L. Eunuch holding a parrot R. Admiral Zheng He and one of his Treasure Ships.
TANG DYNASTY Anonymous
L. 7th-9th c R. 20th c Chinese L. Tang R. Social Realist Books & Manuscripts
(618 - 909)
TANG DYNASTY Anonymous
(618 - 909)
L. 618-900 R. 1980-2000
L. 7th-9th c R. 20th c
L. Earthenware R. Billboard
L. Tang R. Social Realist
L. San Francisco. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. R. In situ.
The gentleman shown here holding a parrot represented one of the eunuchs from the Tang court. These men, whose original function was to guard the women in the emperor's harem, became adept at palace intrigue, with the result that many of them wielded great power. Eunuchs who were castrated before puberty were particularly favored by court ladies and they often tended to behave like young girls themselves. However, others were quite manly.
Eunuchs came to be charged with supervising such things as palace provisions, construction of warehouses and temples, and organization of ceremonial events. The eunuchs became extremely powerful, often allying themselves with foreign merchants, and many became very rich. But they were disdained by the officials who had gained their positions through the civil service examinations. In fighting between these competing groups destroyed the effectiveness of the central government in the waning days of the Tang empire, just as it had during the later Han period. It is quite a fascinating footnote to history that eunuchs were involved both in the creation of a great Chinese naval force and their in-fighting with Confucian officials led to its destruction.
Our story begins in the late 14th century after the fall of the Yuan dynasty, another period which saw great numbers of foreigners moving in and out of China. In 1381 our hero, Ma He, was captured and castrated at the age of 13 when his Muslim father was killed during a campaign against the Mongols by the new Ming rulers, a common fate for the captured sons of enemies. The young Ma He was placed in the household of Zhu Di, the fourth son of the emperor, where he was well educated and became a close friend of the prince. Given the new name of Zheng He, he accompanied the prince on all his military expeditions and learned the art of war fighting by his side. Unlike the more effeminate eunuchs who had been castrated before puberty, Zheng He demonstrated great strength, ability and manly virtue.
When Zhu Di became emperor he reversed his father's restrictive policies on trade and departed from the advice of his Confucian advisors that China's prosperity rested on agriculture alone. He threw open the doors to foreigners and foreign trade, saying "Now all within the four seas are as one family."
To implement his new policy, ordered the construction of a great fleet which included merchant ships, warships and support vessels. The great fleet of over 137 new ocean-going ships were to visit the ports of the China Sea and India carrying the most impressive goods that China had to offer. The new ships were augmented by the refitting of additional boats, creating an imperial fleet of over 1600 vessels.
The emperor's longtime companion, Zheng He, was named as commander of the treasure fleet. In 1405 over three hundred ships with a total crew of over 27,000 set out for Calicut, the center of the spice trade on the coast of India. The treasure-laden merchant ships were accompanied by an impressive array of warships who were charged with protecting their precious cargo and with opening the sea routs to legitimate trade. Before embarking, Zheng He and his men prayed to the guardian spirits of the ancestors and sought their wisdom through a miraculous device with a floating needle, the compass or "south-pointing needle" that was to be their guide through the months ahead. (The image on the right is a billboard put up by the Chinese Communists celebrating Zheng He's voyages to the west)
In her interesting book, When China Ruled the Seas, Louise Levathes describes the seven epic journeys made by Zheng He and his fleet, which was the largest and best equipped in the world at that time, voyages that led them not only to India but also to the Persian Gulf and down the African coast, and possibly even to Australia. In the early 15th century the great Ming navy consisted of 3,500 vessels, 2,700 of them warships.
China's growing navel power was brought to a precipitous halt during the latter part of Zhu Di' reign, when the eunuchs had become ever more powerful and their Confucian rivals ever more jealous. The eunuchs, led by the infamous Wang Zhen, accumulated huge fortunes from their private dealings; they took over the secret police and persecuted anyone who opposed them. Private trade, aided and abetted by the eunuchs had gradually replaced the money that had earlier come in as tribute from foreign peoples, and the royal treasury had become depleted. Since the power base of the eunuchs rested on foreign trade, the Confucians decided that they could bring down their rivals by abolishing it. Thus after the death of Zhu Di, Confucian advisors persuaded the new emperor to cut the allocations for ship building. Their campaign was successful, and by 1440 the fleet had been reduced by half. By 1500 it was a capital offense to build boats with more than two masts, and an imperial edict of 1525 ordered the destruction of all oceangoing vessels and the arrest of the merchants who sailed them.
Thus because of palace intrigues, China closed back upon herself, her naval power destroyed, just at the time when western ships were expanding European power and influence throughout the world. One can only wonder what would have happened had the palace intrigues not taken place and the legacy of Zhu Di and Zheng He had been allowed to flower.
The story illustrates the two poles of the Chinese attitude toward foreigners and trade: openness as we saw during the Tang and Han periods, and distrust of foreigners coupled with a belief that China was self-sufficient and needed nothing from the rest of the world. One such swing came in the middle of the 9th century when foreigners were persecuted and then expelled. China is apparently going through another of the great swings of policy at the present time, reaching out to the world through trade after a long period of relative isolation.
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