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Out to Sea With the Great Ships

15 minute read
TIM McGIRK / Hong Kong

Even in our 21st century of supertankers and cruise ships lit like floating cities, Zheng He’s treasure fleet still inspires awe. More than 300 vessels with some 30,000 men sailed in the first imperial expedition in 1405. It was one of the greatest fleets ever assembled, rivaling the Spanish Armada and Japan’s Pacific fleet during World War II in its ability to instill fear. Zheng He’s own ship was a technological marvel; by some accounts it was more than 130 m long, almost 60 m wide and sailed under the power of nine masts. Nobody had ever built a wooden sailing ship that big before — nor have they since.

Here I must confess a personal interest. In Hong Kong, I live on a Chinese junk. It’s about 15 m long, a minnow compared with Zheng He’s leviathan, but at least I don’t have to share my boat with a full complement of astrologers, navigators, cooks, soldiers (who were brigands working off criminal sentences), hundreds of crew and the odd giraffe that Zheng He brought back for the Emperor. Several times at night I’ve taken the junk out into the shipping lanes behind Hong Kong Island. This channel is full of supertankers, and I’ve worried for my junk, my creaky home, as it wove precariously between these great sliding, metal slabs of blackness that could splinter me into oblivion.

As the 10-story supertankers loom by, they seem pretty invincible. They can probably slice through whatever gales and mountainous waves get thrown at them with minimal fuss, the tumult not even disturbing the crew watching a video of The Perfect Storm in the lounge. This technological insouciance bothers me. In man vs. nature, I want nature to exert herself — occasionally, but with ferocious, cosmic might. You wonder who’s buying all these summer books on ships sunk by 30-m waves, coastal towns razed by hurricanes and clippers rammed by vengeful whales? I am. Was Zheng He, on the other hand, so engorged by his own hubris, as official envoy of the Emperor, or Son of Heaven, that he treated nature as nonchalantly as today’s supertanker captain does?

My own experiences with maritime disasters are fairly tame: a near drowning while bodysurfing and a sinking. A dentist cousin decided to take up sailing as a hobby and dragooned me as his sole crewman. I was a teenager then, and both of us were novice sailors. We were cutting nicely through the water, still within sight of northern California’s storm-lashed coastline, when a wave smacked us broadside. We swamped. The sail flopped over into the water, and the two of us spilled out. It felt like I was given an icy injection of seawater that flowed straight into my heart. Shivering, my cousin and I tried clinging to the overturned fiberglass hull, but it was so slick that every crashing wave pulled us off and we had to fight our way back to the boat. Luckily, we were spotted and rescued after an hour or so. My cousin sold the boat and dedicated himself to the safer hobby of winemaking. I developed a God-fearing respect for the Deep.

Did Zheng He imagine that his treasure ship was unsinkable, simply because it was so big? Maybe size matters, even to a eunuch. Or perhaps, despite his ship’s heft, the moaning timber and rolling swells made him feel as vulnerable as I sometimes do. What was it like to be a 15th century admiral, setting sail over vast, poorly charted oceans?

My search to find the answer has led to a Hong Kong master shipbuilder, a mystical English computer whiz who recollects sailing into Hong Kong harbor aboard a clipper ship in a past life, and finally to Rex Warner, one of today’s foremost maritime explorers — a latter-day Zheng He.

The key, I thought, is to understand Zheng He’s personality. But while historians give us embellished descriptions of the admiral as being well over 2 m tall with “glaring eyes, teeth as white and well-shaped as shells and a voice as loud as a huge bell,” the four chronicles of his voyages are short on personal details. We don’t even know if he suffered from seasickness in the rolling swells he encountered off Vietnam in the autumn of 1405, his first voyage.

Zheng He wasn’t born to the sea. He was a devout Muslim from landlocked Kunming, in southern China. He proved his worth to the Emperor on the battlefield and in court intrigues — not on the water. When his initial expedition set off from Nanjing with great fanfare, it was probably the first time that Zheng He had let China’s coastline slip from his view. The sound of the waves crashing off the great treasure ship’s bow, the wind strumming the rigging, the sparkling blue of phosphorescence churned up by the rudder — all these were new sights and sensations for him.

