“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (Web 1).
The idea of man and exploration is nothing new. Upon a closer look into the experiences of the men behind the explorations, we can learn a great deal about the expeditions, the men who took them, and the countries that supported their efforts. The story of exploration by Christopher Columbus and Zheng He is really the story of two countries and their quest for power and control in an ever-expanding world. For Spain, Columbus’ expeditions represented both a chance to bypass regulated trade routes and conquer new people on new lands. For China, Zheng He’s expeditions represented an opportunity to maintain and renew existing relationships with neighboring countries. Although the expeditions of Columbus and Zheng were several decades apart, their commonalities and differences highlighted the reasons behind their trips and revealed what they each thought about the cultures they encountered along the way.
The early 15th century saw China’s Ming Dynasty at the peak of its power as a kingdom. China’s wealth and power altered the context of its exploration expeditions from those of other countries during the “age of exploration.” Due to the wealth and power of China, the Ming Dynasty was able to focus expeditions on the surveillance and the maintenance of relationships with its allies. This focus reflected itself in the trips discussed in a 1431 inscription from a monument by Zheng He in a temple in China. Zheng He’s voyages to “the countries beyond the horizon” revealed a predominantly “peaceful” voyage that yielded much wealth and allegiance for China (Web 2).
Over the course of twenty-six years, Zheng He and his crew had “seven times received the commission of ambassadors to countries of the western ocean” (Filesi). During that time, according to his inscription, Zheng He travelled to “confer presents” upon neighboring ambassadors, “manifest the transforming power of the [imperial] virtue,” and “treat distant people with kindness” (Filesi). Zheng He also revealed that he and his crew “captured alive those of the native kings who were not respectful” and “exterminated those barbarian robbers who were engaged in piracy” (Filesi). To be certain, while the notion of capturing and exterminating rulers hardly seems peaceful, the acknowledgement provided an idea of the extent to which China had committed to a system of maintaining relationships with their “ambassadors” (Filesi). Whereas other countries sought the use of violent force to impose a certain regime, the inscription distinguished China’s expeditions as the renewal of pre-existing connections to neighboring allies.
The inscription also detailed what Zheng He and by extension, China, thought of its allies. In his first reference about other countries, Zheng He referred to them as “barbarians form beyond the seas” (Filesi). Despite immediately following the details of his mission, Zheng then refers to the countries in support of China as “ambassadors” and “barbarians” again (Filesi). The inscription exposed Zheng He’s attitude about China’s neighbors ultimately, as lower in rank than him. By calling them “barbarian,” Zheng He implied that there is something almost nonhuman about China’s allies, something that made them less equal to China (Filesi). Although he referred to China’s allies as “ambassadors,” the fact that it is sandwiched between use of the term “barbarian” supported the notion that Zheng He thought much less of the “subjects” of neighboring countries (Filesi).