by Perry Diaz
In 1402, when Zhu Di became the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, China embarked on an ambitious mission to extend its empire around the world. Zhu Di, who became to be known as Emperor Yong Le (or Yung Lo) -- "Perpetually Jubilant" -- built an armada of more than 3,500 ships including 250 humongous nine-masted "treasure ships," each measuring 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. By comparison, Columbus' Santa Maria only measured 90 feet long and 30 feet wide.
Yong Le divided his armada into several fleets and sent them in different directions around the world in an attempt to control the trade routes which at that time were dominated by the Arabs, Persians, and Indians. The most popular of these fleets was commanded by Admiral Zheng He who led seven expeditions into the Indian Ocean by way of the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. Beginning in 1405, Zheng He's expeditions went as far as India, Madagascar, and southward along the east coast of Africa. He returned from his last expedition in 1423.
Yong Le's goal was to chart the world and enforce China's "tribute system" among the countries of the world. In other words, Yong le wanted China to become the world's first superpower. In return for paying tribute to China, China would extend trading privileges and protect its trading partners from their enemies. Through these "bilateral trade agreements," China would also provide "soft loans"; thus, making its trading partners perpetually indebted to China.
It is interesting to note that China's tribute system was also extended to several regions in the Philippines including Luzon and the Sultanate of Sulu. In 1405, Yong Le claimed the island of Luzon -- they called it "Lusong" from the Chinese characters "Lui Sung" -- and placed it under the protection of his empire. The biggest settlement of Chinese was in Lingayen in Pangasinan. Lingayen became the seat of the Chinese colonial government in Luzon. When Yung Lo died in 1424, the Chinese colonial government was dissolved. However, the Chinese settlers -- known as "sangleys" -- remained and prospered.
On Chinese New Year's Day, February 2, 1421, a spectacular event -- never seen anywhere in the world before -- was held in Beijing, the new capital of Yong Le's empire. More than 28 heads of state and their ambassadors from all over Asia, Africa, Arabia, and the Indian Ocean assembled to pay homage to Emperor Yong Le and to celebrate the inauguration of his empire's seat of power, the Forbidden City. Indeed, China had finally reached the apex of world primacy. Yong Le was on top of the world.
Three months later, on May 9, 1421, the Forbidden City was struck by a thunderbolt. The newly constructed palace took a direct hit and Yong Le's throne was razed to the ground and a deadly conflagration followed. Meanwhile, an epidemic of unknown disease that had been raging in southern China for two years spread and killed several hundred thousand people. Yong Le believed that the catastrophe was an omen telling him that the gods were angry at him. He then temporarily handed the throne to his son, Zhu Gaozhi. On August 12, 1424, Yong Le died a broken man. Upon ascension to the throne, Zhu Gaozhi issued a decree stopping all voyages of the treasure ships. All foreign ambassadors were sent home and all Chinese officials who were abroad were ordered to come home.
Zhu Gaozhi ruled for only a year. His son, Zhu Zhanji succeeded him in 1425 and ruled for the next 10 years. After Zhu Zhanji's death, his successor issued edicts banning all foreign trade and travel. China closed it doors. Piracy and smuggling -- criminal offenses punishable by death -- were the only means of trade. For more than 100 years, China isolated itself from the outside world. It was during this time that the pirate Limahong ruled the South China Sea.
Today, after more than five centuries of self-isolation, China is once again emerging as a superpower. Its trade with the outside world has taken a new level of intensity and aggressiveness. State-owned Chinese companies have established trade and other commercial activities in every continent. It is predicted that China would be the number one economic power within 20 years; however, some economic experts say five to 10 years.
In August of this year, China will host the Summer Olympics in Beijing. It will be one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- events in China since the inauguration of the Forbidden City in 1421. Leaders from countries around the world are expected to attend in what is billed as the most spectacular Olympic Games opening ceremonies in history.
Last May 12, 2008, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit central China killing almost 70,000 people and left more than 15 million homeless. Aftershocks continue to take their toll in human lives and property. Internal politics as well as external conflicts -- including the Tibet issue -- were placed in the back burner. Right now, the number priority is to deal with the devastation caused by the earthquake.
China's communist leaders might see the earthquake and the devastation that followed as an ominous sign similar to the thunderbolt and conflagration that occurred in 1421. The Chinese people are very superstitious and I won't be surprised if China would back track once again in its quest for global economic dominance like it did in 1421. But would they forego the notion that by doing so, their 600-year dream of world primacy would once again fade into oblivion.