Zheng He – Muslim, admiral, explorer, eunuch – was a maritime Chinese Marco Polo, making numerous voyages between China and Africa in the 15th century. On at least one occasion he sailed home with a giraffe as tribute for the emperor, who decided it must be a qilin, a mythical chimerical beast granting his rule a heavenly stamp of approval.
Or so the story goes.
Just as some historians dispute whether Venice’s best-known globetrotter actually stirred outside the city walls, so debate swirls around Kunming’s number one local-boy-made-good. Historical records are patchy, but it’s generally accepted that with no prospect of raising a family (aged 10, he’d been enslaved and mutilated by a Ming general) he determined on loftier goals, inveigled his way into the royal household, picked up some useful military experience in the feudal wars of the period, and cast off from Suzhou on the first of his seven voyages on 11 July 1405.
Perhaps boarding all seven would have proved too much of a good thing, but I would like to have tagged along on just one overseas trip – to observe how Zheng got along with the barbarians (his terminology, and everyone else’s in the Middle Kingdom) he met along the way.
Travelling with Zheng – almost two metres tall, voice like a bell, walked like a tiger – would have allowed me to ask a few pertinent questions.
First and foremost, who came up with the technology to build the fleet? The largest ships were apparently nine-masted, four-deckers measuring 127 metres from stem to stern and rather bigger than anything produced in Europe at the time.
And: did his lordship, previously something of a landlubber, feel at all queasy at the prospect of commanding an armada of 317 ships on the high seas?
The crew must have contained a phalanx of interpreters, navigators and assorted experts, all of whom would have had interesting tales to tell, too.
Zheng was scarcely sailing into uncharted waters. The routes he followed were well known to Chinese traders, who for generations past had been carrying porcelain and silk to Arabia and ivory and other goods home again, picking the seasons to dodge the nastier weather and hopping from landmass to landmass. He voyaged to Java, Bengal, the Maldives, Aden, Muscat, Mogadishu and many other places besides. Wherever he dropped anchor, the local authorities turned out with a pile of high-value gifts to be borne back to the distant imperial court.
Zheng’s mission was to show the flag. On a couple of occasions, either out of cussedness or feeling the need to show a firm hand, he launched an all-out attack, liquidating nests of pirates wherever he found them and drubbing the King of Kotte’s army in Sri Lanka.
Time and again the admiral returned to China, his ships laden with treasure and a bevy of foreign envoys and his profile greatly enlarged. Some sources claim he even reached the Americas, and an 11-metre-long rudder discovered in Nanjing in 1957 was rather ambitiously offered up as part proof.
Old sailors never die: they simply fade away. Much of Zheng’s life is clouded by controversy, and the date of his demise has been posited as 1433 or 1435. Subsequent imperial edicts put an end to his long-range voyages, however he remains a folk hero in China and beyond. Kunming’s main hub was originally going to be named Zheng He, but – sadly, given the man’s heroic endeavours – it ended up as the rather more prosaic Changshui International Airport.