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July 24, 2014 | Ramadan 27, 1435
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IslamiCity > Articles > 1421: The Year a Chinese Muslim Discovered America
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As key evidence for a voyage that will remake history, Menzies says he obtained ancient Chinese navigation charts associated with the travels of Zheng He.
Audio 1421: The Year a Chinese Muslim Discovered America

1421: The Year a Chinese Muslim Discovered America
7/4/2014 - Education - Article Ref: IC0301-1843
Number of comments: 73
By: IslamiCity
IslamiCity* -

About Zheng He:

Zheng He (1371-1435), or Cheng Ho, is China's most famous navigator. He built a total of 1622 ships and made at least seven major excursions between 1405 AD and 1430 AD. He traveled more than 50,000km and visited over 30 countries, reaching Somalia and probably Europe (France, Holland and Portugal).

Zheng He constructed many wooden ships, some of which are the largest in the history, in Nanjing. Three of the shipyards still exist today.

In each trip, he led a troop of 27,800 people on more than 300 ships. In each trip, 62 major ships of this fleet were employed, each over 400 ft long and 193 ft wide, holding 1000 people per ship, dwarfing Columbus' Santa Maria (75 ft x 25 ft) more than six-fold.

In the 1930s, a stone pillar was discovered in a town in Fujian province. It held an inscription that described the amazing voyages of Zheng He.

Zheng He described how the emperor of the Ming Dynasty had ordered him to sail to "the countries beyond the horizon," all the way to the end of the earth." His mission was to display the might of Chinese.

The pillar contains the Chinese names for the countries Zheng He visited. He wrote:

We have...beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course rapid like that of a star, transversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.

The countries and territories covered and recorded in the official Ming history includes Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, Philippines, Ceylon, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, Somalia, Mogadishu. As a clear demonstration of his travel to Africa, among the souvenirs he brought back to China were the giraffes and lions, indigenous animals of Africa.

The official history also mentioned "Franca" (which was the territory to describe today's France and Portugal) and Holland. The Hollanders were described as tall people with red hair and beard, long nose, and deep eye sockets. If he did meet with the Europeans in their native countries, then the only way would be to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope before the Suez Canal was a throughway.

Unfortunately, Zheng He's magnificent accomplishment was later targeted by other courtiers as wasteful. Most of his records were destroyed and building of ships with more than three masts were considered crimes punishable by death. So, a large part of his excursion (which might include the America part) has no reports.

In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes that are clearly Asian-looking. They also consider themselves as the descendants of Zheng He's crew.

His achievements show that China had the ships and navigational skills to explore the world. Mysteriously, China did not follow up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted further expeditions. Thus, a century later, Europeans would "discover" China, instead of the Chinese "discovering" Europe.

China has a very old seafaring tradition. Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty. Chinese sailors had an important invention to help them-the compass. The compass, or "south pointing spoon," started out as a fortune-telling instrument used like an Ouija board. By the Song era, sailors had taken it up. As a foreign ship captain wrote, "In dark, weather they look to the south pointing needle, and use a sounding line to determine the smell and nature of the mud on the sea bottom, and so know where they are.

Chinese shipbuilders also developed fore-and-aft sails, the sternpost rudder, and boats with paddlewheels. Watertight compartments below decks kept the ship from sinking. Some boats were armor plated for protection. All these developments made long distance navigation possible.

After the Mongols were overthrown in 1368, the emperor of the new Ming Dynasty wanted to assert Chinese power. Because China was no longer part of a land empire that stretched from Asia to Europe, the emperor turned to the sea. He decided to build a navy. The Chinese made elaborate plans that would not be fulfilled for many years. A shipyard was built at the new capital of Najing (Nanking). Thousand of varnish and tung trees were planted on nearby Purple Mountain to provide wood for shipbuilding. The emperor established a school of foreign languages to train interpreters. While all this was going on, the man who would lead the navy was still an infant.

China's greatest adventurer, the 15th century Muslim,

 Admiral  Zheng He

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Kunyang, a town in southwest Yunnan Province. His family, named Ma, were part of a minority group known as the Semur. They originally came from Central Asia and followed the religion of Islam. Both his grandfather and father had made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng He grew up hearing their accounts of travel through foreign lands.

Yunnan was one of the last strongholds of Mongol support, holding out long after the Ming Dynasty began. After Ming armies conquered Yunnan in 1382, Zheng He was taken captive and brought to Nanjing. The eleven year old boy was made a servant of the prince who would become the Yong Le Emperor. It was Yong Le who renamed the boy Zheng He.

Zheng He is described in Chinese historical records as tall and heavy, with "clear-cut features and long ear lobes; a stride like a tiger's and voice clear and vibrant." He was well liked and admired for his quick wit in argument. Moreover, he was a brave soldier. When his prince seized the Chinese throne from his nephew, Zheng He fought well on his behalf. As a result, Zheng He became a close confidant of the new emperor and was given an important position at court.

The Yong Le emperor had ambitious plans. A vigorous man, he rebuilt the Great Wall to the condition in which it exists today. He also built his new capital at Beijing, next to the remains of the former Yuan capital. The emperor decided to go ahead with the sea voyages that had long been planned. He appointed Zheng He to lead them and gave him the title "Admiral of the Western Seas."

At each country Zheng He visited, he was to present gifts from the emperor and to exact tribute for the glory of the Ming. The Chinese had a unique view of foreign relations. Because China developed its culture in isolation from other great civilization, it says itself as the center of the world. The Chinese called their country "the Middle Kingdom."

The Chinese emperor's duty was to attract "all under heaven" to be civilized in Confucian harmony. When foreign ambassadors came to the Chinese court, they "kowtowed" as they approached the emperor. (The required process of "kowtow" was to kneel three times and bow one's head to the floor three times at each kneeling.) In return for tribute from other countries, the emperor sent gifts and special seals that confirmed their rulers' authority. In fact, these foreign kings were officially made part of the Ming Dynasty.

In 1405 Zheng He set out on his first voyage. No nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them. A Chinese historian described them; "The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses. When their sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky."

Zheng He's first port of call was in Champa, a part of today's Vietnam. He was surprised to find many Chinese living there. Merchants and craftsmen had emigrated from the coastal provinces since the time of the Tang Dynasty. They had already helped to spread Confucian ideals, and Champs's ruler willingly offered tribute for the Chinese emperor. In return, of course, Zheng He presented the king with lavish gifts that were probably more valuable. (Continues on Page 3)

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