When China Ruled the Seas
by: Louise Levathes
New York NY:
Oxford University Press 1994, $16.95, Paperback
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 23
'The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433' is the subtitle of this book. It is a mite more lightweight than the Gavin Menzies one reported about in this same issue. A book's size is never a real clue, so do not sell it short. Afterall, it was named: 'New York Times Notable Book of the Year' when published. 'Lively style' and 'detailed sources' are but two of the plaudits it received; both well-deserved.
Louise Levathes reports on the huge treasure ships called bao chuan in Chinese. They carry the emperor's costly cargo of porcelains, silks, lacquerware, and fine art objects. He wants them traded for items he and the Middle Kingdom desire.
How huge is huge? Columbus' Santa Maria was eighty-five feet long while a Zhenge He treasure ship is four hundred feet long. Columbus' ships have three masts, the ones in the Zheng He fleet have nine of them. Their size dwarfs Christopher's puny boats four times over. But then. these huge vessels disappear. The question 'why' tells it all. After those trips, the Chinese emperor forbids overseas travel. He stops building and repairing these huge junks and those who disobey these orders are killed; so his great navy becomes extinct, and China's period of isolation begins. It continues for quite some time.
That is probably why Vasco da Gama and his fleet of three hundred never met these titans. When Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and landed in Africa, the tales that met his men were that they see folk with silk caps and fine fringe. These very men scoffed at his trinkets. Why? Because they get better ones from what is described as the 'white ghosts' who had been there earlier with their very large ships.
Levathes begins her well-written travel saga with the Yi people. Why? Because they may have been the world's first boat people. They also may be and your relative's ancestor. The Yi, she indicates, migrated in bamboo rafts to the island of Sulawesi, then moved on to New Guinea, and eventually to Australia. Their descendants settled on the shores of an enormous inland sea that eventually dried up. These descendants are, she says, relatives of those whose bones were found in the 1960's in the dunes of the Willandra Lakes. These bones bear striking resemblance to the skulls of the Neolithic people in China's Yangzi river valley.
With this, she builds on more facts about the Treasure Fleet and eventually provides factual information about the last voyage of Eunich Zheng He's fleet. Hers is a lively tale written by a scholar who queried people and queried about documents when she visited Nanjing University in 1990. There, she was a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Chinese and American Studies in Jiangsu, China.
She details the seven epic expeditions that brought these Chinese ships to the spice islands of Indonesia, the Malabar Coast of India, on to the Persian Gulf, and down the African coast. She even says they 'may' have reached Australia; put emphasis on the word 'may' but she never even suggests that they crossed the ocean to any of the Americas.
Her book uses Chinese eyewitness accounts of Zheng He voyages, official government publications, and other sources, and some selected English and French secondary sources, too. Amazingly, many were obtained at the Library of Congress in the United States. She cites her references, chapter by chapter, and is very convincing in her two hundred fifty-page fascinating timely tome.
Her volume expands history but does not challenge it. What is does do is challenge your thinking. It is a great companion read to the previously reviewed book by Galvin Menzies titled: 1421: The Year China Discovered America. It does keep one question open, but it is not the one that asks who got to America first, China or Columbus? The question is: Are a huge number of westerners related to the Chinese, more specifically to the Yi people? This critical question is: do all people of the world have origins in the Yangzi River valley? The TV asks: 'It is ten PM, do you know where your children are?' We ask: 'Never mind the time, do you know who your children and their ancestors are and where they really came from?'
We need longer family trees and deeper investigations into every one's ancestors, the entire world's explorers, and every person's origins. Learning about one's own past may help when traveling the road to one's future.