Early this year, I was invited to participate in a lively discussion at the Nalanda Srivijaya Centre of the Institute of South  East Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. Key speakers were Prof. Geoff Wade and Prof. Tansen Sen, both eminent Ming/Zheng He scholars. The theme of the talks was that the Ming expeditions to the Western Ocean were part of the regime's imperialistic designs.

Geoff Wade repeated his known position - these expeditions were part of Ming colonial ambitions. Tansen Sen's argument was more subtle : Ming court seems to have been more interested in advancing the rhetoric of a Chinese world order rather than colonizing or just profiting from maritime commerce.

When pointed out that they were speaking of a pre-imperialist era, they amended their description and preferred to describe the Ming conquest as 'Mingism' rather than imperialism.

Prof Wade described the voyages of Zheng He as 'proto-colonialistic', and mentioned the incidents of his conquest of Palembang, Sumatra. Further, the Chinese admiral's forces fought a bitter battle in North Java and invaded the royal city in Sri Lanka and took away the ruler and his family back to the Ming Court at Nanjing.

 The Ming aim, according to the Professors, was not in grabbing territories, as European colonists would attempt later; they were only interested in controlling ports and maritime trade routes on the Western Ocean. Wade's interpretation of the 'tributory-trade system' was that these Asian powers who paid tribute were doing so in exchange for military protection and trade benefits.

This view was vehemently opposed by Dr.Tan Ta Sen, the President of the International Zheng He Society, Singapore and some others. They argued that there was no proof either in the Ming annals or in the writings of co-travellers like Ma Huan to suggest an expansionary agenda for the voyages. It is true that Zheng He had established guan changs (military and trade depots) at places like Malacca, but then Chinese had already established themselves in these locations and this was testified by Ma Huan when the fleet visited Malacca. Dr. Sen repeated his well-known position that Zheng He was the greatest maritime voyager in history and that the voyages had the following five specific objectives:
1. The voyages sought to establish the political legitimacy of  Emperor Yongle who was, in fact, an usurper to begin with;
2. The diplomatic objective of the voyages was to reinforce the Confucian world view of overlord-vassal state relationship by ensuring that the vassal states pay tributes with their local produce in return for China's recognition of their sovereignty. The peace-keeping role of the fleet - as in suppressing piracy in Palembang or arbitrating in inter-state disputes between Siam and Malacca or Malacca and Palembang - should be seen as part of the fleet's objective of keeping the trade routes safe.
3. Yongle had banned private trade and all trade was state-conducted. He also allowed foreign tribute missions to bring and sell duty-free trade goods for private trade in China. The voyages were meant to promote foreign trade which had been flagging during the early Ming period.
4. Zheng He disseminated Chinese culture and promoted cultural exchange between China and the states visited by the fleet.
5. Conducting scientific maritime exploration was the final objective of Zheng He's voyages, according to Dr. Tan Ta Sen.

Where do we stand on this issue? Calicut was the principal destination of many of Zheng He's seven voyages. In fact, Zamorin had been sending envoys to China even before the Ming voyages commenced. The very first voyage had one of Calicut's envoys who was returning from his mission. The following translation from the Ming annals testifies to the importance of diplomatic relations between Calicut and China :
The envoy Ha-bei-nai-na and others who had been sent by Sha-mi-di, the king of the country of Calicut, offered tribute of local products. Paper money and silks were conferred upon them. In addition, silk gauzes, fine silks, gold brocade drapes, porcelain and other goods were conferred upon Sha-mi-di.
(Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource, Singapore: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore, http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/entry/1475, accessed October 25, 2012.)

The identity of Habeinaina (Nayanar?) need not detain us here. But the fact that there were frequent visits by Calicut's envoys to China shows the vigorous diplomatic and trade relations which the two states had been developing. In fact, according to Geoff Wade's monumental effort of translating Ming Shi-lu (http://www.epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/search/?q=calicut&b=Search) there are at least 27 references to envoys from Calicut being banqueted by the Ming Court. These references were spread over 31 years, between 1405 and 1436.

And yet, there is no statement indicating that the Ming Empire sought to subjugate Calicut. In fact, a fleet of more than 200 ships and 27000 sailors could walk all over Calicut which did not have a maritime fleet. There is a reference to a Chinese fort  in Calicut and a Chinese compound (guan chang?) in Panthalayini  -Kollam, but no evidence of any cultural domination.

We feel that there was a subtle difference in the way the fleet treated the states of South East Asia and Calicut. The SEA states already had Chinese enclaves and it was easy for Zheng He to enforce their diktat. We should not gloss over the atrocities committed by the fleet in SE Asia. For instance, Zheng He and the Ming fleet behaved like International Policemen in fighting Sekander, the usurper of the Semudera throne and in taking him and the family back to Nanjing to be executed there.

But, with Calicut, the approach appears to have been different. We find that during the first of the seven voyages, Zamorin had presented his visitors with sashes made of gold and studded with precious stones.During the four months that the fleet stayed waiting for favourable monsoons winds, the Chinese were entertained with song and music. Records show that, unlike many other Indian Ocean states, the Chinese treated Calicut with respect and on an equal footing : Though the journey from this country to the Middle Kingdom is more than a hundred thousand li, yet the people are very similar, happy and prosperous, with very identical customs.

Then, there is the vexed issue of Chini Bachagan  (the children of Chinese)presumed to be a snide reference by the Persians to the mixed population as a result of the Chinese stay in Calicut. Another interpretation of the appellation is that the sailors of Calicut on the eastern route (after the decline of the Ming expeditions) were derisively called by the Persians as Chini-bachagan. (The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol I, 1200-1700).

We need to conduct a DNA test of the population of Calicut (as politely suggested to me by Dr. Wong Ah Long, Deputy Chairman, Board of Trustees, ISEAS) to ascertain whether they carry any Chinese genes. But, unlike many South Eastern nations where the influence is obvious from physical appearance, the people of Calicut do not show evidence of such liaison!

We also read about the strict injunction by the Ming Emperor against the fleet mixing with the local population. The ban, however, could not have affected the Chinese traders who used to frequent Calicut before and after the Ming era. The policy of the first imperialists to visit the Calicut shores - the Portuguese - was vastly different; they encouraged marriage with locals resulting in a large army of Topazes who continued to aid and abet imperialism as interpreters and foot soldiers.

In sum, Calicut cannot subscribe to the theory that the Zheng He fleet was out to conquer and colonise. That was not the experience of medieval Calicut, at least. They did nothing to dominate or control the ports or maritime trade routes of either Quilon or Calicut. Perhaps, as in the case of Vasco da Gama ( who thought that the ruler and people of Calicut were Christian because he mistook the temple of Devi in Puthoor for a Church of Mother Mary), the Chinese mistook the polite exchange of gifts by the Calicut ruler for a tacit recognition of Chinese sovereignty! But, proto-colonialism - sorry, we do  not share the view point.