July 27, 2005

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Myths of Chinese Exploration

China has seized upon the 600th anniversary of the exploratory voyages of Chinese Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He to Southeast Asia as an opportunity to export some national historical myths. This article, first printed in the Toronto Globe and Mail, discusses how a light-skinned girl from a remote African island has been turned somehow into incontrovertible proof that Chinese sailors made it to Africa in the early 15th century. The use of this historical mythology is useful to China both in terms of promoting the history of benign intentions in foreign relations, and in laying claim to a vast scope of influence in world affairs as its historic birthright.

The girl, Mwamaka Sharifu, says her village had a legend that some shipwrecked Chinese sailors made it to her island, where they married local women. Supposedly one village, Shanga, was named after Shanghai. [never mind that in the early 15th century, Shanghai barely existed - its rapid rise to prominence only occured under colonial occupation in the 19th century]. For this, she is being offered a full scholarship to study Chinese medicine in China.

Western writer Gavin Menzies and his book 1421 have been celebrated by Chinese everywhere for suggesting that the Chinese not only rounded the Cape of Good Hope but also made it to Australia and the new world. Never mind that his book largely is based on speculation, on the realm of the possible, rather than on hard fact. Undoubtedly Zheng He and his peers did embark on a number of groundbreaking voyages; that he actually made it to four different continents, however, is open to grave doubt.

But then again, every nation embellishes its own history, and perhaps China should be forgiven for this particular bit of PR given its peaceful message...

posted by HK Dave on 07.27.05 at 12:37 AM in the


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Admiral Zheng He and 15th Century Chinese Exploration: Myth or Historical Reality?
Excerpt: Is this Kenyan girl a descendent of Chin
Weblog: Bluejives Uncertain Reality Principle
Tracked: July 27, 2005 04:53 PM


The Chinese in Africa thing is much better sourced than the Menzies argument about Chinese in the Americas. Nicholas Kristof, at the New York Times, is a big promoter of this factoid. He's probably right, but, as you note, the significance of it is a great deal less than either he or the Chinese make of it.

posted by: Jonathan Dresner on 07.27.05 at 06:03 AM [permalink]

Hi Jonathan,

Point taken, I should have been more specific when spearating fact from speculation. I do believe the Chinese voyages of discovery made it to Africa (although I'm not sure how far they got up the West African coastline).

What I wanted to highlight was that much is being made of what appears even superficially to be very tenuous 'proof' in order to illustrate China's benign intentions in foreign relations and the vastness of those relations in history.

But then again, what China has done is not so different, really from myths about Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator, which I blogged about a few weeks ago on my own site.

Let's see how successful this Zheng He PR campaign turns out to be! I wonder if Mugabe has mentioned it in his ongoing visit. Certainly Singapore has made a great deal of the history of Zheng He (plastered on posters all along Orchard Road), given the admiral's visits to nearby Malacca, once even with an Imperial Chinese Princess in tow for marriage to the local ruler. But his visits to that region are unquestionably fact.

posted by: HK Dave on 07.27.05 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

Dave (and others), check out this link to a book debunking (or at least casting serious doubt on) Menzies' claims: "1421" Voyages: Fact and Fantasy [monograph Number 1] by Rivers, P. J.(http://www.selectbooks.com.sg/titles/36572.htm)

Another interesting book at:

Zheng He and the Treasure Fleet 1405-1433

"The Chinese admiral Zheng He undertook seven remarkable voyages in the early 15th century to Melaka, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast, the Persian Gulf and the Swahili Coast of Africa."

The "Swahili Coast" is on East Africa, where Kenya is and the region where Mwamaka Sharifu, who comes from an island off Kenya, belongs to. But as to West Africa..I certainly won't go as far as that.

It is true that Zheng He did explore and sail through vast (relatively, for his time) areas of Southeast Asia to East Africa.
My stand is that, however, all else is pure speculation at this point.

posted by: Rick on 07.28.05 at 12:26 PM [permalink]

Thanks for the link Rick. As I mentioned, my issue is not with the fact that Cheng Ho visited Tanzania and East Africa, but with the tenuousness of the connections with which a new global PR campaign is being launched, and the self-congratulatory tones in which I am now hear that America was 'discovered' by the Chinese before Columbus. It just seems that a light skinned girl on an island that has a village called Shanga on it doesn't really mean or prove much.

