Discover the Spirit of Zheng He Inspiration Towards Peace and Prosperity

East Asia Religious Leaders Forum, Remembering Zheng He 600 Years Ago: Cooperation for Peace and Prosperity

By Shi Chin Kung , 12 February 2006, Jakarta, Indonesia

I. Prologue

It is a great honor to be invited by the Indonesian Committee on Religion for Peace and Multi-Culture Society and to have this opportunity to share my experiences and views on the topic of “Unity and Solidarity of Religions and Resolution of Conflicts Towards Peace and Stability of the World”. I am very grateful to have this chance to learn from religious leaders, scholars, and experts at this forum.

II.Travel Around the World; Manifestation of the Spirit of Peace and Loving-Kindness

Zheng He, both Chinese and a Muslim, was born in the fourth year of Emperor Tai Zu of the Ming dynasty and passed away in the tenth year of Emperor Xuan Zong (1371-1435). Six-hundred years ago, he received an imperial decree from Emperor Cheng Zu of Ming dynasty to commence seven seafaring explorations and discovery of the world with the goal to “befriend and propagate moral education to countries of distant shores”. He embarked on his first voyage during the third year of Emperor Cheng Zu’s reign (1405) and his last voyage during the fifth year of Emperor Xuan Zong’s reign. In the eighth year of Emperor Xuan Zong’s reign, he returned home after the completion of his task. According to the “Four Treasuries of Assembled Essentials” under the section “History of Ming”, his seven explorations took place in the following years:

1) 1405 (3rd year of the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu)
2) 1408 ( th year of the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu)
3) 1412 (10th year of the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu)
4) 141 (14th year of the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu)
5) 1421 (19th year of the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu)
6)1424 (22nd year of the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu)
7)1430 (5th year of the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong)

Each voyage lasted approximately two years, and in his twenty-eight years (1405-1433) of travel, he landed in major cities from the central and southern parts of today’s Vietnam, Thailand, Malay Peninsula, the south Pacific Islands, and India, and as far away as Iran, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa. Zheng He’s fleet visited over thirty countries. His fleet was the largest in the world at that time with more than twenty-eight thousand sailors. The number of ships in each voyage numbered from sixty-two to over two hundred. His flagship “Boat of Treasure” was one hundred fifty meters long, twice the length of the main hall in Beijing’s Forbidden Palace and comparable in size to modern aircraft carriers. Unlike modern ships, Zheng He’s fleet was built of wood and used sails. While normal sailing ships have three to six masts, the “Boat of Treasure” had a dozen masts. This was many times the size of Columbus’s ship.
On his voyage in the nineteenth year of the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu (1421-1423), Zheng He made his most important discoveries. Zheng He divided the fleet into four teams, each sailing a different route. They traveled to every continent in the world, passing through sixty-two archipelagos, totaling over one thousand seven hundred islands. As a result, cartographers were able to make tens of thousands of coastline maps. His fleet passed through the Indian Ocean and arrived at the east coast of Africa. They then navigated through the Cape of Good Hope, passing through the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and found the Arctic and South America. They then traveled south and found Antarctica. From there, they sailed through the Pacific Ocean and landed in Australia and New Zealand. This tells us that Zheng He’s fleet discovered Australia and Antarctica three hundred fifty years earlier than Captain Cook, traveled around the world one hundred years before Magellan, and landed on the American continent seventy years ahead of Columbus.

Zheng He truly was a great navigator! He possessed the wealth of knowledge, courage, and wisdom to command his fleet through vast oceans amidst trying conditions, and found new lands and discoveries for the human race. His rarest quality was that as a faithful Muslim, he adhered to the moral and virtuous teachings of the Koran; he personally exercised the infinite mercy of Allah for all human beings and displayed his traditional Chinese cultural wisdom of peace and loving-kindness. During his seven expeditions, no colony was ever established and not an inch of land invaded or claimed by his presence. He contributed to the local people by providing better farming techniques, technical advances, and cultural exchanges. The locals gave him the title “Three Protector Eunuch”. Even today, there are still many popular temples of Zheng He in the various regions of the South Pacific.

Gift exchanges were prominent events for Zheng He. When the locals sent their regards to the Chinese Emperor in the form of local produce, the Chinese Emperor reciprocated by giving at least double the amount of gifts received. This was the way of expressing friendship and sincerity. The Chinese cultivated this mentality through years of moral education starting from youth. Traditional Chinese family education taught their young to always exercise kindness, generosity, consideration, and sincerity to others. This was seen in Zheng He’s foreign policy of harmony and peace towards different countries, groups, and religions.

The core of traditional Chinese education could be summed up with the word “love” or education of love. Since ancient times, Chinese have been nourished by such education. In the five thousand years of recorded history, whenever the tribe of Han ruled the land, China had never invaded other countries. One will not find a war initiated by the Chinese for the purpose of occupying another’s land. It was a country of peace simply because they had been receiving education of peace and love. They would willingly sacrifice their lives for others and would not invade or take from others by force.

