Zheng He: The Chinese at Calicut

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    The Chinese armada appeared on the horizon, set against a fiery tropical sun, presenting an awe-inspiring sight, as viewed from Calicut. Nothing could have prepared the thunderstruck port officials, the trading community of Arab Muslims, the fishermen or the locals who stood near the beach, watching the scene that unfolded in front of them, way back, in 1406 CE.

    The fleet of majestic Chinese junks stretching miles across the horizon, their white sails taut against the monsoon winds, was approaching Calicut. From the leading row boat which came ashore later, stepped a towering seven-footer Mongol Muslim, none other than the fearsome warrior admiral Zheng He! The animated crowd was silenced. The imperial Chinaman had arrived!

    India and China are linked to each other by ancient cultural and trade ties. While the travels of Chinese monks like Fa-Hein (399-412 CE) and Hiuen Tsang (630-645 CE) are well known, few in India are aware that the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He (1371-1433 CE) arrived in Calicut (present-day Kozhikode) on several trade missions in the early 15th century CE. Fortunately for us, his scribe Ma Huan left an account of some of the visits, and of what he saw here. The Chinese admiral’s visit to Calicut was a testament to the close relations the ports of Malabar on India’s West Coast had with China, for centuries.

    These ties date back to as early as 140-86 BCE, when envoys arrived by sea, at ports on the East coast of South India. Since then, vessels belonging to the Malay, Javanese, Vietnamese, Indian and Arab traders competed for space in those South China seas, resulting not only in robust trade and naval rivalry but also acts of piracy. Trade and contacts continued and it was after the port of Canton was reopened in 792 CE, that things started to change and the Chinese encouraged the Arabs to navigate towards eastern Asia. It was aboard Chinese junks that the merchants from the Persian Gulf first sailed to the Chinese ports.

    The ports along the Malabar coast in India played a very important role in this Arab-Chinese trade. China-bound ships would sail down the Persian Gulf with the monsoon winds, cross from Muscat to Malabar and spend the last two weeks, typically in December, trading at Kulam Mali (present-day Kollam in Kerala).

    By January, they would head through the Malacca Strait, in time to use the southern monsoon through the South China Sea. After a summer at Canton, the ship would return with the northeast monsoon to the Malacca Straits between October and December, cross the Bay of Bengal in January, and head out from Kulam Mali to the Gulf, early next year. A very long voyage indeed!

    The commercial contacts between Kollam and China continued through the reigns of the four major Chinese dynasties namely Tang (618-907 CE), Song (960-1229 CE) Yuan (1229-1368 CE) and the early part of the Ming period (1368-1644 CE). As trade flourished, the heavily planked, multi-decked Chinese ships known as junks began to sail towards South East Asia and South Indian shores, with Kollam as the farthest point West reached by Chinese ships until the ascent of the Ming dynasty. Kollam thus became the critical port of transhipment for the Sino-Islamic trade, where seafarers transferred goods to ships that travelled either East to China or West to the Arabian Peninsula across the “Eastern Sea of the Muslims”, the Arabian Sea.

    As the Arabian Abbasid Caliphate empire began to decline during the mid-11th centuries, its collapse paved the way for the ascending Turks. Kollam, well connected with the Abbasids was naturally affected since it depended a lot on these patrons and so, trade with the Persian Gulf declined rapidly. At this juncture two changes took place, the first being the restriction of trade due to the drain of coin currency in China and secondly, the displacement of Chinese, Jewish and Syrian Christian traders and guilds at Kollam, by the Karimi and Mamluk Arab traders. Important changes thus occurred both in Malabar and Kollam.

    The established Persians, i.e. the Iraqi – Baghdadi traders and their local counterparts at Kollam were getting sidelined by the new Karimi’s and the Mamluk merchants. Wanting no great friendship with the Christians and Jews at Kollam and seeing the ascent of a Muslim friendly Zamorin, the bulk of the Arab traders simply moved to Calicut. As a result, Calicut’s fortunes surged. Thus, by the time the Ming Voyages captained by Zheng He started in the 15th century, the port of Kollam though still in use, had fallen out of favour with Chinese rulers. By now the main trade stops had moved to Calicut.

    Around 1341- 1343 CE, the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta who visited Kollam and Calicut, wrote quite a bit about the Calicut port’s supremacy. Visiting Calicut no less than five times, he recorded details of the locale and the flourishing Calicut-China trade, providing ample details of many large Chinese junks berthed near the Calicut harbour.

    Out in China, it was in 1399 CE, that the Chu Ti (Zhu Di) and his eunuch supported army deposed Emperor Chu Yen-Wen, who fortuitously escaped. General Zheng He’s (Zheng He) association with Chu Ti dated back to the 1380’s when he was captured from the Mongol armies, castrated and drafted into the Ming Army. A huge, commanding man (his family records claim that he was seven feet tall, with a waist five feet in circumference, possessing glaring eyes, and a stentorian voice), he was considered to be a fierce warrior and was very much involved in the Chu Ti campaigns against the Mongols.

