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China Archives - Page 2 of 2 - varnamvarnam | Page 2
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Tag Archives | China

Converting Kublai Khan

According to the Joshua Project, the 10/40 window is home to people where the gospel has to be preached. The goal of this project is to share information to “encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic group and to facilitate effective coordination of mission agency efforts.” Or in simple words, facilitate conversion in Islamic countries, India, China and other minor countries in the neighborhood.

Ever since Roman Emperor Constantine legitimized the Jesus movement and converted to Christianity in his death bed, the religion expanded in a major way to change the West forever. There was a similar opportunity for Christians in the 13th century to convert Kublai Khan. If the Khan had converted, during the time of Mongol dominance (see map), the religious map of China and Mongolia would have made a Joshua Project volunteer smile.

The Khan did not hate Christians; in fact he had great respect for them. He was always curious about Christian kings and princes and wanted to know more about the Pope and how how Christians worshiped. When Niccolò and Maffeo (Marco Polo’s father and uncle) were returning back to Venice after their first visit, the Khan sent a letter to the Pope with them. It was a challenge. He wanted the Pope to send a hundred missionaries prepared to proselytize. These missionaries had to reason out that their faith was superior than others. If the Khan could be convinced he was ready to become a man of the Church without renouncing the Mongolian religion. He also wanted the Polos to get him the oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to have great healing powers.

The Polos gave Khan’s letter to the newly elected  Pope Gregory X who could only spare two Dominican monks instead of the hundred. With the oil, the two Polo brothers, along with a 17 year Marco Polo and the monks, started their journey to the Khan’s court. The monks dropped out in the middle of the journey due to fear, but the Polos reached the Khan’s court near Beijing and the Khan treated the oil with respect (the same way he would treat relics from Sri Pada)

Kublai Khan was once challenged by Nayan Khan, his uncle, who was a Nestorian Christian. In this power struggle, Nayan fought under a standard which displayed the “Cross of Christ”, but he did get any visions like Constantine during the battle of the Milvian bridge. Nayan lost and was killed as per Mongol custom – by wrapping in a carpet and dragged around violently – so that blood is not spilled. Following this when various people made fun of Nayan’s Christian faith and Holy Cross, Kublai Khan differentiated between Nayan’s treachery and his faith and ensured the Christians that they will not be persecuted for their religion; he did not behave like the 15th century Spaniards and 17th century French.

Actually Kublai Khan’s mother, Sorghaghtani Beki, was a Nestorian Christian. So you would think that she would influence him to convert. Even though she was a single parent, she made him appreciate Buddhism, Taoism and Islam besides Christianity. It was probably a wise thing to do to preserve harmony in the empire, but Sorghaghtani Beki did it out of conviction.

Seeing the Khan’s sympathy towards Christians the Polos asked why he did not convert? He said Christianity was just another religion and nothing else. Much before Marco Polo, William of Rubruck – a Franciscan missionary – made his way to Karakorum, debating Buddhist priests and nearly dying of starvation. He finally met Mongke Khan, Kublai Khan’s brother who explained to the Friar that the God has passed various religious beliefs to people and Mongols were a tolerant folk.

Kublai Khan told Marco Polo that he found idolaters had more power – they could make wine cups float to the khan or make storms go away. Basically he was more impressed with shaman magic than the promise of an after life. He said if he converted to Christianity and if his barons asked for an explanation, he had none. He thought that embracing Christianity would weaken him and the best way to maintain peace in the empire was to be in good terms with barons.

Right now 50% of Mongolians are Buddhists and 40% don’t belong to any religion. Christians and Shamanists form 6%; Muslims, 4%.

References:

  1. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen
  2. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World by John Larner
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The Ming Dynasty ship sinks

One documentary I watched while writing Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2) was based on Gavin Menzies’ best selling book  1421: The Year China Discovered America. The thesis of the book was that Zheng He’s fleet had reached America in 1421. But in the documentary, they put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.

To prove that Zheng He’s fleet could have reached America, a replica of the Ming Dynasty ship was built and it set sail to America from Xiamen. The ship made of wood held together with nails docked in San Francisco in October 2008 after a 69 day journey.

But tragedy struck while returning back to Taiwan.

After surviving several storms during its 10-month voyage, the junk broke in two and sank after it was rammed by a freighter just off Taiwan’s coast.

All 11 crew members were rescued after being found adrift on the wreckage.

“We have worked so hard for so many years, but we failed at the last minute, I’m really ashamed,” said Taiwanese captain Liu Ningsheng after being rescued by the coast guard. [BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Ming Dynasty replica junk sinks]

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Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2)

Zheng He’s map (via Wikipedia)

Read Part 1

Turning Inward

After the death of Zhu Di, China turned against naval expeditions for which there are many reasons.

The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]

Confucius thought that foreign travel interfered with family obligations. In Analects he said “While his parents are alive, the son may not go abroad to a distance. If he does go abroad, he must have a fixed place to which he goes.” Since this was the moral code for the upper class, government service and farming were considered noble professions

Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transportand other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century’s end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral

Then things took a turn for the worse. The ships were let to rot in the port and the logs books and maps were destroyed. A major attempt at erasing history was done. Then as they say, life finds a way.

