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Admiral Zheng He’s Voyages to the West Oceans: Analytical Review

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Unseen glory and history: uncovering the historical significance of the Qinghai

Temple in Nanjing, China

Most Asian temples are built for religious purposes, often for worship and ritual practices. This is not surprising since the Asian civilizations are largely influenced by their rich spiritual beliefs, which are usually associated with the divinity of natural entities, thus their polytheistic tendencies. Aside from religious practices, temples also became a center for ancestral worship. Chinese officials also used community institutions such as temples to gain financial support for the establishment and development of public infrastructures (Tsai, 2002). Although these are the norms, some temples were built of shifted into centers or museums to commemorate a key figure in history.

Southwest of the Shizi Mountain in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China is a centuries-old temple that was once built to honor a sea goddess for her divine interventions in rescuing and protecting navy men and imperial envoys. Afterward, the said temple shifted its purpose to remember the eunuch and admiral Zheng He and his successful maritime voyage, which pave the way for China to establish diplomatic ties with neighboring countries in spite of the challenging geographical hindrances that led to the isolation of China from nearby lands.

The Jinghai Temple also called the Nanjing Jinghai Temple Memorial, is also a heritage site that keeps valuable historical records that remain relevant to the contemporary period of the Chinese. It served as the location where the Treaty of Nanjing was discussed in order to put an end to the First Opium War between the Chinese and British governments—a treaty that even after a long period is still given with great attention for being unequal to the Chinese because of its imposed trading agreements that are said to put the Chinese in great disadvantage for a long period of time.

Chaotic damages brought by the tragic aftermaths of warfare and calamities have been witnessed by the Jinghai Temple, which almost led it to its destruction. Despite having some of its parts irreparable, the temple has still undergone through rehabilitations to bring it back to its glory because of its religious and historical significance. In the midst of its bloody past, the temple was given the name “Jinghai” which stands for the calmness of the sea and the calling for peace and harmony.

With its historical value and its importance, Jinghai Temple as a research topic proves to be an interesting subject that can bring enlightenment in the discovery of the ancient Chinese belief, foreign trades, and international relations. The Jinghai Temple, despite not receiving massive public attention in comparison to popular heritage sites, holds great knowledge and historical records that are not commonly promoted to the larger audience. Nevertheless, its lack of public attention does not minimize its value, instead, it is more necessary for the people, especially to the locals, to know what it stands for because it is an architectural fossil that will remind the Chinese of both its hidden glory and its unfortunate past, which are all parts of the development and history of their civilization.

For nearly 300 years, the Ming Dynasty remained in glory and prosperity thanks to its stability caused by its remarkable achievements. The rebellion initiated by the monk Zhu Yuanzhang led to the fall of the Mongols in the 14th century, and China was brought back to the hands of the Chinese once again. The Ming Dynasty was then established in Nanjing of the Jiangsu Province, which became its dynastical capital. Under the Ming Dynasty, grand architectural projects were initiated such as the famous Forbidden City in Beijing. Aside from these grand displays, the most notable achievement of the Ming Dynasty is its maritime voyages that were led by Admiral Zheng He. Zheng He’s naval expedition was a great success and perhaps, one of the most impressive aquatic journeys. The late admiral’s voyage, which featured more than 300 vessels, attained incredible accomplishments in establishing foreign relations and trading networks with neighboring countries in Asia and Africa, which resulted in its maritime supremacy (Wei, 2014).

The achievements of the late admiral were greatly praised and the Jinghai Temple, formerly the Tian Fei Temple, was also used to commemorate his successful voyage. Prior to his navigations, the temple was first built in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di to honor the sea goddess Mazu for her divine protection over the Chinese seafarers. Zheng He, as a seafarer also offered prayers to the sea goddess for guidance and protection, the said temple then also became a center that celebrates his maritime accomplishments. Historical relics and tablets that entail his maritime expedition can also be found in the temple because it also serves as a museum (Sheng, 2005).

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In the 1800s, the First Opium War between the British and the Chinese governments commenced. The First Opium War can be traced back in the 1700s when Great Britain actively traded with China for tea in exchange for silver. The deficit in silver became an economic burden for Britain, but their liking for tea is too great that the British government exchanged silver for opium from British India which was then used to trade for tea. Since opiates are addictive drugs, the Chinese government imposed policies to ban it, which proved to be difficult because of the prevalence of smugglers and corrupt officials. Commissioner Lin Zexu was then appointed to stop the trade, which was deeply frowned upon by Britain because it caused great loss in revenue, hence the war in which the Chinese lost (Hill, 2017). The First Opium War concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing as its aftermath, which was also done in the Jinghai Temple (Hajian, 2016).

