[HISTORY] China Has an Ancient Mariner to Tell You About
- Letter From Asia
China Has an Ancient Mariner to Tell You About
By JOSEPH KAHN
The New York Times
Published: July 20, 2005
NANJING, China, July 17 - The captivating tale of Zheng He, a Chinese
eunuch who explored the Pacific and Indian Oceans with a mighty
armada almost a century before Columbus discovered America, has long
languished as a tantalizing footnote in China's imperial history.
Zheng He (pronounced jung huh) fell into disfavor before he completed
the last of his early 15th-century voyages, and most historical
records were destroyed. Authorities protected his old family home in
Nanjing, but it was often shuttered, its rooms used to store
Now, on the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's first mission in 1405,
all that is changing. Zheng He's legacy is being burnished - some
critics say glossed over - to give rising China a new image on the
Books and television shows, replicas of Zheng He's ships and a new
$50 million museum in Nanjing promote Zheng He as a maritime cultural
ambassador for a powerful but ardently peaceful nation.
Officials have even endorsed the theory, so far unproven, that one of
Zheng He's ships foundered on the rocks near Lamu island, off the
coast of today's Kenya, with survivors swimming ashore, marrying
locals and creating a family of Chinese-Africans that is now being
reunited with the Chinese motherland.
The message is that Zheng He foreshadowed China's 21st-century
emergence as a world power, though one that differs in crucial
respects from Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and, most
pointedly, the United States.
"In the heyday of the Ming Dynasty, China did not seek hegemony,"
says Wan Ming, a leading scholar of the era. "Today, we are once
again growing stronger all the time, and China's style of peaceful
development has been welcomed all over the world."
The Communist Party hopes to signal to its own people that it has
recaptured past glory, while reassuring foreign countries that China
can be strong and non-threatening at the same time.
Even within China, though, the use of poorly documented history as
modern propaganda prop has generated a backlash.
Several scholars have publicly criticized the campaign as a
distortion, saying Zheng He treated foreigners as barbarians and most
foreign countries as vassal states. His voyages amounted to a
wasteful tribute to a maniacal emperor, some argue.
Zheng He resonates, favorably or not, in Asia. Arguably for the first
time since his final voyage in 1433, China is vying to become a major
Beijing has upgraded its navy with Russian-built Sovremenny-class
guided missile destroyers, Kilo-class diesel submarines and a new
nuclear submarine equipped to carry intercontinental ballistic
missiles. It has flirted with the idea of building an aircraft
carrier, according to conflicting reports in state media.
Sustained double-digit increases in defense spending have helped make
China one of the largest military powers in the world, though still
well behind the United States. China says it aims only to defend
itself. But others are skeptical.
"Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: why this growing
investment?" Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked recently in a
speech on China's buildup during a visit to Singapore last month.
Beijing clearly hopes history will help answer the question.
Zheng He was a Chinese Muslim who, following the custom of the day,
was castrated so he could serve in the household of a prince, Zhu Di.
Zhu Di later toppled the emperor, his brother, and took the throne
for himself. He rewarded Zheng He, his co-conspirator, with command
of the greatest naval expedition that world had ever seen. Beginning
in July 1405, Zheng He made port calls all around Southeast Asia,
rounded India, explored the Middle East and reached the eastern coast
The three ships Columbus guided across the Atlantic 87 years later,
the Niña, Pinta and Santa María, could fit inside a single large
vessel in Zheng He's armada, which at its peak had up to 300 ships
and 30,000 sailors. Some of China's maritime innovations at the time,
including watertight compartments, did not show up on European
vessels for hundreds of years.
Zheng He was China's first big ocean trader, presenting gifts from
the emperor to leaders in foreign ports and hauling back crabapples,
myrrh, mastic gum and even a giraffe.
In time, though, the emperor turned against seafaring, partly because
of the exorbitant cost, partly because of China's religious certitude
that it had nothing to learn from the outside world. By the latter
part of the 15th century the country had entered a prolonged period
of self-imposed isolation that lasted into the 20th century, leaving
European powers to rule the seas.
For Chinese officials today, the sudden end of China's maritime
ambitions 600 years ago conveniently signals something else: that
China is a gentle giant with enduring good will. Zheng He represents
China's commitment to "good neighborliness, peaceful coexistence and
scientific navigation," government-run China Central Television said
during an hourlong documentary on the explorer last week.
Earlier this month, authorities opened a $50 million memorial to
Zheng He. Tributes to him fill courtyard-style exhibition halls,
painted in stately vermillion and imperial yellow. A hulking statue
of Zheng He, his chest flung forward as in many Communist-era
likenesses of Mao, decorates the main hall.
As the Zheng He anniversary approached, delegations of Chinese
diplomats and scholars also traveled to Kenya to investigate the
claims that islanders there could trace their roots to sailors on
Zheng He's fleet.
On one remote island, called Siyu, the Chinese found a 19-year-old
high school student, Mwamaka Sharifu, who claimed Chinese ancestry.
Beijing's embassy in Nairobi arranged for her to visit China to
attend Zheng He celebrations. Beijing has invited her back to study
in China, tuition-free, this fall.
"My family members have round faces, small eyes and black hair, so we
long believed we are Chinese," Ms. Sharifu said in a telephone
interview. "Now we have a direct link to China itself."
The outreach effort has generated positive publicity for China in
Kenya and some other African countries, as well as around Southeast
Asia, where Zheng He is widely admired.
But Zheng He has been more coolly received by some scholars in China
Geoff Wade, a China specialist at the National University of
Singapore, argued in an academic essay that Zheng He helped the Ming
state colonize neighboring countries. His far-flung expeditions aimed
at enforcing a "pax Ming" through Southeast Asia, allowing China to
wrest control of trade routes dominated at that time by Arabs, he
Several Chinese experts also questioned whether Zheng He's legacy is
as salutary as government officials hope.
Ye Jun, a Beijing historian, said the official contention that Zheng
He was a good-will ambassador is a "one-sided interpretation that
blindly ignores the objective fact that Zheng He engaged in military
suppression" to achieve the emperor's goals.
"These matters should be left to scholars," Mr. Ye said.