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China showcases nautical hero Zheng He's shipyard in Nanjing
Updated: 2005-11-07 15:55

By comparison, maritime historians have marvelled at how the three ships that Columbus navigated to America could all have fit snugly on deck of Zheng's command ship, his nine-mast treasure boat.

Zheng's fleet was made up of many types of boats of differing sizes. Besides the bigger and more comfortable treasure boats, there were smaller vessels for soldiers, grain, supplies and horses, Ma said.

Up to 27,800 men, including sailors, clerks, officers, soldiers, artisans and doctors sailed on the voyages that visited 37 countries from Vietnam to Africa from 1405 to 1433.

Zheng also transported princesses for marriage abroad and brought diplomatic emissiaries back to China.

-- Last voyage --

The excavated site was opened to the public this summer as part of Nanjing's Zheng He commemorations that also included the rebuilding of the Tianfei Temple, dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu, that was built in 1407 after Zheng returned from his first voyage.

The temple, which was destroyed by Japanese artillery in 1937, sits next to the Jinghai Temple, or temple to the calm seas, which was also built in Zheng He's time and where Zheng lived late in his life when not at sea.

Testament to this is the renaming this year of Zheng He Avenue, a road that parallels the Yangtze River and stretches from the boat yard to the temples -- a route Zheng probably took regularly.

Excavations of the ship yard took place in 2003 and 2004 with many of the 1,500 artifacts found kept at a museum in the park or in other museums in Nanjing and around China.

Included in the display is a 600 year-old wooden mast that stands about 11 meters tall, several iron and bronze anchors, wooden and iron tools and plenty of old rope, wooden planks, nails and metal clasps.

Caches of tung oil were also found. The oil, when mixed with lime mortar, became one of the world's first waterproofing agent for boats.

The boats were built upon wooden scaffolding in a dry dock that was flooded with water when the boat was completed and then floated onto the Yangtze river.

The ruins of the scaffolding can still be seen in the excavated pits.

The park plans to build a replica of one of the treasure boats which should be completed by next spring, park administrators said.

China's government has largely commemorated the 600th anniversary of Zheng's voyages -- and his apparent disinterest in the conquest of faraway lands despite overwhelming naval superiority -- as proof that China's 21st century rise as a global economic and political power will come peacefully.

But for many, Zheng's exploits are also a reflection of China's long-standing closed door mentality and its failure to make better use of its powerful navy and innovations such as the compass and boat building to strengthen its global influence.

After the death of the Ming Yongle emperor, the mover behind the voyages, Zheng was allowed one final voyage before his fleet was grounded and Chinese maritime exploits came to a halt.

"Zheng's voyages were the result of the will of the Yongle emperor to explore the high seas, but as soon as the emperor died, exploration of the sea ended in a rather dramatic way," Feng Xiangxiang, a curator at the Jinghai Temple said.

Inward looking bureaucrats at the time stifled the maritime industry throughout the nation and boats built over a certain size became punishable by death.

"Today we say that going into the sea was not a mistake, but due to China's feudal bureaucratic system maritime travel was stopped and from then on the nation fell behind in navigation sciences and the country became weak," Feng said.


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