Zheng He, the navigator from the fifteenth century, brought Chinese skills and knowledge to benefit people around the world across great distances. At the same time, he spread the peace loving spirit of the Chinese to the five major continents of our world. He brought prosperity and wealth to people at that time. Today, after six hundred years, his past deeds give us much inspiration about how we can bring forward peace and harmony through the spirit of honesty, sincerity, compassion, and love. The message of “benevolence, compassion, universal love, sincerity, respect, humility, and harmony” was not just the essence of Chinese traditional education: it was the common teachings and guidelines of all religions and their saints and sages. It represented the innate purity and goodness that all beings possess originally. It was no wonder that many eastern and western scholars, including the renowned English historian Dr. Toynbee who extensively studied and thoroughly understood the traditional Chinese culture, believed that the education of benevolence, compassion, and universal love was real. Such teachings and education were all part of the cultural inheritance of humankind. These treasures of wisdom, when properly implemented and enhanced, truly would bring long lasting harmony, peace, prosperity, and wealth to the twenty-first century.

III. Saints and Sages’ Education that Inspires “Wisdom, Benevolence, and Courage”

From history, we saw that Zheng He’s exploration was not an easy undertaking and there were many experiences to be gained. He measured the accurate longitude of earth three hundred years before the Europeans and mapped out the positions of many new islands. European navigators relied on his map to find the New World. He adapted to the constantly changing seafaring conditions and always had long-term supplies for his twenty thousand crews. There were times when he encountered pirates and robbers. These problems were resolved with wisdom and courage. He would defeat these enemies and yet always showed mercy and leniency. He made passages safe for friends and visitors from afar to see China. Visitors and delegates from overseas were numbered well above any other times in history.

We may wonder where did Zheng He’s spirit, compassion, wisdom, and courage come from. In actuality, it was the result of education from both Chinese traditional education and the education of the Koran. In my lectures, I often mentioned that saints, sages, Buddhas, and bodhisattvas were the end result of appropriate teaching. A good person was the product of good teaching, whilst a bad person was also the product of another kind of teaching. Terrorists were no different. Everything depends on how we conduct education. In order to resolve all conflicts and seek peace, prosperity, and social stability, we have to rely on the education of saints and sages.

In terms of education, China has had rich experiences and achievements. While more than five thousand years ago, the Chinese began emphasizing the importance of education, it was not until the reigns of Emperor Yao and Shun that a clear structure was established. According to historical records, in ancient times, Emperor Yao instructed Hou Ji to teach people how to farm. Once the five types of crops were harvested and people’s basic needs were met, the way or path to humanity could begin. After attaining basic needs, if humans were not educated, they would resemble beasts. The saint (Emperor Yao) worried about this outcome and sent Qi to teach the five moral principles to the people: (1) There shall be a loving relationship between parents and children; (2) There shall be loyalty and fairness between leaders and followers; (3) There shall be distinct responsibilities between husband and wives; (4) There shall be order between seniors and juniors; and (5) There shall be trust between friends. This recorded history described how Emperor Yao and Shun started their educational system more than four thousand five hundred years ago in China.

If people are not taught, their nature will change for the worse.

There were four types of education: family education, formal education, social education, and religious education. Family education formed the basis of all other types of education. The content of these four types of education centered on morals, virtues, causality, and religion. Other subjects such as science, skills, arts, and applied knowledge were only secondary in importance. When all four types of education were achieved, social harmony and world peace would be attainable.

In September 2005, I had a meeting with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Southern Queensland and several professors in Australia. One topic of our conversation was about a study that was conducted before World War II. Several European scholars researched why Chinese civilization still stands while the other three ancient civilizations had virtually disappeared. The research concluded that the most likely explanation was the strong emphasis that the Chinese placed on family education.

I could not agree more with this conclusion. The Chinese traditional education had always focused on family education. Parents started educating their infants from the day they were born. Parents lived as role models for their children, firmly believing that their every gesture and word would leave an imprint on their infant’s mind and later affect his life. Chinese education began three to four days after an infant’s birth. This gave rise to the following Chinese saying, that “At the age of three, one sees how the person will be at eighty years of age. At the age of seven, one foresees the rest of the person’s life.” According to history, “the youngest son of King Zhou Tai married Tai Ren, who was a demure and graceful lady. She followed the way of virtues. When she was pregnant, her eyes avoided sight of sin; her ears listened to no frivolous sounds; her mouth did not utter words of insolence. She was educating her son in the womb. Later, she gave birth to Emperor Zhou Wen, one of the greatest emperors in China. Both the mother and son were in the league of saints.” This is what the Chinese understood as “pre-natal education”.

When children reached five to six years of age, they were sent to private school founded by private individuals. For every twenty-five families, there would be a school; for every five hundred families together, the larger school would be called “Xiang”「庠」 ; for every twelve thousand families the school was called “Xu”「序」 ; the schools in Imperial or the royal capitals were called “Xue”「學」 . State administered schools began in the Han dynasty when the university was created. Later in the Tang dynasty, an official education department was established, completing the educational structure. This system was able to train many future government officials. In the area of social education, there were whole arrays of educational entertainment for various generations of people. Plays, songs, dances, recitation of books were parts of what was available. They taught people to see the importance of loyalty, filial piety, integrity, and