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Time explores modern Chinese-African political relations through the mirror of Zheng He’s voyages.

Admiral Zheng He
photo credit: hathu-

Searching for Zheng: China’s Ming-Era Voyager
Time, 08 March 2010

The legacy of Zheng’s voyages — involving hundreds of ships, some exponentially larger than the three captained by Christopher Columbus decades later, in 1492 — is being invoked by the Chinese as historical proof of the difference between China’s and the West’s roles in the world. Though the unprecedented display of maritime power was meant to extend the Ming dynasty’s reach over a network of tributary states, Zheng rarely resorted to the type of violent, coercive measures taken for centuries by European colonizers, especially in Africa. “Zheng’s a nominal symbol of China’s peaceful engagement with the world,” says Geoffrey Wade, a historian at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore who has translated Ming records pertaining to the voyages. “With him, it’s like the Chinese have an ambassador of friendship — a sign that they aren’t going to hurt anybody.”

Moreover, though Beijing plays up the voyages as a triumphant Chinese adventure, the journeys had a distinctly Muslim character. Zheng practiced Islam, as did Ma Huan, the main chronicler aboard the ships. It’s likely they were guided to their many ports of call, such as Malacca, India’s Malabar coast and Malindi in Kenya, by Muslim pilots of Arab, Indian or African extraction. “They were essentially following maritime routes that had been in use by people in the Indian Ocean for ages,” says Wade. Many academics argue that the popular Arab-Persian tale of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, littered also with snippets of Indian folklore, was derived from the real travels of Zheng He — making the mariner as much a pan-Asian protagonist as a Chinese one.

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