Tuesday, August 02, 2005


The admiral that time forgot


Nabgkock Post
By Harold Stephens
August 02, 2005

Six hundred years ago this month, a huge Chinese fleet sailed up the Chao Phraya River; it went on to make pioneering expeditions to part of the world that would not be `discovered' by Europeans for many more years to come

On July 11, 1405, where the Yangtze River meets the China Sea, a mighty armada set sail, an armada consisting of 317 ships manned by more than 28,000 men. Never before had the world _ then or since _ seen such a sight.

A month after leaving China, the fleet, under the command of Admiral Zheng He, reached the Gulf of Siam, crossed the sand bar at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and made its way upriver to Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam. All along the banks of the river, for a hundred kilometres or more, thousands of people stood, gawking in wonder. It must have been a truly amazing spectacle.

There stands today, in Ayutthaya, a statue of Admiral Zheng He erected in memory of that extraordinary voyage. But this wasn't his only trip up the Chao Phraya to Ayutthaya. Two more followed.

This year, to mark the 600th anniversary of that first voyage, a host of activities are being held throughout China and around Southeast Asia, including Singapore.

The intent behind Zheng He's expeditions was quite different from that of Western explorers. His purpose was to establish relations with foreign countries and expand trade contacts. His expeditions were largely peaceful, though occasionally skirmishes did occur and unwelcoming rulers were captured and taken to China for ``instruction''.

As famous as Zheng He is today, what is probably more astounding than anything else about the man and his voyages is that for centuries he had been all but forgotten. I recall during my own schooldays my teacher telling us about US President Teddy Roosevelt sending his ``Great White Fleet'' around the world in a display of American might. And what an armada that was _ 16 battleships, and 14,000 crew members. That was December, 1907 and it took more than a year to complete its trip. Even during World War Two there wasn't another fleet like it on the high seas. What our teacher failed to tell us was that another armada, 30 times bigger than the Great White Fleet, had visited the ports of Southeast Asia many years before, and that a Chinese admiral had led it.

The first I ever heard about this admiral _ they called him Cheng Ho, then _ was years ago in Malacca. There's a well there called Sam Po and I was told it had been named after a Chinese seaman who had visited many centuries before and, ``if you drink from the well, one day you will return''.

From the look of the water, I doubted that anyone who drank from the well would make it to the nearest hospital. Also, not too far away is Sam Po's ``footprint''. It's gigantic, maybe more than a metre long, and is embedded in a patch of coral on the beach. There's another of his footprints on one of the Langkawi islands, I was told. Since the two places are more than 300 kilometres apart, that was unquestionably one enormous footstep, even for a legend. Back then, I guess that we all assumed that Sam Po was factitious, Chinese folklore of sorts.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued and, in the basement of the National Library in Kuala Lumpur, I was able to find some information on the admiral. One reference makes a good story: It tells of him arriving in Malacca with 62 ships and 27,000 men. On board his vessel was a daughter of the emperor of China accompanied by 500 handmaidens; she was to be presented to the sultan of Malacca as a bride. Of course, when I read further and learned that the admiral was a eunuch _ in the Chinese imperial court they called him the Three Jewelled Eunuch _ I couldn't help wondering if this was the reason he had been picked to take care of such a precious cargo. My later studies, however, revealed a different truth.

With 2005 marking the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's first voyage, the man is in the news again. A further impetus to the revival in interest was the release of a book in 2002 called 1421, The Year China Discovered the World, by Gavin Menzies, a submarine commander turned writer. National Geographic also got in on the act by producing a two-part TV documentary, photographed by Mike Yamashita. Menzies put forth the theory that Zheng He discovered America in 1421, stirring up a controversy that has unsettled historians and scholars of naval history. But more about that later.

One thing about which there's no doubt is the size and technical sophistication of Zheng He's ships. They were the largest and most advanced craft in the world at the time. The bigger vessels were 150 metres long and 60 wide and carried a crew of 1,000 plus 2,500 tons of cargo. Aside from sailors, they carried clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. They boasted nine masts and 12 sails and their hulls comprised multiple watertight compartments, useful in the event of a breach. Besides necessities for living and navigation, the ships were also loaded with pearls, precious stones, silk, chinaware and rare animals intended for trade or as gifts to nurture transnational friendships.

