Patriarchy in China and Greece

The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty
The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty

Xi Shi, who was a contemporary of Buddha, was one of the four beauties of ancient China.  It seems she was so beautiful that when they looked her, the fish forgot to swim and sank and the birds forgot to flap their wings and fell to the ground. She was the concubine of King Fuchai of Wu who it seems was so smitten by her beauty that like King You of the Zhou, he forgot his dharma. King Fuchai’s kingdom was invaded and he was forced to commit suicide.
Examples of Bao Si and Xi Shi taught the Chinese that women can be dangerous and can bring down the city and the nation. Thus when the heavy handed Qin dynasty collapsed and the Han dynasty emerged in the 3rd century BCE, they made changes to differentiate themselves from the Qin. Since the Qin followed a centralized model of administration, the Han followed a decentralized model. The Han also switched from the legalistic model to a Confucian model and with that patriarchy was built into the system.
It was clear that women were trouble and had to be kept out of power. If a woman was educated, it was considered equivalent to arming the enemy. There were three obedience and four virtues a woman had to practice in the Confucian culture.

The three obediences dictate that a woman must obey her father before manage, her husband after marriage and her sons after her husband’s death.These rules originated in conventions concerning the appropriate length of a woman’s mourning period following the death of her father and husband, gradually becoming the normative code insuring women’s lifelong subordination to men.[Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millennium: Narrative Analyses and Gender Politics]

The four virtues related to the behavior of women and was adopted by families across the nation and the subordination of women was institutionalized.
What about Greece, the land of democracy and culture? It is from Greece that we get the story of Pandora, the woman who bought all the evils to humanity, thus hammering a similar point that women are a problem and have to be controlled. According to Meno, “A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband.”
From Greece again comes the story of Tiresias which goes like this. Once Zeus and his wife Hera have an argument on who has more pleasure during sex – man or woman. Since they could not come to an agreement, they called Tiresias who was transformed as a woman for seven years (long story). Tiresias replied, “”Of ten parts a man enjoys one only.” Once again, a good reason to control women.
Pandora was followed by Eve in the Hebrew Bible and all these stories, from the East and West, justified patriarchy. As global historians, when we examine such stories we find that patriarchy was not restricted to just one culture, but it transcended space in the ancient world.

  1. Lecture 18, 24of MMW 11 by Prof. Matthew Herbst at UCSD
  2. Chen, Ya-chen. Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millennium: Narrative Analyses and Gender Politics. Lexington Books, 2012.

The King who cried Wolf

Francis Barlow's illustration of the fable, 1687
Francis Barlow’s illustration of the fable, 1687

Aesop’s Fable of the boy who cried wolf is well known, but less known is a story from Chinese history which parallels this.
It happened during the reign of King You of the Zhou dynasty in the 8th century BCE. He had a concubine named Bao Si whom he loved more than the queen. The queen and her son were demoted and Bao Si and her son took the place. Everything looked good, except for one thing: Bao Si would not smile. This “no-laughing-matter” bothered the king and he pondered over various solutions.
The Zhou dynasty was established in the 11th century BCE and ruled by what is known as the Mandate of Heaven. According to this theory, the heaven would react based on the character of the king. If the king had bad character and did not govern properly, the heaven would send messages to correct him. The king had to govern with fairness and provide justice. In other words, he had to govern based on dharma. Confucius would be born into during the reign of this dynasty, but centuries later.
The king had around 148 vassals and they were kept happy and loyal. Once the beacon fire which is lit to summon the vassals in case of an emergency was accidentaly  lit. Various armies reached the capital only to find that it was a false alarm. But Bao Si was very happy seeing the military parade. Seeing her smiley face,  King You lit the beacons again and again and after a few times, the feudal lords said, “You, this is not funny!”
Then one day the real wolf showed up: the steppe people attacked and the beacons were lit again. This time the vassals ignored the king’s summons. The steppe people took over the capital in the Wei valley, killed the king and captured Bao Si. That was the end of the Western Zhou.
Is there any truth to this story? What is known is that the Western Zhou was attacked and the king was killed at this point. Regarding Bao Si, it loos like the story was made up by Chinese historians to either drum up the point that kings (or CIA directors) should not fall under the spell of women or to illustrate how a woman could cause the fall of a dynasty.

  1. MMW 11, Lecture 14 by Prof. Matthew Herbst at UC San Diego
  2. Tanner, Harold Miles. China: A History. Hackett Publishing, 2009.
  3.  Feng, Li. Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou 1045-771 BC. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

The Zheng He Coin

China’s role in Africa — the infrastructure projects in East Africa, investments in Sudan’s oil industry, mining contracts with various nations — is getting lot of attention these days.  Now China is being accused of colonization and all the evils associated with Western powers.
The Chinese presence in Africa is not new; it is at least six centuries old. Zhu Di, the third Ming emperor sent a fleet of ships under the command of Zheng He in 1405 CE.There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships which held lacquers, porcelain, and silks carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.
Under Zheng He’s leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast.

