I first heard the Admiral’s name spoken by a corrupt police inspector in 1982. He was a local potentate in Sumatra, the Indonesian island that cuts like a scimitar through the eastern Indian Ocean, separating it from the Strait of Malacca. Sumatra is a strange, unsettling place, more than 180,000 square miles of malarial swamp and jungle broken by 35 active volcanoes. On the unbearably humid coast, clothes and bedsheets are never dry; even at night the temperatures hover in the 90s.
The city of Padang, where the inspector presided, hugs a stagnant estuary on the Indian Ocean side of the island. I’d stopped by the police station looking for a map—there was no apparent logic to Padang’s streets, and I was tired of aimlessly walking in search of a hotel. The inspector, warmly disposed toward anybody who might bring money his way, pointed to a three-story concrete building up the road. “All foreigner stay there. Air-conditioned,” he said.
He waved his hand at an underling, and a tray with two cups of coffee appeared. We covered the preliminaries: my hometown (Detroit; the inspector had heard of it); Ronald Reagan (he admired him); my job (“Ah, journalist”). His face clouded briefly, but he took the plunge: “Now I show you something.”
A cloth bundle was carried in by the underling and placed on the desk. The inspector unwrapped it, gently tugging the folds of cloth away until a small cup emerged. A rearing dragon was painted on the thin, almost transparent ceramic shell, in a light azure-blue glaze. The sheer fragile beauty of it was astonishing.
“Ming dynasty,” the inspector said. “Shipwreck in Malacca Strait. Maybe one of Cheng Ho ships. He make big battle near Sumatra.” I had no idea whom he was talking about.
The inspector smiled and wrote “100 US$” on a piece of scrap paper. I paid him what he asked, without haggling.
A few weeks later in Singapore, I learned that “Cheng Ho” was the dialect name of Zheng He, a 15th-century Chinese admiral. “You hear many things about him, but you never know what to believe,” an antique dealer told me. “He was a eunuch, they say.”
The dragon cup became my talisman. I left it with a friend in San Francisco and visited it every time I visited her. It held a lost story in its fragile shell, an irresistible temptation.
It might have remained nothing more than that, a talisman and part-time obsession, had it not been for my friendship with a Berkeley scholar who was a legendary figure in his own right: Frederic Wakeman Jr. (1937–2006), among the most distinguished historians and China experts of his generation. Fred helped me unlock the mysteries of the dragon cup, and with them an extraordinary saga all but forgotten for half a millennium.
Few tales of survival—and eventual triumph—are more remarkable than that of Ma He, a 10-year-old boy run down by invading Ming cavalrymen in the Himalayan foothills 600 years ago. He was thrown to the ground and castrated, standard practice for juvenile captives in the late 14th century.
This boy, orphaned and mutilated on a savage morning in 1382, would by 1405 become the second most powerful man in the world’s largest and most advanced nation, the commanding Admiral of the Western Seas who strides through the Ming scroll photocopy that sits on my desk as I write. He would become the greatest seafarer in the 5,000-year annals of China.
Yet by birthright, he was meant for anything but the sea, and he was not even Chinese. Ma He was born in a central Yunnan valley that lies 6,000 feet above sea level and more than two months’ journey from the closest port. He was the son of a minor official in the Mongol empire, a Central Asian Muslim killed by Ming troops during the invasion. In China’s scheme of things, he was yi ren, a despised barbarian.
Ma He, barbarian and eunuch, was trained as a household servant in the retinue of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan and fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhong, founder of the Ming dynasty. We can only guess at the mileposts in Ma He’s spectacular rise over the subsequent 15 years. Ming documents allude to a eunuch aide at the side of Zhu Di on a succession of battlefields. What we know with certainty is that Ma He in his mid-20s became the prince’s chief of staff, the de facto governor of Nanjing, the Ming capital, and a key tactician in wars that consolidated the dynasty’s hold on the Middle Kingdom.
In 1402, the ambitious Zhu Di seized the throne from his nephew, the second Ming ruler, and declared himself Yongle, the “Perpetually Jubilant Emperor.”
Virtually every monument associated today with China’s Age of Glory—from the massive extension of the Great Wall, to thousands of ornate temples and the immense Forbidden City in the new imperial capital of Beijing—is the work of the Yongle emperor.
The apex of Zhu Di’s ambition, however, was to reign over history’s most imposing sea power.
For 44 centuries, China had been an inland empire, framed and nourished by its mighty rivers. Their watersheds were united by the 1,100-mile Grand Canal, begun in 500 B.C. but phenomenally expanded by Zhu Di. By the end of the 15th century, China would have more than 75,000 miles of navigable waterways.
