Saturday, April 15, 2006

Ancient Chinese Naval Secrets

The three most impressive Chinese naval feats were each produced by representatives of different influences on Chinese history. Two of the great naval accomplishments, the massive Mongolian amphibious raids on Japan in the 13th Century, and the Treasure Fleet of the 15th Century were accomplished by those who might accurately be called “outsiders.” The Grand Canal, that longest of man-made waterways, indispensable to the rise of Chinese power, was conceived and built by Chinese, albeit by leaders who made up one of the shortest dynasties in Chinese history.

The Grand Canal’s genesis dated from when Yang Di of the Sui Dynasty (580-618 AD) decided to move the capital of China from to Luoyang. Yang Di saw the strategic implications of moving the capital to Luoyang because it was well defended by mountainous passes and gave him access to the major rivers of China, provided he could link them with a canal system. Yang Di was so impressed with his choice of a capital that he was moved to poetic language to justify his choice: “With excellent land and water transportation, it provides a whole gamut of taxes and tributes. Thus, Gao Zu of Han said: I have traveled far and wide under heaven, and have only seen Luoyang.” (Xiong, pg 77) He built on the work his father started, with an ambitious canal program. “In fact, under Yang Di, Luoyang evolved into the hub of an unprecedented nationwide water transportation system which came to be known as the Grand Canal. Arguably his greatest legacy, it was also his most criticized and costly public works project.” (Xiong, pg 86) While it was a great engineering triumph, the Canal’s cost in human lives and treasure help to bring about the early end of the Sui Dynasty.

The demise of the Sui Dynasty did not mark the end of the canal, but the waterway did fall into periods of ill repair. During the wars between the Song Dynasty and the Mongols, the canal suffered from lack of upkeep and from battle damage. Upon coming to power, Yang Di moved the capital to Bejing to better govern the North, and to more quickly respond to overland threats from the Mongols to the North. But making the move north required that there be high-speed lines of communication throughout the country. The necessity for “The decision of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to relocate the Ming capital from Nanjing on the Yangtze River to Beijing in the north, amplified the importance of the Grand Canal to the maintenance of state power.” (Dodgen, pg 2) Commerce moved over the inland canal safe from marauding pirates on the coast. Troops were able to move to where they were needed to protect the country or for the dynasty to assert its control over China. The government could move tax levies from the wealthy south toward the capital to pay for the lavishness at court which typified the Ming Dynasty and for the defense of China on the frontier. The safe movement of commerce and troops upon which the dynasties depended meant the canal defended over-water transport from foreign sea-going pirates. This fact certainly qualifies the canal as a great naval achievement.

The other major Chinese naval feats had less of a completely “Chinese” character than did the building of the canal. The first of these feats was the formidable amphibious armada put together by the Kublai Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan. Kublai Khan realized the importance of naval transport to securing the coast and lines of communication in China. He built a fleet of 7000 ships and 120,000 men which served to crush the final remnants of the Song Dynasty. Rather than let this huge force stand idle or disintegrate, Kublai launched naval campaigns against Vietnam and Japan. He chose Japan because he had heard it would be an easy invasion. “Kublai Khan's interest in Japan was aroused in 1265 when Cho Yi, a Koryo courtesan, informed him that Japan could be subdued easily. In the following year, Kublai sent two emissaries He De and Yin Hong to Koryo and asked King Kojong to facilitate their entry to Japan.” (Rang)

The Japanese rebuffed these initial entreaties, which frustrated Khublai Khan. Over the next few years, he insisted with more and more urgency that Japan recognize and pay respects to his rule. Eventually, in early 1268, he sent a more urgent letter. The letter Khan sent was not exactly diplomatic: He demanded that the shogun in Japan recognize his authority and that there be no delay, lest there be a war. (Hishida, pg 64). The Japanese refused even to respond to this letter, which served to enrage Kublai. He rushed to assemble a fleet to invade and conquer.He ordered hundreds of sea going ocean junks build on the Song design which featured the revolutionary innovation of water-proof compartments. (Turnbull, Fighting Ships; pg 13)

