The 600th anniversary in 2005 of the first of the voyages led by the Ming eunuch Admiral Zheng He to Southeast Asia and beyond in the early part of the 15th century, will give rise to a range of celebratory activities and also some reassessments of the roles and effects of the voyages. In an attempt at a somewhat revisionist interpretation, this paper suggests that the voyages were attempts by the Ming emperor Yong-le to impose a pax Ming over the known world.
In coordination with his military expansions into Yun-nan and Đai Vięt, the maritime expansion ordered by Yong-le was intended to bring known polities to submission, achieve a recognised suzerainty over them, and dominate East-West commerce. In this, there was frequent use of military force. Like the Portuguese voyages of 100 years later in the opposite direction, the Zheng He missions were intended to control trade ports, trade routes and thereby trade, as a means of economic exploitation. It is thus that herein the term “proto maritime colonialism” is applied to these voyages. The article concludes with a discussion of the appropriateness of applying the term “colonialism” to various actions by the Ming state.
Keywords: Zheng He; Ming China: Southeast Asia; Chinese colonialism; eunuch admirals