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Described as tall and handsome with long earlobes, fierce eyes and skin "rough like the surface of an orange," Zheng He proved to be a stunning success. In his initial expedition, which began in 1405, he set out to find the deposed Emperor, Yongle's nephew, who was thought to have taken refuge somewhere in Southeast Asia. The voyage was also a chance for the young dynasty to show the world the power and capability of the Ming ruler. This was a China on the rise, a nation striving to return to the glory of the high Tang dynasty, when Chinese troops occupied territory as far away as today's Iran. Zheng He supervised the building of the fleet of "treasure ships," which assembled before embarking at the port of Liujia in Taicang, a coastal town 40 km from Shanghai.
Before the fleet set off, the men would visit the Jinghai Temple in Taicang to pray to the Taoist goddess known as Tianfei for protection at sea. Spiritually fortified, they boarded their ships, which would head down the Liu Creek to the Yangtze River and eventually into the open seas. With Tianfei's blessing, Zheng He and his men spent two years at sea, landing at present-day Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and, eventually, India. Over the next 28 years, Zheng He's flotilla embarked on six other grand voyages. It was an unprecedented massing of naval power. The ships, described collectively as "swimming dragons," boasted as many as nine masts apiece; and the largest could hold 1,000 people. Dotted with dragons' eyes to help them "see," they carried soldiers, doctors, cooks, interpreters, astrologers, traders and holy men. The senior captains were eunuchs. The expeditions covered a total of nearly 300,000 km, roughly equivalent to 7 1/2 circumnavigations of the world.
This was a China that sought to dominate the region. On one journey, as recounted in Louise Levathes' 1994 book When China Ruled the Seas, Zheng He put down an uprising in Sumatra and brought the rebel chief back to Nanjing for confinement; the Emperor had the man executed. On another, the fleet landed in Sri Lanka and captured the Sinhalese King punishment, according to one version of events, for his refusal to hand over to the Chinese Emperor a sacred tooth of the Buddha. He and his family were taken to China and imprisoned. Impressed by such power, rulers throughout the region bought peace by offering gifts as tribute, which amounted, in China's eyes, to acknowledgment that the Emperor was the supreme leader of the universe. Subsequent journeys went as far as Hormuz and East Africa. In all, the fleet landed in more than 40 countries. Crew members brought back tales of exotic places and customs. They marveled at the prosperity of city-states in southern India and the violence of the Javanese. In what is present-day Thailand, they were thrilled to discover that the local men were happy to allow their wives to entertain and even sleep with the visitors.
China's age of exploration began to come to a close, however, when Zheng He died in 1433 during a stopover in the once great Indian port city of Calicut. The fleet returned to China and was soon disbanded. Zheng He himself suffered an ignoble end. Normally, significant eunuchs were reunited at death with their genitals, which were kept in sealed jars. That way the body could move on intact to the afterlife. Zheng He had no such luck.
For a taste of Eternal China, take a look at the Jinghai Temple today. Despite generations of official atheism and the wholesale destruction of temples and feudal beliefs, two dozen elderly women in floppy blouses and polyester pants cheerfully descend on the holy site, praying to Tianfei and the East Sea Dragon God. They shake their clasped hands in passionate devotion, bow their heads low before the celestial statues and burn copious quantities of incense. They pray that the sea won't turn on them, that their fishermen husbands won't be drowned, that their houses won't be wrecked by typhoons, that their lives will simply turn out well. "I've got four kids, and three are in college," says Xu Fenshan, a thickly built 68-year-old matron, offering evidence that her faith has earned rewards.
There is no Zheng He parallel in today's China. But perhaps that's a positive sign. Instead of one imperial hero, thousands of ordinary people are doing their part to open the nation to the world. Back in Shanghai, the 2,000 workers on Lansheng's assembly line overseen by manager Gong are molding, stitching and boxing the thousands of shoes, which will then be loaded into the 12-m containers that accumulate at Shanghai's Waigaoqiao port. There, the big shipping lines American President, Mitsui OSK, Mediterranean Shipping stack them up and move them out to the world. "China's door is open," says Gong. "It's impossible to close."
As for the ports that launched Zheng He's fleets, they are long gone, destroyed by five centuries of tumult and neglect. But there are still treasure boats of a sort that ply the Liu Creek, where the armada once assembled. Fan Ping owns one of them, the Sutai Yuyou 503, a small steel ship that doubles as her family's home. It's just 10 m long; the engine a mere 20 h.p. But the 49-year-old matriarch uses the modest craft to ply the waterways for riches. She finds oil spills, sucks them up with a powerful hose and resells the fuel. Cruising along the Liu Creek, looking for bounty, we stand together on the cramped deck, imagining what it was like in Zheng He's day. "I guess I have a bit of the same spirit," says Fan. The banks that once were filled with cheering throngs are now lined instead with tall cedars. Just ahead, the Yangtze River seems as wide as an ocean. The winds pushing toward the coast seem to be saying, "China is back."