Tuesday, January 17, 2006

China discovers the world... again

(c) The Age

Advocates of the "Chinese reached America first" theory have a new flag to wave in academia's face. This 18th century map, if it indeed replicates a 1418 original, proves that Zheng He's fleet circumnavigated the globe close on a century before Da Gama rounded the Cape. Unfortunately we have only the cartographer's word that the 1418 original existed, and the history establishment has already all but dismissed it as a fraud. A thread at China History Forum adds reasons to believe that a particular Beijing map-collector has been swindled out of US$500.

It's thus probable that the map says more about Chinese society today than during the Ming dynasty. It was bought by one of the legion of nouveau-riche collectors out to resuscitate Chinese civilisation, which after three decades of Party-stoked cultural suicide is in a bad way. The Party itself has long since jumped on the bandwagon in search of grist for the nationalist mill, and has adopted the 15th century voyages as the best monument to China's relative technical prowess one can find in three millennia of history. Orthodox Marxists might view them as unproductive extravagances that bled the masses, but what the hey.

The Ming fleet is all the more suitable as it can be personified in a photogenic admiral, who joins Confucius in a growing pantheon of rehabilitated feudal reactionaries. Zheng He paraphernalia to date includes a supra-lifesize statue, scale reenactments and a 600th anniversary stamp collection. Not bad for a guy who epitomises everything wrong with Old China - a wealthy eunuch who got his job through royal patronage.

Then ... Now

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