AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 35/2005

China's Christopher Columbus Hero of the High Seas

Part 2: Part Two: Were the Chinese fleets superior to those of Europe?


Visitors look at the model of Zheng He's ship in the Shanghai Exhibition Centre, China. The ship was four times larger than the Santa Maria which Christopher Columbus sailed in.
DPA

Visitors look at the model of Zheng He's ship in the Shanghai Exhibition Centre, China. The ship was four times larger than the Santa Maria which Christopher Columbus sailed in.

"China was never interested in conquering, occupying and colonizing foreign states," says Munich-based sinologist Roderich Ptak. Zheng's expeditions were walks in the park compared with the Europeans' later campaigns of conquest, which all too often ended in bloodbaths. It's even thought that Zheng engaged in fair trade practices. After a while, his soldiers would roll up their flags and his ships would set sail again. In fact, a few historians are convinced that the expeditions cost the Ming dynasty more than they brought in.

Zheng's expeditions were made up of up to 317 ships with red silk sails, loaded with horses and poultry. One flotilla could carry around 28,000 men, including the crews and soldiers, as well as doctors, pharmacists and astronomers. The junks' average speed was about 4.8 knots.

Cabins With All the Mod Con(cubines)

The fleet carried Chinese silk, porcelain and lacquered goods abroad, and brought home spices, herbs, rhinoceros horns, pearls, precious stones and rare woods. Once, in 1416, a giraffe was part of the spoils, and Chinese scientists hailed it as the legendary unicorn "Qilin." Foreign emissaries who had traveled to China -- not always voluntarily -- to pay their respects to the Dragon Throne, sat on deck. The Chinese would make the voyage more palatable to their foreign passengers by offering them all kinds of fringe benefits, including cabins with balconies, eunuch servants to satisfy their every wish and, if needed, the sexual services of delicate concubines in silk stockings.

The Chinese admiral's maritime skills were both simple and highly advanced. While at sea, his captains communicated with drums and flag signals, or by carrier pigeon. During storms, the seamen would drag their ships' anchors to prevent the vessels from rocking excessively. A compass needle floating in sea water was used for navigation.

Among the astonishing achievements at Zheng He's disposal were the "pure star boards." These were wooden disks with which his officers would measure the height of the Polar Star, thereby determining their geographic latitude. On the route between Hormuz and India, for example, they knew that the Polar Star had to remain "11 fingers" (17 degrees) above the horizon.

The stars of the Chinese fleet were the treasure ships -- sweeping junks, several stories high, up to 122 meters long and 50 meters wide. In fact they were about four times bigger than the "Santa Maria," the ship Columbus sailed to America on behalf of the Spanish crown. Nine masts stretched to the sky, and below deck the ships featured a technical innovation that European seafarers would only discover much later: 16 bulkheads which -- modeled after the chambers in a bamboo tube -- were intended to prevent water from flooding the vessel.

The ships were built in Nanjing, in the world's first dry docks, where thousands of workers and craftsmen built junks over the three parallel inlets of the city's Dragon River shipyard. Nowadays, the connection between the Yangtze and the ocean has silted up, and the skyline is filled with cranes on the adjacent construction site, where apartment buildings are being built.

For the 600-year anniversary, Nanjing has turned the site into a museum park where archaeological finds from the shipyard are on display. The crown jewel of this exhibit is an 11-meter oar that was pulled out of the mud in 1957 and is thought to have belonged to an unfinished junk.

Should New England Be Re-named New China?

Just in time for the anniversary, a lively spat has erupted over what the Chinese actually discovered and who they surpassed. Retired British submarine commander Gavin Menzies, 68, has come up with the wildest theory. In his book "1421," he claims that the Chinese discovered America, not Columbus. Menzies writes that the seafarers from the Middle Kingdom were technically superior to and had better navigation skills than the Europeans and, therefore, that it would be logical to assume that they also even reached Australia. If Menzies is right, Chinas junks were even capable of maneuvering through the icebergs of the Arctic and Antarctic.

 China is as proud of its navy as it was back in Zheng He's day. Here members of the Communist Party Central Committee pose with naval officers of the South China Sea Fleet.
AFP

China is as proud of its navy as it was back in Zheng He's day. Here members of the Communist Party Central Committee pose with naval officers of the South China Sea Fleet.

And it gets even better: When the Europeans set sail for the New World, they took along nautical charts showing America and Australia, nautical charts for which they could thank Zheng He and his eunuch captains. Cook, Magellan, Columbus, Vasco da Gama: all dwarfs traveling on the shoulders of the matchless Chinese admiral? That, at least, is how the amateur historian Menzies sees it.

Menzies bases his conclusions, at least to some extent, on the writings of Venetian merchant Nicolò de' Conti, who supposedly came across a Chinese nautical map. Conti gave the chart to a Portuguese prince, and it ultimately ended up in the hands of Christopher Columbus and his team.

Menzies cites several other important elements as evidence of Chinese nautical discoveries. For one thing, traces of Chinese civilization -- porcelain, shipwrecks and tools -- have been found along the coasts of both North America and Australia. Also there are people living in these areas whose early ancestors came from China. After all, writes Menzies, Zheng He's fleet was so large that several ships' crews could have stayed behind without jeopardizing the voyage home. "Perhaps New England ought to be renamed New China," he says.

...or Maybe He Only Got as Far as Africa

Nothing but a sailor's yarn, says another retired British seaman. In his competing book, Captain Philip Rivers picks apart the submarine commander's arguments: "A mixture of facts and fantasy. I had to giggle on almost every page," he says.

But how does one explain the traces of Chinese civilization along America's and Australia's coastlines? No one disputes the fact that Asians were probably washed ashore by unfavorable winds and landed in the New World thousands of years before the birth of Christ, says American writer Louise Levathes, author of "When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433." But Zheng He, says Levathes, only made it as far as Africa.

That, based on everything we know, sounds plausible. The Chinese nautical chart Columbus supposedly used on his voyage has disappeared -- if it ever existed, that is. While Chinese commentators from the time have written extensively about Zheng's voyages across the Indian Ocean, they have left no documents behind mentioning the discovery of America or Australia.

Added to this, it has been historically proven that the emperor forbade any further voyages after the seventh expedition. Other giant projects -- such as the repair of the Imperial Canal and the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing -- had exhausted the country. In the centuries which followed, the Middle Kingdom retreated into self-imposed isolation, and the admiral sank into oblivion.

In the "Oxhead Mountains" a few kilometers south of Nanjing, there is a light-colored stone sarcophagus inscribed with green Arabic writing. It marks the grave of Zhang He. To commemorate the anniversary, the place has been transformed into a tasteful memorial.

But no one knows exactly when the great admiral died. Did he perish in 1433, on his seventh voyage, an expedition to Malacca and Jeddah? Did the crew transport his body, packed in lead, back to Nanjing? Or did he draw his last breath on land, in 1435?

"The grave contains only a few hairs and his robe," says the memorial's administrator. It looks like these few remains are all that is left of the Chinese admiral who managed to get so amazingly far around the world.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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