It takes a certain character to sail off into the unknown, driven by the elemental forces of wind and water. Did Zheng He balk when the Emperor Yongle gave him the command of the treasure fleet? There’s no record that Zheng He did anything but display those shell-shaped teeth in a smile of gratitude. Most likely the Emperor reasoned that the kind of cool courage Zheng He had shown in battle would prove handy in dealing with tempests, sea monsters, pirates and conniving Sultans. After all, the nautical stuff could be left to the fleet’s multitude of captains.

Even a confident warrior like Zheng He must have been daunted by the sea’s many perils. The Chinese, like the Europeans in those days, believed that if you sailed too far, you would cascade over the edge of the world. The treasure armada had charts and maps (some dating back to the 10th century Song dynasty), which described the coastline, the positioning of stars and where fresh water could be collected along the route. But there was always the danger that a storm could blow them so far off-course that they would be sucked up by colossal whirlpools and spun off the side of the planet. It didn’t matter if you were the Imperial Grand Eunuch. If you strayed too far, you could still vanish down the plug hole.

The Chinese also believed that storms were caused by giant, green-blue dragons; and sailors had to keep incense burning constantly as an offering to Tianfei, the Celestial Consort. Her gentle spirit was supposed to calm the dragons, preventing them from whipping up giant waves. Even though he was a Muslim, who theoretically believed only in Allah and his Prophet Muhammad, Zheng He didn’t take chances. He carried out elaborate prayers to Tianfei, who was thought to float above the sea in a red dress, leading seamen away from danger. Before embarking, he and his crew presented offerings to Tianfei’s altar — entire herds of goats, pigs and cattle, boiled alive with their hooves bound as if kneeling.

At sea, pacing on the ramparts of his top deck, Zheng He consulted daily with Taoist priests and astrologers as well as with his navigators. Every ship in the fleet had its Tianfei altar and no matter how rough the seas, there was always a curl of incense smoke rising for her, as there is in hundreds of junks today along the South China coast.

My motorized junk still bears a faint resemblance to Zheng He’s ship. Both have wide bellies, shallow bottoms, a prominent galleon-type stern and teak timbers that probably came from the same South Asian forests. They also share a squared-off nose that may have been designed for hauling in nets or repelling pirates but is now used by weekend junkies for their corporate bashes. My junk was built by the Shing Lee Fat shipyard at Aberdeen harbor. Like the old master shipbuilders, today’s junkmakers don’t use blueprints. Wiry, and wearing a stained Jean Paul Gaultier T shirt, Chan Shing-chow says: “I go by feel.” It’s a skill he learned from his father and grandfather. “I was forced into it. I couldn’t even think of doing anything else,” he adds. “You know, when I finish a boat, I really have to admire my own handiwork. I make beautiful things.” He has no sons to apprentice, no one to whom he can pass along this millennial knowledge.

I ask him how much it would cost to build Zheng He’s vessel today. “Impossible,” he replies. There is no shipyard big enough in Hong Kong to do the job. One sailor guesses that the imported teakwood and the silk sails alone would cost upwards of $10 million. And, unless you want to navigate the ship, as Zheng He’s crew did, with a magnetized needle floating in a water-filled stone basin, you’d need to shell out a few million dollars more for guidance systems and satellite communications.

Even though my junk retains some residual DNA in its timbers from the treasure ship, I want to experience something closer to the real thing: a vessel with sails. I want to know what it felt like for Zheng He, as his ship crashed through the waves and the wind ribboned his long beard and mustache. In Hong Kong and around the southern China coast, only four or five sailing junks remain afloat. One of them, the Precious Dragon, belongs to an Englishman living in Hong Kong, Marc Cuthbert, who at first rented it out for filming kung fu movies and staging beauty pageants. Then Cuthbert decided to sail it to England, which he planned to reach on the day the British handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997. (He arrived four months late, after run-ins with Vietnamese and Indian authorities, an indignity that Zheng He never suffered).

