Were The Chinese The Worlds Greatest Explorers?

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Wed 23 Nov 2011 12:21

By Peter Benziger

Recently, my views of sea-based exploration of the world were challenged.

In Melaka, Malaysia, we visited a museum dedicated to Chinese trade and sea exploration. Much of the focus was on the years 1421-1423 and the exploits of Admiral Zeng He.

At that time, the entire Chinese fleet consisted of some 3,800 ships. Among the fleet, there were 250 long-distance “treasure ships.”  The “treasure ships” were immense vessels, over 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. For comparison, Christopher Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria was 85 feet long. The Treasure Ships were capable of transiting vast oceans carrying huge amounts of people and cargo over large distances.

Each treasure ship consumed the wood of three hundred acres of prime teak forest. They contained water tight bulkheads and were designed to remain afloat even if two compartments were flooded after being punctured by coral or ice.   These mighty merchants roamed far and wide trading silk, spices, jade and porcelain.

The ships could remain at sea for over three months and cover at least 4,500 miles without making landfall to replenish food or water because separate grains ships and water tankers sailed with them. At this time, the Chinese were centuries ahead of Europe and the ships were armed with gunpowder weapons, brass and iron cannon, mortars, flaming arrows and exploding shells. 

The Chinese understood the danger of scurvy long before other nations. On the ships, they grew soya beans in tubs and sprouted ‘yellow curls’ from the green beans to increase the content of ascorbic acid, riboflavin and Vitamin C. These fresh vegetables, combined with large supplies of citrus fruits, protected the crews from scurvy.

Emperor Zhu Di, known as the Son of Heaven, sent out Chinese fleets as emissaries from mainland China to develop trading partnerships and extend the Chinese empire.

The fleet would sail in the “Flying Swallow Formation.”

 A description in the museum reads:

Over the vast seas, the fleet was formed like a swallow. 4 flagships together with 12 other ‘treasure ships’ occupied the central position of the fleet.  200 combat-billet ships in 4 camps were stationed on both sides of the array of flagships: 45 battleships sailed ahead. 100 horse ships followed in the rear; while another 45 battleships sailed on the left. The largest treasure ship had 9 masts and 12 sails, and even the smallest one had 3 masts. When the order was given, all the sails would be raised and the fleet would sail like a flying swallow."

Emperor Zhu Di, appointed his trusted eunuch, Zheng He, as Admiral of the fleets.  Eunuchs played an important role throughout Chinese history. They served in high-ranking positions in every facet of business and government.  In the royal palaces, they served as trusted advisors while, obviously, posing no threat to the hundreds of royal “consorts” to the Emperor.  Surprisingly, eunuchs were intensely loyal to the emperors who had authorized their mutilation.

The following description of castration is provided by the museum. [Please note: This section is NOT for the squeamish!]

“It costs six taels of silver to perform a castration in Beiping.

The candidate – usually a young boy – is held down by three men. A small curved knife is then used to cut off the penis and testicles. A metal plug is inserted and the wound is bandaged. He does not eat or drink for three painful days. Then the plug is pulled out and he is allowed to urinate. If he does, he is out of danger. If not, then he will die.

His sexual organs, called his “bao” or “precious” are preserved in a sealed jar. He is said to have his “bao” in a temple”.

In addition to Zheng He, many of the commanders of the Emperor’s ships were eunuchs. They were all very accomplished sailors and outstanding leaders.

The Chinese were already far more advanced in navigation than their European counterparts who would follow.  In the museum, the following picture and description appears

“The magnetic compass is one of the four major Chinese inventions for the world.  It consists of a magnetized pointer free to align itself with the Earths’ magnetic field for reference of direction. This was the compass used by Zeng He.  The invention of the magnetic compass changed, forever, the history of navigation.”

While the compass gave the sailing master a direction to sail, the real challenge was to know exactly where you were.  Most countries around the world first learned to use the Pole Star to determine latitude. The following diagram shows how the sighting of the Pole Star (over the North Pole) could easily be translated into a latitude degree by measurement of the angle.

When Christopher Columbus, sailed in 1492, he sailed westward along a  specific latitude by keeping the angle of the pole star constant.  But, as far as we know, he had no accurate way of calculating longitude.  The Chinese claim to have devised a longitude calculation three centuries BEFORE Columbus sailed. 

In 1424, Emperor Zhu Di died and, with his death, the Chinese interest in international travel started to wane. Over the next decade, all voyages of the treasure fleets were stopped and edicts banned overseas trade and travel.  At one point, to prevent any foreign trade or contact, a strip of land along the southern coast, 700 miles long and 30 miles wide, was devastated, burnt and the population moved inland.  Complete xenophobia set in and the shipyards, treasure ships, sailing logs and all official records of Zheng He’s voyages were systematically destroyed. China effectively closed the door on the world outside its borders.

This book, by Gavin Menzies, reached best seller status around the world and has created a new interest in the history of Chinese sea exploration.  It is a fascinating read.  The title “1421, The Year China Discovered the World” is appropriate since the following claims are made in the book.

- Four huge Chinese fleets circumnavigated the world between 1421 and 1423. These fleets comprised more than 800 vessels. These fleets charted the world.
-Sailors and concubines from those great fleets settled in Malaysia, India, Africa, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and on islands across the Pacific.
-The first European explorers had maps showing where they were going before they set sail.  They met Chinese settlers when they arrived in the New World.
- China, not Europe, discovered and settled the New World.  European “discoveries” relied on China leading the way.

The following map appears in the book ‘1421’ purportedly charting the Chinese world exploration

The author has amassed an impressive amount of evidence including wrecks of the Chinese sailing ships, human DNA tests, genetic plant identification and relics of Chinese produced trade goods.
In the book, he notes…

“To assert the primacy of Chinese exploration of the New World and Australia is not to denigrate the achievements and memories of Dias, Columbus, Magellan and Cook…it is to honor other men who have been allowed to languish in obscurity for too long. These remarkable Chinese admirals rounded the Cape of Good Hope sixty-six years before Dias, passed through the Straits of Magellan ninety-eight years before Magellan, surveyed  Australia three centuries before Cook and America seventy years before Columbus.”

Onboard Peregrina, we devoured this book with great zest as we have sailed along some of the routes described.  Read it yourself, but only if you are open to having surprising theories and validation challenge your current thinking.
Safe seas and fair winds
Peter and Margie