Now, besides doctors, diplomats and businessmen, China has also sent archaeologists to Africa and they have found a brass coin with a square hole near Malindi in Kenya (see video). This coin was minted between 1403 and 1424 and could have reached Africa through Zheng He’s fleet.

First, ancient texts told of Zheng He’s visit to the Sultan of Malindi – the most powerful coastal ruler of the time. But they also mentioned that Malindi was by a river mouth; something that the present town of Malindi doesn’t have, but that Mambrui does.
The old cemetery in Mambrui also has a famous circular tomb-stone embedded with 400-year-old Chinese porcelain bowls hinting at the region’s long-standing relationship with the East.
In the broad L-shaped trench that the team dug on the edge of the cemetery, they began finding what they were looking for.
First, they uncovered the remains of an iron smelter and iron slag.
Then, Mohamed Mchuria, a coastal archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya, unearthed a stunning fragment of porcelain that Prof Qin believes came from a famous kiln called Long Quan that made porcelain exclusively for the royal family in the early Ming Dynasty.[Could a rusty coin re-write Chinese-African history]

Also read: Chinese Power in Indian Ocean 

Confucius Strikes Back

The most popular cinema in China recently was not Avatar, but  (due to protectionist rules), a biopic of Confucius. During the Cultural revolution, the Communists were not big on the philosopher; there was a campaign against his ideas. During the 1919 May Fourth anti-imperialist cultural and political movement too Confucianism was regarded as incapable of responding to the challenges of the West: It held China back; it made China vulnerable.
This is quite evident from the 14th century episode of Zheng He when Ming fleets reached Kerala and sailed across the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf and the Swahili Coast. These were no ordinary fleets and for perspective we have to compare Vasco da Gama’s and Zheng He’s first voyages. Gama arrived in Calicut on two carracks and a caravel with a crew of 170 people; Zheng He’s first voyage to Cochin and Calicut had between 200 and 317 ships with a crew of 28,000 men.
While China could have monopolized the Indian Ocean trade that did not happen. One of the reasons China withdrew from these voyages was due to Confucianism.

The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]

The attitude towards Confucius has changed in the past three decades. He is popular not just among academics and the business community, but also among ordinary people. Yu Dan’s Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World sold ten million copies in two years and Chow Yun-Fat is playing the philosopher in the latest blockbuster.
Besides Yu Dan’s book, one of the reasons for the surge in interest in Confucianism is due to the interest by parents. Though it was not taught in Government schools, Confucianism became popular in private schools and children can now recite from his books.
Confucianism is big with the Government too; they are setting up  institutes named after him around the world to promote language and culture. The popularity of the philosophy works for them since Confucius promoted order, harmony and respect for hierarchy and authority. It can be used to justify authoritarianism.
But with this new found interest in Confucianism are the Chinese going to scale back on their global trade, support for Pakistan and North Korea and investments in Africa? The current administration is not going to commit the blunder of the Ming emperors. They know that this is good for cultural identity, but not for foreign policy.

  1. The Return of Confucius on NPR

The Earliest Satyagraha?

In 629 or 630 C.E., the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang reached the oasis city of Gaochang on his way to India. The king at that time was a Buddhist by the name of Qu Wencai and he was was thrilled to see the Master of the Law. He was so thrilled that he did not want the Master to travel West; he wanted him to stay in Gaochang.

This posed a problem and it started a diplomatic dance between the Master of the Law and the monarch. First the monarch sent a eighty year old master with this request. When that did not work, the monarch himself made the request. The Master praised the monarch’s goodness, but said that his heart disagrees. The monarch tried more praise: he said he had seen numerous teachers, but none as impressive as the master;he would provide for the Master till the end of his life; he would make all his subjects the Master’s disciples.

Nothing worked. Instead the Master explained why he was traveling to India – to correct the imperfect knowledge of Yogacara in China and to find the truth for himself. This angered the monarch and he threatened the monk with other means to resolve this debate.

Thus the stubborn monk faced a stubborn monarch. Faced with uncertainty, the Master told boldly that the the king had control over his body but not over his spirit, went into meditation, and refused to eat or drink. On the fourth day the monk almost fainted. The king felt guilty about the whole affair and gave permission for the monk to travel West.

This probably is one of the earliest use of hunger strike as a political weapon.


  1. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002). 
  2. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005). 

