famous historical figures, Zheng He, the greatest navigator in Chinese history,
has not escaped controversy. The size of his fleet ships and the routes his
voyages took continue to ignite heated debates worldwide.
Top: Chinese lawyer and art collector
Bottom: The map purported to date from 1418 and collected by
Liu Gang suggests a Chinese fleet sailed to America decades before
Christopher Columbus. [Reuters]
At last week's first international forum on Zheng He's voyages held in
Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province to mark the country's third Navigation
Day, which coincided with Zheng's historic maiden overseas voyage 600 years ago,
scholars and some diplomatic officials to China from the countries which Zheng
He's fleet visited, sat together to explore the historic resources of his
1421, The Year China Discovered The World, a controversial book published in
2003 outlining the voyages of Zheng He during the time of Emperor Zhu Di of the
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), made Gavin Menzies, a retired British Royal Navy
captain, known to the world. The book put forward a theory that Zheng He
discovered America 70 years before Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) did in 1492.
Now the old man is preparing his next book about Zheng He's visits to Europe.
"He sailed all around Europe. It is all there in European records," he says.
He presented at the international forum a piece of powerful evidence he has
collected, an Italian record of the Pope meeting Zheng He's representatives,
which was drafted by a friend of the Pope.
Menzies believes Zheng He led three major expeditions to Europe and brought
maps, mathematics, architecture, art and steel weapons to Europeans.
Menzies' book has been sold in 135 countries and is even
taught in American and English schools.
Every single day, there are about 3,500 visits to his website (www.1421.tv)
and he gets hundreds of thousands of emails from all around the world, 99
percent of which, he claims, says it is obvious that Menzies is right.
"Actually, there is nothing new in what I am saying. I am just incredibly
lucky with the timing of my book's publication as everyone had begun to show
interest in China, a booming and fascinating country. If I'd written it ten
years earlier, nobody would have been interested in it," he says.
Menzies' conclusions that Zheng He's seven voyages reached all corners of the
world did win some support from Chinese scholars.
In early 2006, Liu Gang, a Chinese lawyers who spent a lot of time collecting
ancient Chinese maps, unveiled to the public a world map in the form of double
hemispheres that he bought in 2001. He believes it to be a 1763 copy of a 1418
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) original, after he read Menzies' book. The map gives
credence to Menzies' theory that Chinese sailors traversed the globe long before
their European counterparts.
However, although carbon dating has shown that the paper is real, many people
doubt modern technology could have identified the date of the ink put on the map
and believe it a 21st-century fake as many of the names of places recorded on it
began to be used only in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
But Liu Gang still believes the bi-hemispherical, world map originated in
China and even concludes that the first map of the kind was made by a scholar
named Zhu Siben in the early 14th century during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
He says ancient Chinese scholars already knew the world was
round and later Zheng He sailed the oceans and mapped the world.
However, Menzies' opinions are not accepted by mainstream Chinese historians,
who believe all of his conclusions are based on subjective deductions.
Now a dominating opinion shared by most scholars is that from 1405 to 1433
Zheng He commanded seven voyages mainly around the Indian Ocean region ranging
from India, Sri Lanka and Arabia to East Africa.
"Menzies' logic in the whole book is wrong. How could he draw the conclusion
that the world's geographic knowledge must have come from Zheng He's fleet since
Europeans did not have the knowledge at that time? He ignores the fact that
Arabians had better navigation techniques than the Chinese for quite a long time
before the Ming Dynasty," says Ge Jianxiong, professor of Fudan University and
chairman of the Committee for Historical Geographic Studies under the Geography
Society of China.
Du Huan of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), once captured by the Arabs for 11
years, clearly recorded when he came back to China that he boarded an Arabian
commercial boat, which shows that the Arabs had opened a navigation line from
the Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula to China much earlier, Ge says.
According to Ge, Zheng He was a descendent of the Hui nationality (Chinese
Muslim), whose ancestors migrated to China during the Yuan Dynasty. At that
time, Quanzhou of East China's Fujian Province had become a city of Arabian
migrants and culture. His grandfather and father had been to the holy place of
Islam, Mecca, on a pilgrimage. So Zheng could have had access to Arabian
geographical and navigational knowledge.
"As far as we know, no navigating lines and places Zheng He's fleet had been
to on the Indian Ocean went beyond Arabian areas," says Ge.
He agrees that Zheng He could possibly have reached east Africa, but those
areas were actually within the areas covered by Arabian navigation.
As for Menzies' theory that Zheng He's 1418 world map enabled Columbus and
Magellan to reach the New World, Ge believes that including certain places on
the map did not necessarily prove that Zheng himself had been there as knowledge
of the map could have been obtained from the Arabs.
It is believed that apart from the emperor's support, Zheng He's voyages at
that time were largely opposed by officials and the common people as each voyage
cost a lot. So after Zheng died, most of his records were destroyed by the
ministers for fear that the new emperor would demand a new voyage.
"That adds to current difficulties of understanding that period of Chinese
history. I have observed that despite more and more people enthusiastic in
studying Zheng He, there has actually not been much progress in past decades,"
He believes that scholars with a sound history and culture knowledge as well
as navigation techniques are the need of the hour.
He welcomes more scholars such as Menzies to join the research on Zheng He,
searching for more evidence on his voyages.
Though the arguments on how many places Zheng He actually reached continue to
rage in academic circles, scholars worldwide share exactly the same view of the
peaceful and friendly nature of the voyages.
According to Ge, Zheng He's seven voyages carried a political mission from
the emperor to parade the glory of the Ming Dynasty or to ally with Arabian
countries to strike the surviving forces of the Yuan Dynasty, rather than to
discover new continents, rob overseas wealth, establish colonies and extend
foreign trade as the early Western navigators had done.
Chinese people had long regarded their place of residence as the center of
the world and believed that those who did not belong to the Han nationality were
"barbarians". So the rulers of China in the Ming Dynasty did not have an
ambition of expanding the territory, notes Ge.
This can be seen on the deeds of Zheng He's fleets, which simply gave rewards
to local people and accepted their gifts to the emperor.
Menzies believes that Zheng He took rice from China to America, brought back
maize from America, took sweet potato from South America to New Zealand and
Australia, and took Indian cotton to America and then brought a better strain of
cotton to Europe. Besides, all sorts of fruits and animals were also transferred
from one country to another.
Zaman Mehdi from the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan says the
most noteworthy aspect of these voyages is the religious tolerance,
cross-cultural understanding and respect for local traditions shown by Zheng He.
Indonesian scholars credit Zheng He for building many mosques in Java and
Malacca. There are also Zheng He temples in these islands, where festivals are
held to commemorate his visit. In Sri Lanka while making offerings at a Buddhist
Temple in 1410, Zheng erected large prayer inscriptions to Lord Buddha, Allah
and the Tamil god Tenayari Nayanar in Chinese, Persian and Tamil languages,
which was a remarkable show of religious tolerance.
"It is this spirit of harmonious socio-cultural globalization about Zheng
He's maritime voyages that has to be understood," says