Blond with craggy Nordic features, Cuthbert is an engaging mixture of gadget-head and high-seas sage. He undertook the voyage, he says, “to complete a karmic cycle.” He explains matter-of-factly: “You see, in a previous reincarnation, I came out on a clipper ship. So now I’m retracing my route in a Chinese boat.” This seems an odd confession to make in an office filled with the latest computer gear and pictures of high-tech racing catamarans and flying boats, and Cuthbert grins at my amazement.

That route, up through the Indian Ocean, closely followed Zheng He’s voyages. A purist, the first preparation Cuthbert made for his trip was to rip out the wheelhouse. “You have to feel the elements,” he says. Once, off Sri Lanka, more than 100 dolphins swam alongside the Precious Dragon, taking turns surfing the bow wave. When sailing in the junk, he says, “you feel that time’s stopped. She moves very gracefully, silently.”

Silence probably wasn’t Zheng He’s overriding memory of his voyages. Cuthbert had a crew of four. Zhang He commanded 1,000 men, and there was constant traffic between his ship and the rest of the fleet. “Zheng He had a different philosophy,” says Cuthbert. “The Europeans viewed the sea as an obstacle, as something that stood in their way of riches and conquest.” The Chinese took the Middle Kingdom out to sea with them. They had boats like floating farms, where they grew vegetables and raised pigs and chickens. Smaller sampans shuttled between the flotilla and the coastline, bringing aboard fresh water. It was more than just being package tourists, squeamish about the local cuisine; they were the Emperor’s envoys and had to keep up imperial appearances. Besides, what restaurant along the way could handle the arrival of close to 30,000 hungry sailors?

Even aboard his floating palace, Zheng He was often lashed by the elements. He lost many ships in raging tempests — some were reefed against the African shoreline and the survivors may have set up colonies there — and hundreds of men succumbed to disease. Zheng He, too, died on his final, seventh voyage and was buried at sea. Ma Huan, a translator on several of Zheng He’s expeditions, recalls how Saint Elmo’s fire once blazed atop the mast of the treasure ship, prompting a shaken Zheng He to offer more lavish sacrifices to Tianfei.

On his voyage, Cuthbert encountered an equally bizarre weather phenomenon, known as microbursts. “It was like being caught on a giant chessboard, with these black thunderheads advancing toward us over the water,” he recalls. It seemed to defy the laws of nature. “It was so inky black inside I couldn’t see the end of the boat,” says Cuthbert, “not until lightning started cracking down on us like a whip.”

After Cuthbert’s success sailing the Precious Dragon to Britain, he received a phone call from a fellow Englishman, a maritime adventurer named Rex Warner, who wanted to borrow the ship to recreate one of Zheng He’s trips. Cuthbert happily agreed. The Precious Dragon was loaded onto a freighter, shipped back to Hong Kong and prepared for its new journey. Warner was anxious to set off in the autumn, catching the strong west winds, as Zheng He had done.

But first, Warner was searching for a connection between the present and China’s brief but glorious seafaring past. In Nanjing he found it: a direct, 19th-generation descendant of the Grand Eunuch’s favorite adopted nephew, named Zheng Zhihai (which means from the sea). This modest 53-year-old, dressed in a rumpled suit, hasn’t exactly followed in his ancestor’s glorious naval tradition; Zheng works as a toilet engineer in a Nanjing factory. Still, while China had largely forgotten his heroic ancestor, Zheng says family legends kept his exploits very much alive. Tales of his voyages were passed down through the generations like a fragment of silken embroidery. “Zheng He’s one regret,” says his descendant, “is that he never reached Mecca.” On the last voyage, by the time a few men from his fleet finally made the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site, Zheng He had died. Both his father and grandfather had made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca overland all the way from southwestern China long before their illustrious offspring ever set sail.

Was reaching Mecca a personal goal, a secret motivation driving Zheng He onward? In his various writings, left on stone stelae scattered about his travels, Zheng He makes clear that imperial hubris was best left ashore: the success of these voyages depended on knowing his place between heaven and earth, on paying homage to the many gods worshiped by people along the way, starting with the constantly burning incense to Chinese sea goddess Tianfei. I jot down a note to myself: when the next typhoon approaches, light incense for Tianfei aboard my junk — and be friendly to any woman in a red dress.

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