Unlike Agathocles, whose memory survived only through coins, Zheg He’s traces were scattered around for it to be erased quickly. In some countries he was worshipped as a god. The chronicles of Zheng He’s translators Ma Huan (Overall Survey of the Western Shores) and Fei Hsin (Overall Survey of the Star Fleet) survived. So did a few imperial decrees and some maps. Zheng He died in the seventh voyage and was probably buried at sea; his tomb contains his clothes.

Though Zheng He’s voyages were meant to be a peaceful projection of power, they often interfered in local politics and projected force. A Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi who was active in the Sumatra was captured in a battle in the Straits of Malaca and taken to Nanjing and executed. Michael Yamashita mentions that the Chinese put a new king – Manavikarma – on the throne of Calicut. The Sri Lankan king Alakeswara refused to be a tributary to the Chinese; he was captured and taken in chains to Zheng He’s boss.

If the Chinese were a naval power during the ascent of the European powers, the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean would have seen a different geo-political equilibrium.

References: This article was motivated by the lecture on China by Prof. Matthew Herbst in MMW4 series. By then Maddy had posted his well researched article on Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut. Michael Yamashita got paid to travel along his path for a year resulting in the book Zheng He (Discovery) which has amazing photographs. I did not read Gavin Menzies’ book, but picked the PBS documentary 1421: The Year China Discovered America (PBS)? based on it. When China Ruled the Seas devotes few pages to what they did in Calicut. Maddy also has a comprehensive article covering the Chinese trade in Calicut.

Postscript: A British submarine commander, Gavin Menzies, in a best selling book 1421: The Year China Discovered America argued that Zheng He’s fleet reached America in 1421. A PBS documentary by the same name put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.

Comments { 5 }

Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (1/2)

Chinese treasure ship (via Wikipedia)

In 1498, three ships — Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, and Sao Miguel — appeared in Calicut heralding a new era in geopolitics and world trade. Vasco da Gama would become immortal for finding a route from Europe to India, avoiding the Muslims who had a monopoly on overland trade. But for the residents of Calicut, this was not a major event. They were used to foreign traders and many foreigners lived in the Malabar coast. Even da Gama’s ships and crew of less than two hundred people was not a jaw dropper since they had seen huge Chinese ships with larger crew in Calicut port.

Much before Europeans became major players in the Indian Ocean, traders routinely sailed from the Malabar coast to the Swahili coast. During that time the Chinese built the biggest ships of the era and under Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Jung Huh) made seven voyages reaching as far as the Swahili coast. With such technology, the Chinese could have dominated trade, instead of the Europeans, but they did not. It is interesting to see why.

Ming and Zheng He

This story begins on September 10, 1368 when Ukhaantu Khan of the Yuan dynasty fled to Inner Mongolia unable to face the rebels under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang. These rebels would establish the native Ming dynasty. The third Ming emperor Zhu Di, wanted to improve trade, enhance the empire’s prestige, and encourage a tribute system for which he ordered an armada to be built.

Zhu Di’s admiral for the mission was Zheng He, a six and half feet tall two hundred pound man. This 34 year old Muslim originally named Ma Ho, was captured as a child by the Ming army from the Mongol village of Yunan. Like the Egyptian Mamluks, these slaves had career paths, but only after castration and so Zheng He eventually became the Grand Eunuch.

Even before the Ming dynasty, huge Chinese ships were spotted in Kerala. In 1340, Ibn Battuta, who was in Calicut, saw 13 Chinese junks wintering in the port. Ibn Battuta who had traveled in various type of ships and dhows in his travels from Morocco to India never mentioned much construction details in his accounts, but the Chinese ships impressed him so much that he wrote about three types of ships — the large junks, middle sized zaws, and small kakams. Ibn Battuta also expressed happiness at the privacy offered in their cabins that he could take his slave girls and wives and no one on board would know about it.

In 1330, Jordan Catalani, a Dominican monk saw them in Quilon and wrote that they had over 100 cabins and 10 sails. They were triple keeled and held together not by nails or metal structures, but the thread of some plant. Ibn Battuta wrote that these ships carried thousand men of which four hundred were soldiers.

Zhu Di’s ships, under the command of Zheng He sailed in 1405. There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships held lacquers, porcelain, and silks. They carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.

Under his leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast and in the process he visited the Champa kingdom, Cambodia, Sumatra, Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Maldives. One item which Zheng He took back to China was a giraffe; how the giraffe was transported on a ship passing through a rough ocean is not documented well, but it certainly amused the king. So did zebras which were called celestial
horses.

They called Calicut, “a great country” and people as “honest and trustworthy”. They had good opinion of the Zamorin and observed that Calicut had a highly structured society, well trained army and a harsh system of justice. In Calicut they traded using the language of the fingers.

(Read Part 2)

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