Page last updated at 18:25 GMT, Monday, 30 May 2005 19:25 UK

China hails legacy of great adventurer

By Tim Luard

China is celebrating the 600th anniversary of its greatest adventurer, the "Three-Jewel Eunuch Admiral", and hailing him as the inspiration for its current success.

Almost a century before Columbus, at a time when China was the richest and most advanced country in the world, Zheng He [also known as Cheng Ho] sailed further than anyone before him, at the head of an armada bigger than the combined fleets of all Europe.

Treasure ship model
Zheng He went on seven epic voyages, opening up trade routes
His giant "treasure ships", packed with the finest goods and most sophisticated weaponry of the time, went to 37 countries over 28 years, exacting tribute for the Dragon Throne and extending China's influence across much of the globe.

But 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 America, to rule the waves instead.

While he remains little-known to most people even in his own country, Zheng He is now being turned into a communist hero and held up as the pioneer of the open-door policies that have brought China once again to the brink of being a world power.


Zheng He was born in the poor, mountainous Chinese province of Yunnan in 1372, just as Genghis Khan's Mongols were being overthrown by a new, home-grown dynasty, the Ming.

His family were Muslims from Central Asia who had fought for the Mongols. When Ming 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 ashamed of being a eunuch," said Professor Liu Ying Sheng of Nanjing University, adding there was little information about this aspect of Zheng He's life.

Asia's role in maritime history has not been recognised
Chung Chee-kit, Friends of Admiral Zheng He

"All we know is that he was sent to serve the emperor's son at his military base in Beijing... And when this prince later attacked the capital, Nanjing, and took over power as the Yungle Emperor, Zheng He so distinguished himself in battle that he ended up as one of his closest aides."

The new emperor was keen to prove his legitimacy and show off his empire's wealth and power. He also wanted to develop trade - something previously despised.

The chief court eunuch was promoted to admiral and told to produce a fleet to sail to the Western Seas.

Ming dynasty records show that each treasure ship was 400 feet (122 metres) long and 160 feet (50 metres) wide. Bigger, in other words, than a football pitch.

Some say no ship that size could be seaworthy. We do know that they were larger than any ships before them, and many times the size of those sailed later by Columbus.

Touching Zheng He's statue for luck, Melaka
South East Asia has temples dedicated to Zheng He's memory
They were better equipped too, with magnetised compasses and watertight bulkhead compartments of a kind the West would have to wait hundreds of years for. They even had their own on-board vegetable patches.

In 1405, Zheng He set out with a fleet containing more warships than the Spanish Armada, on the first of seven epic voyages.

On board the 317 ships, with red sails and silk pennants at every mast, were 28,000 men with orders to proceed to the ends of the Earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas.

In his bestselling book 1421, former British naval officer Gavin Menzies claimed Zheng He's ships ended up reaching America and circumnavigating the world.

While some specialists agree that the Chinese got to Australia 300 years before Captain Cook, most believe many of Mr Menzies' claims remain unproven.

Impressive reach

But Zheng He did sail throughout South East Asia and the Indian Ocean, and on to the Persian gulf and Africa, creating new navigational maps, spreading Chinese culture and bringing home discoveries, treasures and tribute ranging from eye-glasses to giraffes.

He opened up trade routes that are still flourishing today, and gained strategic control over countries that are now once again looking to China as undisputed regional leader.

The eunuch admiral became known as "Three Jewels" - in Chinese, San Bao. Some say he is the original Sinbad the Sailor.

Such is his popularity among South East Asia's Chinese communities that people still touch his statue for good luck at temples dedicated to his memory.

In Singapore, the Friends of Admiral Zheng He are building a replica of a treasure ship as part of national celebrations of this year's anniversary.

"Asia's role in maritime history has not been recognised," according to the group's leader, Chung Chee-kit.

Ever since China decided to call back its fleets, it has seen itself as a land rather than sea power and has looked on seafarers and merchants as little more than pirates, he said.

Hero once more

But today things are changing, and suddenly Zheng He is a hero in his own country.

China is building its own replica ship and hopes to use it to retrace the original journeys. The man in charge is another Admiral Zheng - a retired naval officer from the People's Liberation Army.

Zheng Ming is working to raise awareness of the Ming Dynasty voyages, now seen as a model for China's "peaceful rise".

"China is calling on its people to blaze forth Zheng He spirit, accelerate the development of the oceanic economy and contribute to the country's reunification, friendly relationships, and co-prosperity among good-neighbourly countries," he said.

Zheng He's tomb is a humble affair hidden away in paddy fields outside Nanjing. Almost the only people to visit it until now have been his family - descendants of his adopted nephew.

As we watched a huge new cultural centre being erected next to the tomb, one of them told me how proud he was of his ancestor, who had done so much to "open China to the world".

It had taken a long time, he said, to reassert his rightful place in history.

Swimming Dragons can be heard on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 3 June at 1000 GMT.

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