Converting Kublai Khan

According to the Joshua Project, the 10/40 window is home to people where the gospel has to be preached. The goal of this project is to share information to “encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic group and to facilitate effective coordination of mission agency efforts.” Or in simple words, facilitate conversion in Islamic countries, India, China and other minor countries in the neighborhood.
Ever since Roman Emperor Constantine legitimized the Jesus movement and converted to Christianity in his death bed, the religion expanded in a major way to change the West forever. There was a similar opportunity for Christians in the 13th century to convert Kublai Khan. If the Khan had converted, during the time of Mongol dominance (see map), the religious map of China and Mongolia would have made a Joshua Project volunteer smile.
The Khan did not hate Christians; in fact he had great respect for them. He was always curious about Christian kings and princes and wanted to know more about the Pope and how how Christians worshiped. When Niccolò and Maffeo (Marco Polo’s father and uncle) were returning back to Venice after their first visit, the Khan sent a letter to the Pope with them. It was a challenge. He wanted the Pope to send a hundred missionaries prepared to proselytize. These missionaries had to reason out that their faith was superior than others. If the Khan could be convinced he was ready to become a man of the Church without renouncing the Mongolian religion. He also wanted the Polos to get him the oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to have great healing powers.
The Polos gave Khan’s letter to the newly elected  Pope Gregory X who could only spare two Dominican monks instead of the hundred. With the oil, the two Polo brothers, along with a 17 year Marco Polo and the monks, started their journey to the Khan’s court. The monks dropped out in the middle of the journey due to fear, but the Polos reached the Khan’s court near Beijing and the Khan treated the oil with respect (the same way he would treat relics from Sri Pada)
Kublai Khan was once challenged by Nayan Khan, his uncle, who was a Nestorian Christian. In this power struggle, Nayan fought under a standard which displayed the “Cross of Christ”, but he did get any visions like Constantine during the battle of the Milvian bridge. Nayan lost and was killed as per Mongol custom – by wrapping in a carpet and dragged around violently – so that blood is not spilled. Following this when various people made fun of Nayan’s Christian faith and Holy Cross, Kublai Khan differentiated between Nayan’s treachery and his faith and ensured the Christians that they will not be persecuted for their religion; he did not behave like the 15th century Spaniards and 17th century French.
Actually Kublai Khan’s mother, Sorghaghtani Beki, was a Nestorian Christian. So you would think that she would influence him to convert. Even though she was a single parent, she made him appreciate Buddhism, Taoism and Islam besides Christianity. It was probably a wise thing to do to preserve harmony in the empire, but Sorghaghtani Beki did it out of conviction.
Seeing the Khan’s sympathy towards Christians the Polos asked why he did not convert? He said Christianity was just another religion and nothing else. Much before Marco Polo, William of Rubruck – a Franciscan missionary – made his way to Karakorum, debating Buddhist priests and nearly dying of starvation. He finally met Mongke Khan, Kublai Khan’s brother who explained to the Friar that the God has passed various religious beliefs to people and Mongols were a tolerant folk.
Kublai Khan told Marco Polo that he found idolaters had more power – they could make wine cups float to the khan or make storms go away. Basically he was more impressed with shaman magic than the promise of an after life. He said if he converted to Christianity and if his barons asked for an explanation, he had none. He thought that embracing Christianity would weaken him and the best way to maintain peace in the empire was to be in good terms with barons.
Right now 50% of Mongolians are Buddhists and 40% don’t belong to any religion. Christians and Shamanists form 6%; Muslims, 4%.

  1. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen
  2. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World by John Larner

The Ming Dynasty ship sinks

One documentary I watched while writing Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2) was based on Gavin Menzies’ best selling book  1421: The Year China Discovered America. The thesis of the book was that Zheng He’s fleet had reached America in 1421. But in the documentary, they put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.
To prove that Zheng He’s fleet could have reached America, a replica of the Ming Dynasty ship was built and it set sail to America from Xiamen. The ship made of wood held together with nails docked in San Francisco in October 2008 after a 69 day journey.
But tragedy struck while returning back to Taiwan.

After surviving several storms during its 10-month voyage, the junk broke in two and sank after it was rammed by a freighter just off Taiwan’s coast.
All 11 crew members were rescued after being found adrift on the wreckage.
“We have worked so hard for so many years, but we failed at the last minute, I’m really ashamed,” said Taiwanese captain Liu Ningsheng after being rescued by the coast guard. [BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Ming Dynasty replica junk sinks]

Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2)

Zheng He’s map (via Wikipedia)

Read Part 1

Turning Inward
After the death of Zhu Di, China turned against naval expeditions for which there are many reasons.

The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]

Confucius thought that foreign travel interfered with family obligations. In Analects he said “While his parents are alive, the son may not go abroad to a distance. If he does go abroad, he must have a fixed place to which he goes.” Since this was the moral code for the upper class, government service and farming were considered noble professions

Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transportand other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century’s end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral

Then things took a turn for the worse. The ships were let to rot in the port and the logs books and maps were destroyed. A major attempt at erasing history was done. Then as they say, life finds a way.

