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Zheng He: Ancient China's greatest diplomat?

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Eighty-seven years before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, a towering admiral set out on a mission to introduce China to the world. He personally commanded six of his fleet's seven voyages, venturing as far west as Tanzania. At the height of his power, he sailed with 317 ships and nearly 28,000 men. This great seafarer was Zheng He (郑和), a man born just south of landlocked Kunming.

Zheng He
Zheng He

Though he would one day visit the shores of some 37 modern nations, Zheng He grew up much like most Chinese at the time. Two things that did set him apart early on were his identity as a member of the Muslim Hui minority and his exposure to Yunnan's ethnic diversity. During his later expeditions at sea, he earned respect for his practical cultural and religious tolerance - values that were likely molded at a young age.

Zheng He was born in 1371 to a devout Muslim family in what is now Jinning County, Yunnan. Both Zheng He's father Mir Tekin and grandfather Charameddin completed pilgrimages to Mecca. His outlook on faith and the outside world was shaped by the stories of their trips. Such stories were probably related in Arabic, a language Zheng He spoke fluently.

In Jinning today, the Hui represent between two and three percent of the county's 320,000 residents. He Yueheng, the imam at the local mosque, says about 400 people pray regularly with him. Other groups - including a sizeable Yi community - live alongside the Han Chinese majority. At a provincial level, 28 of China's 55 officially recognized minority groups call Yunnan home.

While populations shift with time, it is clear that the Yunnan of Zheng He's youth was every bit as culturally diverse as today. Zheng He's Semur branch of the Hui minority found its way from Persia and Central Asia to China as early as the Seventh Century. Yunnan's Hui families have made mutual respect an important lesson for children. According to He Yueheng, children "study how to get along well with other groups from four years old."

Though conditions during Zheng He's early childhood were mostly peaceful, outside Yunnan a violent clash between the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the Ming was unfolding. When Ming armies finally entered Yunnan in 1381, the young Zheng He was captured, castrated, and brought to the capital in Nanjing to serve as a eunuch. According to one story, the emperor gave him the name Zheng after learning that his original family name was Ma. Despite being a common Hui surname, Ma is also the Chinese word for horse. The story goes that Zheng He had to change his name because horses were forbidden in the inner court.

In 1402, Zheng He's two decades of service to the prince Zhi Di paid off when the latter ousted his own brother to claim the imperial throne. As a reward for his loyalty, Zheng He was named admiral of the emperor's planned treasure fleet. Construction began in 1403 and was completed just two years later.

When Zheng He finally set out toward the western seas, he set a long-remembered example of tolerance and respect for the cultures he would encounter.

While Zheng He became little more than a footnote in most Chinese histories, his legacy in Southeast Asia is far different. His memory was not only preserved, it was worshiped. This odd quirk of history probably stems from the emperor's orders to consolidate overseas Chinese settlements under Ming authority. As new cities were established, so were "San Bao" (三宝) temples commemorating Zheng He as their founding father. The name San Bao reflects Zheng He's popular moniker in Fifteenth Century Indonesia, a name still remembered at temples today. Some believe that Arab legends of the sailor Sinbad were inspired by the similarly named San Bao.

The temples could be looked upon as a sign of Zheng He's tolerance for Confucian ancestor worship, though it is unclear what role he had in supporting their construction. What is more certain is that Zheng He actively encouraged overseas Chinese to blend inherited traditions with the culture of their adopted homes. In the port city of Semarang in what is now Indonesia, Zheng He's handpicked administrators urged the Chinese community to "Javanize". The younger generation in particular was pressed to take Javanese names and to adopt the local way of life.

As Zheng He moved westward from Southeast Asia, his fleet arrived at Sri Lanka, an island ravaged by ethnic conflict. Some historians believe Zheng He's actions in Sri Lanka were nothing but military suppression, but such perspectives severely discount one the greater diplomatic gestures in Chinese history.

Before employing force to pacify the island, Zheng He attempted to reach out to the various religious traditions represented on the island. He erected a monument with inscriptions in Chinese, Persian, and Tamil praising - in equal measure - Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu. Meticulously, each deity was offered identical quantities of precious metals, embroidered silk, and other goodies. Despite the warm symbolism of the stone tablet, warring factions continued to make trade impossible on the island. It failed ultimately to inspire the peace and stability for which Zheng He had hoped. Despite the failure, the surviving tablet remains one of the few places in Sri Lanka where the island's three major faiths can be found in the same place.

In Sri Lanka, Zheng He provided a powerful illustration of He Yueheng's modern day embrace of religious tolerance. Were Hui parents teaching their children the same lessons six centuries ago? On the island of Java, was it Zheng He's own mixed Hui-Chinese identity that gave him the confidence to encourage overseas Chinese to adapt to local customs? The answers are uncertain, though the questions themselves serve as a window into a better understanding both of Zheng He and the diversity of modern Yunnan.

Wu Jingjing provided translation assistance for the interview with He Yueheng

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Comments

I hate this dude... he ruened my country. =[

This guy is a good role model for all to reach out in friendship to all other nations

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