In the summer of 1421 the emperor Zhu Di lost a stupendous gamble. In doing so, he lost control of China and, eventually, his life.
Zhu Di’s dreams were so outsized that, though China in the early fifteenth century was the greatest power on earth, it still could not summon the means to realize the emperor’s monumental ambitions. Having embarked on the simultaneous construction of the Forbidden City, the Ming tombs, and the Temple of Heaven, China was also building two thousand ships for Zheng He’s fleets. These vast projects had denuded the land of timber. As a consequence, eunuchs were sent to pillage Vietnam. But the Vietnamese leader Le Loi fought the Chinese with great skill and courage, tying down the Chinese army at huge financial and psychological cost. China had her Vietnam six hundred years before France and America had theirs.1
China’s debacle in Vietnam grew out of the costs of building and maintaining her treasure fleets, through which the emperor sought to bring the entire world into Confucian harmony within the Chinese tribute system. The fleets were led by eunuchs—brave sailors who were intensely loyal to the emperor, permanently insecure, and ready to sacrifice all. However, the eunuchs were also uneducated and frequently corrupt. And they were loathed by the mandarins, the educated administrative class that buttressed a Confucian system in which every citizen was assigned a clearly defined place.
Superb administrators, the mandarins recoiled from risk. They disapproved of the extravagant adventures of the treasure fleets, whose far-flung exploits had the added disadvantage of bringing them into contact with “long nosed barbarians.” In the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), mandarins were the lowest class.2 However, in the Ming dynasty, Emperor Hong Wu, Zhu Di’s father, reversed the class system to favor mandarins.
The mandarins planned Hong Wu’s attack on his son Zhu Di, the Prince of Yen, whom Hong had banished to Beijing (Nanjing then being the capital of China). The eunuchs sided with Zhu Di, joining his drive south into Nanjing. After his victory in 1402, Zhu Di expressed his gratitude by appointing eunuchs to command the treasure fleets.
Henry Tsai paints a vivid portrait of Zhu Di, also known as the Yongle emperor:
He was an overachiever. He should be credited for the construction of the imposing Forbidden City of Beijing, which still stands today to amaze countless visitors from lands afar. He should be applauded for sponsoring the legendary maritime expeditions of the Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He, the legacy of which still lives vividly in the historical consciousness of many Southeast Asians and East Africans. He reinforced the power structure of the absolutist empire his father the Hongwu emperor founded, and extended the tentacles of Chinese civilisation to Vietnam, Korea, Japan, among other tributary states of Ming China. He smoothed out China’s relations with the Mongols from whom Emperor Hongwu had recovered the Chinese empire. He made possible the compilation of various important Chinese texts, including the monumental encyclopaedia Yongle dadian….
Yongle [the alternative name for Zhu Di] was also a usurper, a man who bathed his hands in the blood of numerous political victims. And the bloodshed did not stop there. After ascending the throne, he built a well-knit information network staffed by eunuchs whom his father had specifically blocked from the core of politics, to spy on scholar officials [mandarins] who might challenge his legitimacy and his absolutism.3
Under Zhu Di, the mandarins were relegated to organizing the finances necessary to build the fleet. But for generations of mandarins who governed the Ming dynasty and compiled almost all Chinese historical sources, the voyages led by Zheng He were a deviation from the proper path. The mandarins did all they could to belittle Zheng He’s achievements. As Edward L. Dreyer points out, Zheng He’s biography in the Ming-Shi-lu was deliberately placed before a series of chapters on eunuchs “who are grouped with ‘flatterers and deceivers,’ ‘treacherous ministers,’ ‘roving bandits’ and ‘all intrinsically evil categories of people.’” 4
As long as the voyages prospered, and tribute flowed back to the Middle Kingdom to finance the fleet’s adventures, the simmering rivalry between mandarins and eunuchs could be contained. However, in the summer of 1421, Zhu Di’s reign went horribly wrong. First, the Forbidden City, which had cost vast sums to build, was burned to ashes by a thunderbolt. Next, the emperor became impotent and was taunted by his concubines. In a final indignity, he was thrown from his horse, a present from Tamburlaine’s son Shah Rokh.5 It appeared that Zhu Di had lost heaven’s favor.
In December 1421, at a time when Chinese farmers were reduced to eating grass, Zhu Di embarked on another extravaganza. He led an enormous army into the northern steppe to fight the Mongol armies of Aruqtai, who had refused to pay tribute.6
This was too much for Xia Yuanji, the minister of finance; he refused to fund the expedition. Zhu Di had his minister arrested along with the minister of justice, who had also objected to the adventure. Fang Bin, the minister of war, committed suicide. With his finances in ruins and his cabinet in revolt, the emperor rode off to the steppe, where he was outwitted and outmaneuvered by Aruqtai. On August 12, 1424, Zhu Di died.7
Zhu Gaozhi, Zhu Di’s son, took over as emperor and promptly reversed his father’s policies. Xia Yuanji was restored as minister of finance, and drastic fiscal measures were adopted to rein in inflation. Zhu Gaozhi’s first edict on ascending the throne on September 7, 1424, laid the treasure fleet low: he ordered all voyages of the treasure ships to be stopped. All ships moored at Taicang were ordered back to Nanjing.8
The mandarins were back in control. The great Zheng He was pensioned off along with his admirals and captains. Treasure ships were left to rot at their moorings. Nanjing’s dry docks were flooded and plans for additional treasure ships were burned.
Then suddenly, unexpectedly, on May 29, 1425, Zhu Gaozhi died. He was succeeded by his son Zhu Zhanji, Zhu Di’s grandson.
Zhu Zhanji seemed destined to be one of China’s greatest emperors. Far more cautious than Zhu Di, he was nonetheless extremely clever. He quickly realized that China’s abdication as Queen of the Seas would have disastrous consequences—not least that the barbarians would cease paying tribute. What’s more, the dream of a world united in Confucian harmony would be dashed and the colossal expenditure that had enabled China to acquire allies and settlements throughout the world would be wasted.
Zhu Zhanji also realized that the eunuchs disfavored by his father had their virtues. He set up a palace school to instruct them9 and appointed eunuchs to important military commands. He reversed his father’s plan to move the capital south to Nanjing, restoring it to Beijing, once again facing the Mongols. Yet he also believed in the Confucian virtues espoused by the mandarins and cultivated their friendship over bottles of wine. In many ways Zhu Zhanji combined the best of his father, including his concern for farmers, with that of his grandfather, whose boldness he emulated in approaching the barbarians.
The new reign would be known as Xuan De, “propagating virtue.” For Zheng He and the eunuchs, it marked a return to center stage. Soon another great sailing expedition would be launched, to bear the word to the barbarians to instruct them into deference and submission.