The admiral of what might have been
Jul 14th 2005
From The Economist print edition
What the exploits of Zheng He, who set out to sea 600 years ago, say about China and Europe
Counter-history is seductive stuff. What fun to ponder what might have happened at Waterloo, if it hadn’t rained heavily on the night of June 18th 1815, or if Xerxes had won at Salamis. Such speculations, it is true, are merely that; but they can still be illuminating. In that spirit, consider the voyages of Admiral Zheng He, as the 600th anniversary of the first one is celebrated in China this week.
A Muslim eunuch from Central Asia, Zheng persuaded a Ming emperor, Zhu Di, to finance the most extraordinary expeditions the world had ever seen. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng and his men beat their way down through all of South-East Asia, to both coasts of India and finally to Africa’s eastern coast, at least as far as Ethiopia. His journeys towards the Cape of Good Hope took place almost a century before Bartolomeu Dias first rounded it in the opposite direction, and the mightiest of his ships, at close to 500ft long, was four or five times the size of anything the Europeans could build at the time. His fleets were up to 300 strong, carrying 20,000 men.
Equipped with such technology and organisation, China might have discovered Europe long before Europeans sailed into, and in time came to dominate, China: one recent author, indeed, argues that it did so. But Zheng’s seventh voyage was his last. The sea-going eunuchs fell from favour (Zheng’s missions were staggeringly costly) and by 1500 it was a capital offence to go to sea in a two-masted ship without permission. China had embarked on a long period of isolation like that imposed on Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century. With the mothballing of Zheng’s ships, just as Europeans were beginning their own voyages of discovery, came the beginning of the end of China’s centuries of superiority. Had Zheng been allowed to continue his voyages, might the advantages of trade and discovery have come to seem more obvious? Might China have avoided decline? Or was, instead, the recall of the fleet a symptom of a deeper malaise in Chinese society? In competing Europe, after all, Columbus was able to flit from court to court until he finally found a backer for his expedition of 1492. For Zheng, it was the emperor or no one.
But such speculation is perhaps to miss the real story. By celebrating Zheng’s exploits this week, China’s leadership was reminding the perceptive not just that the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean were once a Chinese lake, or that Chinese naval technology once far outstripped that of the West, but that both these things may one day be true again. Either that, or it is a bizarre coincidence that the main celebration of Zheng’s first voyage took place on the very day after Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, left Beijing. Perhaps, though, the West should not worry too much. There is, after all, every chance that China’s heavy-handed officials, as intolerant of non-conformity now as under the Ming, will once more contrive to scuttle the ships of its visionaries.