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Replica of Zheng He's ship to navigate ancient routes in 2014

By Cang Wei and Song Wenwei (China Daily)

08:40, July 16, 2012

A replica of a treasure ship that Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) sailed in. The ship was on display in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on Thursday and is to make its maiden voyage in 2014. Song Qiao / for China Daily

If you'd like to explore the oceans on a wooden ship as people did in times long past, you may have such a chance in the near future.

In 2014, 36 volunteers will get to travel on a 71.1-meter-long wooden replica of the treasure ship on which Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) undertook seven voyages in the 1400s. The ship is being built in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu province.

"It'll be really great to be one of the volunteers," said Wang Yuanyuan, a 19-year-old student from the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology.

But with her excitement came a note of caution. Wang said she worries about how safe she will be on the trip and will buy life insurance before embarking.

"To adapt to the modern requirements of navigation and ensure the crew's safety, the ship will be equipped with advanced technologies, including some that can be used for communications, life saving and fire control," said Zhao Zhigang, general manager of Jiangsu Longjiang Shipbuilding.

The replica will undertake its first of eight expeditions after going on a trial journey in August 2014, according to the Nanjing maritime safety administration.

A captain, boatswain and chief engineer for the ship are to be chosen by the end of this year.

"It is the world's biggest handmade wooden ship," Zhao said. "The ship's mast will be 38 meters tall, and its six sails, when they are unfurled, will cover an area of 600 square meters."

He said it has proved difficult to build a type of ship that was used centuries ago, especially since those working on the project did not have a model that they could copy.

Various Chinese historical sources hold that the biggest treasure ship was about 127 meters long and 52 meters wide.

The wooden ship is being built in part in observance of China's Maritime Day, which was held on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of Zheng He's first voyage in 1405.

Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) admiral, explorer and diplomat, took Chinese fleets on seven expeditions around the rim of the Indian Ocean from 1405 to 1433. According to some historical sources, Zheng's fleets traveled to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

The project has prompted much discussion on the Internet.

"It has no practical value," said Li Yanxi, a 27-year-old woman who lives in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. "It would be more meaningful if the money spent on building the wooden ship could have gone to education or charity."

Zhao, though, sees merit in the project.

"The construction of the ship provides a chance to revive traditional Chinese shipbuilding techniques," he said. "Large wooden ships built to explore the world's oceans have not been used in China for 500 years."

He said the vessel is being built with the help of craftsmen from families that make traditional wooden ships. The oldest of them is 78.

Zhao said the ship, if well-maintained, can be used for 30 to 50 years.

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