    From port records (Chau Ju Kua – Chu Fan Chi), we can see that the Zamorin’s envoys commenced formal visits to China in 1405 CE, and this was the beginning of Calicut’s inclusion in the Ming tributary system. The tributary system, simply put, was a mechanism by which regions outside the empire were given their place in the all-embracing Sinocentric cosmos. An imperial patent of appointment was bestowed upon the foreign ruler, in the form of a document that recognized his status as a tributary and established a foreign policy with them.

    Let us now look at the 15th century CE trade. Since Chu Ti had seized the throne by force, the Emperor was especially anxious to demonstrate and prove his legitimacy. It was also a time of great prosperity and thus, in 1403 CE, Chu Ti ordered the construction of an imperial fleet that was to include trading ships, warships, the so-called ‘treasure ships’, and support vessels. It is believed that they carried substantial treasures to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. He then ordered the fleet, under the command of Admiral Zheng He, to embark on a number of long voyages.

    Since Zheng He was Muslim, he would be able to establish good relations with Muslim trading communities as well as with Chinese traders in the ports the ships visited. Zheng He, it is said, commanded a fleet of 317 ships, almost 28,000 men, and their arms and supplies during these voyages. He oversaw, in all, seven voyages that touched Calicut between 1406 CE and 1433 CE. Multi-lateral trade prospered and formal relations between the Ming dynasty and several Indian, Middle Eastern and South-East Asian countries were established.

    While there is some argument about the size of these ships, they were reasonably large for that period. Reasons for the expensive voyages hovered around support from Muslim countries to stave off the looming threat from Timur’s armies, a search for the deposed emperor Chien Wen, to obtain substantial tributes from foreign states, to display Chinese might abroad and to stave off pirates from the South China Sea.

    When the Chinese sailors reached Calicut, their giant ships created a stir. Details of some of Zheng He’s expeditions were committed to paper by a Chinese Muslim scribe named ‘Ma Huan’, who was a translator to the fourth armada, which sailed in 1413 CE with 63 ships and 28,560 men. The book is titled The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shore (Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan).

    Ma Huan had a lot to write about Calicut – This (Calicut - called Ku Li in archaic Chinese) is the great country of the Western Ocean. In the fifth year of the Yung Lo, the court ordered the principal envoy, the grand eunuch Zheng He and others to deliver an imperial mandate to the king of this country and to bestow on him a patent conferring the title of honour and the grant of a silver seal, also to promote all the chiefs and award them hats and girdles of various grades.”

    He added: “The people are very honest and trustworthy. Their appearance is smart, fine and distinguished. Foreign ships from every place come there, and the king of the country also sends a chief and a writer and others to watch the sales, thereupon they collect the duty and pay it to the authorities.” Ma Huan added that their musical instruments were "made of gourds with strings of copper wire, and the sound and rhythm were pleasant to the ears."

    What did the Chinese do in Calicut? They sailed to Calicut as well as other ports, and picked up goods and spices, of course. But they also spent time on each of the seven voyages, for ship repairs, as they recuperated and replenished their stores before they continued on.

    For the westerly trade, they bartered in Calicut with gold coins, spices from South-East Asia and mainly rice that they had picked up in Odisha, to purchase silver for the trip to Zanzibar. Another item traded by Calicut merchants was medicinal Arabian opium that was purchased at a third of the price in Canton, by Chinese traders in Calicut. Cloth, coconuts and pepper are listed as produce, and Ma Huan mentions how prices were fixed under a towel (in practice even today in some wholesale markets). He also writes about the matrilineal succession policy followed by the Zamorins, ordeals of dipping hands in hot oil, the religious practices, and that a Chinese captain in 1409 CE had erected a stele in Calicut, to commemorate his visit.

    Where did the Chinese live in Calicut? They lived in an area around what is known as Silk Street these days, and close to the fortified factory – the Cheena Kotta. This area was later occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English (the Portuguese fort was also located nearby, as gathered from toponymical studies). Portuguese scribes have recorded that another Portuguese fort and a little Chinese fort – Chinna Kotta – existed near Chaliyam (3-4 miles south of Calicut), showing that there was a Chinese settlement there as well. In those days, the two main ports of Calicut were at the river mouth of Kallyi and at Pantalayini Kollam (3-4 miles north of Calicut). Ceramic shreds dugout during excavations point to a Chinese settlement at Pantalayani Kollam and, according to Dr Raghava Varier, this medieval port was the repair centre for Chinese ships. They had their own mosque, a Cheena Palli, at Pantalayani Kollam.

    With the Mongol threat on its borders and the great cost for the defences being put into place, things were going from bad to worse in China. Confounding the situation were floods, famines and plague. The state coffers started to run dry and a series of austerity measures were quickly introduced by Chu Ti. All sea voyages were curtailed around 1421 CE, luxury imports were stopped, and also the purchase of horses and teak wood.

