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China: Hero of the Ming Dynasty: The man who mapped the world

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  • Zafar Khan
    Hero of the Ming Dynasty: The man who mapped the world A Mongolian Muslim who was castrated as a boy became one of the most intrepid explorers in history. As
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 26 11:14 AM
      Hero of the Ming Dynasty: The man who mapped the world

      A Mongolian Muslim who was castrated as a boy became
      one of the most intrepid explorers in history. As
      China prepares to celebrate the 600th anniversary of
      his first voyage, Clifford Coonan in Beijing tells the
      extraordinary story of Admiral Zheng He
      Published: 26 September 2006


      Standing seven feet tall, Admiral Zheng He towered
      over his crew at the prow of his legendary treasure
      ship. Setting out six centuries ago on the first of
      seven landmark voyages, he reached south-east Asia,
      India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and as far as
      the east coast of Africa. Some say he may even have
      made it to America.

      The exploits of the intrepid Ming Dynasty explorer
      known as the Three-Jewelled Eunuch, a devout Muslim of
      Mongolian descent from Yunnan province, still resonate
      in China today, where he is seen as a symbol of
      emerging modern China's peaceful rise.

      Zheng He's journeys took him to 37 countries over 28
      years as part of the mightiest fleet that ever sailed,
      with 300 ships and 28,000 sailors. It wasn't until the
      First World War that a bigger flotilla took to the

      The pride of the fleet was the flagship, Zheng He's
      treasure ship, a hardwood vessel with 1,000 men on
      board. At 400ft, it dwarfed Christopher Columbus's
      Santa Maria, a minnow at 98ft. It had nine masts and
      12 red sails and was packed full of porcelain,
      calligraphy scrolls, elegant musical instruments - the
      finest items China had to offer.

      Emperor Yongle, the first ruler of the Ming dynasty,
      wanted to showcase China's naval power, and in 1402
      commissioned Zheng to undertake a daring mission to
      the seas known to the Chinese as the Western Oceans.
      Three years later, the expedition was ready.

      Born Ma He in 1371, (the name Ma is the Chinese
      transcription of Muhammad), to poor parents, the
      future great seafarer was captured by soldiers and
      castrated when he was still a boy. He was forced into
      the army, where he excelled, earning the honorific
      surname "Zheng" after fighting in a battle near

      Eunuchs were politically influential in the court, and
      Zheng De became close to the third Ming emperor, Zhu
      Di, as a key strategist, earning him the title of
      Prince of Yan. He also studied languages and

      He died in 1433, aged 62 - some say on the return leg
      of his seventh and final journey. His tomb, bearing
      the inscription "Allah is Great" stands at the
      southern outskirts of Niushou in Nanjing.

      Leaving Nanjing laden with silk, ceramics, pottery and
      copper coins, the fleet returned packed with spices,
      fruits and rare and exotic fauna, such as China's
      first giraffe, which the voyagers picked up in
      Somalia. The emperor himself went down the palace gate
      to see the giraffe, which was accompanied by a zebra
      and an oryx.

      All the information about Zheng He's voyages we have
      comes from writing on a stone pillar discovered in the
      1930s in Fujian province, and the accounts of those
      who sailed with him. The account on the pillar tells
      of seeing "in the ocean huge waves like mountains
      rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian
      regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of
      light vapours".

      But the voyages were not only about trade. A Muslim
      scholar named Ma Huan documented the daring voyages.
      He wrote of how in 1407, a Cantonese sea pirate named
      Chen Zuyi, who with 5,000 men operated out of Sumatra
      preying in the Straits of Malacca, was destroyed by
      Zheng He's armada. Chen Zuyi was taken back to Nanjing
      and publicly executed.

      The sailors were helped by technological advances such
      as the compass, or "south pointing spoon", fore and
      aft sails, and airtight compartments in the hull.

      Boat-builders in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu
      province in eastern China, have just completed a
      replica of one of the ships in the fleet, 200ft long
      and 46 ft wide. Sailing in ships like the replica just
      completed, Zheng He is credited as the first man to
      have established a direct sea route linking the
      western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

      The Nanjing shipyard where much of Zheng He's fleet
      was built has been excavated. The next step for the
      boat builders working at the Nanjing Treasure Boat
      Heritage Park is to embark on their most ambitious
      project to date - a replica of the treasure ship
      itself. Work begins this month and should be completed
      in 2008, when the replica boat is expected to sail as
      an "image envoy" in the aquatic events in the 2008
      Olympic Games.

      The boat will also travel to countries along the
      ancient Maritime Silk Route explored by early Chinese
      sailors, its builders said.

