Friday, 25 September 2009 00:00
Starting with my Army service in Korea and then my role in the Asia-Pacific area for Avon Products, I have been fascinated with that part of the world and, in particular, China. After an 18-day tour of China last year with my wife, I became even more intrigued. Friends recommended that I read two of Gavin Menzies books – 1421 and 1434.
While this piece will not be a book review, the books left me with a major question which I will get to after laying out some facts. First, how many people realize that Chinese vessels reached our world before Columbus!
Admiral Zheng He led ventures throughout the world to develop global trade. Fleets of vessels would travel loaded with Chinese silks and other goods to trade with countries. The ships would also bring gifts for the leaders in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Each vessel would also carry armed military to provide security.
But, the size of these ships was, to me, even more of a surprise. The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were around 100 feet in length. The large ships in Zheng He’s fleet were around 400 feet! And the ship building capabilities in China were excellent, making the vessels able to navigate through strong weather in the oceans of the world.
The first set of challenges for China came in the summer of 1421 while Zheng He was “discovering” America. The newly built Ming Dynasty’s “Forbidden City” was destroyed by fire after one of the buildings was hit by lightning. Over-spending and a culture which saw the destruction as a sign that the higher beings were dissatisfied even lead to some lack of acceptance for what Admiral Zheng He had achieved.
With some recovery, the fleet reassembled and headed, in 1434, to Italy where history records that the Chinese actually contributed to the Renaissance. Beyond the navigational technology and the ability to accurately map the travels of Admiral Zheng He, at the time, China was a leader in the arts, science and even in construction.
All of the above leads me to the question as to why China did not continue its achievements. After the venture to Italy, ship building stopped, and there was even a law prohibiting a sailor from sailing on a three-masted ship without permission. The story is complex, but extremely interesting.
First, there were conflicts within the “Forbidden City.” Internal discord coupled with a feeling that more attention should be given internally caused a growing trend toward isolation. The result became a China which closed its doors to the rest of the world.
This small portion of history is far more complex than I can write about or completely lay out in my PowerPoint presentation about China. It is a fascinating country – one which we cannot ignore. I wonder how the world would have developed if China had not retreated to isolation some 575 years ago?