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On 2 february 1421, China dwarfed every nation on earth. On that Chinese New Year's Day, kings and envoys from the length and breadth of Asia, Arabia, Africa and the Indian Ocean assembled amid the splendours of Beijing to pay homage to the Emperor Zhu Di, the Son of Heaven. A fleet of leviathan ships, navigating the oceans with pinpoint accuracy, had brought the rulers and their envoys to pay tribute to the emperor and bear witness to the inauguration of his majestic and mysterious walled capital, the Forbidden City. No fewer than twenty-eight heads of state were present, but the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor of Byzantium, the Doge of Venice and the kings of England, France, Spain and Portugal were not among them. They had not been invited, for such backward states, lacking trade goods or any worthwhile scientific knowledge, ranked low on the Chinese emperor's scale of priorities.
Zhu Di was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, who had risen to become the first Ming emperor despite his lowly birth as the son of a hired labourer from one of the poorest parts of China. In 1352, eight years before Zhu Di's birth, a terrible flood had struck parts of China. The Yellow River had burst its banks, submerging vast areas of farmland, washing away villages and leaving famine and disease in its wake. The country was still in the throes of a terrible epidemic. The Mongols had ruled China since its conquest in 1279 by the great Kublai Khan, grandson of the greatest warlord of them all, Genghis Khan. But in 1352, plagued by famine and disease and desperately poor as a result of the depredations of their Mongol overlords, the peasants around Guangzhou on the Pearl River delta rose in revolt. Zhu Yuanzhang joined the rebels and rapidly emerged as their leader, rallying soldiers and farmers to his cause. During the next three years the revolt spread throughout China. Over decades of peace, the once ferocious Mongol warriors, the scourge of all Asia, had grown idle and complacent. Riven by internal dissension, they proved no match for the army raised by Zhu Di's father. In 1356, his forces captured Nanjing and cut off corn supplies to the Mongols' northern capital, Ta-tu (Beijing).
Zhu Di was eight years old when his father's army entered Ta-tu itself. The last Mongol Emperor of China, Toghon Temur, fled the country, retreating north to the steppe, the Mongol heartland. Zhu Yuanzhang pronounced a new dynasty, the Ming, and proclaimed himself the first emperor, taking the dynastic title Hong Wu. Zhu Di joined the Chinese cavalry and proved himself a brave and skilful officer. At the age of twenty-one he was sent to join the campaign against the Mongol forces still occupying the mountainous south-western province of Yunnan, bordering modern Tibet and Laos, and in 1382 he was ordered to destroy Kun Ming, to the south of the Cloud Mountains, the remaining Mongol stronghold in the province. After the city was taken, the Chinese butchered the adult defenders and castrated those prisoners who had not reached puberty. Thousands of young Mongol boys had their penises and testicles severed. Many perished of shock and disease; the surviving eunuchs were conscripted into the imperial armies or kept as servants or retainers.
Eunuchs served as 'palace menials, harem watch dogs and spies' for rulers throughout the ancient world, in Rome, Greece, North Africa and much of Asia, and they had played an important role throughout Chinese history. Surprisingly, they were intensely loyal to the emperors who had authorized their mutilation. There had been eunuchs at the imperial court since at least the eighth century BC and as many as seventy thousand were employed in and around the capital. Only sexless males were permitted to act as personal servants to the emperor and to guard the women of his family and the quarters occupied by his concubines in the 'Great Within', inside the palace doors. Emperors retained thousands of concubines both as a symbol of their power and to ensure a number of male heirs at a time of high infant mortality; guaranteeing the continuity of the dynasty and the worship of ancestors was a vital part of Chinese cultural rites. Non-eunuchs, even relatives of the emperor and his consorts, were barred from the vicinity of the women's quarters on pain of death. The absence of potent males ensured that any children born to the concubines had been sired by the emperor alone.
Eunuchs also helped to preserve the aura of sanctity and secrecy that surrounded the imperial throne. While the gods granted a 'Mandate of Heaven' to legitimize the emperor's rule, they could rescind it if he proved guilty of human failings, misgovernment or misconduct. It was forbidden to look upon the emperor: even senior officials kept their eyes downcast in the imperial presence, and when he passed through the streets, screens were erected to shield him from public gaze. Only the 'effeminate, cringing eunuchs', slavishly dependent upon the emperor for their very lives, were considered cowed enough to be silent witnesses to his private foibles and weaknesses.
Ma He, one of the boys castrated at Kun Ming, was billeted in the household of Zhu Di, where his name was changed to Zheng He. Many of the Mongols whom Zhu Di and his father expelled had adopted the Muslim faith. Zheng He was a devout Muslim besides being a formidable soldier, and he became Zhu Di's closest adviser. He was a powerful figure, towering above Zhu Di; some accounts say he was over two metres tall and weighed over a hundred kilograms, with 'a stride like a tiger's'. When Zhu Di was elevated to Prince of Yen -- a region centred on Beijing -- and given the new and more important responsibility of guarding China's northern provinces, Zheng He went with him.1421
Excerpted from 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies
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