“China's Columbus” Was an Imperialist Too: Contesting the Myth of Zheng He
By Peggy-Jean M. Allin and Steven R. Corman
Editor’s note: This essay was produced with the support of a grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR N00014-21-1-2121). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding organization.
"Zheng He's fleet" by Immagini 2&3D is used under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Zheng He is a popular Chinese Admiral who is remembered for commanding naval voyages in the early 15th century through what is today the South China Sea. Positive stories pushed by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda apparatus have portrayed Zheng He as a Muslim, a benign friend, a peaceful and morally sophisticated diplomat, and a symbol of China’s gentle, benevolent and “peaceful rise.” Chinese officials emphasize that, unlike Christopher Columbus or other Western voyagers, Zheng He “did not occupy a single piece of land.”
This is disinformation that represents a PRC strategic narrative: Zheng He was no Columbus, but a man of power representing the greatness of the Empire’s scientific, technological, cultural, and moral advancements. He travelled the world as a benevolent gift giver (not taker), who spread Islam, religious tolerance, peace, and openness around the world. Zheng He supposedly shunned imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation despite holding power that could make these things possible.
By pushing this narrative, the Chinese state has attempted (and succeeded to a degree) to construct collective memory through mythical and inaccurate historical rebranding. The goal of this public diplomacy campaign is to increase regional support for China’s pursuit of geostrategic interests—namely, aggression in the South China Sea and the “Maritime Silk Road” component of its Belt and Road Initiative.
China has invested significant effort in building the Zheng He myth. In 2005, the CCP organized the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage. This laid the ground for China’s “National Maritime Day” in July. During this holiday Chinese citizens rally for national maritime justice and support the state’s goal of reclaiming what “rightfully” belongs to China. The opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games dedicated several minutes to Zheng He’s heroism,further signaling the importance of this narrative to the Chinese government.
Zheng He mythology has also worked to “mollify littoral nations” and advance China’s cultural and Islamic diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Officials, academics, and elites in neighboring countries have “lavished praise” on Zheng He. Indonesians and Malaysians have also participated in Zheng He festivals, events, theater productions, and have founded Zheng He temples, museums, shrines, think tanks, NGOs and associations.
As these examples demonstrate, and as other scholars have argued, the Chinese government’s use of historically inaccurate and exaggerated accounts about Zheng He does not only foster diplomatic traction in Southeast Asia. The narrative also acts as a “backbone” that shapes key security issues. As such the narrative presents a challenge to the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
A Questionable Myth
One way narratives gain validity and persuasive force is to “to prune away the dead branches of the past,” leaving inconvenient details out of the picture. One good option for counter-narrative, then, is to put those branches back. This can be accomplished by restoring omitted facts and countering inaccuracies in the CCP version of Zheng He narrative, features which otherwise render it romantic and “fanciful.”
A model of a Ming Dynasty ship on display in a Zheng He exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago. Photo by author.
Scholars such as Geoff Wade and Charles Horner have sought to do such restoration by debunking the Zheng He myth. They conclude that he was a “proto-colonialist” whose fleets captured the strategic military ports of Malacca, fought in a Javanese civil war and installed a new leader there who was allied with the Ming Emperor, and colonized Ceylon—all while traveling with tens of thousands of personnel and magazines holding ample stores of gunpowder.
Wade’s research has been attacked by pro-China scholars who defend Zheng He as fighting for “self-defense” and against “pirates”. These attacks suggest that Wade has found an effective counter-narrative that the Chinese are keen to resist: “[H]ere, then, [is] a reversal of roles and a transposition of villains: China, once on the receiving end of imperialism, can now be written about, almost offhandedly, as a Great Power like any other power— like any other imperialist power.” In other words, contrary to the CCP narrative, Zheng He was China’s version of Christopher Columbus.
Implications for Strategy
We propose a counter-narrative as a policy-oriented solution to help restore leadership in the region and counteract Chinese propaganda. The Biden-Harris administration’s current Indo-Pacific narrative envisions a region free, open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient. While these are noble goals, they seem superficial because they are not explicitly grounded in a historical or cultural narrative that is meaningful in the region. Simply wishing for good things is not enough when a competing adversary is constructing a strong (but false) cultural narrative about an ancient hero who embodies similar goals.
The Achilles' heel of this CCP narrative is that it relies on a credulous audience that does not question idealistic, romantic, and fanciful claims. Exploiting this weakness is a key to undermining and countering CCP propaganda and disinformation. The U.S. could strengthen its hand by campaigning to “fact-check” and pick holes in the Zheng He myth. The goal would be to build a consensus that China can, and indeed should, be compared to all other large countries that historically undertook “imperialist” behavior.
Though we lack the space to develop the argument here (but will pursue elsewhere), we believe Zheng He qualifies as a master narrative which is in turn an element of a larger rhetorical vision China has been promoting as a foundation of its public diplomacy and international relations. Therefore, undermining the Zheng He myth could not only assist Biden’s current Indo-Pacific messaging, but also help to unravel the larger strategic vision being promoted by China.