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Interview with Vijay Crishna: ‘Voyages of Zheng He were aimed to showcase China’s might’

"I get interested in strange things. I read a lot, and along the way, I read about this. About 10 years ago, the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s voyage was being celebrated in the region and I happened to be visiting Singapore," said Vijay Crishna.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Mumbai |
January 16, 2018 5:08:59 am
Vijay Crishna will deliver the 20th Vasant J Sheth Memorial Lecture on ‘The Lone Mariner and His Ghost Fleet’ at the Visitor’s Centre, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, at 7 pm Tuesday. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

 Vijay Crishna, Executive Director of the Godrej family-run businesses, is a man of many unusual interests, one of which is the history of the legendary 15th century Chinese naval commander, Zheng He. Crishna will deliver the 20th Vasant J Sheth Memorial Lecture on Tuesday, tracing the remarkable story of the seven naval expeditions that Zheng He commanded, expanding Chinese maritime and commercial influence all the way to Africa and almost a century before the Portuguese arrived in India. Excerpts from an interview to Indian Express.

Your lecture is titled ‘The Lone Mariner and his Ghost Fleet’. Why do you call it a ‘ghost fleet’?

Zheng He conducted seven voyages for his Ming emperor, Yongle. He reached South East Asia, India and went as far as Africa. The idea of the emperor was to show China’s might and bring rulers back to China. He allowed them to trade with China. Zheng He died on his last voyage and immediately after that the voyages were brought to a stop by the Confucian advisors at court. Yongle was already dead by then. The advisors argued that too much money had already been wasted on these ridiculous journeys and they not only put a stop to the voyages, but also destroyed all official records of voyages undertaken by Zheng He. So in effect, the fleet that had made these journeys became a ghost fleet and Zheng He himself vanished from public records. Within a century of this, shipping itself was stopped and the Chinese retreated into themselves. Now, centuries later, they’re becoming a marine power again.

What drew you to this subject?

I get interested in strange things. I read a lot, and along the way, I read about this. About 10 years ago, the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s voyage was being celebrated in the region and I happened to be visiting Singapore. I brought back some writings on it and it was fascinating. Then I found some more books on the subject and was drawn in.

Is Zheng He still remembered along the route of his journeys?

Zheng He is remembered with great love and affection at all the sites along the journey he made, from Malacca, right upto Africa. He is remembered by the local Muslim community and also the Buddhist community with great love and affection because that’s how he treated people… He conducted himself with great responsibility because he was making these journeys on behalf of his emperor.

In what way is Zheng He’s own story remarkable?

He came from a family of Mongol settlers in Yunnan, who had come from Bukhara. When the Ming armies invaded Yunnan, they neutered all the boys, most of whom then died. Zheng He was lucky; he survived this. By a stroke of luck, he was sent to be the page of the prince who would eventually become the emperor. This prince took a liking to Zheng He, and trusted him and treated him well. He took him to Beijing…and trained him. And later, when he became emperor, he got the idea for sending out these voyages and he made Zheng He the commander of the fleet. There must have been a huge amount of trust for him to do this. And Zheng He was a success. He had a fleet of over 300 ships in two years.

Would you say that if the great voyages had continued after Zheng He’s death, the world as we know it today would have been very different?

The Chinese could have made use of the huge standing they had at the time, and instead, they just flung it away. Within a century, well before the Europeans started arriving, they had disbanded their fleet. They just retreated into themselves and everything came to a naught. And then the Europeans came. Personally, I think everything would have been very different, if they hadn’t stopped these voyages. They had a great technological edge, and then it all vanished. This is the point at which Europeans gained an edge.

 

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