by Marie Ngiam

Travel accounts are rich sources of information, particularly for the historian—a window into exotic societies foreign to the traveler, yet at the same time a mirror, reflecting to the reader the values of the traveler and their society of origin. At its best, a travel account makes the traveler’s whole sensory experience alive as the reader is led into their world and worldview. Re-examining the Yingya shenglan, an account of the 15th century Chinese imperial voyages written by Ma Huan, we are offered a glimpse into the culturally entangled and ethnically fluid world of early modern Southeast Asian society—a world in which categories like “local,” “indigenous” and “foreign” had not yet taken on the ethnically and politically-charged meanings that they have today.

This think piece provides some contextual background for understanding Ma Huan and the Yingya shenglan—one of the most important historical sources on the early modern world, covering a vast array of countries from the Molouccas to Mecca. As a Chinese Muslim, his duality as an outsider and insider would have been ever-present both at home and abroad; a comparison of his writings to other travel writings reveals that Ma Huan perceived the foreign lands as strange yet familiar; with reverence mingled with abhorrence. Such contextual knowledge about the author and his background is important for the historian to use the text as a historical source and situate it amongst other works of the time.

Ma Huan was born in 1380 in Hui Ji, a district in Shaoxing City, Zhejiang Province. In Yingya shenglan, he refers to himself as “Ma Huan the mountain woodcutter,” a peculiarly humble self-description that led J.V.G. Mills, one of the earliest scholars to translate the Yingya shenglan into the English language, to surmise that Ma Huan may have come from a poor family. He has been characterized as an “unlearned Mohammedan” who, judging by his writing style, was “anything but a Chinese scholar.” Indeed, Ma Huan’s travel account, which spans 20 countries from Java to Dhufar, was not written in literary Chinese, the language of Chinese scholar-officials. Rather, it was written in vernacular Chinese, with some parts written in colloquial language.

Being a Muslim would have been a significant factor in Ma Huan’s participation in the voyages. The Ming imperial voyages were characterized by large numbers of Muslim participants under admiral Zheng He. Zheng He visited many Islamic places, and the eunuch admiral actively recruited participants proficient in translating foreign languages (like Ma Huan), as well as those acquainted with the religion and customs of Islamic countries. In Quanzhou, a port city in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, we find an inscription for the restoration of its Pure and Clean Mosque, the Qingjingsi, dating back to 1413 that records the involvement of a cleric of the mosque, Hasan, and his participation in the Zheng He voyages.

We also know of another Muslim, Guo Congli, who participated in the voyages with whom Ma Huan was acquainted. Although Ma Huan is credited as being the author of the Yingya shenglan, the motivation for writing and publishing the Yingya shenglan came from Guo, who was also recruited as a translator for the voyages.[1] It is unclear how Guo and Ma Huan became acquainted—a typical voyage would involve more than 27,000 people, in roles varying from envoys and secretaries to anchormen and boatmen. It may be that, despite the large number of participants on the voyages, Guo and Ma Huan’s roles as translators and perhaps their common faith played a part in bringing them together.

One notable and distinguishing feature of the Yingya shenglan is its depiction of communities outside of China. It is often assumed, particularly among historians of China, that Ma Huan’s account would be consistent in its rhetoric and views with other Chinese travel writing, particularly in their Sinocentric depiction of foreign cultures. J.V.G. Mills’s remarks that Ma “could hardly have been free at first from the subconscious sentiment of contempt which the Chinese felt for the ‘barbarian,’” and other early Chinese travel accounts such as Wang Dayuan’s A Brief Account of Island Barbarians, Wang Dahai’s A Chinaman Abroad and Feixin’s Description of the Starry Raft (he also participated in the Chinese imperial voyages), all emphasize the superiority of Chinese culture over the other cultures they encountered. It is characteristic of maritime writing by travelers and sojourners from China during the Ming and Qing dynasties to project and represent their Han Chinese cultural identity by depicting themselves as highly civilized, with other social groups surrounding them depicted as inferior and uncivilized

This ideological trope is less pronounced and absent in some respects when we look at the Yingya shenglan. It is striking to read of Ma Huan’s perceptiveness of and high regard for Muslim societies in the section on Java, which states that:

There are three classes of people in this country. The first consists of the huihuiren [Chinese term for Muslims], all of whom are merchants from the Western regions. They came as sojourners but now reside in this country. In all matters pertaining to food and dress, everything is pure and clean and adhered to properly. The subsequent class consists of the tangren (people of the Tang dynasty); they have all escaped from Guangdong province, Zhangzhou, Quanzhou and other such regions. Now residing in this country, the food and eating utensils of these people, too, are elegant and tidy. Many now follow the Muslim religion and its precepts, doing penance and fasting. The last category are the local people, whose appearances are peculiar and ugly. Their hair is unkempt and they walk with their bare feet. They worship the devil, much like what is written in the Buddhist books about the devil-worshipping countries . . .

This can be compared with the Mingshi (the official history of the Ming dynasty, whose compilers supposedly relied on the Yingya shenglan when writing its section on the history of Java), which provides the following description of the Javanese population:

There are three types of people in this country. The Chinese who have sojourned here, and whose food and clothing are fresh and elegant, merchants from other countries who now reside here and whose food and clothing are similarly clean and tidy. The people of this country are the most dirty. They are in the habit of eating snakes, ants, worms and insects as well as sleeping and eating with dogs. Their appearance is dark and sinister, they have unkempt hair and walk barefoot.

The Yingya shenglan account is richer in detail, particularly in its delineation of population groups and their religious affiliations. Ma Huan observes that there are firstly the huihuiren in Java who now reside in this country, where everything about food and dress is “clean and adhered to properly”. Then, there are the tangren, Chinese from Guangdong, Zhangzhou and Quanzhou in China who have escaped and reside in Java. They too follow the Muslim religion, their food and eating utensils are described as refined and elegant, they do penance and fast.

By contrast, the Mingshi does not mention the huihuiren,nor does it refer to the Chinese as tangren. The Chinese in Java are referred to as zhonghuaren instead and the Mingshi does not specify where they have come from in China. Further, the Mingshi does not mention the Muslim religion and its religious precepts. Where Ma Huan praises Muslims and their religious practices and rituals, the Mingshi replaces this with praise for the food and clothing of the Chinese and foreign merchants instead.

Interestingly, both the Mingshi and the Yingya shenglan categorise the local people last, and both accounts are disparaging in their description. Despite divergent views of Muslims, both the Yingya shenglan and the Mingshi display the same prejudices towards the local people, suggesting that it was possible for different shades of Sinocentrism to co-exist.

Publication of book

Ma Huan’s partial departure from Sinocentrism and disparagement of certain foreign “others” that so often characterize Chinese travel writing are perhaps why his book was not well received. Further, Ma Huan did not write the Yingya shenglan for Chinese elites, the scholar-officials (even though it was eventually absorbed into the corpus of Chinese historical writing). If he was seeking to gain favour with the Chinese elite, he would not have written the Yingya shenglan in vernacular Chinese, baihua, but rather in literary Chinese, wenyan, the language of scholar-officials. He would also have attempted to polish his writing into a more “polite” style. However, it appears (from his exhortation to readers not to criticize his writing) that he may have consciously refrained from doing so.

In addition, the Yingya shenglan was published at an inopportune time, when the relationship between eunuchs within the imperial Chinese bureaucracy and Chinese officials was extremely volatile. Thus, attempts were made to destroy the Yingya shenglan due to its association with the imperial voyages, which Chinese officials perceived as a “distasteful eunuch extravagance.” The Ming scholar official, Gu Qiyuan, recalls in the Kezuo zhuiyu (a compilation of historical works):

During the reign of Cheng Hua, the Bureau sought to enquire about stories relating to the journey to the Western Oceans. Liu Zhongxuan was then President of the Bureau, with Da Xia as his deputy. Upon receiving the documents, Da Xia proceeded to burn them, labelling the documents a source of untrustworthiness and a product of cunning individuals depicting strange things and uncanny events, so far removed from what one sees and hears.

Thankfully, copies of the Yingya shenglan must have survived the burning because it was recorded in a number of official Chinese historical sources. Ma Huan’s original version of the Yingya shenglan no longer exists today but we know that there are four different manuscripts from which it originated—the Guochao diangu version edited by Zhu Dangmian, Zhang Sheng’s version (which is most commonly used), the Jilu huibian version published by Shen Jiefu and the Shengchao yishi published by Wu Miguang.

What was the purpose of the Yingya shenglan?

After returning to their native villages, perhaps after their last voyage, Ma Huan and his friend and fellow translator, Guo Congli, tell us that the reason why they wrote the Yingya shenglan was that their efforts to “enlighten people” during their voyages to the “Western Oceans” were unsatisfactory. They wanted to write these experiences down to disseminate them more effectively. 

What remains unanswered, however, in the absence of further research and more evidentiary findings, is what Ma Huan and Guo desired to enlighten their fellow villagers about and what information they sought to disseminate. The voyages succeeded in extending the Ming court’s influence across the South China Seas, the Bay of Bengal, and the Straits of Hormuz, reaching the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa, demonstrating the extant of China’s military strength and promulgating Chinese political legitimacy. At the same time, Jonathan Lipman remarks that the imperial voyages also increased awareness of the fact that people in a large part of the world practiced Islam.

One could thus argue that, at the very least, the book’s focus on Muslim communities and its portrayal of such communities in a favorable light was a way to inform readers that there were substantial communities practicing Islam outside of China. There are also questions related to the Chinese whom Ma Huan identified in Java—were they Muslims from China, or did he observe a community of Chinese who adopted a new religion and gradually assimilated into their new culture? After all, religious conversion in Southeast Asia may not have been a single event but a gradual cultural and religious syncretism process.

Despite these unanswered questions, the book leaves us with a unique canvas of cultural and religious perception. Its syncretic blend of Chinese superiority toward indigenous cultures while demonstrating reverence for Muslims and Muslim communities abroad attests to the malleable nature of the Chinese Sinocentric worldview. It also leaves us with the paradox of Yingya shenglan’s resistance to a purely Sinocentric worldview yet eventual absorption into the Chinese historical canon and what this may reveal about Chinese official histories and historical studies more generally. For historians, surely, these are questions and contexts worth considering.

[1] Gu Pu古朴, afterword, Yingya shenglan xiaozhu瀛涯胜览校注 (Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores) by Ma Huan马欢, ed. Feng Chengjun冯承钧, Shanghai: Faxingsuo shangwu yinshuguan, 1935, 1.

Marie Ngiam is an MPhil candidate in World History at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in early modern Southeast Asian history, and its intersection with histories of science. Her current research looks at the role of Chinese intermediaries in the co-construction of knowledge in Java.

Edited by Thomas Furse

Featured image: A giraffe brought from Somalia in the twelfth year of Yongle (1414). National Palace Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.