Searching for Zheng: China's Ming-Era Voyager

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A worker inspects a statue of Chinese ancient voyager Zheng He (1371-1435) in preparation for a 2005 exhibition in Shanghai about Zheng's voyages

One of the more famous paintings of the medieval Ming dynasty, which ruled China for about three centuries, is that of a court attendant holding a rope around a giraffe. An inscription on the side says the animal dwelled near "the corners of the western sea, in the stagnant waters of a great morass." According to legend, the giraffe was found in Africa, along with zebras and ostriches, and brought back with the grand 15th century expeditions of Zheng He, China's greatest mariner.

More than half a millennium later, Zheng has become a potent symbol for modern China. In 2005, the country marked the 600th anniversary of the seven voyages from 1405 to 1433 undertaken by Zheng's vast "treasure fleets" with nationwide celebrations; the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing dramatized his explorations from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and the shores of Africa. On Feb. 26, China's Ministry of Commerce announced it was funding a three-year project with the assistance of the Kenyan government to search for Ming-era vessels that had supposedly foundered off the East African coast. "Historical records indicate Chinese merchant ships sank in the seas around Kenya," Zhang Wei, a curator for a state museum, told China's official Xinhua news agency. "We hope to find wrecks of the fleet of the legendary Zheng He."

There is more than historical curiosity behind these new efforts. For centuries after his expeditions, Zheng — a Muslim eunuch — slipped out of public awareness, obscured by the rise and fall of new dynasties. Talk of his exploits was revived briefly at the beginning of the 20th century as the fledgling Chinese republic sought to build a navy in the shadow of imperial Japan. But experts say his place as a patriotic national hero has been truly cemented only in the past two decades, parallel with China's geopolitical rise — and the growth of its significant economic presence in many African nations and countries around the Indian Ocean.

The legacy of Zheng's voyages — involving hundreds of ships, some exponentially larger than the three captained by Christopher Columbus decades later, in 1492 — is being invoked by the Chinese as historical proof of the difference between China's and the West's roles in the world. Though the unprecedented display of maritime power was meant to extend the Ming dynasty's reach over a network of tributary states, Zheng rarely resorted to the type of violent, coercive measures taken for centuries by European colonizers, especially in Africa. "Zheng's a nominal symbol of China's peaceful engagement with the world," says Geoffrey Wade, a historian at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore who has translated Ming records pertaining to the voyages. "With him, it's like the Chinese have an ambassador of friendship — a sign that they aren't going to hurt anybody."

In recent years, though, Beijing has come under criticism for an approach to Africa that is perhaps more bloodless than it is cuddly. China's support of autocratic regimes, from Zimbabwe to Sudan — where Beijing effectively built up an oil industry from scratch — has exposed the Asian giant to accusations of turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses as it goes about securing natural resources and political influence. China has pumped billions of dollars into infrastructure projects throughout the continent, tying up key contracts in resource-rich states like Angola and the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yet as total annual trade between Africa and China has surpassed $100 billion, Beijing has won its fair share of admirers too, not least among them many Africans whose quality of life has been improved by an influx of cheap Chinese household goods. China has also established a network of "Confucius Institutes" in various African cities to disseminate Chinese culture, while more and more African exchange students are attending Chinese universities. A flotilla of Chinese warships is part of an international operation attempting to curb piracy off the shores of Somalia. "This discussion of Zheng He is being carried out in China at a higher and more expensive level not just to boost the glory of his personal story," says Barry Sautman, a specialist on China-Africa relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, "but as a particular cog in China's projection of itself into Africa."

Although the aura of Zheng's expeditions may somehow bolster China's budding soft power, it's unclear what lasting impact the visiting fleets had on medieval Africa. No durable trade ties were left in place. And while stories linger in Kenya's Lamu archipelago of a light-skinned community descended from shipwrecked Chinese sailors, the population there retains no trace of Chinese customs or language. "Not much endured beyond the legend," says Sautman. Indeed, scholars like Wade suggest the voyages themselves were something of an "aberration" in the wider context of Chinese foreign policy in that era, which for centuries was far more focused on staving off the threat of invasion along its fragile land borders.

Moreover, though Beijing plays up the voyages as a triumphant Chinese adventure, the journeys had a distinctly Muslim character. Zheng practiced Islam, as did Ma Huan, the main chronicler aboard the ships. It's likely they were guided to their many ports of call, such as Malacca, India's Malabar coast and Malindi in Kenya, by Muslim pilots of Arab, Indian or African extraction. "They were essentially following maritime routes that had been in use by people in the Indian Ocean for ages," says Wade. Many academics argue that the popular Arab-Persian tale of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, littered also with snippets of Indian folklore, was derived from the real travels of Zheng He — making the mariner as much a pan-Asian protagonist as a Chinese one.

No matter the many layers of myth surrounding Zheng He, the Chinese are confident they'll uncover a Ming-era wreck near the Lamu archipelago, where bits of Ming ceramic ware have surfaced in the past, and that it will be their legacy that gets burnished when they find it. A team of Chinese archaeologists is expected to commence work in July. It won't be alone — last year, following a visit to Kenya by Chinese President Hu Jintao, a Chinese state petroleum company won concessions to explore more than 100,000 sq km of Kenyan waters for oil. That will be theirs too. Africa, after all, holds more for China these days than just exotic animals.