I agree that the voyages of Zheng He are interesting in of themselves, and the realities of those documented voyages are far more interesting than speculative connections now being generated about bloodlines and discoveries.

posted by: David on 07.28.05 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

I wonder what the Chinese Govt would make of the fact that the great admiral was a Muslim!!

posted by: Fabian on 07.28.05 at 02:21 PM [permalink]

I wonder what the Chinese Govt would make of the fact that the great admiral was a Muslim!!
Posted by Fabian at July 28, 2005

That the Chinese practiced religious tolerance in the 15th century while Europeans were busy having Inquisitions and persecuting Jews, Huguenots, etc? I dunno, what's your point?

posted by: bluejives on 07.29.05 at 04:34 AM [permalink]

Rick, the links that you provided do not work.

Proven facts remain that the Chinese had large ocean-worthy ships, navigational ability using compass and astronomy, superior logistics, and even the know-how to ward off scurvey. In other words, they had the ability to reach far-flung places. Question is: did they?

Unfortunately for historians, much of the state archives and records were destroyed when the Ming Dynasty began a self-imposed period of isolationism after Zheng He's death. But it is possible that some maps, documents, or artifacts may have survived the purge.

The IHT article states that there was an exhibition in Singapore which displayed maps of Mongol and Korean origin which clearly shows North America. These are maps that were on public display and subject to scrutiny, not some made-up stuff. Furthermore, the new archaeological site in Nova Scotia is producing evidence of a large settlement that is unquestionably Chinese and pre-European. They found canals, smelters, mines, Buddhist tombs, Islamic graves, and barracks. Buddhist tombs and Islamic graves in Nova Scotia! Unless the Vikings were practicing Buddhism and Islam, it is unquestionable of Chinese or Mongol origin. More evidence will arise from that site in the future as they proceed with DNA analysis and carbon-dating.

I remain cautiously optimistic about it, rather than dimissively complacent. I believe it is possible that more and more evidence will materialize with time. The entire record of maps, documents, artifacts, archaeological digs, and DNA analysis of bones may allow us to reasonably conlude that Chinese or Mongols had reached the Americas and Australia before Europeans. Based on what we know already, there's no reason why it wouldnt have been possible. If it does indeed turn out to be true, then it is a heritage that all Chinese and Asians can be proud of.

posted by: bluejives on 07.29.05 at 05:50 AM [permalink]

bluejives, on your comments section, you need to either copy and paste my links or click on them, both ways making sure that you remove the closing bracket in the URL. I don't know why it comes out like that on your site, but if it was somthing I did, then I apologise.

Thanks for filling in the gaps in my knowledge about historical Chinese exploration. I am not being dismissive, merely skeptical. For example, the statement in the IHT article referring to Chinese maps (implied as being of the Americas) dating back to 2200 B.C. actually draws us back to yet another debatable issue: that Chinese civilisation was already so advanced at that time...and to go traipsing halfway around the world as well!

As far as I'm concerned about the extent of Chinese and/or Mongol settlement in the new world, the phrase 'the jury is still out' comes to mind.

Somewhat like Dave, I am more concerned about the Chinese govt using this as a public relations exericse to show that they are somehow 'benign' in their expansions, based on historical events.

(actually I can imagine one possible scenario for a political fiasco: if the site in Nova Scotia is found to be from the Mongol-Yuan dynasty of China, then all well and good. But what if turned out to be pre-Yuan (or post-Yuan) Mongolian? Would the present-day Mongolian government claim some sort of historical affinity/ownership/credit for it then? Whoop-de-doo, watch the fireworks fly!)

As an ethnic Chinese (I'm not a citizen of the PRC), I am rightly proud of historical figures like Zheng He. But please do not confuse that with pride in the CCP government. Let Chinese culture spread its wings in the modern world, but let's not be deceived by politically-motivated exercises.

I believe Fabian was trying to suggest that the Chinese govt would have an interesting time trying to square their historical pride in Zheng He, a Muslim, with their treatment of the Muslim minority today in regions like Xinjiang. Or maybe more accurately, trying to square their historical record of religious tolerance (as you mentioned) with what is happening today.

(Btw, minor point: Europeans of various types and allegiances were persecuting each other. It was exactly not a case of "Europeans were busy having Inquisitions and persecuting Jews, Huguenots, etc" like you mentioned. Rather, there were French Catholics vs French Protestants (Huguenots); German Protestants vs German Catholics; Protestants persecuting other Protestants, etc.)

posted by: Rick on 07.29.05 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

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