Standing seven feet tall, Admiral Zheng He towered over his crew at the prow of his legendary treasure ship. Setting out six centuries ago on the first of seven landmark voyages, he reached south-east Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and as far as the east coast of Africa. Some say he may even have made it to America.
The exploits of the intrepid Ming Dynasty explorer known as the Three-Jewelled Eunuch, a devout Muslim of Mongolian descent from Yunnan province, still resonate in China today, where he is seen as a symbol of emerging modern China's peaceful rise.
Zheng He's journeys took him to 37 countries over 28 years as part of the mightiest fleet that ever sailed, with 300 ships and 28,000 sailors. It wasn't until the First World War that a bigger flotilla took to the seas.
The pride of the fleet was the flagship, Zheng He's treasure ship, a hardwood vessel with 1,000 men on board. At 400ft, it dwarfed Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria, a minnow at 98ft. It had nine masts and 12 red sails and was packed full of porcelain, calligraphy scrolls, elegant musical instruments - the finest items China had to offer.
Emperor Yongle, the first ruler of the Ming dynasty, wanted to showcase China's naval power, and in 1402 commissioned Zheng to undertake a daring mission to the seas known to the Chinese as the Western Oceans. Three years later, the expedition was ready.
Born Ma He in 1371, (the name Ma is the Chinese transcription of Muhammad), to poor parents, the future great seafarer was captured by soldiers and castrated when he was still a boy. He was forced into the army, where he excelled, earning the honorific surname "Zheng" after fighting in a battle near Beijing.
Eunuchs were politically influential in the court, and Zheng De became close to the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di, as a key strategist, earning him the title of Prince of Yan. He also studied languages and philosophy.
He died in 1433, aged 62 - some say on the return leg of his seventh and final journey. His tomb, bearing the inscription "Allah is Great" stands at the southern outskirts of Niushou in Nanjing.
Leaving Nanjing laden with silk, ceramics, pottery and copper coins, the fleet returned packed with spices, fruits and rare and exotic fauna, such as China's first giraffe, which the voyagers picked up in Somalia. The emperor himself went down the palace gate to see the giraffe, which was accompanied by a zebra and an oryx.
All the information about Zheng He's voyages we have comes from writing on a stone pillar discovered in the 1930s in Fujian province, and the accounts of those who sailed with him. The account on the pillar tells of seeing "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 vapours".
But the voyages were not only about trade. A Muslim scholar named Ma Huan documented the daring voyages. He wrote of how in 1407, a Cantonese sea pirate named Chen Zuyi, who with 5,000 men operated out of Sumatra preying in the Straits of Malacca, was destroyed by Zheng He's armada. Chen Zuyi was taken back to Nanjing and publicly executed.
The sailors were helped by technological advances such as the compass, or "south pointing spoon", fore and aft sails, and airtight compartments in the hull.
Boat-builders in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province in eastern China, have just completed a replica of one of the ships in the fleet, 200ft long and 46 ft wide. Sailing in ships like the replica just completed, Zheng He is credited as the first man to have established a direct sea route linking the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
The Nanjing shipyard where much of Zheng He's fleet was built has been excavated. The next step for the boat builders working at the Nanjing Treasure Boat Heritage Park is to embark on their most ambitious project to date - a replica of the treasure ship itself. Work begins this month and should be completed in 2008, when the replica boat is expected to sail as an "image envoy" in the aquatic events in the 2008 Olympic Games.
The boat will also travel to countries along the ancient Maritime Silk Route explored by early Chinese sailors, its builders said.
A problem with building replicas of the treasure ship and other vessels in Zheng He's fleet is that no one really knows what the ships looked like. While thousands of ships were built, none of them exist today, not even as shipwrecks, leaving boat-builders to try to recreate the vessels from documentary evidence. It's a procedure involving experiment, trial and error. Previous efforts to rebuild the treasure ship have sunk, and the size of the replica will be considerably smaller than the original ship because of the lack of records which might explain how its structure held together, a senior engineer told the Xinhua news agency.