    To compound it all, the royal sponsor, Emperor Chu Ti, died in 1424 CE. The naval fleet was grounded, the crew drafted into the army, and Zheng He and his teams were tasked with repairing the Nanking palaces after the new emperor took over. Nevertheless, a final voyage set out in 1431 CE, to attract new envoys, returning after three years, this time also touching new shores in Africa, the Middle East and Jeddah.

    Zheng He as it appears, died at Calicut during this last voyage of 1433 and was presumably buried at sea. The Chinese economy continued to deteriorate, their troubles in Annam (Central Vietnam) got worse. Up North, the Chinese lost to the Mongols and the Ming king was taken prisoner. And with that, Ming China shuttered its gates, ports, and shores, effectively walling itself off from the outside world.

    The next we hear about the Chinese in Calicut is from the Malayali priest Joseph aka ‘Joseph the Indian’, who went to Lisbon in Portugal in 1501 CE, in Alvarez Cabral’s Portuguese fleet. His accounts (although modified here and there by his interlocutors) were published around 1510-1520 CE. Joseph stated that the Chinese, possessing remarkable energy, had conducted a first-rate trade in Calicut. He tells us about the trade which flourished when the White Chinese with long hair, fez and head ornaments were present in Calicut, and adds that during the period 1410-1420 CE, the Chinese had a factory there.

    What he tells us next is quite dramatic: “Having been outraged by the King of Calicut, they rebelled and gathering a large army came to the city of Calicut and destroyed it. From that time and up to the present day, they have never come to trade in the said place and they go to a city of a King Naisindo which is called Mailapet.” So, according to Joseph, the Chinese left Calicut after this slaughter and shifted base to Mailapet, on the eastern shores of India (somewhere near Chennai), leaving behind in Calicut a small colony of half-castes (‘Chini-Bachagan’ as referred to in William Logan’s Malabar Manual and Persian traveller Abd-al-Razzaq Samarqandi‘s memoirs, dating to 1440 CE).

    To analyze the reasons for the Chinese departure, we should also look at the Mamluk-Calicut trade relations. In the 1431 CE Ming voyage, a couple of ships from Zheng He’s fleet had sailed towards Red Sea ports, alarming the traders in Jeddah. The Chinese did sail quickly back to Calicut after hearing about Zheng He’s death, but Arab ire may have been raised. It is quite plausible since the Chinese ships were larger and could make a huge impact, they could also destroy Mamluk trade links. And to top it all, the Chinese sailors and the admirals were mostly Muslim. It could have been an act of revenge by the Arab traders of Calicut believing that the Chinese were preparing to usurp the profitable Jeddah trade route. Did they take preemptive action to drive out the Chinese from Calicut? Perhaps!

    We do possess more anecdotal evidence of Chinese impact in the region. That the Chinese had some power over the warring rulers of Calicut and Cochin is evidenced from a coronation stone used when power changed hands in Cochin and Calicut, and we can see mentions of wars fought over the stone. From Portuguese records, we know that the stone was gifted by the Chinese, and it was inscribed with Chinese and Tamil characters, the Tamil ones recording a list of rulers (Calicut or Cochin) who had been in power. The stone vanished over the years, never to be seen again.

    There are also some mentions of a sailing community (the Chini Bachagan mentioned earlier) among the progeny left by the Chinese in Calicut, and there are those who merged with the Marakkar and Mappila populace. For example, there are mentions of the warrior Chinali and the admiral Chinese Cutiale in the Marakkar fleet, fighting the Portuguese.

    Thus, by the 16th century CE, major overtures to Calicut and the Middle East ceased as Ming China closed its sea borders and the Chinese left Calicut. The Portuguese had, meanwhile, taken notice and decided to venture out to Calicut themselves, entrusting Vasco da Gama to set sail.

    In 2007 CE, a Chinese researcher Liu Yinghua, trawling through manuscripts at Calicut University discovered 15 Chinese coins being used to tie together some palm leaf manuscripts. These coins turned out to be from a much later period – Emperors Qianlong (1736-1795 CE), Jiaqing (1796-1820 CE) and Daoguang (1821-1850 CE). This probably shows us that some form of trade relations may have continued between Calicut and China into the second half of the 19th century.

    Today, the only evidence of the Chinese in Calicut is the Silk Street and, in general, the many cooking utensils and vegetables used in the Malayali kitchen with purported origins from China. Examples are the cheena chatti (wok), cheeni mulaku (small green chillies), cheeni avarakka (Chinese beans), cheena pattu (silk), cheena bharani (porcelain pots). We also come across the popular terms cheena vala (Chinese nets at Cochin), cheena padakkam (fire crackers) and cheeni kanam (anchorage ship), in records. Some even mention that the Kerala dhoti was called ‘cheenathe mundu’.

    Note: The Ming emperor who sponsored the Zheng He expeditions is commonly known as the Yongle Emperor, with a personal name Chu Ti (Zhu Di). Zheng He is also known as Ma He, Sanbao and Chung Ho.


    Ullattil Manmadhan (Maddy) is a history enthusiast who writes about the history of the Malabar and Kerala on his blogs, Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys. A number of articles detailing Malabar-China relations can be perused at Historic Alleys.

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