      A problem with building replicas of the treasure ship
      and other vessels in Zheng He's fleet is that no one
      really knows what the ships looked like. While
      thousands of ships were built, none of them exist
      today, not even as shipwrecks, leaving boat-builders
      to try to recreate the vessels from documentary
      evidence. It's a procedure involving experiment, trial
      and error. Previous efforts to rebuild the treasure
      ship have sunk, and the size of the replica will be
      considerably smaller than the original ship because of
      the lack of records which might explain how its
      structure held together, a senior engineer told the
      Xinhua news agency.

      Costing $10m (£5.2m), the boat will be constructed on
      an ancient wooden framework made from oak, as
      historians think the original probably was, but will
      have all mod cons inside, including computers, engines
      and air conditioning.

      The rehabilitation of Zheng He's reputation began in
      the early part of the last century, and by the 1930s
      he worked his way into school textbooks as a national
      hero. The country has been gripped with Zheng He fever
      since the 600th anniversary of the first of his
      fantastic voyages. His exploits have become a focal
      point for Chinese nationalism because, in the days
      when the Admiral roamed the waves, China was far more
      technologically advanced than other cultures and had
      no equal at sea.

      In 2005, the government organised an exhibition at the
      National Museum in Beijing's Tiananmen Square
      proclaiming him a hero. The propaganda tsars are keen
      to push the Zheng He story as a symbol of Chinese
      ingenuity, but also of its benign foreign policy -
      China's peaceful rise, as President Hu Jintao likes to
      put it. They insist that Zheng He was not a coloniser
      and was more interested in trade than theft, although
      they concede the fleet was also supposed to spread the
      word to the peoples of southern Asia in particular
      that China was a mighty power.

      "Unlike many latter-day European counterparts, which
      sailed across the great oceans to conquer other
      nations by force, the Chinese fleet brought to those
      foreign lands tea, chinaware, silk and craftsmanship.
      They gave the rest of the world peace and civilisation
      and never occupied any foreign land, an achievement
      symbolising the ancient kingdom's sincerity to
      increase exchanges with other nations," ran an
      editorial in the state-run China Daily last month.

      Many historians disagree with this view of Ming
      dynasty benevolence. As the Singapore-based historian
      Geoff Wade has pointed out, the Ming dynasty was
      involved in numerous expansionary campaigns, including
      the invasion of Vietnam and dispatching fleets around
      south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean to implement a
      "pax Ming" across the seas of the region.

      They were involved in a civil war in Java in 1406, and
      another in Sumatra in 1415; they seized the Sri Lankan
      capital - and Sri Lanka's leader - and the Thai
      capital of Ayudhya, as well as establishing bases to
      control the Straits of Malacca.

      Meanwhile, the good admiral was in the limelight again
      after the publication by the British author Gavin
      Menzies of 1421, which claims that he reached the
      Americas in that year. In January, a map unearthed by
      a collector of old charts in Shanghai seemed to show
      that Admiral Zheng first landed on the shores of the
      New World, decades before Christopher Columbus's Santa
      Maria had even been built.

      The map purported to prove that Zheng rounded Africa's
      southernmost tip, the Cape of Good Hope, 76 years
      before Vasco da Gama, and circumnavigated the globe
      100 years earlier than Ferdinand Magellan.

      In June a medal was discovered in North Carolina,
      complete with Ming dynasty inscriptions, that had been
      dug up kilometres inland from the coast. The
      six-Chinese-character inscription, "Da Ming Xuan De
      Wei Ci", on the medal translates into "Awarded by Xuan
      De of Great Ming". It refers to the period between
      1426 and 1435, the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong - long
      before Columbus's 1492 landing. Other researchers say
      that the high incidence of the genetic disorder,
      Machado-Joseph disease among local American Indians,
      which first appeared in Yunnan in China, could have
      been spread by the Chinese fleet in the 1430s.

      Whether he did indeed beat Columbus to the New World,
      the story of the way Zheng He faded from view is also
      a puzzling one. The admiral sailed for nearly 30
      years, but after the emperor died in 1424, China began
      to look inward, beginning a policy of isolationism
      that lasted hundreds of years. China had the
      technology and the manpower in its grasp and she could
      easily have gone on to colonise the whole planet - but
      instead of becoming the first global superpower, the
      new emperor shut the doors and burnt all records of
      Zheng's fleet, ending the "Age of Sea".

      China's isolationism at the time marked the growing
      power of the conservative Confucian scholars, who had
      long been envious of the power of the eunuchs. Shortly
      after the last voyage of the treasure fleet, the
      Chinese emperor forbade overseas travels and stopped
      all building and repair of ocean-going junks. Anyone
      who disobeyed the ban on overseas travel was killed.
      The greatest navy of the world willed itself into
      extinction, leaving China closed off and with little
      way of protecting itself against attack from Japanese

      For their part, great colonial nations such as Spain
      and Portugal began honing their sailing skills and, in
      tandem, their colonial administration abilities, and
      the rest, as they say, is history.

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