Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kickass History: Zheng He

Zheng-He: BAMF
Chances are that if you live in the western world, you've never heard of this dude named Zheng He (he used to apparently get called Chang Ho by Europeans and Americans who couldn't give a flying fuck for accurate Chinese pronunciation), which is a damn shame. A very real and historic figure, Zheng He was an incredibly important and successful mariner, explorer and admiral during the Ming Dynasty in China and is widely regarded as the most important figure in Chinese navigational history, having ranged as far into the "Western Sea" (Indian Ocean) as East Africa. He made seven colossal tours of the Western Ocean between 1405 and 1433 marking him as one of, if not the, best-traveled mariners of his day. There's even one historian (Gavin Menzies, although perhaps the term "historian" is too generous, here) who believes that the famous admiral made it across the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the new world (the Americas) more than fifty years before Columbus would accidentally do the same thing.

So, what makes Zheng-He so kickass? Here's the skinny. First off, he helped the Zongle Emperor usurp the Ming throne and in the process earned a place at the emperor's side as one of the emperor's favorites; no small feat, particularly since he was a Hui Chinese Muslim, not exactly a majority, that the Ming were trying to "integrate" through forced marriage into "proper" Han Chinese families. How did Zheng He keep from being "integrated?" He became a eunuch. Yup. That's right. When faced with the prospect of getting "integrated" out of his people and religion, Zheng He said "fuck it, I didn't need these testicles anyway*." Kind of a badass way to solve that problem. According to the logic of the time, eunuchs earned sorcerous powers in their emasculation, so maybe there was some up side.

Okay, so, the emperor's pal, a member of an ethnic minority who gave up his manhood rather than his peeps, who may or may not be a sorcerer, is given a fast floating entourage by the emperor and told "hey, find out what's out there, will ya?" Not only did he find out what was out there, but by rolling up on it with a flotilla of heavily-armed Chinese sailors, Zheng He won the respect, loyalty and "tribute" of many cities along his path through a brand of diplomacy that, while being bloodless, probably had some sort of threat of violence hidden inside it somewhere. He cruised around the Indian Ocean like the HNIC, taking down pirate bands like Batman with an armada, giving him a chance to flex his muscles so the folks in Champa, Sumatra, Ceylon, Hormuz, Moghadishu and all those other places he went would know what he could do if he set his mind and weapons to it. Plus, me made a lot of maps and brought all sorts of treasures back to the Emperor, including giraffes. Giraffes!

Is there more to Zheng He than just being a badass sailor and explorer? Of course! He filled the role of super-diplomat, built himself a long list of enemies and even had a cult in his name after his death. Subsequent Emperors and dynasties tried to downplay Zheng He's awesomeness to the point where he was nearly completely forgotten by his people (obviously not the ones with the cult to him) until a scholar, Liang Qihao, wrote a book about him in 1904.

*Eunuchs of this particular time period in China did not merely have their testicles removed, but also their penises. The exact process was crazy-demanding and required cauterization-hot implements and urethra-clearing tubes so that the healing process didn't scar over important orifices needed to remove wastes. Still, lots of folks died during the eunicization process. So, not only did Zheng-He say "fuck it" to his balls, he also said "fuck it" to his penis, risked his life to blood loss and infection, and he probably had to spend his whole life pissing sitting down. Quite the sacrifice to make for his people and faith, sorcerous powers or not. 

Zheng He In Your Campaign

Zheng He was one of history's biggest badasses and there's plenty of room for a guy like him in most fantasy RPG campaigns. Here are a couple of the thoughts I've entertained about including him (or an NPC inspired by him) in my fantasy games.

The First Glimpse

Many scholars point to descriptions of ships found in the writings of the Italian Fra Mauro, in prison in India, that ostensibly describe Indian ships, but the descriptions more accurately reflect the ships that Zheng He and his crews would sail. Similarly, your PCs might encounter a fleet like Zheng He's while in some foreign land: decidedly unfamiliar ships belonging to a decidedly unfamiliar people from a decidedly unfamiliar land. Perhaps these sailors and their empire will become important later in the campaign (or even in the next campaign) or perhaps they will act as a red herring (where the players believe that they'll become important and look for signs of development throughout the campaign). In any case, these foreigners are well-regarded and treated with respect -- and perhaps a little fear. Perhaps the PCs are looking to acquire something important, only to find that the foreign sailors have been promised it or awarded it as tribute. These guys are just as alien to the locals as the PCs, but carry more clout, which often means that they have a leg up on the PCs in any meaningful rivalry or competition.

An Unexpected Ally

Zheng He and his armada often took on pirates in the seas he visited and even fought a land war against a kingdom in Ceylon on one of his voyages. While acting against pirates or tyrants -- even on their home turf -- the PCs may find an ally in a foreign power like Zheng He's fleet, one that is eager to spread its influence locally. If the party accepts the fleet's help, what are the long-term ramifications? What does this mean for foreign relations? Will the foreign power begin to demand tribute from the local government and threaten violence if their "efforts on behalf of the kingdom" are not recognized?

The Eighth Voyage of Zheng He

This is my requisite gonzo idea (and the idea I'm most likely to use). What if Zheng He (or his analog in your campaign) survived his seventh voyage and set off on his eighth? Gavin Menzies wants you to believe that this voyage was to the New World, but what if, instead of exploring the far side of the globe, he explored the Celestial Seas? In this scenario, Zheng He and his fleet set sail on moonlight to explore the domains of the Celestial Emperor, cataloging and mapping the heavens (and acquiring due tribute for his Imperial Highness) along the way. Perhaps the PCs encounter him as he returns to the world from the heavens and he enlists them to help him find the Emperor (now long-dead and -deposed). Or perhaps Zheng He needs reinforcements (or conscripts) for a new voyage; who better than the PCs to accompany him across the vastness of space for glory and treasure?