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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 12:28, July 30, 2005
Zheng He's voyages leave rich legacy
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Singapore is hosting an exhibition to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Admiral Zheng He's first historic voyage southwards at the Marina Promenade on its famous waterfront; meanwhile, Singapore's ACTION Theatre is presenting a musical on Zheng He at the reputed Raffles Hotel which is drawing huge crowds and rave reviews. Besides Singapore, Melaka in Malaysia and some other cities in Jawa, Indonesia, are also organizing festivities to mark the famous admiral's passage through Southeast Asia 600 years ago.

Zheng He is China's most famous seafarer and navigator and the anniversary of his first of the seven voyages to Southeast Asia (and all the way to Africa) is undoubtedly an auspicious occasion for China and Southeast Asia to commemorate this special bond. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are doing their part in this historic commemoration, at a time when China-ASEAN relations are flourishing.

At a seminar co-organized by the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and Peking University in May, Professor Sun Yantze from the Foreign Language Institute of the university analyzed the legacy of Zheng He.

Commemorating the admiral's voyages to Southeast Asia are of particular significance to both Beijing and ASEAN, especially in the context of consolidating Sino-ASEAN relations and on-going progress in negotiating the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement, otherwise commonly known as "10+1."

Beijing could highlight at least four aspects of Zheng He's voyages to Southeast Asia and their contribution to China-Southeast Asian relations. These were also the findings at the CICIR-Peking University seminar in May.

First, Beijing may wish to reiterate its "benign power" status. Chinese academics and leaders have been emphasizing that China's "peaceful rise" does not constitute a threat to its smaller Southeast Asian neighbours. Although Beijing scholars have rejected Gavin Menzies' theory that Zheng He discovered America (according to his best-seller "1421 The Year China Discovered America"), they have however underscored China's peaceful historic voyages through Zheng in this region.

This "assurance" is crucial, especially when certain countries and the Western media are reviving suspicions of China being a military and economic threat to ASEAN. Like Zheng He, Beijing should highlight its historic friendship and good will, whilst denying any potential military threat.

Second, even China's tributary system in the 400 years from the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), could be portrayed as "benign." The great Ming Emperor ordered Zheng to sail to "the southern seas" and bring goodwill to the smaller kingdoms there.

Chinese scholars stressed that military conquest was never on the mind of Zheng (or the Emperor), as he sailed through Southeast Asia with "peaceful motives," spreading trade and "soft Chinese power."

Instead, the Chinese Emperor treasured the respect that he obtained from the rulers of his tributary states and Southeast Asia's feudal lords. Moreover, Zheng's help in settling a dispute amicably between China's "tributary state" Siam and the Melakan Sultanate was portrayed as Zheng's (and China's) direct contribution to the stability of and peace amongst the smaller Southeast Asian kingdoms, which in turn helped to consolidate Beijing's tributary system and its relations with Southeast Asia.

Third, Chinese scholars have specifically highlighted that Zheng was a devout Muslim during his pilgrimage for the Ming Emperor. Zheng's beliefs were highlighted to show the special bonds that existed between Zheng and the Muslim communities of Melaka and Jawa in particular. Not only did Zheng help protect Melakan sovereignty against an "encroaching" Siam, but he was also believed to have accompanied a Chinese princess to be married to the Melakan Sultan, although no concrete proof has since been unearthed to this effect.

Moreover, many in Melaka, Jawa and Brunei cherish Zheng for his kekoo (endure hardship) spirit, which has been passed down from generation to generation as the "Zheng hallmark."

Lastly, Sun summarized three reasons (in order of priority) for Zheng's "southern seas voyages." First, Zheng was performing an imperial duty to bring goodwill to Southeast Asia. Second, it was stressed that Zheng specifically went south to seal China's external trade relations. Sun placed prestige and culture as a distant third priority.

But Sun also stressed that this "southern thrust" by Zheng should be framed within the context of securing stability for China, as the Emperor was still facing a threat from the Mongols to the north. Securing the goodwill of Southeast Asian kingdoms was thus an essential realpolitik goal, which Zheng undertook for Ming China.

China and ASEAN could therefore commemorate the 600th anniversary of Admiral Zheng He's first voyage to Southeast Asia with a clear political understanding, as both Beijing and ASEAN stress goodwill, trade, stability and culture, which the long dead admiral successfully brought to China's southern neighbours.

Source: China Daily

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