Said treaty is remembered as “unequal and humiliating”, as the Chinese would call it because not only it put Chinese foreign trade in jeopardy for establishing a “fair tariff” but it also demanded the Chinese government to pay for opium (Fung, 1987).

The Jinghai Temple had been a victim of devastations and catastrophes, even reaching to a point of destruction as an aftermath of the Taiping Uprising (Chin & Fogel, 2018), China has always been the site for the dynastical cycle. Internal revolts are a common theme, but it was the Taiping Rebellion that is considered as one of the major events that brought China to its communist ideals (Javed, 2019). One of the causalities left by the revolt was the destruction of the Jinghai Temple, which was caused by land mining operations (Chin & Fogel, 2018). Although a large part of the temple was left in ruins, the Jinghai Temple was reconstructed in the 1990s and became the Nanjing Jinghai Temple Memorial.

It is indeed striking and fascinating how heritage sites do not only serve as remnants or artifacts of ancient civilizations for public viewing. Heritage sites such as the Jinghai Temple of Nanjing also serve as a physical reminder that allows people to reflect and reminisce about the historical values that are attached to it. From an architectural display, scholars and normal public viewers can dwell deeper by studying its present and historical function, thus leading to the discoveries that may be left forgotten when unnoticed and undocumented.

Jinghai Temple is definitely a significant piece of architectural heritage because it enlightens the people of how the Asian civilizations, especially the Chinese, were already ahead of time in comparison to the Europeans. It is important to note that Zheng He’s expeditions already occurred before Vasco de Gama’s, which insinuates that not only the ancient Western powers can be considered as progressive. Many Asian innovations in ancient times are left unnoticed and not promoted to public scrutiny, while textbooks often highlight Western accomplishments.

Tangible and intangible heritage may not be inscribed documents that must be decoded, but they are physical and cultural fossils that serve similar purposes. The Jinghai Temple, for instance, reminds the Chinese people of its history and reminds them to not let the present experience history all over again. It is also a symbol in which the Chinese people can remember strength and formidability because of its sustainability over chaotic circumstances that left various tragic destructions.

Overall, the Jinghai Temple is a symbolic heritage site that reminds the people of both their unearthed glory and historical happenings that shall not take place in their present nor their future ever again. The temple displays various relevant historical values that can only be known if the people would look past to it as simply a site for tourist attraction.

The efforts exerted by the Chinese government to restore the Jinghai Temple, although not in its original state, should also play a reminder that the people of the present generation hold the responsibility of protecting historical institutions as well as preserving the significance behind its establishment for the future to pay respect. By securing the tangible and intangible heritages, the present generation will be able to access a wider range of resources for historical discovery since they reflect both culture and history.

References

  1. Zhang, Y. (2019). Review The State Canonization of Mazu: Bringing the Notion of Imperial Metaphor into Conversation with the Personal Model. Religions.
  2. Wei, Y. (2014). Admiral Zheng He’s Voyages to the “West Oceans” . Education About ASIA.
  3. Hajian, M. (2016). The Qing Empire and the Opium War: The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty. Cambdrige University Press.
  4. Chin, S., & Fogel, J. A. (2018). The Taiping Rebellion. Routledge.
  5. Tsai, L. L. (2002). Cadres, Temple and Lineage Institutions, and Governance in Rural China. The China Journal, 1-27.
  6. Sheng, F. (2005). Zheng He’s Voyages Down the Western Seas . Beijing: China International Press.
  7. Hill, K. (2017). Britain and the Narration of Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Texts, Images, Objects. Abingdon: Routledge.
  8. Fung, E. S. (1987). The Chinese Nationalists and the Unequal Treaties 1924-1931. Modern Asian Studies, 793-819.
  9. Javed, J. (2019). Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi. In C.
  10. Sorace, I. Franceschini, & N. Loubere, Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi (pp. 257-262). Australia: ANU Press.
  11. Chin, S., & Fogel, J. A. (2018). The Taiping Rebellion. Abingdon: Routledge.

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