Yuan Dynasty Foundation of Zheng He’s Voyages
By Gunnar Thompson, Ph.D., Director
New World Discovery Institute, Seattle, Washington< Library of Congress Presentation, May 16th 2005
Zheng He Symposium
(This article is background information for an Illustrated Presentation of this topic)
The countries and peoples of East Asia had a curiosity about the world that reaches back into antiquity for thousands of years. As far back as the days of the Founding Emperors, the ancestors of the Chinese people engaged in seafaring adventures across the globe. They sailed in the company of mariners from India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Persia, Kamchatka, and from other regions of the Far East. Many of these mariners reached the shores of the New World where they contributed to the rich ethnic and cultural fabric of the Native Peoples. They returned to Asia with a variety of New World plants including maize (corn), tobacco, and chilies; and they obtained such valuable commodities as jade, copper, gold, furs, exotic feathers, dyes, and assorted drugs and aphrodisiacs.
Although official government policy in China sometimes excluded foreigners or restricted overseas merchants to border villages, the reason was not due to a lack of interest in world affairs. The main reason was usually the result of a need to maintain political stability or to prevent the spread of pandemic diseases. Enterprising merchants continued to build large ships and to sail abroad in spite of the official policy—even during the infamous overseas travel restrictions of the later Ming dynasty. Overseas travel was also a passion among Buddhist and Muslim missionaries for many centuries—and it resulted in the spread of Confucian, Buddhist, and Moslem influences to the New World.
In 1255, Marco Polo’s father, Niccolò, traveled to China in order to spy on the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. His reign in China (1260-1293) was partly the result of an inheritance from his grandfather—the conqueror Genghis Khan. He completed the conquest of Southern China leaving many regions devastated by warfare and genocide. Kublai captured the Sung navy; and he contemplated the conquest of Japan. Many Europeans of that era dreaded the possibility that Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies might attempt a maritime invasion from across the ocean. This was regarded as a very real possibility because most Europeans during the Middle Ages believed that China was situated directly to the west on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The threat seemed even worse when Franciscan spies overheard conversations among Chinese and Korean explorers who said that they had identified “New Lands” lying far to the east of Japan. These were the legendary isles of Fu Sang, the Isle of Immortals, and Ta Han (or North America).
After living in China for ten years and becoming a confidant of the Emperor, Niccolò Polo returned to Venice where he recruited his son, Marco, to serve in the secret service. The Polo team of Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco reached the court of Kublai Khan in 1275. Because he had already learned the essential languages of commercial leaders and the Mongol diplomatic protocols, Marco was deputized as Kublai Khan’s special revenue agent and diplomat. He was entrusted to accompany the overseas mapping expeditions of teams of Chinese, Korean, and Persian explorers who were sent to the Arctic regions and to the West Coast of the New Lands. Marco’s mission was to conduct diplomatic affairs and to compile an inventory of export commodities while trained surveyors charted the seacoasts, harbors, and rivers. These expeditions had combined military, commercial, and political goals.