It's never hard finding adventure in China. By driving just half an hour outside of Nanjing, the former Ming dynasty capital that today is a metropolis of 4.5 million, we have slipped back into a China not exactly of imperial times but one that modernity has scarcely touched. The rice stalks, newly planted, undulate in the breeze as they stretch toward the sun. Children of the local soil, their skin darkened from long days helping seed the paddies, splash around in muddy watering holes. Traffic comes to a stop whenever a water buffalo chances onto the road. We are on a quest to retrace the route of the man who ranks as perhaps China's greatest adventurer, the 15th century admiral, Zheng He. A Muslim, a eunuch, a warrior, Zheng He vastly outdid his approximate contemporaries, the Western naval heroes who helped define the global Age of Exploration. His armada of giant junks was several times bigger than any of the fleets Columbus commanded nearly a century later. And his ships were five times longer than those of the celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. With more than 300 oceangoing vessels and a crew of nearly 30,000 men, Zheng He helped transform China into the region's, and perhaps the world's, 15th century superpower. He exacted tribute, brought Sultans to their knees and opened up trade routes that helped develop the enduring taste abroad for Chinese porcelain and silk. He brought home quirky items, too, including the first giraffe China had seen—initially misidentified as the qilin, the unicorn central to Chinese mythology. Explorer, conqueror, diplomat, trader—and yet Zheng He is largely unknown outside of China. In fact, he attracts only limited attention within the Middle Kingdom. Sure, schoolkids read of his exploits. But in a country perpetually obsessed with both its history and its contributions to world culture and knowledge, there is surprisingly little to remind today's citizens of Zheng He's remarkable achievements. And that's partly why, driving through the back roads outside of Nanjing, we're having far more of an adventure than we had bargained for. We are barreling around Jiangning county, in the west of Jiangsu province; our vessel is a Volkswagen Santana, made in China. The target is Zheng He's tomb, and we are lost. There are no markings for the site along the road, no signposts or souvenir shops selling Zheng He memorabilia. The peasants we ask, while voluble and certain, send us on a 21st century odyssey, mostly around in circles. There is one sign pointing the way to the enticingly translated City of the Dead, which turns out to be an unrelated catacomb. There are no markers for Zheng He's final resting place. Still, we persevere and finally our crew of four arrives at a dirt path that leads to the tomb that is China's grandest memorial to the man who once led the treasure fleet of the dragon throne that dominated the Asian seas. We twist past a few small homes and scoot past great quantities of ducks, chickens and goats. One imagines Zheng He had an easier time finding his way to Melaka, Sri Lanka, Aden, Mogadishu. There is a museum at the site, but it's closed. It was also shuttered several years ago when another Western journalist came to visit. Apparently, it never opens. A caretaker sleeps in a back room, but on this day even he isn't to be found. A nearby stela outlines Zheng He's story, how he led seven expeditions on behalf of the Emperor, journeys that established China as the world's top naval power. The inscriptions are covered by a graffiti overlay: I am here reads one entry. And there is the tomb, set into Bull's Head Hill and surrounded by overgrown weeds; other than the graffiti, there is no evidence that anyone else has made the pilgrimage. (Zheng He probably isn't even in the tomb. He died in 1433 on his fleet's seventh voyage and, given the hygienic concerns of the day, it's virtually certain he was tossed overboard.) This, then, is an empty tomb visited by no one. How does a country forget its greatest adventurer-hero? How does a man who ruled the seas for China and projected the Emperor's power become consigned to a neglected burial spot and a perpetually shuttered museum? One explanation, surely, is that the Chinese typically do not revere adventurers. This is a society that for centuries was dominated by a Confucian ideology that ascribed overwhelming virtue to orderliness. Everyone had a prescribed role to play according to his social status; everything fit into its rightful place. Only then was civilization thought to thrive. Even Chairman Mao, the peasant rebel who would become the Great Helmsman of the modern era, is admired not so much for leading revolutionary upheaval but for restoring stability to China after the tumult—dynastic collapse, civil war, Japanese invasion—of the first half of the 20th century. Fear of change is an enduring legacy of Confucianism, says Henry Tsai Shih-shan, a University of Arkansas history professor who has written several books on the Ming dynasty. Chinese continually fail to appreciate that expansion can create power and wealth, not chaos.For a brief interlude, Zheng He challenged such conservative tendencies. By the end of his fleet's seven voyages, China had become an unrivaled naval power. As a result of the expeditions, the Emperor in Nanjing (and later Beijing when the capital was moved north in 1420) commanded the fear and respect of leaders throughout South and Southeast Asia. China had established itself as a trade and diplomatic force, its authority backed up by the thousands of troops who accompanied Zheng He on his travels. If countries could be said to own centuries—the 20th century is often viewed as America's; the previous one arguably belonged to colonial superpower Britain—the 1400s were all China's. Or at least they could have been, had the country not suddenly turned inward. There are many theories as to why China curtailed its maritime aspirations in the mid-15th century. The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. Barbarian nations were thought to offer little of value to China. Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transport and other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century's end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. Oceangoing vessels were destroyed. Eventually, even records of Zheng He's journey were torched. China's heroic age was over; its open door had slammed shut. The expeditions wasted tens of myriads of money and grain, a 15th century Minister of War complained. Roderick MacFarquhar, a sinologist at Harvard University, characterizes the conservative triumph this way: Yellow River over blue water. The philosophical dispute is far more than a historical curiosity. Through the centuries, China has struggled to find its proper place in the world. The pendulum has shifted back and forth between openness and insularity, between the spirit embodied in Zheng He and that of, say, Yang Rong, the Confucian tutor to the Emperor who argued for rolling back the power of eunuch adventurers like Zheng He. The Confucians won; China wouldn't emerge again as a naval force until the past decade or so, as it began to build up a sizable fleet, probe disputed islands like the Spratlys and project a presence in Asia's sea-lanes. The internal conflict has fueled some of China's most dramatic confrontations. The 1919 May Fourth movement, still a potent symbol of resistance, advocated Western notions of science and democracy. When conservative forces rejected those demands, China slipped back toward insularity. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Mao whipped up an antiforeign hysteria that prompted the Red Guards to attack all things imported. In 1967, they burned down the British chancery in Beijing. Protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 echoed calls for adopting the liberal political approach of the West; the crackdown set China back yet again. Throughout history, the Chinese have been very cautious about expansion and about allowing in Western influence, says Jonathan Spence, a historian at Yale University who writes frequently about China. When I was stationed as a journalist in Beijing in the late 1980s, I was stunned by how citizens still viewed non-Chinese as exotic, often frightening creatures. When I visited the northern city of Hengshui, one of what were then hundreds of areas officially closed to foreigners, a local bureaucrat seized my shortwave radio from my hotel room, examining it to ensure that it wasn't a two-way spy communications device. A memo accidentally left behind in my room instructed officials to politely refuse any request Mr. Ignatius may have to leave the hotel. Suspicion of the outside was deeply ingrained, particularly after the Cultural Revolution's xenophobic excesses. As the 21st century dawns, China again is on a mission to open itself to the world. Tens of thousands of individuals are on the journey, people like Gong Jian, a 30-year-old exporter I met over tea in the elegant Portman Ritz-Carlton hotel in Shanghai. His title might sound prosaic: manager of footwear department No. 2 for Shanghai Lansheng Corp. But he exemplifies the cosmopolitan business Elite in China's coastal cities, leading the export charge that explains why Magic Chef refrigerators and seemingly everything else on sale at the 3,500 Wal-Mart department stores in the United States say Made in China. Each year Gong and his team churn out $13 million worth of tennis shoes, cross-trainers and sandals for American Sporting Goods' Avia brand. That works out to about 6,000 pairs a day, ready for export. China, meanwhile, is clamoring for membership in the World Trade Organization, which will make the nation an equal partner in a transparent, globalized economy. And China's winning the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, despite the surrounding controversy, means the country will have to endure widespread outside scrutiny, including that of thousands of foreign journalists. But the battle between advocates of openness and insularity continues. Consider the case of Beijing-born Li Shaomin, a scholar and U.S. citizen, who was recently convicted of spying for Taiwan and then expelled. His crime: collecting material that's actually in the public domain but not meant for foreign eyes. And then there's He Qinglian, an economist who is outspoken about the cost of corruption and cronyism but, in China's authoritarian context, qualifies as a dissident. Police broke into her home several times, looking, she believes, for evidence of contact with foreigners to support a phony charge that she, too, is a spy. In June she left for the United States and self-imposed exile. Yes, the big picture now is that China is open. But that can hardly be taken for granted. For the moment, we are beginning a period of openness, says Tsai, the Ming dynasty historian. But there is always a challenge: another group afraid of opening up, afraid of threats to stability. What if China hadn't turned inward after Zheng He's exploits? The nation arguably would have been stronger, more cosmopolitan and better equipped to combat the brutal assaults of the Western powers and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. When outsiders with advanced technologies, big guns and missionary zeal began prying the country open, China could do little to repel the onslaught. The 21st century might well turn out to be China's, but hundreds of years were lost when the Confucians trumped the eunuch-explorers. If the foreign expeditions had been sustained, the world would be very different now, says Kong Lingren, a 69-year-old former civil servant who is secretary-general of a quiet little outfit known as the Zheng He Research Association. We could have conquered the world. Zheng He's trials began early. He was born in 1371, during the first years of the Ming dynasty, to an Islamic family in what is now the western province of Yunnan. (His name at birth was Ma He.) When the Ming armies moved into the region to wipe out the last vestiges of Mongol influence, 11-year-old Ma gained the attention of a conquering general. He was taken back to Nanjing, where he became a page to a young prince, known as Zhu Di. He was castrated and destined for a life serving with other eunuchs in the imperial household, guarding