Searching for Zheng

Zheng He

By Ishaan Tharoor - Times

One of the more famous paintings of the medieval Ming Dynasty, which ruled China for three centuries, is that of a court attendant holding a rope around a giraffe.

An inscription on the side says the animal dwelt near "the corners of the western sea, in the stagnant waters of a great morass."

According to legend, the giraffe was found in Africa, along with zebras and ostriches, and brought back with the grand 15th century expeditions of Zheng He, China's greatest mariner.

More than half a millennium later, Zheng has become a potent symbol for modern China.

In 2005, the country marked the 600th anniversary of the seven voyages undertaken between 1405 and 1433 by Zheng's vast "treasure fleets" with nationwide celebrations; the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing dramatized his explorations from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and the shores of Africa.

On Feb. 26, China's Ministry of Commerce announced it was funding a three-year project with the assistance of the Kenyan government to search for Ming-era vessels that had supposedly foundered off the East African coast.

"Historical records indicate Chinese merchant ships sank in the seas around Kenya," Zhang Wei, a curator for a state museum, told China's official Xinhua news agency. "We hope to find wrecks of the fleet of the legendary Zheng He."

There is more than historical curiosity behind these new efforts. For centuries after his expeditions, Zheng — a Muslim eunuch — slipped out of public awareness, obscured by the rise and fall of new dynasties. Talk of his exploits was revived briefly at the beginning of the 20th century as the fledgling Chinese republic sought to build a navy in the shadow of imperial Japan.

But experts say his place as a patriotic national hero has only been truly cemented in the past two decades, in parallel with China's geopolitical rise — and the growth of its significant economic presence in many African nations and other countries around the Indian Ocean.

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