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As part of a plethora of events throughout China to mark the 600th anniversary of the first voyage of Zheng He, the National Museum of China in Beijing is the host of an exhibition designed to establish the 15th-century navigator as "the greatest sailor in history."
The exhibition, the first of its kind in China, includes 80 artifacts and 190 photographs displayed in a cavernous 2,000-square- meter, or 21,500 square-foot, gallery evidently chosen to accommodate the many Zheng He enthusiasts drawn by the ongoing media blitz. It runs until Oct. 7.
The exhibition is polemical, rather than analytical, designed to make certain points about Zheng He and his voyages and, by implication, about China's place in the world today. Zheng He set out for Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent on the first of seven expeditions commissioned by the Ming Dynasty in 1405. He subsequently reached more than 30 nations and went as far as the Gulf in the Middle East and the east coast of Africa.
As with all the ongoing Zheng He activities in China, the exhibit's overt purpose is to put the great Ming sailor and his journeys on an equal footing with Western explorers who are household names: Columbus, De Gama and Magellan. This is done via a display that lists the four navigators, the years they sailed, the number and size of their ships, and the number of people aboard them. In all these categories, Zheng He's expeditions dwarf the others, a point made best by comparison with Columbus, who sailed nearly a century later on three ships that were less than 30 meters long, or 100 feet long, and carried just 88 people. (Columbus, of course, was hoping to reach China and believed that he had reached islands somewhere off its coast.) Zheng He's fleet included at its peak more than 30,000 sailors and as many as 300 ships. The exhibition material refers to his voyages as "an unprecedented epoch- making feat in the world navigation history." Scale models of the spectacular treasure ships, displayed in front of a wall-size photo of some islands in the Indian Ocean, underline the majesty of the vessels and the vastness of the distances they traveled. The exhibition's secondary purpose is evidently to emphasize the peaceful nature of Zheng He's voyages. This point has been made frequently elsewhere, as in a China Daily editorial in July that stated, "The sudden prominence of Zheng He represents a burning desire to drive home the nonaggressive nature of our strength. In Zheng's time China had no close rival. The nation was the first in the world to have developed the might to possibly conquer, occupy or colonize on foreign shores. We did not harm others then, so why should we do so now?" Exhibition curators have wisely chosen to illustrate this idea more subtly through the photographs of Fan Chunge, a photojournalist who spent two years searching for traces of Zheng He's voyages in the nations he visited. Her photographs include temples in Southeast Asia at which Zheng He is still worshipped, shards of Chinese porcelain, and communities of people as far away as Africa who claim to be descended from Zheng He's sailors. These images bring alive the importance of the expeditions in spreading Chinese culture and people.
But while the Zheng He exhibition succeeds in its polemical goals the political nature of which is underscored by prominently displayed calligraphy from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao it falls short in providing historical context to the expeditions. The only explanation given for the "seven wondrous voyages" is that they were meant "to further develop the economy and enhance relations."
Zheng He's voyages were in fact partly intended to re-establish China's might after the change of dynasty and to solicit tribute. Each one was followed by a stream of ambassadors bearing lavish gifts for the emperor. Among the most welcomed of these was a giraffe, which was assumed to be the mythical qilin, an animal said to appear only in times of great peace and prosperity; a copy of a whimsical Qing Dynasty painting of a Confucian official holding the giraffe on a leash is on display. But there were other probable reasons for the voyages as well. Some scholars believe that the Yongle emperor launched the expeditions as part of an effort to track down his nephew, whom he had deposed to take over the throne. Combating piracy was another purpose. On his first expedition, Zheng He defeated a band of Chinese pirates who had terrorized ships in the Strait of Malacca. The voyages were not always peaceful; Zheng He got involved in a civil war in Ceylon and brought one disrespectful Sumatran ruler back to China to be executed. Like most media accounts of the voyages, the exhibition also neglects to mention that there was widespread contemporary opposition to the expeditions. Confucian officials largely opposed them, in part because of the staggering cost of building the extravagant fleets and the resources they drained from China's common people. Others objected to the number of Chinese sailors who died at sea and of foreigners who were killed by the ships' guns. Ultimately, these opponents won out. After the Yongle emperor died in 1424, one last voyage was launched in 1431, and on this one Zheng He himself died at sea. An attempt to mount further expeditions was made half a century later but scotched by a Confucian minister who is believed to have destroyed the official records of all seven voyages. The technology that went into constructing the ships and navigating the oceans was eventually forgotten, and China was ultimately surpassed by Europeans who traveled on smaller vessels with fewer men but who would persist in their explorations and ultimately become naval powers who would spread their culture and colonies around the globe.
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