In AD 1405,Emperor Yung-lo, the third in the Ming Dynasty, organised and sanctioned a series of maritime voyages overseen by Admiral Zheng He. Referred to (casually and informally) today as the “Ming treasure voyages”, these marked the first real time that Imperial China set out to discover the world outside.
There were seven voyages in total. It is said that if they had continued, and if the Emperor had not constrained them on account of internal conflicts, China would have outdone Columbus in the discovery of the New World. Doubtful though the intentions of these treks are - some argue that they were peaceful expeditions, others point at them as evidence of the Empire’s colonialist ambitions - there’s no doubting the fact that they were a milestone for China.
- First voyage (1405-1407) took them to Java, Malacca, Calicut, and Sri Lanka
- Zheng He’s objective, de Silva observes, “was to take back the Dalada”
- Parakramabahu VI actively strove to unify the fragmented country
The first voyage (1405-1407) took them to Java, Malacca, Calicut, and Sri Lanka, among other places. Originally, the voyagers had not planned on entering the Bay of Bengal, but two or three days after they left the Kingdom of Lambri (in Sumatra), one ship sailed off to Andaman and Nicobar. A week later, the fleet spotted the mountains of Sri Lanka, and two days later, they embarked on the island’s western coast. But this country did not take too kindly to the visitors, since soon after embarking, the fleet had to retreat on account of the hostility of the king, Vijayabahu VI.
Just what the motives of the fleet were in landing at Sri Lanka, we don’t know. K. M. de Silva contends that the Chinese harboured imperialist ambitions, and that they desired a key symbol of the island’s Buddhist culture: the Sacred Tooth Relic. Zheng He’s objective, de Silva observes, “was to take back the Dalada”. Not that Chinese interest in the Dalada was new, since in 1284”Kublai Khan himself had dispatched a mission to the island for the same purpose; it had returned to China with its main aim unaccomplished but, seemingly and fortunately for Sri Lanka, without a sense of grievance.” This thesis flatly contradicts other accounts which depict the voyage to Sri Lanka as an accident. In any case, there’s no doubt that Zheng He, rebuffed and forced to retreat, wanted to return, to show the islanders that they were a fleet to reckon with.
Here it is pertinent to dwell on the paradigm shift that had transpired in China by the time of the seven maritime voyages. The Ming Dynasty had defeated the Mongols, of the Yuan Dynasty, but it was the Mongols who had opened up the sea and the desert, the two outlets through which China would soon claim prosperity. This set a precedent for the country, since as the eminent historian Fernand Braudel observed, China was, though rich and fertile, a “semi-immobile” economy which refused to look beyond its frontiers or to open them up to outside civilisation.
Neither feudal nor capitalist in the Western sense of those terms, Chinese society was more secular than continental Europe, so much so that the three great religions (or theologies) which passed through it - Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism - became as “favoured” as Islam and Catholicism, which too got rooted in Chinese soil. Until the Yuan Dynasty, however, China kept on looking inward. And yet, while its economic record was modest compared to that of the West (which grew at a tortoise’s pace of 0.12% per year, according to Professor Ha Joon-Chang, at a time when the East grew at a snail’s pace of 0.04%) because of this, it had successfully tapped into its reserves of wheat, maize, rice, and manpower, thereby doing away with the need to look out.
Though it was slow in catching up with the West (Braudel writes on how, even in the 18th century, sugar cane was cut, not by machines, but by craftsmen), China did not abandon the transition from pre-industrial to industrial society. For this, however, a thriving market needed to be in place. It was at the time of the Yuan Dynasty that such a market first emerged, with traders “willing to spend money on the pride and vanity of public ostentation.” Even in the 13th century, Kamalika Pieris observes, China had become a “powerful arrival in the trade sector.”
Once the Yuan Dynasty (which had lasted for almost a century) was defeated in 1368, the Ming Dynasty shut down the sea and desert the Mongols had opened earlier, in keeping with tradition. But never again would it look inward; the new Empire sought instead to add to the gains made by the Mongols through naval conquests.
It was this attitude, which could be taken as paternalistic or imperialist depending on how you see it, that gave the impetus to all seven of Zheng He’s voyages. Whether or not the “capture” of the Tooth Relic figured in his scheme of things is impossible to ascertain, regardless of de Silva’s contention, but it is true that all seven voyages were premised on two objectives: discovery of the outside world, and conquest of treasures and valuables, albeit through peaceful and diplomatic means.
Five years would pass before He and his fleet returned. Even here the records are notoriously difficult to verify. Most scholars argue that Zheng He returned to the island in 1411, while on his way back to China. Edward Dreyer, on the other hand, contends that he returned on the OUTWARD journey, in 1410. This difference of one year is significant, for if Dreyer is correct and He’s fleet did return to Sri Lanka during the outward journey, it indicates that one of its primary motives on this voyage was to display its power to the adamant Vijayabahu VI. If that is so, it confirms the thesis, sustained by some, that Sri Lanka, on the whole a peaceful civilization, was interfering in the foreign relations of the Ming Dynasty in the subcontinent to such an extent that Imperial China needed to express its discontent in military terms.
Five years would pass before Zheng He and his fleet returned. Even here the records are notoriously difficult to verify. Most scholars argue that Zheng He returned to the island in 1411, while on his way back to China
Historians are fortunately not divided on what Zheng He did once he landed in the island. Vijayabahu VI became the first monarch after Mihindu V to be defeated and held captive by an Eastern power. (It is a sign of how peaceful Zheng He’s army were that while holding the King captive, they did not telescope the invasion of Kotte into an invasion of the country; that was left for the Europeans, whose exploits were more remorseless.) But while the invasion has been conclusively sketched out, there’s one aspect to it that has not been so conclusively determined: the fate of the Tooth Relic. Certain sources indicate that Zheng He took it to China, only to return it home with the captured King, while other sources indicate it was never taken, since subsequent reports on the possession of the Relic make it evident that it continued to be in Kotte.
It is said that Vijayabahu VI felt so humiliated, not only at being captured by the Chinese, but also at being allowed to return to Sri Lanka so liberally, that he gave up any hope of reclaiming his throne. The only monarch who had suffered his fate before had been Mihindu V, but that had been the result of defeat at the hands of a powerful outside army. In Vijayabahu’s case, the outside army had not only entered his domain, they had also left it with him. Worse, they had even groomed a (Chinese) successor to the throne, with whom they were to return to the island three years later, in AD 1414, as a show of strength, solidarity, and friendship, a “telling demonstration of Chinese strength and Sinhalese weakness.”
The invasion obviously shook the fabric of Sinhala society. The Chinese encounter would explain, in part at least, why the later Parakramabahu VI actively strove to unify the fragmented country, becoming the first (and last) Sinhalese monarch since Parakramabahu I and Nissanka Malla to bring the whole country under one rule.
In any case, no Eastern power would conquer the island again, save for one moment in the Second World War when the Japanese attacked Colombo and the Trincomalee Harbour. It is said that Winston Churchill considered this the most dangerous moment in the War. That aptly sums up Sri Lanka’s place in the world: in 1942 as in 1410 (or 1411), the threat of outside invasion by a power as “dominant” as China or Japan (and not India, which had been assimilated to Sinhalese society during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods), was just too dangerous to shrug off. It could afford to be indifferent to such threats only at the cost of a later invasion. At any rate, that was the lesson that Zheng He, predating the more aggressive Europeans, had taught us.
The writings of Prof. K. M. de Silva, Kamalika Pieris, Fernand Braudel, Prof. Ha-Joon Chang, and Edward Dreyer were used for this article.