Over the last couple of decades a story about a monstrously large “Pre-Columbian” Chinese fleet has surfaced in the Western media, giving rise to the so-called “Zheng He fever”.
It’s strange that such an impressive military and technical accomplishment could have remained ignored for centuries. It also begs the question of how long it took China to reach the pinnacle of naval engineering which they paraded along the shores of the Indian Ocean in the 1400s. Their 140-m long 9-masted super junks seem to have materialized out of the blue. Manned by 28,000 men, the fleet is said to have consisted of approximately 300 ships, 62 of which were king-size. Large vessels were equipped with sophisticated balanced rudders and water-tight bulkheads. Some people have expressed doubts the ships ever existed (a 140-m framework without iron is hard to picture), but in 1962 a rudder post measuring 11 m was found in the original shipyard. By reverse calculation, the respective hull would have been an estimated 152 m long.
Chinese super junk compared to Columbus' Niña:
Source of picture and information: “1001 Inventions: the enduring legacy of the Muslim civilization”, p. 254-7.
One wonders how all this relates to China’s propaganda efforts to conjure up the image of a super power, past and present. I am not dismissing the story (allegedly backed up by Zheng He’s own writings and the existence of artifacts in museums), and I do suspect seafaring was much more common in the distant past than most historians are willing to concede, but the whole thing appears to be cluttered with fiction and politics.
For the record:
A boy by the name Ma He was born in Kunming, Mongolia, to Muslim parents. His father and grandfather took him on pilgrimages to Mecca during which he perfected his Arabic and Chinese language skills. When his town was invaded by the Ming dynasty, Ma He was taken prisoner and made a eunuch. He became a servant in the imperial household of Duke Yan (Zhu Di) who later seized the throne and became the Emperor Yong Le.
The boy was very gifted and grew up (according to some accounts, over 2 m tall) to become a successful military commander and the emperor’s closest advisor. He received several high honors, was allowed to use the surname Zheng (hence, Zheng He), and was eventually given command of the Chinese imperial fleet.
Over a period of 28 years and assisted by other eunuch leaders (including Hou Hsien and Wang Ching-Hung), Zheng He conducted seven expeditions, some of which required the fleet to split in two: 1) Champa, Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and Calcutta (1405-1407), 2) Siam, India and Cochin (1407-1409), 3) East Indies and Quilon (1409-1411), 4) East Indies, Bengal, Maldives and Hormuz (1413-1415), 5) Java, Ryukyu, Brunei, Hormuz, Aden, Mogadishu and Mombasa (1416-1419), 6) 36 states between Borneo and Zanzibar (1421-1422), and 7) 20 realms and sultanates from Java to Mecca to East Africa, possibly rounding the Cape (1431-1433). There is no record of a voyage to America, as claimed by historical novelist Gavin Menzies.
Map of expeditions:
Source: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0 ... 2/map.html
As the story goes, the expeditions were not motivated by greed, but by scientific discovery, trade (gems, minerals, plants, exotic animals, drugs, medicine), the wish to improve navigational and cartographical knowledge, and the desire to make “the transforming power of the imperial virtue” known to all nations.
Zheng He apparently died in India in 1433, on his way back to China. At the time, Confucian philosophy was enjoying a comeback. The internationalist outlook which characterized early 15th century China was replaced by a more isolationist mindset, and seagoing trade was eventually banned. In 1625, the Chinese emperor ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships. If true, this change in Chinese government policy was everything the European explorers could have wished for.
Lecture by Adam Smith: