The headline above is not a partisan crack, though it sounds a bit Cold War-ish, true enough. However, it is really a historical statement, it seems. An ever-growing number of countries are seeking trade links and favours with Beijing on whatever terms can be struck, to increase their exports. This all contributes to China’s global expansion and trade. China’s policy this time is post-Confucian (551-479 BC) by a long shot but with a teaching that is over 900 years old, and still developing, adjusting to the times.
There is a remarkable book that tracks the core of this policy of gaining influence. It was published in 2002 and masters and minions in government and academies should have read it. But of course, in 2002 ,we were trying to sort out the first two of the national crises of the decade. The book is, 1421. The Year China Discovered the World, by Gavin Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine commanding officer, whose family moved to China in 1937, when he just three weeks old.
Menzies spent 15 years researching the travels and explorations of the fleets of China that sailed with a mission to draw up an unprecedented map of the world’s sea routes and land masses. The year in the title, 1421, is the start of that three-year search which took a huge fleet to Australia then further south, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the South Atlantic over to Antarctica and then through the Straights of Magellan.
The launch of that extraordinary experience apparently came 70 years before Columbus sailed to the New World ,which he claimed as his in the name of the Catholic king and queen of Spain. However, China was first in the region, further south, the author claims. So were the Portuguese. Columbus was attributed the “discovery” which now we learn was in no way a virgin finding. And it was followed by conquest and destruction. China and Portugal had as their initial aim the mapping of the seas and the lands they contacted. Their documents and maps refer to the ventures as exploratory.
The emperor, Zhu Di, had put an end to the Mogul occupation of China in the 1380s and decided to move the capital from Nanking to Beijing, the first step being the construction of the Forbidden City. The project required 300,000 labourers who stripped the forests of hardwood. From there the emperor’s plan included inland channels and docks and ship-building yards, with the construction of thousands of vessels. All of which completed devastation of hardwoods. Up to 600 vessels were to be used for the venture into seas and lands beyond the cities and ports in the region (in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan and Korea, some of northern Africa, etc.) familiar to China, to establish new trading bases in faraway places.
The fleet sailed in March, 1421. The Chinese were printing books then, before Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) completed his first printed Bible around 1440-50. Gavin Menzies throws in the quip that England’s king, Henry V (1387- 1422), had a library of six handwritten books, four of them on loan from a nunnery.
China went in search of the likes of its existing network, where “those rulers who accepted the emperor’s overlordship were rewarded with titles, protection and trade missions.” Those visitors to court in Beijing or elsewhere had to learn to “know-tow” (a sign of deep respect, by prostration, kneeling or bowing very low) to the emperor, and were ordered to repeat the performance until they got it right. Foreign policy was different to that of Europe, “Chinese preferred to pursue their aims by trade, influence and bribery, rather than open conflict and direct colonisation.” Emperor Zhu Di’s line of approach was “to dispatch huge armadas every few years bearing trade, goods and gifts.” What Menzies does not tell his readers is what could happen to an ungrateful ruler.
As stated above, China’s fleet for exploration and mapping went from Australia, down Africa, round the Cape, and into a wide open and unknown (except by some Portuguese) south Atlantic. The fleet took several weeks to cross the ocean and thence down the coast of Patagonia to the protruding arm of what we call the Atlántida Argentina and neighbouring islands. The route to the mysterious, barren land of Patagonia produced little in the way of trade prospects in a barren land of near naked men and women and small wild animals. But it brought huge knowledge of birdlife and wildlife generally. The Chinese came under the Southern Cross to determine develop their studies of longitude (latitude was apparently known by then) which Europe would use from then on.
From the icy water near the South Pole the Chinese fleet then travelled the Straights that would be ‘discovered’ in 1519 by Portuguese mariner Fernando de Magallanes (1480-1521), for whom the first round-the-world journey is claimed even though the Filipinos killed him before he could get home. Spain and Portugal, by the way, are preparing a series of tributes to Magallanes in October 2020, to mark five centuries since his world tour. It might be interesting if the organisers of the events mention the Chinese apparently being in the Straights a full century before the Portuguese explorer.
The expedition started in 1421 and ended in 1423, the fleet considerably reduced in men and ships. The China they returned to had changed. The old emperor was dying, the country was in economic crisis and millions were starving. The new authorities decided it was time to look inward and sought to destroy the notes and maps drawn up by the fleet. A few documents were hidden and eventually located and linked by Menzies in libraries and museums ranging from southern Chile to Italy, and Beijing.
Columbus (1451-99) had not been born. He left Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492, and after 10 weeks sailing arrived in the Bahamas on October 12 of that year. Whatever the island he landed on he was well received by peaceful natives whom he saw in servile roles. They were rapidly wiped out by the Conquistadors and their own internal rivalries.
It might make some people sympathetic with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for knocking Columbus off his column at the back of the Casa Rosada. More interesting, perhaps, would be to know what Chairman Xi Jinping thinks of all this.