10.07.2010

In Conclusion, More on Zheng He

Zheng He’s 7th expedition was his last and after years of moving back and forth between the East African coast and China, all contact seized. Some people may look at this and say that the Chinese turned their backs on Africa but if you look at the situation within China in that time, it sheds more light on this situation.
In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to curb the influence at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage.
…Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared.[citation needed] The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels. Source.

China decided to close itself from the outside world. Also,
But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.

He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time. (Source).
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Yet private relations continued to flourish. Even in the 16th century, men from Ethiopia, Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa were spotted by the Portuguese on the Malay seaport of Malacca. These men were traders who came in their own ships to trade and buy silk and porcelain which were Chinese of origin.

The prevalence of Chinese silk also meant that when the Portuguese reached East Africa they found people swathed in silk. From Malindi through Mombasa to Mozambique, courtiers wore satin turbans and silk below their waists.

The wealthier citizens of these states used Chinese plates and bowls as tableware and to eat millet, rice or fish. Chinese vessels were used as containers for all kinds of objects. Chinese snuff boxes and inkwells were used to store kohl for women’s eyelid, ginger jars to carry pens and trinkets and big jars to hold perfume or oil.

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As mentioned previously the east coast of Africa is littered with Chinese debris, still only a tiny fraction of it can be associated with Zheng He’s voyages of 1418-33 A.D for example, in Mogadishu only 6 coins from Yongle’s reign have been found.

With all these stories of merchants and adventures interacting albeit impersonally, what are the possibilities of Chinese settlers in different parts of Africa? We have already discussed the possibilities of Africans in ancient China. Zheng He was allegedly able to successfully relocate large numbers of Chinese Muslims to Malacca, Palembang, Surabaya and other places throughout his 7 voyages. Could one of the East African states be added to this list? The answer will be no if you believe that the Chinese of Zheng He’s crew looked down on Africans because to them all non-Chinese were barbarians. However, there is a possibility even though the proof may not be concrete.

In 1602 Pyrard de Laval, a French navigator met Chinese people on Madagascar. These Chinese by Pyrard’s accounts were descendants of people who “were on a ship which was lost in this place”. While it is possible that these men were the descendants of castaways from an estranged vessel from Zheng He’s fleet, it is also possible that they were of the people native to the island who have Asiatic features and are generally accepted today to be the descendants of not Chinese but Malay or Indonesian settlers.

There are a number of African ethnic groups such as some Igbo who claim Jewish heritage and the Swahili who claim Arab heritage that claim to have been descended from non-African peoples. Some of these may be bogus but others may actually be legitimate which I believe is the case of the Swahili and Lemba of Zimbabwe. Did you know about African ethnic groups that claim Chinese heritage such as the Shanga clan of the Pate Island in Kenya. In 1980, an elder of this clan told a researcher that according to a centuries-old tradition, their ancestors came from Shanghai from whence the name Shanga actually came from. You know ever since I learnt about the lost Jews of Zimbabwe, I have stopped being such a sceptic.

There have also being rumours of old houses in the bush near Mombasa where Chinese used to live and also of a village, camp and monument called ‘Zheng He’s village’ on the outskirts of Brava. While reading ibn Battuta‘s account of Mali in the 14th century, an Arab quarter in the ancient capital of Mali was mentioned so I will not cross out the possibilities of Chinese quarters in East African towns and kingdoms. There is also a ruin connected with the Chinese at Gedi near Mombasa though this connection was made because several Chinese coins were found there even as there has been no evident of Chinese settlers there.

It will be excellent if someone could actually do some DNA sampling in order to find out if there is some truth to the rumours. Since I am not sure if that will ever happen, I will instead be satisfied with the fact that as I type this Chinese and Kenyan archaeologists are paying special attention to the east African coast in order to uncover more of Zheng He’s visit to Africa.

What I read
Snow Philip (1988), The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa

Liu Gang (2007), The Chinese Inventor of Bi-Hemispherical World Map, e-Perimetron, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 185-193

Shen John (1995), ‘New Thoughts on the use of Chinese document in the Reconstruction of Early Swahili History’, History in Africa, Vol. 22, pp. 349-358

Smidt Wolbert, ‘A Chinese in the Nubian and Abyssinian Kingdoms (8th Century): The visit of Du Huan to Molin-guo and Laobosa’

Wilensky Julie (2002), ‘The Magical Kunlun and ‘Devil Slaves’ Chinese Perception of Dark People and Africa before 1500′, Sino-Platonic Papers, Number 122

16 comments:

  1. Great work as usual. I can't wait to see what topic you tackle next.

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  2. I'd love to see what a DNA test of the population would find.

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  3. @Ankh

    I'm working on a post that will hopefully shed more light on those Africans that claim to be descendants of part of Zheng He's crew. That post should be up as soon as someone else posts something.

