Next year though, a small group of Taiwanese and Chinese adventurers will take the helm of a Ming dynasty junk in an attempt to partially re-enact one of the milestones in Chinese, and perhaps global, maritime exploration.
Under the directorship of Admiral Zheng He, the year 1405 saw the first of seven grandiose naval expeditions journeying from China to as far as East Africa.
Undertaken while China was experiencing its zenith in terms of international power, each fleet comprised hundreds of ships, the largest of which has been controversially suggested as being more than 130m long.
According to one recent book, 1421, Zheng He should even be credited with discovering America some 87 years before Columbus.
“I see him as the first hero in the history of Chinese sea exploration,” declared Alan Hsu, the organiser of next year’s 600th anniversary commemorative expedition.
Brave or foolish?
Head of the Taiwan Society of Extreme Exploration, Hsu is planning a three-year voyage that will retrace Zheng He’s travels to India, the Middle East and East Africa.
Entitled Gazing At Zheng He’s Era, Hsu will use historical records to build a smaller version of a Ming dynasty ship, one that will be big enough to carry 16 brave – or some might say foolhardy -volunteers.
“I see him as the first hero in the history of Chinese sea exploration”
Costing some $5m, Hsu’s trip aims to do more than just promote a man who would appear to remain under represented in the annals of world history. “We ideally want volunteers from all areas of China. We want to publicise the Chinese people’s love of peace and peaceful co-existence.”
Such lofty ideals though stand in sharp contrast to the life of Zheng He.
A devout Muslim, his Mongol ancestry forced his family on to the defensive when the first Ming emperor took the throne in 1368 and thereupon proceeded to eliminate remnants of the former Mongol power. Captured aged ten, he underwent castration before entering into the service of the emperor’s son and heir, Zhu Di.
According to Cambridge University history professor Sally Church such practices were common among young captives and allowed those with ability to rise within the echelons of power as a court eunuch.
Evidently, his qualities served him well as, after Zhu Di’s ascendancy to emperor, Zheng He was appointed admiral of the largest navy in existence.
Although the technological and commercial sides of the maritime voyages are usually stressed (notably China’s invention of the compass and similar navigation techniques), for Ming Dynasty historian Professor Liu Yingsheng, the fleets had more than just a passive role.
The fleets were a symbol of
“Although inclusive of merchant and scientific personnel, one of the principle functions of the fleets were to assert the image of Chinese supremacy across maritime Asia and help maintain the so-called tribute system whereby neighbouring rulers sent gifts to the emperor as a sign of respect.”
Despite being touted as a system of equal respect, failure to pay was tantamount to declaring war. The fleets therefore needed to carry with them the ultimate threat of force.
It is possible though that his Muslim status afforded him added advantage when meeting with near and Middle Eastern representatives of a similar faith. Although he himself never made the hajj – the pilgrimage to Makka carried out during the 12th month of the Muslim lunar calendar – his father did and Zheng He sent representatives in his stead.
At that time, according to Liu, ties between China and the Middle East were strong, aided by vibrant trade conducted across both the land-based Silk Road and maritime routes as well as a sizable Chinese Muslim population.
First brought to China in the 7th century, Islam developed in the country’s western regions where it still holds sway today.
“In that period, the Middle East was in the eyes of the Chinese, the West. Europe was virtually unknown, nor at the time did it offer any technological advancements,” added Liu.
It is Zheng He’s qualities as a sailor and ambassador that will be stressed at next year’s events though rather than his role as an agent of realpolitik.
Already, the government has laid out an impressive list of nationwide exhibitions and conferences to mark the event.
“In today’s Chinese history, Zheng He is seen as epitomising peaceful internationalism. That is the image of China that current leaders wish to present to the world”
Professor Liu Yingsheng,
Although the hotly disputed facts about whether ships under his command made it to America are unlikely to feature heavily, the notion of former naval supremacy will not go unmentioned in a country keen to reassert itself in world affairs.
Zheng He’s expeditions are made all the more poignant for the fact that soon after Zhu Di’s death in 1424, links with the outside world were gradually closed and the prohibitively expensive naval and land-based campaigns that were sucking the state coffers dry were brought to an end.
At the last sizable ceremony held in 1984, then leader Deng Xiaoping commented on how Zheng He epitomised the last open period of China. The comparison with the China that he was in the process of creating could not have been clearer.
“In today’s Chinese history, Zheng He is seen as epitomising peaceful internationalism. That is the image of China that current leaders wish to present to the world,” affirmed Liu.
Destined for the high seas by mid-2005, Hsu may not have time to ponder such messages of diplomatic goodwill.
Concerned about modern day pirates and reliable navigation, he has taken the precaution of installing an inboard motor and GPS satellite tracking. Like Zheng He, his replica ship will be not quite what it seems.