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Rebuilding a Treasure Ship Volume 61 Number 2, March/April 2008
by Mara Hvistendahl

In its 15th-century navy, China discovers a model for its new global ambitions.


Using many 15th-century techniques, shipbuilder Fang Jiebo works on what will become one of the ribs of a reproduction of a massive "treasure ship" captained by the Muslim eunuch explorer Zheng He. Modern Chinese officials want to use Zheng He's legacy to shape perceptions of their country's rise to global prominence. (Ariana Lindquist)

An improbably small worker in gray coveralls tugs at a thick iron chain, his mouth set in a resolute line. The chain extends to an overhead pulley and back down to the midpoint of a massive square log that the worker is slowly, excruciatingly trying to turn on its side. Few tasks are too gargantuan in today's China, but this is a bit much. The log is 52 feet long and weighs more than eight tons.

Finally, it tips over with a resounding thump. Once this log is sanded and varnished, it will become part of a titanic reproduction, based partly on archaeological evidence, of a boat captained by Zheng He, China's legendary fifteenth-century explorer. T. J. Jia smiles approvingly from under his white supervisor's hard hat. A good-humored man with wide-set eyes, his supple leather jacket and flawless English hint at a privileged background. He is a former Chinese foreign ministry official with an MBA from the Garvin School of International Management in Arizona. He stands in a large, hangar-like warehouse. Outside, the brown waters of the Yangtze River roil by. "We've had to import balau wood from Malaysia," Jia says apologetically. "We don't have it in China anymore. The forests are gone."

This is just a slight inconvenience. Jia is deputy general manager of Dragon Boat Development Company, which is overseeing the project with the city of Nanjing. With a $10 million budget and a three-year timeline, he can afford to import wood for historical accuracy. The company even uses many fifteenth-century construction methods, which explains why the tiny workman uses a pulley instead of a forklift.


Porcelain rice bowls, with workers' names painted on the bottom, were found at the site of a 15th-century shipyard. (Qi Haining, Deputy Director of the Nanjing Municipal Museum Archaeology Department)

China's leaders are seizing on history as a tool to influence the perception of the nation abroad. Through a careful, calculated celebration of Zheng He and his travels, the government hopes to project an image of itself as open and benevolent--a powerful but peaceful nation interested in trade, not domination. But history and archaeology don't always cooperate.

The story of the boat now being reconstructed begins in 1402, when a dynamic young prince named Zhu Di ousted his brother by force, usurping the Ming throne. For centuries, China had been dominated by Confucian advisors who convinced the emperors to spurn international commerce and look inward. Referred to as the Yongle (meaning "eternal happiness") emperor, Zhu Di wanted to reinstate foreign trade, invite in foreigners, and unite "the four seas"--what China then saw as the rest of the world. The following year, he ordered the construction of a fleet larger than any in history, with 317 boats. Its centerpieces were majestic "treasure ships," named for the wealth of goods they carried. According to historical sources, each ship boasted a tall, curled prow, nine staggered masts, and 12 red silk sails. Watertight compartments carried porcelain, silk, and tea for trading with distant lands. It is unclear how many such ships Zhu Di's initial fleet included--a novel from the period suggests there were four--but each was apparently more than 400 feet long, or four times the length of Columbus's Santa Maria.

The man the emperor chose to captain the voyages, a Chinese Muslim eunuch from among his closest advisors, was as imposing as the fleet he led. Standing over six feet tall, Admiral Zheng He had distinguished himself in an offensive against the Mongols in 1390 and again when the emperor seized China's throne. As head of the fleet from 1405 to 1433, Zheng He led explorations of Vietnam, Siam, Malacca, Java, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and other lands. He commanded 27,000 sailors, along with doctors, astrologers, translators, and pharmacologists. Eighty years before Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Zheng He reached eastern Africa. Before the death of the Yongle emperor and subsequent political shuffling put an end to his voyages, China ruled the seas. "We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li [around 25,000 miles] of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves, like mountains rising sky-high," boasts a tablet Zheng He had erected in Fujian in 1432, near the port from which he sailed.


Worker Fang Zaihua planes one of the 6 masts of the Zheng He ship reconstruction. The original ships had 12 masts, but this one has been scaled down to meet today's Chinese maritime regulations. (Ariana Lindquist)

In 1424, the Yongle emperor died. Zheng He followed him in 1433, at age 62, dying at sea of unknown causes. In the next few decades, the Chinese elite began to question the cost of maintaining a large fleet. Just as Europe was launching its own maritime expeditions, power reverted to the Confucians, who scaled back the shipyard's operations and eventually banned maritime trade altogether. By the next century, China had again closed out the world.

Zheng He's legacy endures in the Fujian tablet, which was erected shortly before his death. "We have set eyes on barbarian regions far away," it reads, "hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly as] a star, traversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare."

Once the replica treasure ship is completed, its planners intend it to follow a similar course, retracing Zheng He's voyages. And, like its Ming predecessors, the ship will one day be part of a fleet. Dragon Boat is already fielding orders--a cultural bureau from New York's Chinatown is among those expressing interest. When asked about the future, Jia smiles. "We will build another one," he says. "And another one. And another one."

Mara Hvistendahl is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America