and the Chinese, many of whom he described as being Muslim.

While trading with the local population, Zheng He and his crew proved astute observers of local customs. One remarked that the wayang performance was similar to story-telling traditions they were used to back home.

Other local customs seemed less familiar. A bout to the death attracted their attention. Advancing and retreating to the beat of drums, two combatants armed with spears would attempt to conquer their opponent and receive, as a reward, the new widow or the deceased man’s slaves.

One stop saw Zheng He put in at Semarang when his vice commander, Wang Jing Hong, fell ill. After more than a week and Wang still hadn’t fully recovered so Zheng He continued with his journey leaving his second in command behind, expecting him to catch up later. Legend has it Wang never did follow his chief. He liked Semarang so much he decided to stay.

Semarang figures largely in the Zheng He story. Another tale says he stayed for a while in a cave near the city. His legacy lives on today with a temple on the outskirts of the city, Sam Po Kong (or Gedung Batu) dedicated to his memory. Just one of several such places throughout South East Asia that recall the eunuch’s travels.

Following Zheng He’s death, leaders of Semarang’s Chinese community entreated their people to ‘Javanise’ themselves, adopting Javanese names and following a Javanese lifestyle. Many Chinese became very influential and married into local, dominant families including one who was married to a regent of the Majapahit Empire.

Zheng He’s legacy today is far greater than a few temples dotted around the region. That he was a Muslim explorer working for a Chinese emperor shows us that the 15th century Asia was a far more cosmopolitan place than we give it credit for and the fact that he is so highly revered by both the Chinese and Muslim communities of South East Asia show that he is a figure who transcends the petty politicking and nationalist point scoring that too often scours relations between countries.

Zheng He should be a role model for integration and tolerance. Instead, he has become a sideshow in history, little understood by the Chinese Diaspora and all but ignored for his role in the spread of Islam through the islands. Perhaps it needs a Hollywood movie to finally give this giant of a man the respect and honour he fully deserves.

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