A Forgotten Explorer of Pre-Modern Times
Dr. Ahmed S. Khan
Addison, IL

Ibn Battuta (1304-1368/69*) and Zheng He (1371-1433/35*) were the great explorers of pre-modern times. Professor Ross Dunn in The adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century observes “Since the mid nineteenth century, when translation of his Arabic narrative began to appear in Western languages, Ibn Battuta has been well known among specialists in Islamic and medieval history. But no scholar had attempted to retell his remarkable story to a general audience.”
Howard Turner in Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction describes Ibn Battuta as a celebrated traveler of pre-modern times. Born in Fez, Morocco, Ibn Battuta spent his life traveling from North Africa to China, Southeast Asia and lands in between. He started his travels when he was 20 years old by going to Mecca for Hajj. After completing Hajj, he continued his travels. Over the next three decades, he traveled about 75,000 miles visiting a large number of territories such as China, Sumatra, Ceylon, Arabia, Syria, Egypt, East Africa, and Timbuktu (equivalent to 44 present-day countries).
After his return Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his travels and observations to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy who complied them as Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Ghara'ib al-Amsar wa-'Aja'ib al-Asfar, or A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling (commonly referred to as the Rihla). Battuta’s account of his travel experiences provided the literature of travel with some of the most objective, insightful, and intricate observations ever made by a traveler. Ibn Battuta's sea voyages and references to shipping reveal the state of maritime activities of the Red Sea, the Black Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Chinese waters. His observations stand, along with Marco Polo’s, as the most informative work of the travel literature of the Middle Ages. After Ibn Battuta’s death, the beginning of fifteenth century saw the emergence of another great explorer; Admiral Zheng He.
Like Ibn Battuta, Zheng He until recently also remained a forgotten explorer to the general public in the West. In 2002, Gavin Menzies, a retired Royal Navy officer, started a public debate in his book 1421: The Year China discovered America, by putting forth his argument that Zheng He sailed to the Americas seven decades before Christopher Columbus. Menzies also made another astonishing claim: Zheng He sailed to the Americas from the west and not from the east, thus completing a near circumnavigation of the globe. The publication of Menzies’s book has generated enormous public interest in the explorations of Zheng He. Throughout 2005, the academicians, historians, and people around the globe celebrated the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s voyages.
On August 6, 2005, the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, in collaboration with Zheng He foundation, Chicago and Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, also celebrated the 600th anniversary of the first of seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He. In all he led a mighty armada on a mission of diplomacy and trade. Commemoration ceremonies started with a three-lectures delivered by prominent Chinese and American scholars.
The first lecture titled “Zheng He’s Voyages as perceived by the Western scholars” was presented by Dr. Guy Alitto, professor in history, center for East Asian Studies, University of Chicago, and an authority on Chinese history. Professor Alitto discussed the historical importance of Zheng He’s voyages from the world as well as Chinese perspectives. He said, “From the perspective of world history, the voyages of Zheng He are utterly astonishing. From the perspective of Chinese history, they are less so, in that the technological achievements of Chinese civilization were usually well in advance of all other civilizations in the world.” Regarding claims made by some historians that Zheng He circumnavigated the globe, Professor Alitto said, “If any Americans have heard of Zheng He’s name, it is likely that they read, or heard about, 1421, The Year China discovered America, by a retired Royal Navy officer, Gavin Menzies; he has taken advantage of western ignorance of Chinese civilization in general and the Ming period in particular by claiming that Zheng He circumnavigated the globe and beat Columbus to the Americas. Most historians however consider this thesis to be highly unsubstantiated, if not utterly misguided.”
Professor Ming Wan, Director of Ming Dynasty Research Section, History Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Science, Beijing, China (www.cass.net.cn), presented the second lecture titled “East-West cultural exchange in Zheng He’s era.”
Professor Wan expounded on the role of Han dynasty’s (2000 years ago), Chinese legend Zhang Qian who opened the “silk road” to the “West land,” a region where Asia and Europe meet. In the Ming Dynasty (600 years ago), Emperor’s envoy Zheng He became another legend whose voyages opened the maritime “silk road” to the “West ocean,” a region including the Indian ocean, Persian Gulf, Red Sea and East Africa.
The third lecture, “Science and Technology applied in Zheng He’s voyages,” was presented by Dr. Jin Wu, fellow of US National Academy of Engineering, and Professor, Department of Hydraulic and Oceanic Engineering, National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan. Professor Wu’s lecture focused on interdisciplinary research on the scientific and technological aspects of Zheng He’s voyages. Professor Wu reminded the audience that Zheng He’s voyages came a few decades before most of the European expeditions known to the entire western world: Christopher Columbus (1492); Vasco da Gama (1498); and Ferdinand Magellan (1521). Professor Wu also expounded on the fact that Zheng He's fleets were much larger .Professor Wu explained that Zheng He’s treasure ships were 400 feet long, whereas Columbus's flagship, the St. Maria, was only 85 feet in length. Zheng He's treasure ships, Professor Wu mentioned, were wide and bulky, like the super-tankers of today. In addition to treasure ships, Zheng He’s fleet also included a variety of other specialized supply ships.
At the conclusion of the lectures, a replica of Zheng He’s treasure boat (1:100 model) made by Quanzhou Maritime Museum in Fujian, China, was presented to the Museum of Science and technology as a valuable addition to its 50 famous model collections in the “Ships Through Ages” exhibition hall.
To conclude the commencement ceremonies, Professor Wu delivered the keynote address. Titled “Significance of celebrating the six hundredth anniversary of Zheng He’s voyages,” the paper claimed that in the ancient times (Chunchiu-Chanko period) Chinese people had the advanced know-how of naval architecture. In fact, ship building and navigation technology during the Song and the Yuan Dynasties could have been more innovative compared to the Ming Dynasty era. But Zheng He’s voyages were on a larger scale; these voyages were not merely a historical coincidence, but a product of the scientific and cultural accomplishments in Chinese history.
Professor Wu further elaborated on the fact that Zheng He’s huge armada visited over 40 countries and areas, and yet his voyages remained peaceful, never arousing a sense of threat to anyone. Professor Wu said that Zheng He’s accomplishments can prove to be a guide for bringing forth new peak for exchanges between East and West, and thus can usher a oceanic century which is more orderly and ethical.
[Dr. Ahmed S. Khan (khan@dpg.devry.edu) is a senior Professor in the EET dept. at DeVry University, Addison, Illinois. He is the author of The Telecommunications Fact Book and the co-author of Technology and Society: A Bridge to the 21st Century.]


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