Zheng He: Symbol of China's 'peaceful rise'

Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, died in 1433 aged 62 and is buried in the Chinese city of Nanjing

By Zoe Murphy - BBC News

Next month, archaeologists will begin work off the coast of Kenya to identify a wreck believed to have belonged to the man some historians believe inspired the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor.

Chinese archaeologists, who arrived in the African country this week, are hoping that the shipwreck could provide evidence of the first contact between China and east Africa.

Setting sail more than 600 years ago, Zheng's armada made seven epic voyages, reaching south-east Asia, the Middle East, and as far as Africa's east coast.

Some say he even made it to America - several decades before the celebrated European explorer Christopher Columbus - although this has been widely disputed by historians.

Zheng, known as the Three-Jewel Eunuch Admiral, carried gifts from the Chinese emperor aboard his "treasure ship", which groaned with valuable cargo including gold, porcelain and silks.

These were exchanged along the established Arab trade routes for ivory, myrrh and even China's first giraffe, promoting recognition of the new Ming dynasty.

But within years of his death, Zheng appeared to fade from public consciousness, and for centuries his legend was overlooked as China turned its back on the world and entered a long period of isolation.

Now Zheng is enjoying a resurgence - and there appears to be more than historical curiosity behind his revival.

The sunken ship is believed to have been part of Zheng's armada, which reached the coastal town of Malindi in 1418.

The Chinese seem confident they will find the wreck near the Lamu archipelago, where pieces of Ming-era ceramics have already surfaced. Marine archaeologists are expected to arrive next month.

The Chinese government is investing £2m ($3m) in the three-year joint project, which Kenya says it hopes will throw up important findings about early relations between China and Africa.

Analysts say this ties in well with China's diplomatic overtures to African nations, as it goes about securing natural resources and political influence.

Zheng He - also known as Cheng Ho - is being hailed anew as a national hero; invoked by the Communist Party as a pioneer of China's "open-door" policies that have once again made China a world power.

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Kenya Zheng He Africa China Sinbad the Sailor Three-Jewel Eunuch Admiral Ming Dynasty treasure ship