Modern Chinese history

The Wheel of History

Modern Chinese history

This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2011) written by Dr Martin-Smith.
Dr. Martin-Smith is a retired medical doctor who has been interested in Astronomy and astronautics since childhood. He is President of the Hull & East Riding Astronomical Society. In addition he has been interested in China and Chinese affairs for many years.

In 2003, the world witnessed two events of major significance for China and her place in the world. The first related to her history, and her perception of her former decline as a major nation. The second points clearly to a new future in which this perceived decline is reversed, offering the potential for true leadership of Humankind.

The first event saw the publication, amid great acclaim, in China of a book - "1421- the Year China Discovered the World", by a former British submariner, Gavin Menzies. Menzies proposed that the Ming Dynasty Admiral , Zheng He, aka Sinbao, known in England as "Sinbad the Sailor", was commissioned by the adventurous Emperor, Zhu Di, to build a great fleet and explore the world for potential tributaries to the Ming Empire. Zhu Di was the second of the Ming Emperors, who had taken control of China in the late 14th century from the foreign Yuan Dynasty. This last was the legacy of Khubilai Khan, grandson of the great Mongol from the steppes, Chinghiz Khan.

The Founder of the Mongol Yuan, Khubilai, had adopted much of Chinese civilisation as his own, and opened up great trade routes between China and the world. Among other things, bills of credit, cheques, and paper money had been introduced, and workmen from all over Eurasia came to China to make their fortunes - not least Marco Polo from Venice. During this brief period , it was possible to travel in safety under the protection of the Great Khan from the River Danube to the seaboard of China without let or hindrance provided the proper taxes were paid. Such a situation is and has always been rare.

Nevertheless, China cast off the Mongol yoke, and her new rulers sought in turn to continue the prosperity of world trade and to seek out new sources of trade and profit. So it was that Zhu Di appointed a Muslim-born seaman, a eunuch named Sinbao, to his Court, as Chief Minister, giving him a commission to discover the world beyond the Middle Kingdom. Sinbao, a giant some 2 metres tall, became Admiral Zheng He, and was charged with raising a mighty fleet and army of marines with which to seek out new tribute-paying lands. He soon built a fleet of ocean-going junks which Menzies, as a former seaman, describes with great enthusiasm. The largest "junks" were square hulled, with nine masts, were 170 metres long, and could desalinate sea water and grow crops; even animal husbandry was practised at sea, and fleets carrying 19,000 marines began extensive voyages throughout the South China Seas, as far as Australia, the Indonesian Archipelago, India, and the Persian Gulf. It was from the coasts of Arabia that we derive the name "Sinbad", and where legends of his nautical exploits flourished.

Seven Voyages were carried out, extending to the Horn of Africa down to East Africa, and beyond to Mozambique. This much is not in dispute in most traditional scholarly circles, but Menzies, drawing upon his experiences with currents and trade winds as a seaman himself, went much further. He suggested that, had Zheng He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and followed the coastline, he would inevitably have reached the trans-Atlantic current near Cape Verde and been swept to the Caribbean in 60 days.

The seventh and last Voyage lasted some 2.5 years, from 1420-22, and was covered in mystery and speculation. Zheng He himself claimed to have travelled 100,000 li (40,000 miles) and visited 3,000 states or principalities. This immense distance is greater than the circumference of the Earth, so Menzies drew a natural conclusion - that in those missing years, Zheng He and his Fleet did in fact explore the entire world some 90 years before Magellan (whose ships were far smaller and less well equipped than those of the Ming Admiral).

Not everyone accepts this extreme view, proposing that the 100,000 li covered all the seven Voyages and that 3,000 " states" could have included tiny beach settlements.

The response of the Ming Imperial Court to the Voyages of Zheng He is not in dispute and is a cautionary tale for the West and China. During his absence a palace revolution had taken place and the Mandarin class had displaced the much hated eunuchs. The new doctrine was that China had no need of expensive foreign adventures and curiosities. All that China needed was located in the Middle Kingdom, and Zheng He was ordered to scupper his Fleet, sack his crews, tear up his maps, and take up gardening in his old age. China, in effect, by retreating from the world into herself, left the barbarian Westerners free rein to explore and in time become Masters of the World.

