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[HISTORY] The Chinese Christopher Columbus?

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  • madchinaman
    The Chinese Columbus? BY CAROLINE HSU http://story.news.yahoo.com/news? tmpl=story&u=/usnews/20040214/ts_usnews/thechinesecolumbus In the graceful East Asian
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 16, 2004
      The Chinese Columbus?

      In the graceful East Asian reading room at the Library of Congress
      (news - web sites), one can view a 21-foot-long map--a series of
      coastlines and Chinese place names traced in black ink on thin,
      almost translucent paper. This is the Wu Bei Zhi, a copy of the
      actual map used by Zheng He, the famed 15th-century Chinese explorer
      who made seven voyages from Asia to Africa at the height of Chinese
      maritime dominance.

      Zheng He (pronounced jung huh) was a skilled commander who may have
      stood nearly 7 feet tall. He was also a eunuch and a devout Muslim--
      in short, an unlikely commander of the largest maritime expedition
      the world had ever seen: 28,000 people sailing on 300 ships. It was
      a fleet whose size and grandeur would not be matched until World War
      I. Zheng He himself rode in the jewel of the fleet, an enormous
      hardwood treasure ship filled with porcelain, silks, books, musical
      instruments--the finest material and cultural exports China had to
      offer. The ship boasted nine masts and 12 enormous red sails and
      measured some 400 feet--about the size of a small aircraft carrier.
      For comparison's sake, when Christopher Columbus sailed to America
      nearly a century later, his three ships held 90 men each, and the
      longest of them was the 85-foot Santa Maria.

      But while Columbus and other European explorers are celebrated in
      every American child's history books, Zheng He remains relatively
      uncelebrated even in his home country. After his last expedition, in
      1433, the Chinese ruling class went through a major philosophical
      shift, gradually turning inward to deal with famine, plague, and
      military threats. Confucian court officials closed down ports,
      forbade sea voyages of almost any kind, and systematically
      suppressed all traces of the Zheng He journeys. "China never even
      claimed that Zheng He was a great explorer," says Chi Wang, head of
      the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.

      Yet here in the West a sort of Zheng He craze is going on. It's
      attributable largely to the 2002 bestseller 1421: The Year China
      Discovered America, in which British writer Gavin Menzies claims to
      have irrefutable evidence that Zheng He's fleet didn't turn back
      after reaching the east coast of Africa as previously believed.
      Menzies argues that the fleet actually continued around the Cape of
      Good Hope, discovered the Americas some 70 years before Columbus,
      and went on to circumnavigate the world, 100 years before Magellan.
      The fleet probably had the seamanship and resources to complete such
      a voyage. Menzies's scholarship has been attacked by academics, but
      if book sales are any indication, the theory has struck a nerve.

      How did a Muslim eunuch come to command such a powerful force and
      accomplish these feats at sea? Zheng He was one of thousands of
      Muslims living in a surprisingly diverse China of six centuries ago.
      Both his grandfather and father were known as hajji, meaning that
      they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey that Zheng also
      later completed.

      In 1381, when Zheng He was 10 years old, the imperial Army attacked
      his province, an isolated area on China's lawless southwestern
      border that was a hideout for outlaws from the ousted Mongol regime.
      Zheng's father was killed in the fighting. As was the custom in
      times of war, young male children of the enemy were castrated.
      (Survivors of the brutal procedure were sometimes handed their
      preserved genitals in a jar, which they would keep with them
      throughout their lives in the hope that after burial they would be
      made whole in the afterlife.)

      Zheng's castration had historical reverberations. As a eunuch, he
      was taken as a servant into the household of his enemy, Zhu Di, the
      emperor's fourth son. Though robbed of a family, he was well cared
      for and educated--in fact, given advantages that he probably never
      would have received otherwise.

      Eunuch power. Though the custom of castration seems bizarre today,
      eunuchs were actually a powerful force in the society of imperial
      China. Part of their power came from their intimate access to
      powerful women and their children. Child eunuchs often grew up with
      future princes and emperors. Indeed, eunuchs garnered so much wealth
      and political influence from their close contact with royal families
      that commoners sometimes had their sons castrated in the hopes of
      improving the family lot.

