National Geographic : 2005 Jul
C H I N A A colossal block of granite remains from Emperor Zhu Di's attempt to create a stela honoring hisfather. That same boundless ambi tion launched the Treasure Fleet, which was grounded after the emperor's death. Now China is again engaging the world says scholar Roderich Ptak: "Zheng is a symbol of that opening." "[We] have recordedthe years and months of the voyages to the barbariancountries," the admiral declares, "in order to leave [the memory] forever." Zheng goes on to list the major landfalls in the previous six voyages, "altogether more than thirty countrieslarge and small." He writes of his efforts "to manifest the transformingpower of vir tue and to treatdistantpeople with kindness." He dreams, still, of a new world. In the Chinese courtly tradition,the greatadmi ralgraces the pillar'sinscription with a poetic flourish: "We have traversedmore than one hun dred thousandli [about40,000 miles] ofimmense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains risingsky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarianregionsfar away hidden in a blue transparencyof light vapors, while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night." When the Treasure Fleet returned to China at the end of its sixth voyage in 1422, its admiral and many of his crewmen had been abroad almost constantly for nearly two decades. They must have felt lost in their own homeland. The Ming building boom, ignited during their first voyage, had radically altered China's cities and towns. Nanjing was no longer its capital; Zhu Di, the megalomaniac emperor who had sent the men overseas, now lived in Beijing. He was in his last months of life, about to be suc ceeded by his son Zhu Gaozhi. The younger Zhu died after just nine months in power. But under the influence of courtiers who opposed the costly voyages, one of his first edicts was to halt all overseas expeditions. Zhu Di's grandson Zhu Zhanji continued the ban. The policy reversal "changed history, stopped short what might have been a very different future for Asia and the world," says Liu Ying sheng of Nanjing University, a leading Zheng He scholar. The void left by China's withdrawal from foreign engagement, he points out, was filled within the next few decades by Euro pean imperialism-and Zheng's sophisticated 52 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JULY 2005 combination of peacekeeping, trade, and diplo macy yielded to crude military conquest. But policy calculations in any epoch are sub ject to changing conditions. In the late 1420s Ming China came under pressure, by land from a new wave of Mongol invasions, by sea from Japanese pirates, and across its far-flung tributary empire from local warlords. Zhu Zhanji began to recon sider his policy on naval expeditions-though without the sense of unblinking commitment that had characterized his grandfather. Amid ran corous debate in the court, a halfhearted decision was made to reactivate the Treasure Fleet. It would not affect the long-term balance sheet of Ming affairs; by the end of the 1430s the advocates of isolationism in the imperial court had won a decisive victory. But before that struggle ended, the great ships would sail again, on their seventh and final voyage. Almost every destination on this final expedition would be familiar. It is difficult not to conclude that the most notable exception had been chosen by the admiral himself: Mecca. In the 15th century Islam framed the Western Ocean. All of the Treasure Fleet's routes had been charted, long before, by Arab and Persian captains. Every one of the fleet's desti nations on the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf had a sig nificant Muslim community. Islam had also been the starting point of Zheng He's immense journey. His sur name, before Zhu Di changed it on an imperial whim, was Ma-the Chinese transcription of Muhammad. Zheng's father, Ma Haji, had made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, earning his honorific title. As an admiral of the Ming Empire, Zheng himself could not bow before the symbolic throne of a foreign king. But he could send the man who often seemed his alter ego-his fel low "Muhammad," Ma Huan.