When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 by Louise Levathes / Oxford University Press, New York 1996 / $16.95
The brutality of castration and the adventure of seafaring are vividly described in this history of the Ming Dynasty’s seven epic commercial and military voyages of the early fifteenth century. Led by the eunoch Zheng He, the right-hand man of Yongle emperor Zhu Di, the voyages of the treasure ships established Chinese dominance at sea from Indonesia to the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf. Traveling in armadas of hundreds of ships with 25,000 or more men the Chinese adventurers traded silk, porcelain and other goods for western products, sought and received tribute for three successive emperors, and sometimes intervened in the affairs of foreign nations to ensure the best trade conditions for China.
At ten years old, in 1382, Zheng He was captured by Ming soldiers following a retreating Mongol army in Yunnan province. “As was the custom since the first millennium B.C., young sons of prisoners were castrated. Thousands of young boys – some no more than nine or ten years of age – were stripped naked, subjected to one brutal stroke of a curved knife that cut off both penis and testes, and left with a plug in the urethra. Hundreds never recovered … Those who did were taken to the capital to serve as court eunochs,” Levathes relates. Zheng He was castrated and made a servant of Zhu Di, the prince of Yan and fourth son of the emperor and Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhu Di was a fighter; he took his eunoch sidekick on campaigns against the Mongols and others and Zheng He became a good warrior himself. Zhu Di was not in line for the throne but won it in 1402 after much hard fighting. As a usurper the Yongle emperor might have had unusual incentive to establish the legitimacy of his mandate, Levathes suggests – and he did so with huge gestures such as the treasure fleet voyages and the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. To command his great fleet the emperor selected his trusted eunoch lieutenant, Zheng He, whose time in the field with his master might have contributed to his virility and strength, unusual for a eunoch. “Eunochs like [Zheng He] who were castrated before puberty were called tong jing, meaning ‘pure from childhood,’” Levathes states. “They were especially favored by court ladies and tended to behave like young girls themselves. As adults, they were said to have shrill, unpleasant voices, and they were often temperamental and emotional, quick to anger and cry. [Zheng He] clearly departed from this stereotype. Family records report that he was ‘seven feet tall and had a waist about five feet in circumference.’”
The Yongle emperor’s thirst for foreign contact was not new in China. Levathes relates Chinese shipping adventures dating back hundreds of years to the Tang dynasty. But war had depleted Zhu Di’s treasury and he needed money. He also might have sought his nephew, who had assumed the throne on the death of Zhu Di’s father the Hongwu emperor. After Zhu Di’s capture of the capital of Nanjing, the nephew was rumored to have fled the country.
Zheng He never found Zhu Di’s nephew, but he found pirates and others to fight on his expeditions cleaning the sea lanes of criminals and stabilizing trade. Levathes suggests the sight of the Chinese armada must have been breathtaking for some coastal residents, especially those of east Africa, and many immediately surrendered before the large force and offered tribute to the emperor. By 1415, Zheng He’s voyages had made China the leading sea power in the world. Tribute missions from Malindi brought giraffes to China, and some of the most compelling reading of this book is the case of mistaken-identity over the tribute giraffes. The Chinese believed these creatures to be qilin, the mythical creature that is one of four sacred Chinese animals – the others being the phoenix, the dragon and the tortoise, according to Levathes. The appearance of the “qilin” in Ming China was seen as a sign of prosperity and peace in the empire.
Levathes states: “At this moment  Chinese influence abroad was at its peak … While Europe was still emerging from the Dark Ages, China, with her navy of giant junks, was poised to become the colonial power of the sixteenth century and tap the riches of the globe. The appearance of the qilin indeed heralded an auspicious time, ripe with possibilities, but the emperor was already beginning to focus his and his empire’s energies inward. That moment at the pinnacle would last barely more than five years.”
At home the Yongle emperor engaged in expensive warring including an ill-fated campaign against the Tartars to the northwest of China. The emperor also spent China’s energies moving the capital from Nanjing to Beiping, which he renamed Beijing and where he built the Forbidden City (the construction of which engaged one-in-fifty Chinese before its designation as the capital in 1420). Palace sex and intrigue play a leading role in Levathes’ book – from Zhu Di’s usurpation of the throne to his own purge of palace eunochs and concubines in 1421 after “two concubines were discovered having intimate relations with a eunoch,” as Levathes relates. “This was not an unusual occurrence, but for some reason, perhaps because the women were also having relations with each other, they committed suicide. The emperor was furious when he learned of their deaths because he had been fond of one of the women. He immediately ordered an inquiry. Palace servants slandered the dead women, saying they had been plotting to kill the emperor. Before the investigation was concluded, 2,800 concubines and eunochs had been implicated in the alleged treason, and it was reported the emperor himself killed many of them.”
The warrior sea captain Zheng He comes across in this book as more gentle, in his way, than the emperors he served. Though he commanded the greatest fleet of wooden ships ever assembled, Levathes paints him as generally fair to his men and the people he encountered at the tip of China’s long sword. Zheng He remained a devout Muslim and supported various temples until his death at sea in 1433, during the seventh expedition of the treasure fleet and the reign of the Yongle emperor’s grandson, the Xuande emperor. Though Zheng He could not have children, he left a family through an adopted nephew. He is worshipped as a saint to this day and is one of China’s greatest real-life legends. As Levathes relates, his voyages spread Chinese influence to the “four oceans,” and though overseas travel would by 1550 be illegal for Ming Chinese, and the country would never regain the maritime supremacy it achieved in his age (and indeed, would soon be suffering under the crunch of the Manchurian invasion), the effects of the treasure fleet voyages would be felt for hundreds of years to come.## – Thomas Brent Andrews
Book Reviews at Chronic Discontent Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China by Kang Zhengguo * The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran * Mao: A Life by Philip Short * A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole * Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June by Harrison Salisbury * Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey * Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich by Steven F. Sage * Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian * Comparing Asian Politics: India, China, and Japan by Sue Ellen M. Charlton * When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes * The Chinese by Jasper Becker * A Concise History of China by J.A.G. Roberts * Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China by Steven F. Sage * Book Reviews (Introduction)