Sunday, October 10, 2010

When is Zheng He Day?

Tomorrow is Columbus Day, and guess what? Christopher Columbus was an also-ran sailed. An imitator. A Johnny-come-lately.

Half a century before the first Europeans suspected the world was round, an armada of Chinese ships crossed the China Sea and ventured west to Ceylon, Arabia, and East Africa. Many scholars now believe that Zheng He, the most famous of the Chinese explorers, discovered America while circumnavigating the world. From 1405-1433, the treasure fleet made seven journeys to ports around the Indian Ocean, trading Chinese silk, porcelain, and lacquerware to Arab and African merchants for spices, ivory, rare woods and pearls coveted by the Chinese Imperial Court.

The fleet consisted of giant nine-masted junks and supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses and patrol boats, with a crew of 27,000 sailors and soldiers. The largest junk was over 400 feet long by 150 feet wide, while the Santa Maria, Columbus' largest ship, was only 90 by 30 feet, with a crew of 90.

It's interesting that the Chinese under the Ming Emperors chose not to exploit these newly discovered lands politically or commercially, as the Europeans did when they arrived. They did not slaughter or enslave any Natives. Zheng He didn't even open a restaurant. We may have to change a lot of place names from Spanish to Chinese when this hits the fan.

Meanwhile, the Nobel Peace Prize was just awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for campaigning for political reform and human rights. His government has censored the news, blacking out all mention of it in the media, although his wife was allowed a visit to inform him of the honor bestowed upon him. She is now under house arrest and unable to communicate with anyone. Chinese authorities consider Liu a criminal and said that his winning "desecrates the prize," while the state-run newspaper called it "an arrogant showcase of Western ideology" which disrespects the Chinese people.

I wonder if Zheng He would be in prison if he were alive today, not for discovering new lands but for declining to turn them into mindless authoritarian states.


TaraDharma said...

Well, I learn new things all the time! I've never heard of this fellow, but of course will now read up on him and his exploits.

Yes, I heard the news about the Peace Prize winner, and his wife being put under house arrest. They don't want her talking to the public or to the media. How in the world do we, as a nation, engage with the Chinese Government? They are right up there with the North Koreans for human rights abuses and the torture of their people. Such an ancient culture, such a grand collection of inventions, schools of thought, religion, cuisines, technology. And the government still acts like barbarians. Sheesh.

nick said...

Well, I guess no countries are really "discovered", because people are already living there. Perhaps the word should be "visited". The true question, as you suggest, is whether the visitors treat the existing residents in a civilized and respectful way or whether they decide to conquer and rape and pillage.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for highlighting Zheng He. Indeed, he seemed to be a worthy role model for others to follow. It is interesting that he was a Muslim but that in many places he visited like in Sri Lanka, he helped build places of worship for different religions. A true example of tolerance instead of exerting power to force one's own views.

the walking man said...

It is because the Chinese did not run rampant over the land like the Spaniards did in the 14th century that they are not remembered as finders of this continent. But seeing as they own 90% of it now I guess they got what was due them.

On the Nobel prize, if they had given it to who ever controls their monetary policy it would certainly have made the news in China.

Elaine Steward said...

I saw a program about this on either the History or Discovery Channel. It didn't seem to me that the evidence was very persuasive. Did you read a book or something? I thought it was an interesting hypothesis

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Their track record in Tibet is not laudable either.

I suspect Zheng He is not well-known among Westerners because our history books were written by other Westerners.


Native Americans take particular umbrage at the notion that their lands were "discovered" as they have been here all along.


He did set a fine example which, sadly, has not been followed by most explorers who came after him.

Interestingly, although with no bearing on this story, he was captured as a child by an enemy army which slew his father and made him a eunich.


Fair's fair and what goes around comes around...


I've read many books, actually, but none on Zheng He. Everything I need to know I learned on the Internet.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I want to come live in your country. What a wonderful place that would be.

I am very happy to see Liu win the Nobel Peace Prize that he got. So many were hoping he would. I'm glad his work and sacrifice has not gone unnnoticed.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

Anonymous said...

This was really interesting, and what great notes. It is in Cook's journals that when he landed at Nootka on Vancouver Island's west coast he found that some of the native necklaces included Chinese coins.

Anonymous said...

That was meant to be 'boats so I don't know how it came out 'notes.'

Anonymous said...

And, as Will Rogers (of Cherokee descent) once said, "My family didn't come over on the Mayflower, but we was there to meet the boat."

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I'm confused by your first sentence -- has Colorado seceded then?

Liu has been working on advancing human rights for a very long time. It's Kafkaesque that such a man is in prison.


What a delightful bit of data that is. It reminds me of when I found sea snails in the hills above Montecatini,Italy, and was sure they must be Great Flood remnants.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I'm sure your subconscious typed "notes" because you're a writer, and "b" and "n" are next to each other so hitting the wrong one is not surprising.

I love Will Rogers and the Cherokees are my Chosen People.

Jocelyn said...

As ever, you are an excellent teacher! I did think, too, of the evidence of Viking landings on the east coast, as well. So much history to be sorted out--so much of current times to be sorted, too.

secret agent woman said...

Interesting stuff.

When my younger son was in first grade, I was alerted that he was one of five kids who would be reading their five sentence essays about a hero at the PTA assembly. I was mystified to hear him announce that he had chosen Christopher Columbus. (The two other ones I remember from that day were Jesus and George Bush!) The last sentence of his essay, delivered with a defiant look? "Christopher Columbus didn't discover America, Native Americans discovered America." That's my boy.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Hey, Traveler Lady! Yes, so much history to be sorted out, and since every day creates more history, how likely is it that we'll ever know the truth about anything? I have long concluded that truth is where you stand to look at a thing.


Hurray for your boy! And good job, Mom. The arrogance of the widespread Western notion that everything began with us and our forebears sickens me. Columbus also treated the native people who greeting him with curious hospitality abominably, so he set a very poor example indeed.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Nope. I just think it would be a better place if you were in charge.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

soubriquet said...

Interesting hypothesis, but I'm pretty certain that the ability to build a 400 foot long wooden sailing ship did not exist in china any more than it did anywhere else.
Ships over 300 ft in length have needed significant steel reinforcement and have pretty much always had structural problems due to the innate flexibility of their hull materials. A nine-masted junk, in the 1400s seems extremely unlikely.
And yet, if the stories are true, these were capable of sustained ocean voyages. If so, it's surprising that the ability to build such vessels was so comprehensively lost in such a short time.