Costing $10m (£5.2m), the boat will be constructed on an ancient wooden framework made from oak, as historians think the original probably was, but will have all mod cons inside, including computers, engines and air conditioning.
The rehabilitation of Zheng He's reputation began in the early part of the last century, and by the 1930s he worked his way into school textbooks as a national hero. The country has been gripped with Zheng He fever since the 600th anniversary of the first of his fantastic voyages. His exploits have become a focal point for Chinese nationalism because, in the days when the Admiral roamed the waves, China was far more technologically advanced than other cultures and had no equal at sea.
In 2005, the government organised an exhibition at the National Museum in Beijing's Tiananmen Square proclaiming him a hero. The propaganda tsars are keen to push the Zheng He story as a symbol of Chinese ingenuity, but also of its benign foreign policy - China's peaceful rise, as President Hu Jintao likes to put it. They insist that Zheng He was not a coloniser and was more interested in trade than theft, although they concede the fleet was also supposed to spread the word to the peoples of southern Asia in particular that China was a mighty power.
"Unlike many latter-day European counterparts, which sailed across the great oceans to conquer other nations by force, the Chinese fleet brought to those foreign lands tea, chinaware, silk and craftsmanship. They gave the rest of the world peace and civilisation and never occupied any foreign land, an achievement symbolising the ancient kingdom's sincerity to increase exchanges with other nations," ran an editorial in the state-run China Daily last month.
Many historians disagree with this view of Ming dynasty benevolence. As the Singapore-based historian Geoff Wade has pointed out, the Ming dynasty was involved in numerous expansionary campaigns, including the invasion of Vietnam and dispatching fleets around south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean to implement a "pax Ming" across the seas of the region.
They were involved in a civil war in Java in 1406, and another in Sumatra in 1415; they seized the Sri Lankan capital - and Sri Lanka's leader - and the Thai capital of Ayudhya, as well as establishing bases to control the Straits of Malacca.
Meanwhile, the good admiral was in the limelight again after the publication by the British author Gavin Menzies of 1421, which claims that he reached the Americas in that year. In January, a map unearthed by a collector of old charts in Shanghai seemed to show that Admiral Zheng first landed on the shores of the New World, decades before Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria had even been built.
The map purported to prove that Zheng rounded Africa's southernmost tip, the Cape of Good Hope, 76 years before Vasco da Gama, and circumnavigated the globe 100 years earlier than Ferdinand Magellan.
In June a medal was discovered in North Carolina, complete with Ming dynasty inscriptions, that had been dug up kilometres inland from the coast. The six-Chinese-character inscription, "Da Ming Xuan De Wei Ci", on the medal translates into "Awarded by Xuan De of Great Ming". It refers to the period between 1426 and 1435, the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong - long before Columbus's 1492 landing. Other researchers say that the high incidence of the genetic disorder, Machado-Joseph disease among local American Indians, which first appeared in Yunnan in China, could have been spread by the Chinese fleet in the 1430s.
Whether he did indeed beat Columbus to the New World, the story of the way Zheng He faded from view is also a puzzling one. The admiral sailed for nearly 30 years, but after the emperor died in 1424, China began to look inward, beginning a policy of isolationism that lasted hundreds of years. China had the technology and the manpower in its grasp and she could easily have gone on to colonise the whole planet - but instead of becoming the first global superpower, the new emperor shut the doors and burnt all records of Zheng's fleet, ending the "Age of Sea".
China's isolationism at the time marked the growing power of the conservative Confucian scholars, who had long been envious of the power of the eunuchs. Shortly after the last voyage of the treasure fleet, the Chinese emperor forbade overseas travels and stopped all building and repair of ocean-going junks. Anyone who disobeyed the ban on overseas travel was killed. The greatest navy of the world willed itself into extinction, leaving China closed off and with little way of protecting itself against attack from Japanese pirates.
For their part, great colonial nations such as Spain and Portugal began honing their sailing skills and, in tandem, their colonial administration abilities, and the rest, as they say, is history.Reuse content