An ancient map that strongly suggests Chinese seamen were first round the world. The brave seamen whose great voyages of exploration opened up the world are iconic figures in European history. Columbus found the New World in 1492; Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1488; and Magellan set off to circumnavigate the world in 1519. However, there is one difficulty with this confident assertion of European mastery: it may not be true.
It seems more likely that the world and all its continents were discovered by a Chinese admiral named Zheng He, whose fleets roamed the oceans between 1405 and 1435. His exploits, which are well documented in Chinese historical records, were written about in a book which appeared in China around 1418 called "The Marvellous Visions of the Star Raft".
Next week, in Beijing and London, fresh and dramatic evidence is to be revealed to bolster Zheng He's case. It is a copy, made in 1763, of a map, dated 1418, which contains notes that substantially match the descriptions in the book. "It will revolutionise our thinking about 15th-century world history," says Gunnar Thompson, a student of ancient maps and early explorers.
The map (shown above) will be unveiled in Beijing on January 16th and at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich a day later. Six Chinese characters in the upper right-hand corner of the map say this is a "general chart of the integrated world". In the lower left-hand corner is a note that says the chart was drawn by Mo Yi Tong, imitating a world chart made in 1418 which showed the barbarians paying tribute to the Ming emperor, Zhu Di. The copyist distinguishes what he took from the original from what he added himself.
The map was bought for about $500 from a small Shanghai dealer in 2001 by Liu Gang, one of the most eminent commercial lawyers in China, who collects maps and paintings. Mr Liu says he knew it was significant, but thought it might be a modern fake. He showed his acquisition to five experienced collectors, who agreed that the traces of vermin on the bamboo paper it is written on, and the de-pigmentation of ink and colours, indicated that the map was more than 100 years old.
Mr Liu was unsure of its meaning, and asked specialists in ancient Chinese history for their advice, but none, he says, was forthcoming. Then, last autumn, he read "1421: The Year China Discovered the World", a book written in 2003 by Gavin Menzies, in which the author makes the controversial claim that Zheng He circumnavigated the world, discovering America on the way. Mr Menzies, who is a former submariner in the Royal Navy and a merchant banker, is an amateur historian and his theory met with little approval from professionals. But it struck a chord: his book became a bestseller and his 1421 website is very popular. In any event, his arguments convinced Mr Liu that his map was a relic of Zheng He's earlier voyages.
The detail on the copy of the map is remarkable. The outlines of Africa, Europe and the Americas are instantly recognisable. It shows the Nile with two sources. The north-west passage appears to be free of ice. But the inaccuracies, also, are glaring. California is shown as an island; the British Isles do not appear at all. The distance from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean is ten times greater than it ought to be. Australia is in the wrong place (though cartographers no longer doubt that Australia and New Zealand were discovered by Chinese seamen centuries before Captain Cook arrived on the scene).
The commentary on the map, which seems to have been drawn from the original, is written in clear Chinese characters which can still be easily read. Of the west coast of America, the map says: "The skin of the race in this area is black-red, and feathers are wrapped around their heads and waists." Of the Australians, it reports: "The skin of the aborigine is also black. All of them are naked and wearing bone articles around their waists."
But this remarkable precision, rather than the errors, is what critics of the Menzies theory are likely to use to question the authenticity of the 1418 map. Mr Menzies and his followers are naturally extremely keen to establish that the 1763 copy is not a forgery and that it faithfully represents the 1418 original. This would lend weighty support to their thesis: that China had indeed discovered America by (if not actually in) 1421. Mass spectrography analysis to date the copied map is under way at Waikato University in New Zealand, and the results will be announced in February. But even if affirmative, this analysis is of limited importance since it can do no more than date the copyist's paper and inks.
Five academic experts on ancient charts note that the 1418 map puts together information that was available piecemeal in China from earlier nautical maps, going back to the 13th century and Kublai Khan, who was no mean explorer himself. They believe it is authentic.
The map makes good estimates of the latitude and longitude of much of the world, and recognises that the earth is round. "The Chinese were almost certainly aware of longitude before Zheng He set sail," says Robert Cribbs of California State University. They certainly assumed the world was round. "The format of the map is totally consistent with the level of knowledge that we should expect of royal Chinese geographers following the voyages of Zheng He," says Mr Thompson.
Moreover, some of the errors in the 1418 map soon turned up in European maps, the most striking being California drawn as an island. The Portuguese are aware of a world map drawn before 1420 by a cartographer named Albertin di Virga, which showed Africa and the Americas. Since no Portuguese seamen had yet discovered those places, the most obvious source for the information seems to be European copies of Chinese maps.
But this is certainly not a unanimous view among the experts, with many of the fiercest critics in China itself. Wang Tai-Peng, a scholarly journalist in Vancouver who does not doubt that the Chinese explored the world early in the 15th century (he has written about a visit by Chinese ambassadors to Florence in 1433), doubts whether Zheng He's ships landed in North America. Mr Wang also claims that Zheng He's navigation maps were drawn in a totally different Chinese map-making tradition. "Until the 1418 map is scientifically authenticated, we still have to take it with a grain of salt," he says.
Most forgeries are driven by a commercial imperative, especially when the market for ancient maps is booming, as it is now. The Library of Congress recently paid $10m for a copy of a 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemuller, a German cartographer. But Mr Liu says he is not a seller: "The map is part of my life," he claims.
The consequences of the discovery of this map could be considerable. If it does indeed prove to be the first map of the world, "the history of New World discovery will have to be rewritten," claims Mr Menzies. How much does this matter? Showing that the world was first explored by Chinese rather than European seamen would be a major piece of historical revisionism. But there is more to history than that. It is no less interesting that the Chinese, having discovered the extent of the world, did not exploit it, politically or commercially. After all, Columbus's discovery of America led to exploitation and then development by Europeans which, 500 years later, made the United States more powerful than China had ever been.