By contrast, the hallmark of Chinese seafaring in 1402 was a motley collection of shallow-draft cargo junks that seldom ventured more than a mile or two from friendly shores.
History now takes a dizzying turn: Among the Yongle emperor’s first official acts is to commission more than 3,500 ships. Ma He, a man with no experience whatsoever on the sea, is to supervise their construction and command them. In 1404, he is renamed “Zheng He,” after Zhu Di’s favorite warhorse.
The Ming ships are fantastically larger than anything the world has ever seen. Europe’s conquest of the global seas will begin in the 1490s, with the departures of Vasco da Gama for India and Christopher Columbus for the Americas. All seven of their vessels would have fit easily on the 80,000-square-foot main deck of Zheng He’s flagship; the Europeans’ combined crews of 260 amount to less than 1 percent of Zheng He’s 30,000.
These staggering numbers, passed down through the centuries in a haze of folklore, were long regarded as myth. Then on an overcast spring day in 1962, workers dredging a flooded trench on the Yangtze riverfront of Nanjing scrape their shovels onto a buried wooden timber 36 feet long. It is a steering post, embedded in the mud alongside the decaying remains of a rudder whose surface area works out to 452 square feet, big enough to maneuver a ship the size of a 20th-century aircraft carrier.
Except it is nearly 600 years old. Overnight, at the stroke of a shovel, improbable myth becomes unimaginable fact.
On October 10, 1405, the fleet rides the Yangtze current into the sea. By the Chinese calendar, it is the first day of the Chrysanthemum Moon in the third year of the Perpetually Jubilant Emperor, ruler of Da Ming, the Dynasty of Great Light. Every helmsman checks his compass—a Chinese invention, used for the first time in history as a navigational tool on this voyage—and sets a southerly tack as far as the Singapore Strait, then west into the Indian Ocean.
Over the next three decades, the Ming navy will span half the globe in seven epic voyages, establishing a network of trade and diplomatic posts that stretches from present-day Vietnam to East Africa.
In a considerably more humble way, I set sail in Zheng He’s wake in the early 1980s. I followed it on dozens of journeys over the subsequent 25 years—usually by air, but whenever I could in Chinese sampans and junks, on Arab or African dhows. Fueled by assignments to cover the wars and economic booms and busts of our own era, my inquiry into the dragon cup carried me to the principal settings of the Ming westward passage.
Although Zheng’s story had been suppressed for centuries in China, he was a godlike presence in Southeast Asia and beyond. On Java and the Malay Peninsula, I was shown strange temples devoted to him, with Zheng treated simultaneously as a hallowed Muslim imam and a Buddhist sage. In remote jungle villages on the Somali-Kenyan border, almond-eyed African tribesmen insisted that they were descendants of shipwrecked seamen from his fleet. He was said to be seven feet tall, with a waist measuring five feet in circumference. As the Singapore antiquarian had promised when I showed him my cup, it was hard to know what to believe.
Only the evidence of that gargantuan rudder kept me going until 2003, when I stumbled onto an academic paper delivered a decade earlier by Fred Wakeman.
I “met” Fred Wakeman in June 1989, when he telephoned me at the Kowloon Hotel in Hong Kong.
For several months, I’d been covering the Chinese democracy movement for the San Francisco Chronicle. Most foreign journalists stuck to Beijing that tumultuous spring. But in May I had set out on the road, to report on the movement’s impact beyond the capital. I filed from half a dozen provinces in the weeks before and after the army stormed Tiananmen Square on June 4. On June 10, the Gong An (the state security police) arrested me in a small city on the Pearl Delta, and I was expelled from the country.
My phone rang around one in the morning, not long after I checked into the hotel. “Frank? This is Fred Wakeman calling.” He wanted details about what I’d seen. He wanted my opinion, my thoughts on where China was headed. “You’re there, Frank,” he told me. “You’re our guy on the scene.”
Fred Wakeman, I knew, had served as the charismatic chair of Berkeley’s renowned Center for Chinese Studies. He was an influential force behind U.S. negotiations with Beijing in the late 1970s, initiating research and technological exchanges that played a critical role in China’s economic development. Yale University’s Jonathan Spence, now the dean of U.S. China scholars, flatly called Wakeman “the best modern Chinese historian of the last 30 years.”
It was as though Einstein had called to ask my views on relativity.
The call was classic Fred, a man whose appetite for facts, impressions, and data of any sort was insatiable and profoundly egalitarian. He didn’t give a damn if the impressions came from an Ivy League Ph.D., a tourist, or a reporter. What mattered was the endless conversation he maintained with a far-flung population of idiosyncratic travelers—not only in English, but in the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German he’d acquired by high school, and in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, which he mastered at Harvard and Berkeley.
