The Greatest Explorer ...
You Never Heard Of

By Frank Viviano
Published: August/September 2013

Looking Toward The Horizon

For 44 centuries, China had been an inland empire, framed and nourished by mighty rivers. Their watersheds were united by the 1,100-mile Grand Canal, begun in 500 B.C. but phenomenally expanded by Zhu Di. By the end of the 15th century, China would have more than 75,000 miles of navigable waterways. Among the Yongle emperor's first official acts is to commission more than 3,500 ships. Ma He, a man with no experience whatsoever on the sea, is chosen to supervise their construction and command them. In 1404, he is renamed "Zheng He" after Zhu Di's favorite warhorse.

The Ming ships are fantastically larger than anything the world has ever seen. Europe's conquest of the global seas begins in the 1490s, with the departures of Vasco da Gama for India and Christopher Columbus for the Americas. All seven of their vessels would have fit easily on the 80,000-square-foot main deck of Zheng He's flagship; their combined crews of 260 amount to less than one percent of Zheng He's 30,000.

Illustration of one of Zheng He's treasure junks
Illustration: Gregory A. Harlin/National Geographic Stock
Zheng He's treasure junks were 450 feet long, displacing an estimated 3,000+ tons. In contrast, the Santa Maria displaced around 150 tons and measured less than 60 feet on deck.

These numbers, passed down through the centuries, are staggering and were long regarded as myth. Then on an overcast spring day in 1962, workers dredging a flooded trench on the Yangtze riverfront of Nanjing scrape their shovels onto a buried wooden timber 36 feet long. It is a steering post, embedded in the mud alongside the decaying remains of a rudder whose surface area works out to 452 square feet, big enough to maneuver a 21st-century aircraft carrier. Except it is nearly 600 years old! Overnight, improbable myth becomes unimaginable-fact.

The fleet rides the Yangtze current into the sea on October 10, 1405. Its helmsmen set their compasses — a Chinese invention, used for the first time in history as a navigational tool on this voyage — on a southerly tack as far as the Singapore Strait, then west to the Indian Ocean. Over the next three decades, the Ming navy will span half the globe in seven epic voyages, establishing a network of trade and diplomatic posts stretching from present-day Vietnam to East Africa.

In a considerably humbler way, I set sail in Zheng He's wake in the early 1980s, and followed it on dozens of journeys over the subsequent 25 years, usually by air, but whenever I could in Chinese sampans and junks, Arab or African dhows. Although Zheng He's story had been suppressed for centuries in China, he was a godlike presence in Southeast Asia and beyond. On Java and the Malay Peninsula, I was shown strange temples devoted to him, treating Zheng simultaneously as a hallowed imam and a Buddhist sage. In remote jungle villages on the Somali-Kenyan border, almond-eyed African tribesmen insisted that they were descendants of shipwrecked seamen from his fleet. He was said to be seven feet tall, with a waist measuring five feet in circumference.

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