Chinese sailor Zheng He’s Lanka voyages far from friendly

Chinese sailor Zheng He’s Lanka voyages far from friendly


Sunday, 05th October 2014

From Kapila Bandara in Hong Kong


China’s charm offensive in Asia and elsewhere, leveraging its soft power to pursue its own interests, especially to project a likable image of itself, may just be too good to be true.

Charm tactics such as sending Olympians and astronauts, song and dance troupes, and museum pieces to Hong Kong, have not endeared Beijing to Hong Kong’s Chinese as the present protester rage in the city illustrates.

US scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr., once defined soft power as “the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes.”‘ (The Future of Power)

Beijing’s portrayal of itself as a friendly power by drawing on historical or cultural connections including Buddhist exchanges and visits by Admiral Zheng He to Sri Lanka are being only accepted by sceptical Sri Lankans with a wink and a nod. Zheng He, a eunuch and loyal Muslim, commanded what was called a treasure fleet (bao chuan) and made seven voyages in a 30-year span in the early 15th century, historians have documented. Zheng He landed in Sri Lanka in his maiden voyage and in subsequent visits, and on some occasions he carried out hostile acts in Sri Lanka, scholars say.

Just as in other countries, nationalistic Chinese themselves are suspicious of cultural propaganda, especially from Japan, a former aggressor. There have been recent instances when Chinese have railed against popular cartoon characters such as Doraemon, the cat without ears, for being an imperialistic symbol.

A US-based scholar, who reassesses Chinese expeditions, argues the whole story of China’s expeditions is not being told in Beijing’s effort to push “a Sino-centric world order.”

Tansen Sen, associate professor of Baruch College, City University of New York, who specializes in Asian history, writing at YaleGlobal Online says, “backdrops of conflict” are being left out of the story weaving the Silk Road network of maritime and land routes. YaleGlobal Online is the magazine of Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University in the US.

In an article titled ‘Silk Road Diplomacy – Twists, Turns and Distorted History’, Prof Sen says that in China’s charm offensive, “history is distorted”.

Projecting voyager Zheng He “as an agent of peace and friendship is problematic,” Prof. Sen argues.

“In reality, Zheng’s seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 included use of military force in what are present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India to install friendly rulers and control strategic chokepoints of the Indian Ocean. He intervened in dynastic politics of Sri Lanka and Indonesia and brought back prisoners to Nanjing, the Ming capital. Ming Emperor Yongle originally dispatched Zheng to the Western seas to look for his nephew whom he had deposed from the throne and to promote the virtues of the Chinese civilization. In the course of these expeditions, Zheng brought back many kings and princes to kowtow to the emperor and exchange gifts. The voyages were abandoned when it turned out to be too expensive and gave excessive power, in the view of the Confucian court officials, to eunuchs such as Zheng He,” Prof Sen writes. Prof. Sen received his MA from Peking University and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Prof. Sen writes that the “Han Empire used similar tactics in Central Asia, especially at strategic locations of the trade routes. Thus neither the overland route nor the maritime channels, termed collectively as the Silk Routes, were peaceful or fostered friendly exchanges through Chinese presence, as modern narratives would suggest”.

Other scholars and the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily itself, have pointed to Zheng He’s hostile acts in Sri Lanka.
According to one Sri Lankan scholar, voyager Zheng is said to have taken Vira Alakeswara prisoner and seized the Tooth Relic along with the king and his family as captives.

In “Cinasthana Today – Viewing China from an Indian Eye”, author P.S. Deodhar, says that according to legend, Admiral Zheng landed in Calicut in 1406 “to get the Buddha’s tooth relic, but had to go without it. He came back in 1411, abducted the Sri Lankan king Vira Alakeswara and also took the Tooth relic of Buddha to China. In 1960 Zhou Enlai returned the tooth relic to Sri Lanka”.

In “The Story of Lanka”, author L. E. Blaze notes that “Ching-Ho returned to Ceylon”, following an earlier visit when he had been mistreated, with an “army large enough to punish those who had injured him, Kotte was plundered and several prisoners were taken to China, among them the king, or as is more likely, a great chief who was supposed to be king. He was afterwards sent back by the Chinese emperor who ordered that the crown of Lanka should be given to the ‘wisest’ member of the royal family.” The author is referring to Alakeswara’s capture.

In April 2011, the People’s Daily, noted how “In Ceylon (Sri Lanka),” Zheng He’s “men took an insubordinate ruler and replaced him with the legitimate malleable one”. But, compared with colonisers of Asia, Zheng He, it appears, had been a peaceful envoy.

Xu Zuyuan, China’s deputy minister of communications said in July 2004, that in his voyages, Admiral Zheng undertook “friendly diplomatic activities” and that the voyager “did not occupy a single piece of land, establish any fortress or seize any wealth from other countries. In the commercial and trade activities, he adopted the practice of giving more than he received, and thus he was welcomed and lauded by the people of the various countries along his routes”.

Chinese leaders, too, have sought to reassure. In 2004, then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said China’s peaceful rise (heping jueqi) “will not pose a threat to any other country”.

Scholar Tansen Sen observes that the term “Silk Road” or “Silk Routes”, is itself problematic.

“German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term in 1877 for the ancient overland trade route through Central Asia. Since then, many routes that linked China to the outside world have been called “Silk Roads” or “Silk Routes” despite the fact that silk was neither the earliest nor the most commonly traded commodity on any of these routes. Additionally, the term, enthusiastically employed by Chinese scholars, places unwarranted emphasis on the role of China in pre-modern intraregional interactions. This comes at the expense of neglecting external influence on Chinese societies and economies throughout the past 2000 years,” Prof Sen writes.

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