I was drawn into that singular conversation by Fred’s call, and we kept in touch as the years passed. Banned from China for more than a decade after my reporting in 1989, I moved on to cover the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, finding a couple of weeks now and then to return to Asia and continue my obsessive trek.
It didn’t occur to me to ask Fred about my 15th-century admiral. Fred’s field was supposed to be 19th- and 20th-century China. Then one day, on a Singapore website, I found an abbreviated version of the academic paper that he delivered in Washington D.C. at the 1992 convention of the American Historical Association, in his capacity as its president. The paper’s subject: Zheng He.
Fred’s observations to his fellow historians offered an exacting chronicle of the Ming voyages. By his count, based on readings from every available source, 62 colossal, nine-masted baochuan—”treasure junks”—led the way to India on the first voyage in 1405. Each of the vessels was roughly 450 feet long and 180 feet across the beam.
“A vessel that large would have displaced at least 3,000 tons, whereas none of Vasco da Gama’s ships exceeded 300 tons,” Fred pointed out, relishing the comparison, “and even in 1588 the largest English merchant ship did not exceed 400 tons.”
They were accompanied by hundreds of eight-masted “horse ships” for the Ming cavalry, seven-masted grain carriers, six-masted troop transports, and five-masted combat vessels. Aboard this huge floating city, Fred continued, were “17 imperial eunuch ambassadors and assistant ambassadors; 63 eunuch officials and chamberlains; 95 military directors; 207 brigade and company commanders; 3 senior ministry secretaries; 2 masters of ceremony from the department of state ceremonials; 5 geomancers; 128 medical personnel; and 26,803 officers, soldiers, cooks, purveyors, clerks, and interpreters.”
More important to me, Fred’s paper described a tremendous clash in 1406 between Zheng’s warships and Cantonese pirates in the Malacca Strait. The pirates were resoundingly defeated, with most of their booty-laden vessels sent to the bottom—just off Sumatra.
The cup! The link between that battle and a looted shipwreck in 1982 was a matter of informed speculation. But after an 11-year search, it was enough for me.
I called Fred immediately to thank him and explain. “It sure took you a long time to find that paper,” he laughed. A few days later, a file attachment from Fred arrived in my email: his notes for the AHA paper—10 pages, single-spaced.
The 42nd footnote brought me to Ma Huan, a self-described “simple woodcutter” and Zheng’s fellow Muslim, who spoke Arabic and served as the admiral’s interpreter. Ma had kept an extensive diary during his years on the Ming fleet. It became my sea chart, the map I followed when I returned to China on a National Geographic assignment in 2004 and began retracing, with far more authority, Zheng He’s voyages.
Ma Huan’s diary, entitled Ying Yai Sheng-lan (An Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores), was published in 1451 on the eve of its author’s death. The memoir, like the story it tells, had nearly vanished, dwindling to three known copies. A modest surge of interest followed the 1962 discovery of the Nanjing steering post, as a tiny coterie of scholars (including Fred’s own mentor at Berkeley, the China historian Joseph Levenson) began reconstructing the lost saga of the Yongle fleet.
Researchers had few source materials to rely on. More than 90 percent of the several million documents that once rested in the Ming archives in Nanjing and Beijing were destroyed by later emperors when the dynasty reversed Zhu Di’s overseas maritime policies, embracing an isolationism that characterized China’s foreign relations for centuries to come. Most of the ships were burned, and Chinese merchants were forbidden to travel abroad.
In the overwhelming darkness of this void, the interpreter’s scroll was an explosion of light. Ying Yai Sheng-lan is an eyewitness record of the fleet’s daily life and discoveries. It has the raw honesty of actual experience, the wonder of discovering a new and often bizarrely exotic world thousands of miles from the familiar.
Ma Huan is enthralled with Siam, today’s Thailand, “whose husbands are proud to offer their wives to us, regarding sexual intimacy with foreigners as an honor to the beauty of Siamese women.” As for Siamese men, the scroll notes, “When they attain their 20th year, their foreskins are slit open with a fine knife, much as we would an onion, and a dozen tin beads are inserted. After the skin heals, the beads look like a cluster of grapes, and make a tinkling sound that is regarded as music.”
He investigates spice trading in the Indian city of Cochin, describing the world’s first commodities market, and recounts the story told by Cochin Jews of a holy man named Moshie who punishes his people for worshiping a golden calf. Ceylonese jewel merchants tell Ma Huan that their rubies are the crystallized tears of Buddha. On Zheng’s orders, he participates in the haj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ma writes of a strange African animal, 17 feet tall with a 9-foot-long neck, and guesses it’s a kind of qilin, a cousin of the fabled unicorn (although it is more likely a giraffe). He explains the ten different uses of the coconut and lists the birds, animals, and plants of every country he visits.
