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October 22, 2011 9:39 PM   Subscribe

The Eunuch Admiral: A Ming cup leads to a Berkeley scholar and the marvelous tale of China’s greatest seafarer.
posted by Winnemac (14 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fantastic.
posted by empath at 9:48 PM on October 22, 2011


I love this! I always teach this story. And this has better maps than I was using!!!
posted by strixus at 9:48 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Admiral Zheng He also featured prominently in last week's In Our Time episode in the BBC. He's also conjectured to have "discovered" America. (Previously on Metafilter).
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:01 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


He's also conjectured to have "discovered" America. (Previously on Metafilter).

Dude, that theory is so blown out of the water I'm surprised you even mentioned it.

The excellent Aussie doco Junk History [get it?! junk?!] has quotes from eminent Chinese scholars who basically say "Back in the day, we Chinese invented a lot of cool things. We did a lot of amazing interesting stuff. Travelling around the undiscovered world on leaky wooden boats WAS NOT ONE OF THEM."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:17 PM on October 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Pretty much everything I knew about this came from the fictionalisation in Years of Rice and Salt.
posted by rodgerd at 10:35 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's controversial in academia at best.

Zheng He already did so many amazing things, I don't think it makes sense to distract from that by imagining these fanciful stories in America or Florence that don't fit in with what we know about him.
posted by Winnemac at 10:38 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is a fascinating comment after that first link--any thoughts?:

Posted by John Davis
From: John Davis, Trustee, Ferriby Heritage Trust
The absorbing story of Ming’s fleet raises the question as to whether Chinese maritime enterprise stretched even further back to prehistoric times. The Bronze Age oak planked ships (circa 2,300 BC) found in the mud of England’s Humber Estuary are the earliest known examples of seagoing vessels in Europe. The Ferriby Heritage Trust owns the half-scale replica of these ships, built as a privately funded venture by the man who discovered them and two internationally recognised naval architects who saw the significance of the technology revealed.
The Trust’s sea trials have shown these ships were fast and efficient but an intriguing feature is two steps for masts in the hand carved keel strake. Performance under sail has yet to be proved but the assumption has been a mast carrying a single square sail, stepped according to loading. However, the only graphic evidence from this period is a fragment of pottery from the Mediterranean showing a vessel with two masts and junk type sails.
In archaeology such tenuous pointers can sometimes lead to greater discoveries. As a village charity our resources are limited but as our trials progress towards the building of a full-scale replica we are open to all evidence of prehistoric maritime activity in the southern hemisphere and especially possible Sino/European links.

posted by LarryC at 11:46 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


uncanny hengeman: “The excellent Aussie doco Junk History [get it?! junk?!] has quotes from eminent Chinese scholars who basically say ‘Back in the day, we Chinese invented a lot of cool things. We did a lot of amazing interesting stuff. Travelling around the undiscovered world on leaky wooden boats WAS NOT ONE OF THEM.’”

Leaky wooden boats? That seems like an unfair characterization. Those things were massive and incredibly interesting.

All that aside, yes, Menzies' book has been widely discredited, he's been all but exposed as a huckster, and that documentary looks like a worthwhile treatment of the whole shenanigan.

Anyway, it seems sad to let the story of a fascinating and worthy historical figure like Zheng He get set aside to deal with an opportunist like Gavin Menzies. What Zheng He actually accomplished was spectacularly interesting, and this is a great post with lots of interesting details. Thanks, Winnemac.
posted by koeselitz at 11:54 PM on October 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


The inspector smiled and wrote “100 US$” on a piece of scrap paper. I paid him what he asked, without haggling.

Well, I wouldn't have done it. They put people in jail for such things. Assuming the cup really was over fifty years old....

Leaky wooden boats? That seems like an unfair characterization.

It is the nature of wooden boats to be leaky. Especially at that time. The Chinese also invented water pumps.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:10 AM on October 23, 2011


As for Siamese men, the scroll notes, “When they attain their 20th year, their foreskins are slit open with a fine knife, much as we would an onion, and a dozen tin beads are inserted. After the skin heals, the beads look like a cluster of grapes, and make a tinkling sound that is regarded as music.”
ow ow ow ow
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:43 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even if this happened to some extent as warranted, I have a hard time accepting the vast numbers of ships and crew that are claimed. I don't think you get to that size of an operation without having a lot of other ancillary technological and cultural development that would be unmistakable. It's just too much of an anomaly for me to accept.
posted by dhartung at 12:03 PM on October 23, 2011


It's not really much of an anomaly. This fleet isn't even expected to be the first Chinese group to get out to the Indian ocean. The Ming had a large navy at this time and a tendency to engage in ridiculously large prestige projects.
posted by Winnemac at 1:46 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also comparing Zheng He's ships to caravels is a bit disingenuous - caravels were smaller than previous European vessels so that they could travel faster and explore. It was an entirely different design philosophy. And 3000 tons displacement is certainly not unimaginable for a wooden sailing ship - the HMS Victory displaces 3556 tons.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:18 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Leaky wooden boats? That seems like an unfair characterization.

I wasn't having a go at Chinese boat builders! It was a hat tip to this big hit in Australia, famously banned in Britain during the Falklands War [if the faces look familiar, it's because two of them went on to bigger things with Crowded House].

But also what IndigoJones said. It was a fair characterisation.

Bora Horza Gobuchul MeMailed me regarding my comment - we hugged.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:42 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


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