The Chinese Columbus?
Zheng He ran one of the greatest fleets of all time. Did he discover the New World?
In the graceful East Asian reading room at the Library of Congress, one can view a 21-foot-long map--a series of coastlines and Chinese place names traced in black ink on thin, almost translucent paper. This is the Wu Bei Zhi, a copy of the actual map used by Zheng He, the famed 15th-century Chinese explorer who made seven voyages from Asia to Africa at the height of Chinese maritime dominance.
Zheng He (pronounced jung huh) was a skilled commander who may have stood nearly 7 feet tall. He was also a eunuch and a devout Muslim--in short, an unlikely commander of the largest maritime expedition the world had ever seen: 28,000 people sailing on 300 ships. It was a fleet whose size and grandeur would not be matched until World War I. Zheng He himself rode in the jewel of the fleet, an enormous hardwood treasure ship filled with porcelain, silks, books, musical instruments--the finest material and cultural exports China had to offer. The ship boasted nine masts and 12 enormous red sails and measured some 400 feet--about the size of a small aircraft carrier. For comparison's sake, when Christopher Columbus sailed to America nearly a century later, his three ships held 90 men each, and the longest of them was the 85-foot Santa Maria.
But while Columbus and other European explorers are celebrated in every American child's history books, Zheng He remains relatively uncelebrated even in his home country. After his last expedition, in 1433, the Chinese ruling class went through a major philosophical shift, gradually turning inward to deal with famine, plague, and military threats. Confucian court officials closed down ports, forbade sea voyages of almost any kind, and systematically suppressed all traces of the Zheng He journeys. "China never even claimed that Zheng He was a great explorer," says Chi Wang, head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.
Yet here in the West a sort of Zheng He craze is going on. It's attributable largely to the 2002 bestseller 1421: The Year China Discovered America, in which British writer Gavin Menzies claims to have irrefutable evidence that Zheng He's fleet didn't turn back after reaching the east coast of Africa as previously believed. Menzies argues that the fleet actually continued around the Cape of Good Hope, discovered the Americas some 70 years before Columbus, and went on to circumnavigate the world, 100 years before Magellan. The fleet probably had the seamanship and resources to complete such a voyage. Menzies's scholarship has been attacked by academics, but if book sales are any indication, the theory has struck a nerve.
How did a Muslim eunuch come to command such a powerful force and accomplish these feats at sea? Zheng He was one of thousands of Muslims living in a surprisingly diverse China of six centuries ago. Both his grandfather and father were known as hajji, meaning that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey that Zheng also later completed.
In 1381, when Zheng He was 10 years old, the imperial Army attacked his province, an isolated area on China's lawless southwestern border that was a hideout for outlaws from the ousted Mongol regime. Zheng's father was killed in the fighting. As was the custom in times of war, young male children of the enemy were castrated. (Survivors of the brutal procedure were sometimes handed their preserved genitals in a jar, which they would keep with them throughout their lives in the hope that after burial they would be made whole in the afterlife.)