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The Voyages of Admiral Zheng He

Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) was a Chinese admiral entrusted with the task of spreading the knowledge of the majesty of the Chinese emperor to other lands and to accept tribute and obeisance from them. His ships were huge and sophisticated affairs that were rumoured to be equivalent of a town at sea. The records of his various voyages are of considerable importance as a source for this period. The following extracts refer to his time among the Southeast Asian island states.

In Java, Ma Huan provides a fascinating account of the life and times of the people. First of all, he describes what he saw as the geography of the island:
“The country of Chao-wa [Java] was formerly called the country of She-p’o. The country has four large towns, none of which is a walled city and suburban area. The ships which come here from other countries first arrive at a town called Tu-pan [Tuban]; next at a town named New Village [Gresik]; then t a town named Su-lu-ma-i [Surabaja]; then again at a town named Man-che-po-i [Majapahit], here the king of the country lives.” (Ma Huan, 1433, p.86)

Tuban is on the north coast of Java and was an important port for Majapahit, exporting food to the Moluccas and importing a range of goods from there and other destinations. Ma Huan observes that there are many Chinese from Canton and Fukien living there, with two Javanese headmen to govern the community of one thousand families. Gresik is on the eastern coast of Java and was founded by Chinese sometime between 1350-1400 and it eventually outstripped Tuban in importance. At Gresik, spices from the Moluccas and sandalwood from Timor were imported, while rice, textiles and ceramics were exported. Founded by Chinese, there is no doubt that a substantial Chinese community lived there. It is reported that copper coins from successive Chinese dynasties were in universal use in Java and it is known that huge amounts of coins were exported there over the course of years.

Although Chinese methods were employed with respect to the economy, other aspects of life were determined by local conditions. While it may be that Chinese retained their traditional clothing and housing methods (as they have done elsewhere), there is no doubt about the styles favoured by the Javanese:
“As to the place where the king resides: the walls are made of bricks, and are more than three chang in height; in circumference they are something more than two hundred paces; [and] in the [walls] are set double gates, very well-kept and clean.

The houses are constructed in storeyed form, each being three or four chang in height; they lay a plank [flooring, over which] they spread matting [made of] fine rattans, or else patterned grass mats, on which the people sit cross-legged; [and] on the top of the houses they use boards of hard wood as tiles, splitting [the wood into] roofing [material].

The houses in which the people of the country live have thatch for their roofs. Every family has a store-room built of bricks in the ground; it is three or four ch’ih in height; [in this] they store the private belongings of the family; [and] upon this they live, sit and sleep.” (ibid., p.87)

A chang is a length of a little over ten feet and a ch’ih almost exactly one foot long. The king’s compound occupied an area of approximately one and a half acres. Readers will be able to calculate these measurements in terms of the scale of their preferred choice of rules.

The clothing of the king and the people are also described in Ma Huan’s typical style:
“As to the dress [worn by] the king of the country: his head is unkempt, or else he wears a crown of gold leaves and flowers; he has no robe on his person; around the lower part he has one or two embroidered kerchiefs of silk. In addition, he uses [a piece of] figured silk-gauze or hemp-silk to bind [the kerchiefs] around his waist; [this] is called a ‘waist-band’; [and in it] he thrusts one or two short knives, called pu-la-t’ou. He goes about bare-footed, and either rides on an elephant or sits in a carriage [drawn by] oxen.” (ibid., p.87)

The lack of horses contributed to the need for oxen to draw the carriages for the king and, presumably, nobles and other prominent people. The knife referred to would be the beladau, which is a Malay word for a curved, single-edged dagger. Many languages were spoken by the various communities of traders on Java and it is likely that some forms of lingua franca would have been established.
The beladau formed a central part of the life of all males, as the description of the clothing and habits of them goes on to demonstrate:

“As to the dress [worn by] the people of the country: the men have unkempt heads; [and] the women pin up the hair in a chignon. They wear a garment on the upper part of the body, and a kerchief around the lower part. The men thrust a pu-la-t’ou into the waist; from little boys of three years old to old men of a hundred years, they all have these knives, which are all made of steel, with most intricate patterns drawn in very delicate lines; for the handles they use gold or rhinoceros’ horn or elephants’ teeth, engraved with representations of human forms or devils’ faces, the craftsmanship being very fine and skilful.” (ibid., pp.87-8)

Other commentators note that it is the women only who wear a cloth on the upper part of the body. I am reminded of a visit to Bali a few years ago when I was told (and indeed saw for myself) that the women would happily disrobe for a bath in a convenient stream and the onus was on men not to look at them. This, I believe, no longer happens in more Islamic areas.
Much of the cloth worn by people would have been imported from India and was frequently brightly coloured and patterned. Since there is no evidence of uniformity among Javanese troops, it seems most appropriate to have warriors in a nice range of different colours and styles of sarong. Tattoos on various parts of the body would also have been likely, although readers will need to look elsewhere for advice on how to paint them.

The steel used is apparently a very fine variety that was imported from Persia and made very sharp swords. It was imported into China from the C12th.

Ma Huan goes on to describe the hot-blooded nature of the Javanese men and how, especially when drink was involved, violence could very suddenly flare between them. If a man is captured in the act of killing another, then he would be immediately put to death himself. However, if he were able to avoid capture for three days by laying low in the jungle, then he would be pardoned. Nevertheless, it is reported that a day does not go by without someone being put to death and that this is all very ‘terrible.’ Women are not reported to be involved in these kinds of activities, although they could presumably be motives for violence in Java as well as everywhere else in the world.

In Palembang, Ma Huan observed that many of the people in that rich land were refugees from Guangdong and Guangzhou provinces of China. He wrote that many of the men trained to fight on water. The king is considered to be a pirate, since he ordered the seizure of any passing ship that took his fancy. The remainder of Palembang society is considered to be the same as for Java.
The people of Li-Tai (Meureudu) are sent by their elected king to go and catch wild rhinoceroses. However, there is unfortunately no record of their use in warfare. Perhaps they could be used as a form of stampeding cattle? It seems a terrible shame to ignore them altogether.

Finally, before reaching Sri Lanka, the fleet passed by Nicobar and the Andaman Islands. Here, the writer confirms the uncivilized nature of these regions:
“The people of those places dwell in caves; men and women have naked bodies, all without a stitch of clothing, like the bodies of brute beasts. The land does not produce rice; but they eat such things as mountain-tubers, jack-fruit, and bananas; [and] sometimes they catch fish and shrimps in the sea and eat them.
The people have a traditional saying that if they have a stitch of cloth on their bodies, they will develop septic ulcers.” (ibid., p.125).

Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores) (Bangkok: White Lotus Co. Ltd., 1997 [originally 1433], translated and edited by J.V.G. Mills.



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