More than a mere diary, Ying Yai Sheng-lan is a treatise on society and nature across half the planet in the 15th century, and the comprehensive account of a novel undertaking: Zheng’s fleet, the most lethal in existence, will ply the seas for three decades without conquering a single foreign state or annexing a sliver of territory.
In the words of the late Franz Schurmann, another legendary Berkeley sinologist, the vision behind the mammoth enterprise is “a world of exchange, rather than a world of conflict.” An inconceivable world, by the standards of Western imperialism, which takes the stage a century later.
In our later conversations, Fred had the habit of quoting Ma from memory, savoring the interpreter’s vivid descriptions. “How I would have loved to be on one of those Ming voyages,” he told me in the spring of 2005.
In 1997, he was gravely injured in an accident and confined to a wheelchair. For someone with his phenomenal energies and imagination, the handicap must have been crushing. Wanderlust was essential to his character. In that respect, Fred was the spitting image of his father, novelist and screenwriter Frederic Wakeman Sr., who moved his family on whim from Mexico to Cuba, Bermuda, France, and Spain between the end of World War II and the late 1950s.
The Wakemans embarked on their own odyssey in 1948, retracing the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in a 56-foot ketch. It was a dream come true for Fred. At the age of 11, he had read Samuel Eliot Morison’s celebrated biography of Columbus three times. Fred told that story to the spellbound audience of historians who heard his account of Zheng’s fleet in 1992.
Columbus, he related, had drifted into a “tangled archipelago” of cays off the Zapata Peninsula of Cuba in 1494. To his crew’s dismay, the sea suddenly turned an opaque green, then just as suddenly shifted to milk-white, and finally to black. “I have myself seen the water a deep green, as in the gulf of Maine,” Fred said, “although the depth was less than three fathoms, and the next time I looked over the side it was black as ink under a bright sky.”
On that spring afternoon in Berkeley, Fred and I talked for two hours about his family’s adventure, about its climax when the ketch ran aground on shoals in the same perilous archipelago. There was no mistaking, in his mind, the fathomless connection between the sailors of Columbus and Zheng He, and the child mariner he himself had been in 1948.
It was the last time I saw him. Eighteen months later, on September 14, 2006, Fred Wakeman died of cancer at 68.
Zheng He, too, you might say, foundered on sinister shoals, forced ashore by political struggles after the death of the Yongle emperor in 1424. There were no voyages for the next seven years, as xenophobic mandarins exerted growing influence on Zhu Di’s two immediate successors. In 1431, the fifth Ming emperor had a temporary change of heart, and sent Zheng He on what proved to be his and the fleet’s final voyage.
There’s reason to conclude that Zheng knew the struggle against isolationism had already been lost. After clearing the mouth of the Yangtze in his flagship, he stopped off at Chang Le, a harbor in Fujian Province where he had taken aboard crewmen and supplies on previous voyages. A granite stela was erected above the port, engraved in Zheng’s own calligraphy, carefully listing his fleet’s landfalls, “altogether more than 30 countries large and small.”
It recounted the adventures Zheng and his sailors shared: the fearful waves stirred by a hurricane; the fleet’s role in restoring a legitimate king to his lost throne in Sri Lanka; the zebras, lions, leopards, and ostriches carried back to the Yongle emperor as gifts from the sultans of African city-states—and in graphic detail, the annihilation of the pirate flotilla, which presumably sent my dragon cup to the bottom of the Malacca Strait. The deliberate purpose of the monument, its inscription made clear, was to confront the rewriting of history, to set “the years and months of the voyages” in stone “in order to leave [the memory] for ever.”
Zheng is believed to have died in 1432 or early 1433, before the fleet’s return to China, and been buried at sea off India.
I visited the Chang Le stela in 2004. It was still legible after six centuries, and proudly displayed in a small museum. In a sense, it had accomplished its task.
The story of Zheng He has experienced a major revival in the nation that suppressed it for more than 500 years. The boy who lay orphaned and mutilated on a Yunnan hill in 1382 is now viewed as a heroic precursor to today’s booming China, foreshadowing its emergence as a globalizing giant in 2011.
Fred Wakeman, who did as much as any scholar in our time to rehabilitate Zheng, would have begged to differ. He had serious doubts, even a decade ago, about Beijing’s export tactics abroad, and the authoritarianism of its one-party state at home. It wasn’t what Fred had in mind when he helped open China to modernization in the late 1970s. Like the eunuch Admiral of the Western Seas, Fred was a confirmed citizen of a more hopeful world—the world of genuine exchange.