[HISTORY] The Chinese Christopher Columbus?
- The Chinese Columbus?
BY CAROLINE HSU
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
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
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
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."
DID YOU KNOW?
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.