Unlike Agathocles, whose memory survived only through coins, Zheg He’s traces were scattered around for it to be erased quickly. In some countries he was worshipped as a god. The chronicles of Zheng He’s translators Ma Huan (Overall Survey of the Western Shores) and Fei Hsin (Overall Survey of the Star Fleet) survived. So did a few imperial decrees and some maps. Zheng He died in the seventh voyage and was probably buried at sea; his tomb contains his clothes.

Though Zheng He’s voyages were meant to be a peaceful projection of power, they often interfered in local politics and projected force. A Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi who was active in the Sumatra was captured in a battle in the Straits of Malaca and taken to Nanjing and executed. Michael Yamashita mentions that the Chinese put a new king – Manavikarma – on the throne of Calicut. The Sri Lankan king Alakeswara refused to be a tributary to the Chinese; he was captured and taken in chains to Zheng He’s boss.
If the Chinese were a naval power during the ascent of the European powers, the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean would have seen a different geo-political equilibrium.
References: This article was motivated by the lecture on China by Prof. Matthew Herbst in MMW4 series. By then Maddy had posted his well researched article on Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut. Michael Yamashita got paid to travel along his path for a year resulting in the book Zheng He (Discovery) which has amazing photographs. I did not read Gavin Menzies’ book, but picked the PBS documentary 1421: The Year China Discovered America (PBS)? based on it. When China Ruled the Seas devotes few pages to what they did in Calicut. Maddy also has a comprehensive article covering the Chinese trade in Calicut.
Postscript: A British submarine commander, Gavin Menzies, in a best selling book 1421: The Year China Discovered America argued that Zheng He’s fleet reached America in 1421. A PBS documentary by the same name put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.

Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (1/2)

Chinese treasure ship (via Wikipedia)

In 1498, three ships — Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, and Sao Miguel — appeared in Calicut heralding a new era in geopolitics and world trade. Vasco da Gama would become immortal for finding a route from Europe to India, avoiding the Muslims who had a monopoly on overland trade. But for the residents of Calicut, this was not a major event. They were used to foreign traders and many foreigners lived in the Malabar coast. Even da Gama’s ships and crew of less than two hundred people was not a jaw dropper since they had seen huge Chinese ships with larger crew in Calicut port.
Much before Europeans became major players in the Indian Ocean, traders routinely sailed from the Malabar coast to the Swahili coast. During that time the Chinese built the biggest ships of the era and under Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Jung Huh) made seven voyages reaching as far as the Swahili coast. With such technology, the Chinese could have dominated trade, instead of the Europeans, but they did not. It is interesting to see why.
Ming and Zheng He
This story begins on September 10, 1368 when Ukhaantu Khan of the Yuan dynasty fled to Inner Mongolia unable to face the rebels under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang. These rebels would establish the native Ming dynasty. The third Ming emperor Zhu Di, wanted to improve trade, enhance the empire’s prestige, and encourage a tribute system for which he ordered an armada to be built.
Zhu Di’s admiral for the mission was Zheng He, a six and half feet tall two hundred pound man. This 34 year old Muslim originally named Ma Ho, was captured as a child by the Ming army from the Mongol village of Yunan. Like the Egyptian Mamluks, these slaves had career paths, but only after castration and so Zheng He eventually became the Grand Eunuch.
Even before the Ming dynasty, huge Chinese ships were spotted in Kerala. In 1340, Ibn Battuta, who was in Calicut, saw 13 Chinese junks wintering in the port. Ibn Battuta who had traveled in various type of ships and dhows in his travels from Morocco to India never mentioned much construction details in his accounts, but the Chinese ships impressed him so much that he wrote about three types of ships — the large junks, middle sized zaws, and small kakams. Ibn Battuta also expressed happiness at the privacy offered in their cabins that he could take his slave girls and wives and no one on board would know about it.
In 1330, Jordan Catalani, a Dominican monk saw them in Quilon and wrote that they had over 100 cabins and 10 sails. They were triple keeled and held together not by nails or metal structures, but the thread of some plant. Ibn Battuta wrote that these ships carried thousand men of which four hundred were soldiers.
Zhu Di’s ships, under the command of Zheng He sailed in 1405. There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships held lacquers, porcelain, and silks. They carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.
Under his leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast and in the process he visited the Champa kingdom, Cambodia, Sumatra, Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Maldives. One item which Zheng He took back to China was a giraffe; how the giraffe was transported on a ship passing through a rough ocean is not documented well, but it certainly amused the king. So did zebras which were called celestial
They called Calicut, “a great country” and people as “honest and trustworthy”. They had good opinion of the Zamorin and observed that Calicut had a highly structured society, well trained army and a harsh system of justice. In Calicut they traded using the language of the fingers.
(Read Part 2)