the harem and offering wisdom to the dynastic clan. Somehow the prince and the castrate became friends and when Zhu Di launched a coup d'Etat in 1402, Ma was at his side. The prince, who became the Yongle Emperor, awarded Ma an honorific surname Zheng and made him head eunuch. When the Emperor sketched out a plan for Chinese ships to sail to the Indian Ocean, he named his loyal charge to lead the fleet. What the admiral's men said about the ports TIME visitedDescribed as tall and handsome with long earlobes, fierce eyes and skin rough like the surface of an orange, Zheng He proved to be a stunning success. In his initial expedition, which began in 1405, he set out to find the deposed Emperor, Yongle's nephew, who was thought to have taken refuge somewhere in Southeast Asia. The voyage was also a chance for the young dynasty to show the world the power and capability of the Ming ruler. This was a China on the rise, a nation striving to return to the glory of the high Tang dynasty, when Chinese troops occupied territory as far away as today's Iran. Zheng He supervised the building of the fleet of treasure ships, which assembled before embarking at the port of Liujia in Taicang, a coastal town 40 km from Shanghai. Before the fleet set off, the men would visit the Jinghai Temple in Taicang to pray to the Taoist goddess known as Tianfei for protection at sea. Spiritually fortified, they boarded their ships, which would head down the Liu Creek to the Yangtze River and eventually into the open seas. With Tianfei's blessing, Zheng He and his men spent two years at sea, landing at present-day Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and, eventually, India. Over the next 28 years, Zheng He's flotilla embarked on six other grand voyages. It was an unprecedented massing of naval power. The ships, described collectively as swimming dragons, boasted as many as nine masts apiece; and the largest could hold 1,000 people. Dotted with dragons' eyes to help them see, they carried soldiers, doctors, cooks, interpreters, astrologers, traders and holy men. The senior captains were eunuchs. The expeditions covered a total of nearly 300,000 km, roughly equivalent to 7 1/2 circumnavigations of the world. This was a China that sought to dominate the region. On one journey, as recounted in Louise Levathes' 1994 book When China Ruled the Seas, Zheng He put down an uprising in Sumatra and brought the rebel chief back to Nanjing for confinement; the Emperor had the man executed. On another, the fleet landed in Sri Lanka and captured the Sinhalese King—punishment, according to one version of events, for his refusal to hand over to the Chinese Emperor a sacred tooth of the Buddha. He and his family were taken to China and imprisoned. Impressed by such power, rulers throughout the region bought peace by offering gifts as tribute, which amounted, in China's eyes, to acknowledgment that the Emperor was the supreme leader of the universe. Subsequent journeys went as far as Hormuz and East Africa. In all, the fleet landed in more than 40 countries. Crew members brought back tales of exotic places and customs. They marveled at the prosperity of city-states in southern India and the violence of the Javanese. In what is present-day Thailand, they were thrilled to discover that the local men were happy to allow their wives to entertain and even sleep with the visitors. China's age of exploration began to come to a close, however, when Zheng He died in 1433 during a stopover in the once great Indian port city of Calicut. The fleet returned to China and was soon disbanded. Zheng He himself suffered an ignoble end. Normally, significant eunuchs were reunited at death with their genitals, which were kept in sealed jars. That way the body could move on intact to the afterlife. Zheng He had no such luck. For a taste of Eternal China, take a look at the Jinghai Temple today. Despite generations of official atheism and the wholesale destruction of temples and feudal beliefs, two dozen elderly women in floppy blouses and polyester pants cheerfully descend on the holy site, praying to Tianfei and the East Sea Dragon God. They shake their clasped hands in passionate devotion, bow their heads low before the celestial statues and burn copious quantities of incense. They pray that the sea won't turn on them, that their fishermen husbands won't be drowned, that their houses won't be wrecked by typhoons, that their lives will simply turn out well. I've got four kids, and three are in college, says Xu Fenshan, a thickly built 68-year-old matron, offering evidence that her faith has earned rewards. There is no Zheng He parallel in today's China. But perhaps that's a positive sign. Instead of one imperial hero, thousands of ordinary people are doing their part to open the nation to the world. Back in Shanghai, the 2,000 workers on Lansheng's assembly line overseen by manager Gong are molding, stitching and boxing the thousands of shoes, which will then be loaded into the 12-m containers that accumulate at Shanghai's Waigaoqiao port. There, the big shipping lines—American President, Mitsui OSK, Mediterranean Shipping—stack them up and move them out to the world. China's door is open, says Gong. It's impossible to close. As for the ports that launched Zheng He's fleets, they are long gone, destroyed by five centuries of tumult and neglect. But there are still treasure boats of a sort that ply the Liu Creek, where the armada once assembled. Fan Ping owns one of them, the Sutai Yuyou 503, a small steel ship that doubles as her family's home. It's just 10 m long; the engine a mere 20 h.p. But the 49-year-old matriarch uses the modest craft to ply the waterways for riches. She finds oil spills, sucks them up with a powerful hose and resells the fuel. Cruising along the Liu Creek, looking for bounty, we stand together on the cramped deck, imagining what it was like in Zheng He's day. I guess I have a bit of the same spirit, says Fan. The banks that once were filled with cheering throngs are now lined instead with tall cedars. Just ahead, the Yangtze River seems as wide as an ocean. The winds pushing toward the coast seem to be saying, China is back.