    @modest-goddess,

    It seems someone already did that DNA test. There'll be more on that in the upcoming post!

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  4. Ankh,

    I wasn't sure how to do a post cut which is why I didn't do so earlier. So how do I do it? >.<

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  5. Excellent, as usual, EccentricYoruba! This posts reminds me of what one of my classmates (Chinese from Mauritius) said about his ancestors having been one of the first people to settle on the island despite what the Dutch said. He wasn't alone in Taiwan. There was another guy who was clearly Black/Chinese/Indian (from India). It's interesting. They were so proud to be from Mauritius, yet their parents forced them to go to Taiwan to learn how to be "Chinese." Neither cared for that scenario and spent a great deal of time trying to avoid it.

    Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels.

    This is sad. Unfortunately, Chinese history is replete with self-destructive tendencies.

    As for the research, it appears that they're only interested in proving that China had non-aggressive tendencies back then. There doesn't appear to be any interest in the local people, culture or the joint culture. I could care less about the politics. I want to know about the Blasian loving and the impact those Chinese may or may not have had on the local populace and vice-versa. I know, I know. I'm greedy. Understanding human motivation is my day and my night gig; thus, my desire to know such things can't be helped.

    Thanks again for doing the research and sharing it with us.

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  6. @Hateya

    Thank you! I remember reading about Chinese in Mauritius for a paper once but the article suggested that it was the Europeans that brought Chinese there as indentured workers or something similar.

    As for the research, it appears that they're only interested in proving that China had non-aggressive tendencies back then.

    This is the only reason the Chinese government brings up history in its relations with African countries. It is to prove that they were never interested in colonising then (unlike the Europeans) and are not interested in neo-colonisation now.

    I'd do some research on the local people and joint culture if someone paid me to. I remember there was a call for researchers in the field of China in Africa earlier this year but I saw that on a political website and either way was not able to respond because I was busy at that time.

    There is so much emphasis on the politics and/or on using history as tool of some sort that other valuable interesting information is not being researched and put on the backburner.

    And Blasian loving definitely happened! Again the details are hazy but I've been reading more on those Africans that claim Chinese ancestry. Will put up the post here soon!

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  7. Hateya, there was fucking. Naturally.

    Now, if we want "details", we just have to come up with them our selves.

    Like, I imagine shipwrecked sailor from China waking up on a beach to the sound of an African woman singing....

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  8. @EccentricYoruba

    I'm pressed for time again today; however, I need to know whether or not you decided to participate in November Writing Month, regardless of genre? This is different from the blasian anthology I'll propose later this year. NaMoWriMo is a sort of practice run as a writer and a "cheerleader/editor/manager."

    I look forward to more on Africans and Chinese. More thoughtful commentary forthcoming soon!

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  9. @Hateya

    Yes I will be participating in NaNoWriMo regardless of genre!

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  10. @EccentricYoruba

    I'm overjoyed you're going to write! I'm looking forward to reading your work. Without a doubt, it'll be fantastic.

    To date, you're the only Black woman I know (excluding Ankhesen and others who have already been published) who has agreed to participate. It's been rather frustrating...

    If you'd like support and some info regarding writing, please email me H*****@gmail.com. Just change the "y" in Hateya to "z" and you'll get me.

    Gotta run. It's after 9 p.m. and I need food, sleep and the comfort of a good man. ;)

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  11. @Hateya

    Thanks for the early encouragement! I don't know any other Black women participating either.

    I'll need any support I can get so I'll send you an email.

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  12. have you seen this:
    Could a rusty coin re-write Chinese-African history?
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11531398

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  13. @modest-goddess

    Thanks for the link! I've see it already ^^ I believe I left the same link in the comments section of another post somewhere on BN. It's pretty amazing stuff right?

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  14. @ MG

    Merci for the link. Feel free to post article links on our Facebook as well.

    Those archaeologists must be in nerd heaven right now.

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  15. Hi. It's absolutely fascinating to see the unrevealing of a forgotten history. It tells us how close China (south & east Asia, to be fair) and Africa were in the ancient times. So, the world was small already 600 years ago. I have seen the accusation (mostly from UK media) that Beijing is conveniently using this connection to promote "a peaceful image" in Africa. Probably, why not if it is true. China is clean on this matter.

    But there is also a strong academic reason to pursue the connection. As you may know, northern China has been the political center for thousands of years. Thus the traditional study of history tends to downplay even ignore the development of the southern China. Trade relation is among it. As great as Zheng He's voyages, the confucian officials destroyed every piece of the records once they seized the power. In recent decades, there have been new interests and efforts in China to uncover the economical history of southern China. Naturally, Zheng He's voyages provided great examples of the trade and cultral connections. Beijing may have political motivation to fund the research, it is the academic gain that matters.

    I am a Chinese, at least in the modern sense. My family were very likely the northern "barbarians" in Zheng He's time.

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