Only two generations after Zheng He was retired, Prince Henry the Navigator began that period of exploration in which the "Long Noses" discovered and explored the entire planet - to the eventual humiliation of the Middle Kingdom, culminating in the Unequal Treaties which the Chinese resent to this day. Menzies asserts that Zheng He did not destroy all his maps, and that some of them , in copied form, found their way to the curious and secretive merchants of Venice, Genoa, and Iberia. The "Portolani" maps are thus attributed to the tavern gossip and interchanges of seamen from East and West, ultimately derived from Zheng He or his seamen.

The Ming began a process of decline which seemed irreversible. Now the boot is on the other foot, and China has a chance to turn the tables on the West 600 years, almost to the year, after the disgrace of Zheng He. For in our own time Western governments and Establishments led by America have faithfully copied the Ming Dynasty's example of complacency and short-sightedness in respect of the journeys of Apollo.

For America, too, undertook, over just 4 years , eight voyages of exploration and discovery whose true value was overlooked by rulers conscious only of the short term. For post Apollo America, like the Ming Mandarinate, saw no need for foreign adventure or new worlds. The voyages of Apollo to the Moon, despite the clear promise offered by visionaries such as Gerard O'Neill and others, were ended before such promise could be fulfilled. Now 40 years on, the significance of Apollo for future clean energy supplies to Earth, and the construction of a real insurance policy against the Malthusian nightmares or natural Mass Extinctions which promise the end of Human civilisation, are becoming evident.

The second event referred to in the first paragraph was the flight of China's first astronaut, Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, in October 2003. He has since been an idol and inspiration to the people of China, so that many millions of students and youngsters are flocking to Universities and Colleges to study the "hard sciences" in the hope that, one day, one of them will fly to the Moon.

The past eight years have seen two more human spaceflights and the beginning of Chinese lunar exploration. In 2008 Colonels Zhai Zhigang, Jing Haipeng , and Liu Boming undertook China's first three man mission in Shenzhou 7, featuring a spacewalk. Tiangong 1, a first space laboratory, is due this summer, with docking experiments to be conducted with Shenzhous 8, 9, and 10 over the coming 2 years. A 60 tons multi-modular space station with a new cargo ship fleet is now planned for 2020, and Chinese citizens are being invited to propose names for the new celestial outpost of China. Lunar missions up to and including sample return are expected within the next 6 years.

The world's largest facility for the testing, developing, and manufacture of space rockets is nearly complete at the Tianjin Binhai Enterprise Zone, while the Wenshang Launch Centre on Hainan Island is being readied for launch of larger Long March rockets, necessary for space stations and eventual human missions to the Moon. Unlike Apollo, China's first mission to the Moon, expected around 2024, is to lead on to permanent bases and industrial development. Water, as well as all the minerals needed for construction , and abundant solar energy, will help them on their way.

Since their proposal by Peter Glaser some 40 years ago, Solar Power Satellites - collecting solar energy in Space , converting it to microwaves , and transmitting the energy to ground based rectennae for onward transmission as electricity in the grid - have been seen as a route to clean industrial scale solar energy for a growing technological civilisation. Its growing relevance to a world averse to nuclear power and fossil fuel emissions has always been its selling point. The high cost of launching and assembling massive satellites in orbit has been its sole if incontrovertible minus point.

The use of the Moon as a source of 97% of the raw materials by mining and extraction of materials in a small factory has the potential of reducing costs by 25 fold, provided that a lunar base is in situ.

The concept of beamed power transmission is now proven , in a 148 kilometre transmission of microwave energy between two Hawaiian Islands some two years ago. The extension of this principle to Geostationary Orbit is now a matter of reducing costs to a level significantly below that of propping up struggling banks. This should not be too difficult!

Nuclear Power is becoming prohibitive, "Green" Energy based on terrestrial sources would, if large-scale, use too much scarce agricultural land, and , as we know from wind power, is far too unreliable, whereas the cost of freezing energy usage for a growing population is likely to be calamitous in terms of misery and ultimately starvation.

Wang Xiji, a former rocket guidance specialist working in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, proclaims Space as the "Fourth Great Territory" after Land, Sea and Air, in which China must build her place.

Barring major economic/political collapse, China is set to become the world's largest economy by this time, and alone of all the major powers, will be able to afford such ambitious projects.

China is clearly learning from the history of Zheng He and embracing the new wave of exploration hoping, inter alia, to reverse the calamitous decline earlier introversion brought. The triumph of the Middle Kingdom can be had without a single shot being fired. "Face" will be saved and won at a bargain price!

Such a challenge demands a response from the West, which, increasingly, seems likely to be met by the entrepreneurs of the emerging "New Space Industry".

We live in interesting times indeed!

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2011, reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 30, 2011

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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