And, contrary to what I'd previously thought, Zheng He wasn't chosen to take the emperor's daughter to Malacca just because he was a eunuch. The real story was quite different. He was born in the poor, mountainous province of Yunnan, far from the sea. His ancestors were Muslims from Central Asia who had fought on the side of the invading Mongols. When the latter were eventually defeated and driven out of China, Ming-dynasty armies came looking for rebels. They captured the 10-year-old boy and, as was the custom with young male prisoners, castrated him. He was sent to serve the emperor's son at his military base in northern China. When the prince later attacked Nanjing, then the capital, and assumed power as the Yongle Emperor, the third ruler of the Ming dynasty, Zheng He so distinguished himself in battle that he ended up as one of the new emperor's closest aides.

The Yongle Emperor wanted to impress Ming power upon the world and show off China's resources and importance. Thus he gave orders to build even larger ships than were necessary for lengthy sea voyages. He gave command to Zheng He and awarded him the title, Three Jewelled Eunuch.

Zheng He was more than a capable military officer and naval commander; he was a gifted scholar, too. He is credited with bringing to other countries knowledge of the Chinese calendar and meteorological system, Chinese medicine and technological advances in agriculture, manufacturing, architecture, sculpture and shipbuilding. It is said that, thanks to his visit, the people of Malacca learned how to construct city walls, dig wells and build roads over mountains. The Siamese learned from him a way to treat waste water and the method of burning straw to fertilise farmland. To the people of Vietnam he brought mountain- and field-reclamation techniques and the system of growing three crops a year. Also, as a result of his voyages, advanced Chinese navigation and shipbuilding methods were introduced to other peoples, particularly as part of exchanges with Arab countries.

Zheng He was also something of a diplomat. In 1409 and again in 1432, during a period when Siam was in conflict with Malacca, he acted as a mediator between the two kingdoms. As a result, China's relations with the two states were further strengthened.

In 1433, after visiting 38 countries during 28 years of exploration, Zheng He fell ill in Guli (Calicut) during his seventh voyage. He died soon afterwards and was buried at sea.

Around the time of his death, a new Chinese ruler, suspicious of the outside world, banned all further expeditions, ushering in 500 years of isolation and leaving the way open for countries such as Spain and Portugal and, later, Britain and the US, to rule the waves instead.

The recent Zheng He craze can be attributed largely to the book by Gavin Menzies that I mentioned earlier. The author 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.

After reading the book, a sceptical friend had this comment to make: ``Too many contemporary `historians' have an agenda all their own and this author may well be one of them.''

We know for a fact that Zheng He's fleets ventured far beyond Southeast Asia, to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea and then on to the east coast of Africa, stopping at the city states of Mogadishu and Brawa (in today's Somalia) and Malindi (in present day Kenya). He sailed farther than anyone before him, at the head of an armada bigger than the combined fleets of all Europe. That is difficult, if not impossible, to dispute. Nor can we disregard the record of Zheng He's seven voyages engraved, in 1431, on a marble pillar at a temple to the goddess Celestial Spouse at Changle in Fujian province. It stands today as a lasting record of the Chinese admiral's travels. It lists each of the countries Zheng He's fleet visited; it does not mention America.

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. A derelict ship, crew missing for unknown reasons, floating aimlessly upon an empty ocean that meets its end on a desolate beach at the other end of the world; such a find doesn't mean that the aim of the vessel's captain was to reach that part of the world. It's like discovering Roman beads in a riverbed in southern Thailand and saying that that proves that the Romans were once here.

Years ago, searching for the carving of an elephant reputedly cut into a stone cliff deep in the Malay jungle, I hired two aborigines to guide me there. As we pulled our dugouts over rapids in the river I taught the guides to repeat the chants, more like grunts, that I had learned while living in Tahiti. Later, two anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania hired the same two guides. When the academics returned from their expedition they claimed that there was a linguistic link between the natives of the Malay jungle and the Polynesian islanders of the Pacific. I was tempted to tell them the truth, but I never did.

I can't help wondering ... what if Zheng He had managed to maintain his magnificent fleet and China had not turned inwards and willingly given up its vast scientific and military advantage? Europeans most likely would not have taken over the spice trade and subjugate the Asian and African continents. And, had China been interested, it could have colonised Australia and the Americas before the Europeans did.

Perhaps Zheng He's greatest legacy was the army of Chinese entrepreneurs who followed him overseas. Today, more than 34 million ethnic Chinese live in 140 countries spread over all the known world.


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