Zheng He: Master explorer

16:25, April 06, 2011      

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By Luis Vega

Since the beginning of time, man has looked to the sky in search of guidance, meaning and destiny. On a dark night, he found the bright moon, and it became compass and companion in his journey to self and geographic discovery. World history is replete with stories of courageous explorers who took upon themselves the task of expanding their nation's horizon in ways never dreamed before. One of these heroic ancient explorers is Zheng He.

Mankind, which has always been obsessed with breaking boundaries imposed by previous generations, found in Zheng He a perfect specimen. He masterfully used closeness to the Dragon throne to finance his journeys in the name of China as Christopher Columbus later did with Spain's Queen Isabella's blessings and funds. Money and royal friendships fueled the global Age of Discovery. In the stories of these explorers, one sees how each culture treated their flag-bearing heroes.

Less known than European counterparts Americo Vespucci, Vasco de Gama or Ferdinand Magellan, this legendary Asian was born a Muslim in 1371 and made a eunuch in a southern Chinese province after his capture at the age of 11 years old by a conquering general captivated by his intelligence and looks. This was an encounter that changed his life and made China the world's first naval superpower under his guidance. China defined his future, but his actions defined early 15th century China.

Educated at Nanjung Taixue (Imperial Central College), his natural leadership skills blossomed. He was assigned to be a houseboy to prince Zhu Di, the emperor's fourth son. He helped Di plot a coup d'etat in 1402 that elevated Di to emperor and He to admiral of China's massive naval fleet, which boasted 3,500 ships, making it larger than America's today. The new emperor made He the first eunuch admiral, and He made the decision that all his captains would be eunuchs like him.

National Geographic suggests Zheng He was the inspiration for "Sinbad," a character in the travel-romance "Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor" in the Arab classic "The Book of One Thousand and One Nights." Besides sharing the number of voyages, He was a loyal Muslim who visited Mecca (like his father and grandfather had). His original family name Ma (used by Muslims in representation of the word Mohammed) was changed by prince Zhu Di in 1404.

The association between prince and captive would see China accomplish what no other nation had before: supremacy of international seas. An era of exploration and innovation unprecedented and never again repeated by the Middle Kingdom was born with their union. It lasted until it was almost erased from history as political conservatives the Confucians overtook government after the emperor's death in 1424.

There were stark philosophy differences between the two camps. The eunuchs, condemned to a life without families, were forward-thinking progressives both Zen-like and mercenary. Pragmatic decisions with concrete results were expected. Commerce, wealth creation, power and exploration were their realm. In contrast, Confucians constituted the government bureaucracy and were adverse to change, innovation or individualism. They saw these qualities as a threat to the orderly system of government they ran and to themselves.

A culture war transformed an expansionist China into a bastion of isolationism overnight forcing the dismantling of its navy. Its main fleet of 400 warships was reduced to 140 by 1474, and the building of two-mast ships was made a capital offense. Espionage was redefined to include all who went to sea in multiple-mast ship. What had been virtue became sin as Confucians rose to power. After a period of expansion China turned inward. It lasted hundreds of years.

Being Muslim and a eunuch in a Euro-centric Judeo-Christian world made Zheng He's revolutionary accomplishments invisible outside Asia. In the 1400's, his religion and gender status were not only accepted but celebrated in the Chinese military and royal palaces. Eunuchs controlled the military and the imperial courts. Their loyalty was rewarded with power, wealth and sometimes fame. This was a concept not foreign to societies of the era.

Castration did not make He submissive. History notes he "walked like a tiger," had an imposing tall figure, a strong loud voice and never avoided battle. A purpose of his first voyage in 1405 was to capture pirate Chen Zuyi, who had terrorized the islands of Indonesia, at Old Port. After a battle in which 5,000 died, 10 ships were burned and seven were captured, Zheng He found, arrested, and repatriated Zuyi to be decapitated. In Ceylon (Sri Lanka), his men took an insubordinate ruler and replaced him with the legitimate malleable one.

His services allowed He to accumulate wealth affording him a 72-room mansion in Nanjing, which is now Zheng He Memorial Park, and international notoriety. In contrast, Columbus, who had Spain renege on the contract granting him 10 percent of profits of his discovery in perpetuity, was accused of tyranny and incompetence without being allowed a word in his own defense. Columbus, 48 years old returned to Europe a prisoner in chains. Zheng He came back a wealthy hero, while Columbus returned a broken man.

China's motives were not conquest but expanding influence and knowledge of its culture. China had been richer and more cosmopolitan than any country in Europe for thousands of years. Already in the 1400's China and India represented more than half of the world's GDP together. A paragon of fair trade practices with conflicts internal rather than international. Then, like now, China supported stability over change domestically and abroad.

Zheng He's China wanted global prominence and respect matching its superiority. His mission: a charm offensive without historical precedent. He was the face of expansionist friendly China. People's Daily described him as an "Ambassador of Peace." For the most part he was, unless provoked to defend national interests for which he is credited with masterful genius. Not until World War I would the world see the naval might Zheng He mobilized for his journeys as he single-handedly revolutionized navigation.

China was ahead of the world in most areas of development. He's fleet was larger than anything the world had known, with expeditions of up to 317 ships and around 28,000 men aboard — experts calculate 20,000 of them were military men. Crews with interpreters of many languages, astrologers, astronomers, doctors, pharmacists, entertainers, diplomatic and protocol experts to coordinate official receptions with dignitaries in the more than 35 countries visited.

The intent of the voyages was to create a showcase of the splendor and strength of the Ming dynasty not trade, conquer or as a crusade to promote China's religions.

"These were friendly diplomatic activities. During the overall course of the seven voyages to the Western Ocean, Zheng He did not occupy a single piece of land, establish any fortress or seize any wealth from other countries. In the commercial and trade activities, he adopted the practice of giving more than he received, and thus he was welcomed and lauded by the people of the various countries along his routes," stated Xu Zu-yuan, PRC Vice Minister of Communications, on July 2004.

A goal was to bring foreign VIPs to China's imperial court. It was a Noah's ark gathering of top diplomats to introduce them to its sphere of influence. It was not hard to convince key foreign figures to accompany Zheng He in an all-expense-paid trip to China's to meet the emperor.

Before cruise ships were invented, the majesty of China's naval fleet could seduce any world potentate. The multiple-deck ships with red silk sails and nine masts offered private cabins with balconies and lavatories that could be locked from the inside as well as personal servants to attend to any individual whim. It was a first-class journey all the way.

The fleet relied on the compass, invented in China in the 11th century, for navigation. Especially created incense sticks were burned to measure time, and during storms seamen would drag the ship's anchor to prevent excessive rocking making sailing a more pleasant experience.

The largest vessels were 444 feet long and 160 wide. By contrast, Columbus' biggest was only 85 feet. Ships were loaded with crates gold, silver, Chinese silk and porcelain cups, vases and dishes as gifts. They were among many other technological advances never seen in the world.

Retired British Royal Navy submarine commander Gavin Menzies claims in his book "1421: The Year China Discovered the World" He arrived in America 72 years before Columbus. The rivalry between these two global explorers is hard to kill. Menzies states He reached the New World from the East not the West, his claim made the book an international bestseller.

Some offer as evidence the great similarity exists among musical instruments used by pre-Columbian natives in Central America and those found only in ancient China. Many discount Menzies' theory as difficult if not impossible to prove or disprove, which has enhanced Zheng He's indestructible myth.

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.


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