Zheng He (1371-1433), the Chinese Muslim Admiral
Through his seven voyages of discovery to the West, Zheng He helped transform China into the superpower of his time.
Little did the famous Muslim geographer, Ibn Battuta know, that about 22 years after his historic visit to China, the Mongol Dynasty (called the Yuan Dynasty in China) would be overthrown. The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) would begin. A Muslim boy would help a Chinese prince. That prince would become emperor and the boy would grow up to be the "Admiral of the Chinese Fleet."
His name... Zheng He. The ships that he would sail throughout the Indian Ocean would retrace some of the same routes taken by Ibn Battuta, but he would be in huge boats called "junks". He would go to East Africa, Makkah, Persian Gulf, and throughout the Indian Ocean.
Speak of the world's first navigators and the names Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama flash through a Western mind. Little known are the remarkable feats that a Chinese Muslim Zheng He (1371-1433) had accomplished decades before the two European adventurers.
The Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation retraces the route of China's 15th century admiral, Zheng He, who ranks as perhaps the country's foremost adventurer. A Muslim and a warrior, Zheng He helped transform China into the region's, and perhaps the world's, superpower of his time.
In 1405, Zheng was chosen to lead the biggest naval expedition in history up to that time. Over the next 28 years (1405-1433), he commanded seven fleets that visited 37 countries, through Southeast Asia to faraway Africa and Arabia. In those years, China had by far the biggest ships of the time. In 1420 the Ming navy dwarfed the combined navies of Europe.
Ma He, as he was originally known, was born in 1371 to a poor ethnic Hui (Chinese Muslims) family inYunnan Province, Southwest China. The boy's grandfather and father once made an overland pilgrimage to Makkah. Their travels contributed much to young Ma's education. He grew up speaking Arabic and Chinese, leaming much about the world to the west and its geography and customs.
Recruited as a promising servant for the Imperial household at the age of ten, Ma was assigned two years later to the retinue of the then Duke Yan, who would later usurp the throne as the emperor Yong Le. Ma accompanied the Duke on a series of successful military campaigns and played a crucial role in the capture of Nanjing, then the capital. Ma was thus awarded the supreme command of the Imperial Household Agency and was given the surname Zheng.
Emperor Yong Le tried to boost his damaged prestige as a usurper by a display of China's might abroad, sending spectacular fleets on great voyages and by bringing foreign ambassadors to his court. He also put foreign trade under a strict Imperial monopoly by taking control from overseas Chinese merchants. Command of the fleet was given to his favorite Zheng He, an impressive figure said to be over eight feet tall.
A great fleet of big ships, with nine masts and manned by 500 men, each set sail in July 1405, half a century before Columbus's voyage to America. There were great treasure ships over 300-feet long and 150-feet wide, the biggest being 440-feet long and 186-across, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers. Most of the ships were built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, the remains of which can still be seen today.
Zheng He's first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. On board were large quantities of cargo including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements and cotton goods. The fleet sailed along China's coast to Champa close to Vietnam and, after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java, Sumatra and reached Sri Lanka by passing through the Strait of Malacca. On the way back it sailed along the west coast of India and returned home in 1407. Envoys from Calicut in India and several countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ships to pay visits to China. Zheng He's second and third voyages taken shortly after, followed roughly the same route.
In the fall of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men to Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz he coasted around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region, and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng He's ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le.
In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng He. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar and may have reached Mozambique. The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast.
Emperor Yong Le died in 1424 shortly after Zheng He's return. Yet, in 1430 the admiral was sent on a final seventh voyage. Now 60 years old, Zheng He revisited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa and died on his way back in 1433 in India.
Zheng He's Junks
Zheng He's flag "treasure ship" was four hundred feet long - much larger than Columbus's. In this drawing, the two flagships are superimposed to give a clear idea of the relative size of these two ships. Columbus's ship St. Maria was only 85 feet long whilst Zheng He's flag ship was an astonishing 400 feet.
Imagine six centuries ago, a mighty armada of Zheng He's ships crossing the China Sea, then venturing west to Ceylon, Arabia, and East Africa. The fleet consisting of giant nine-masted junks, escorted by dozens of supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses, and patrol boats. The armada's crew totaling more than 27,000 sailors and soldiers.
Loaded with Chinese silk and porcelain, the junks visited ports around the Indian Ocean. Here, Arab and African merchants exchanged the spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods, and pearls so eagerly sought by the Chinese imperial court.
Seven times, from 1405 to 1433, the treasure fleets set off for the unknown. These seven great expeditions brought a vast web of trading links -- from Taiwan to the Persian Gulf -- under Zheng He's imperial control. This took place half a century before the first Europeans, rounding the tip of Africa in frail Portuguese caravels, 'discovered' the Indian Ocean.
His humble tomb
Zheng He (1371-1433), or Cheng Ho, is arguably China's most famous navigator. Starting from the beginning of the 15th Century, he traveled to the West seven times. For 28 years, he traveled more than 50,000 km and visited over 37 countries, including Singapore. Zheng He died in the tenth year of the reign of the Ming emperor Xuande (1433) and was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing.
In 1983, during the 580th anniversary of Zheng He's voyage, his tomb was restored. The new tomb was built on the site of the original tomb and reconstructed according to the customs of Islamic teachings.
At the entrance to the tomb is a Ming-style structure, which houses the memorial hall. Inside are paintings of the man himself and his navigation maps. To get to the tomb, there are newly laid stone platforms and steps. The stairway consists of 28 stone steps divided into four sections with each section having seven steps. This represents Zheng He's seven journeys to the West. Inscribed on top of the tomb are the Arabic words "Allahu Akbar (God is Great)".
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