Kublai’s naval feat was actually an amphibious operation. The huge fleet, full of battle hardened veterans, landed on the western-most main island of Japan, in Hakata Bay, which is now surrounded by Fukuoka City. The soldiers made landfall, and were met by the city’s garrison of samurai, who were arrayed in traditional garb, prepared to do battle in classical samurai style. The samurai’s style on one-on-one combat with edged weapons was terribly inadequate to the squad and platoon tactics the Mongols had perfected over years of conquest. The Mongols quickly overwhelmed the overmatched garrison, the remnants of whom retreated into the city’s defendable rampart. (Varney, pg 107) The Mongols, however, were unable to consolidate the victory. For reasons that are murky, the Mongols retreated after burning a temple and much of the city. Some argue that approaching weather caused the Mongols to withdraw. (Jackson, pg 159) Other sources argue that the Mongols ran of arrows, and withdrew and the tale of a divine wind was just after-the-fact Japanese mythologizing. (Turnbull, Ghengis Khan; pg 66) Another theory involves superstitious Korea troops threatening mutiny if the were not immediately withdrawn from the battle. The on-scene commanders sensed the possibility of losing control, and ordered a withdrawal. (Sansom, pg 440) Regardless of the reason, while back on the ships, a storm blew up, capsized some ships, dispersed others, and the remaining ships made for Korea, ending the threat. This storm, celebrated as the kamikaze (divine wind) in Japanese literature, and the dispersion of the Mongol fleet would be repeated in seven years. At that time, Khan would again attempt an invasion of Japan. (Smits)

The second invasion, in 1274, would feature an even larger invasion force, but a concomitantly larger, and better prepared defensive force. Khan intended his forces to conquer and settle Japan. The Japanese suspected that Khan would again press an invasion in the same place, Hakata Bay. So, in defense, the Japanese built a seven foot wall, facing the sea, around Hakata Bay. Khan envisioned two huge fleets coming together near an island off the coast of Japan, and massing for the final assault on Hakata Bay. The daunting logistical challenges inherent in this plan caused the invasion to commence out of sequence and to wither in the face of the strong Japanese defense. The Mongols were forced to a couple of small islands in the bay and the sides continued to skirmish for a couple of months. While the fleet was in the bay, another kamikaze typhoon arose and destroyed the fleet, ending the attempted invasion. (Turnbull, Ghengis Khan; pg 68) Though ultimately unsuccessful in conquering Japan, Kublai’s ability to mobilize these massive fleets even to attempt an invasion of Japan from sea, was a remarkable naval endeavor, unmatched by another Chinese fleet, until those raised by Zheng He in the early 15th century.

Zheng He was probably the only person in China who could have put together the huge fleets which went on the numerous voyages in pursuit of glory for emperor Zhu Di. However, there was little indication from his early upbringing that the future Ming admiral would become so skilled a mariner. Zheng He was from Yunnan province, a landlocked area in the southwest of China. When the Ming conquered Yunnan in 1381, Zheng He, then a 10 year old boy named Ma San Bao, was captured by the Ming and castrated to be made a servant of the Ming court. He quickly rose through the ranks because of his intelligence, political skills, organizational abilities, military prowess and trustworthiness. Because Zheng He was a eunuch, a Muslim and an outsider, he was not tainted as so many of the advisors of Zhu Di’s predecessor had been. Zheng He survived the purge attendant to the Yongle emperor’s accession to the throne and the future admiral did much to prove his loyalty to the new emperor. The Yongle emperor tapped him to organize a fleet of treasure ships ostensibly to extend the influence of China, but also rumored to be mission to find the disposed emperor who was said to have fled overseas. For such a mission, only the most trusted aide could be sent, and Zheng He was obviously such a man.
The fleet Zheng He was impressive, perhaps the largest wooden fleet to ever set sail. The seven voyages he is known to have completed are very impressive, stretching all the way to the east coast of Africa and as far north as points along the Red Sea and possibly to the northern reaches of Australia. He acquired much treasure and great fame for China, and spread legends of huge Chinese junks all over the Indian Ocean basin. (Levathes, pg 69-74)

The three major naval accomplishments of China; the major hydraulic engineering feat of the Great Canal, the massive Mongol amphibious raids on China, and the huge treasure fleets of the Ming Dynasty, represented very different fields of endeavor. Each required huge amounts of ingenuity, a large amount of man power, and great will on the part of the leadership. And while each accomplishment is “Chinese,” it is interesting that these things were, in turn, accomplished by one of the shortest lived Dynasties, a Mongol invader, and a Muslim Eunuch. What this observation says about the accomplishments is unclear, but it does illustrate the point that China is not a homogenous entity. Rather, China is a collection of quite disparate elements, each of which needs to be examined independently as well as in context, to glean the clearest picture of this huge nation.


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