History : Jul-Aug 2018
of Mallorca. Still, claims in a 1597 adventure tale that Zheng He’s treasure ships reached 460 feet long do sound exaggerated. Most marine archae- ological finds suggest that Chinese ships of the 14th and 15th centuries usually were not lon- ger than 100 feet. Even so, a recent discovery by archaeologists of a 36-foot-long rudder raises the possibility that some ships may have been as large as claimed. End of an Odyssey Zheng He’s voyages ended abruptly in 1433 on the command of Emperor Xuande. Historians have long speculated as to why the Ming would have abandoned the naval power that China had nurtured since the Song. The problems were certainly not economic: China was collecting enormous tax revenues, and the voyages likely cost a fraction of that income. The problem, it seems, was political. The Ming victory over the Mongols caused the em- pire’s focus to shift from the ports of the south to deal with tensions in the north. The voyages were also viewed with suspicion by the very powerful bureaucratic class, who worried about the influence of the military. This fear had reared its head before: In 1424, between the sixth and seventh voyages, the expedition program was briefly suspended, and Zheng He was temporar- ily appointed defender of the co-capital Nanjing, where he oversaw construction of the famous Bao’en Pagoda, built with porcelain bricks. The great admiral died either during, or short- ly after, the seventh and last of the historic expe- ditions, and with the great mariner’s death his fleet was largely dismantled. China’s naval power would recede until the 21st century. With the na- tion’s current resurgence, it is no surprise that the figure of Zheng He stands once again at the center of China’s maritime ambitions. Today the country’s highly disputed “nine-dash line”— which China claims demarcates its control of the South China Sea—almost exactly maps the route taken six centuries ago by Zheng He and his remarkable fleet. GREAT TOWER OF CHINA Zheng He directed construction of the Buddhist Bao’en Pagoda in Nanjing beginning in 1424 (above in a 17th- century engraving). Some 260 feet high, and built of porcelain bricks, it was destroyed in 1856. DOLORS FOLCH IS PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF CHINESE HISTORY AT THE POMPEU FABRA UNIVERSITY, BARCELONA, SPAIN. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 53 zheng hés navigators used compasses for measuring dis- tances and calculating sailing times as well as for orientation. Copies of the charts used on his voyages survived and were later reproduced in a 1621 printed work, saving them for posterity. From these, historians know that Zheng He used both stars and land features to orient his fleet; he also annotated his routes with compass bearings that act as sailing directions: Follow this course for such-and-such a number of gengs, to arrive at a specific destination. A geng, or watch, aboard a Chinese ship lasted 2.4 hours, or one-tenth of a 24-hour period. GETTING HIS BEARINGS 2 BRIDGEMAN/ACI CHARTING SEA AND SKY FAR LEFT 1, A PORT MAP FROM ZHENG HE’S TRAVELS DETAILS FEATURES THAT SERVED TO POSITION HIS SHIPS. NEAR LEFT 2, A STAR CHART SHOWS THE CORRECT POSITION OF A CRAFT SAILING FROM HORMUZ TO CALICUT.