China celebrates the 600th anniversary of its greatest adventurer, the "Three-Jewel Eunuch Admiral"; hailing him as the inspiration for its current success.

Almost a century before Columbus, at a time when China was the richest and most advanced country in the world, Zheng He [also known as Cheng Ho] sailed further than anyone before him, at the head of an armada bigger than the combined fleets of all Europe.

His giant "treasure ships", packed with the finest goods and most sophisticated weaponry of the time, went to 37 countries over 28 years, extending China's influence across much of the globe.

But around the time of his death, a new Chinese ruler, suspicious of the outside world, banned all further expeditions, ushering in 500 years of isolation and leaving the way open for countries such as Spain and Portugal, and later Britain and America, to rule the waves instead.


Zheng He was born in the poor, mountainous Chinese province of Yunnan in 1372, just as Genghis Khan's Mongols were being overthrown by a new, home-grown dynasty, the Ming.

His family were Muslims from Central Asia who had fought for the Mongols. When Ming armies came looking for rebels, they captured the 10-year-old boy and, as was the custom with young male prisoners, castrated him.

"He was ashamed of being a eunuch," said Professor Liu Ying Sheng of Nanjing University, adding there was little information about this aspect of Zheng He's life.

"All we know is that he was sent to serve the emperor's son at his military base in Beijing... And when this prince later attacked the capital, Nanjing, and took over power as the Yungle Emperor, Zheng He so distinguished himself in battle that he ended up as one of his closest aides."

The new emperor was keen to prove his legitimacy and show off his empire's wealth and power. He also wanted to develop trade - something previously despised.

The chief court eunuch was promoted to admiral and told to produce a fleet to sail to the Western Seas.

Ming dynasty records show that each treasure ship was 400 feet (122 metres) long and 160 feet (50 metres) wide. Bigger, in other words, than a football pitch and many times the size of those sailed later by Columbus.

They were better equipped too, with magnetised compasses and watertight bulkhead compartments of a kind the West would have to wait hundreds of years for. They even had their own on-board vegetable patches.

In 1405, Zheng He set out with a fleet containing more warships than the Spanish Armada, on the first of seven epic voyages.

On board the 317 ships, with red sails and silk pennants at every mast, were 28,000 men with orders to proceed to the ends of the Earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas.

In his bestselling book 1421, former British naval officer Gavin Menzies claimed Zheng He's ships ended up reaching America, Australia (before Captain Cook) and circumnavigating the world. Zheng He sailed throughout South East Asia and the Indian Ocean, and on to the Persian gulf and Africa, creating new navigational maps, spreading Chinese culture and bringing home discoveries, treasures and tribute ranging from eye-glasses to giraffes.

He opened up trade routes that are still flourishing today, and gained strategic control over countries that are now once again looking to China as undisputed regional leader.

The eunuch admiral became known as "Three Jewels" - in Chinese, San Bao. Some say he is the original Sinbad the Sailor.

Such is his popularity among South East Asia's Chinese communities that people still touch his statue for good luck at temples dedicated to his memory.

" Asia's role in maritime history has not been recognised," according to the group's leader, Chung Chee-kit.

Ever since China decided to call back its fleets, it has seen itself as a land rather than sea power and has looked on seafarers and merchants as little more than pirates, he said.

extracts from BBC NEWS, Published: 2005/05/30
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