      Zheng He grew up strong and intelligent, apparently impressing his
      young master, Zhu Di. In short order he went from houseboy to right-
      hand man, plotting strategies with the prince and riding next to him
      in battle. He later assisted Zhu Di in a brilliant and bloody coup
      to usurp the throne. When Zhu Di became the third Ming emperor of
      China in 1402, he soon named his loyal eunuch and friend admiral and
      commander in chief of the huge treasure fleet.

      The admiral's ships sailed to many lands in Southeast Asia, where
      the admiral not only collected cultural observations but also used
      his influence and military strength to manipulate regimes. Although
      China was a lone superpower at the time, with the military force to
      crush almost any opposition, the foreign policy of 15th-century
      China was oddly modern. Unlike other warlike invaders and
      colonizers, the Chinese preferred trade sanctions. Trade-friendly
      regimes were rewarded, while fractious states were undermined--not
      through direct confrontation but through aid to enemy states. Siam
      and Sumatra, for example, which were growing powerful, were subdued
      when China decided to recognize Malacca, an upstart city-state in
      Siamese (modern Thai) territory. Standing between Siam and Sumatra,
      Malacca became the precursor to present-day Malaysia.

      "The Chinese had no desire to establish colonies," says Louise
      Levathes, author of When China Ruled the Seas. "Their focus was
      trade--acquiring things the empire needed, such as medicinal herbs
      and incense, hardwoods, pepper, precious stones, African ivory,
      Arabian horses for the imperial cavalry," she says. "They clearly
      knew about Europe from Arab traders but thought that the wool and
      wine, all they heard Europe had to offer, were not very

      Zheng's fleet made seven voyages in all, and the commander probably
      died near Calicut, in present-day India, at about age 62. Upon
      returning to China, Zheng's crew found that the expeditions, rather
      than being celebrated as heroic, were slandered by the Confucian
      court officials as indulgent adventures that wasted the country's
      resources. Zheng He's trip logs were "lost" by officials seeking to
      suppress further overseas travels.

      In many respects, Zheng He stood at a pivotal point in world
      history, according to many scholars of the colonial period. Had his
      magnificent fleets been maintained and had China not turned inward
      and willingly lost its vast scientific and military advantage,
      Europeans most likely could not have taken over the spice trade and
      subjugated the Asian and African continents. And had China had the
      interest, it could have colonized Australia and the Americas before
      the Europeans.

      That, of course, is an alternative history that didn't happen.
      Although there is compelling evidence that the Chinese reached
      Australia and South America before Cook and Columbus, contact
      probably occurred centuries before Zheng He set sail. Zheng He's
      greatest legacy is the vast diaspora of Chinese entrepreneurs who,
      with Zheng He as inspiration, broke with imperial edicts and the
      classical Confucian custom of staying near home and ancestry to seek
      out lives of commerce in foreign lands. The trickle of deserting
      sailors from the fleet opened a floodgate of emigration that
      continues to this day: Ethnic Chinese still dominate the economies
      of many Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesia, Zheng He is revered
      as a local god; thousands visit a temple dedicated to him every
      year. Even in Africa, there are many who claim Chinese heritage.
      Indeed, some believe they are descendants of Zheng He's shipwrecked

      Today, more than 34 million Chinese live overseas in 140 countries,
      spreading over all the known lands depicted in the 21-foot scroll
      map, the Wu Bei Zhi, and beyond. A beguiling passage on a 1432 stone
      tablet erected by Zheng He survives in Fujian province, a maritime
      area that has provided much of the Chinese diaspora. It
      reads: "We . . . have beheld 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 vapors, while our sails,
      loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course
      [as rapidly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were
      treading a public thoroughfare."


      The first European to see North America may have been Bjarni
      Herjolfsson. According to Norse sagas, the Viking trader was sailing
      from Iceland to Greenland in 986 when he got lost in the fog. He
      made his way to "a flat and wooded country"--Canada, no doubt--but
      never left the boat. The sagas tease him for his timidity. But he
      did share his news with (and sell his ship to) the next Euro-visitor
      to the Americas, Leif Ericson.
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