i-f6944a5738caa8a34be406011383ccad-sharifu.jpgChina’s interest in the natural resources of Africa has ballooned lately and received much media coverage. Apparently, the last time somebody was that interested in metal ores and scrap, they were Germany in the late 1930s. This political force field across Africa is now, of course, being dressed up in cultural finery, including the manipulation of historical perceptions.

Under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He, China enjoyed a brief era of transoceanic power with insanely huge ships in the early 15th century. These efforts were apparently terminated because the Chinese failed to reach anyone whose civilisation impressed them.

Now a group of islanders off the coast of Kenya have suddenly “remembered an old legend” according to which they are the descendants of Zheng He’s crew members. And China is happily encouraging this folklore. Young islander Mwamaka Sharifu is studying medicine in China thanks to a scholarship from Beijing. She’s living proof of the long-standing peaceful contacts between China and Africa!

I don’t believe one word of it, but I wish Ms Sharifu all success with her studies. I also hope that the traditional Chinese prejudice against dark-skinned people isn’t bothering her too badly.

Thanks to Jerry Helliker for the links.

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]

Comments

  1. #1 Mary E.
    August 18, 2007

    Not just Germany but Japan too–the US embargo on scrap and attempts to cut them off from oil provoked the precipitate speed of the attack on the US. My understanding of Zuang He’s disgrace was that the court party thought the money could be better spent, like on themselves, and that the Nan Yang barbarians would still be bringing them tribute and trade anyway without them having to go out for it. Yeah, I agree this is a very worrying thing to keep an eye on, but that maybe Africa will get some interest and help with seaports, railroads,highways, water supply, and other infrastructure. Of course it could well play itself out as more proxy wars, since defense industry is a big part of how China has built thier industrial and economic power. Don’t forget the conflicts China is engaged in closer to home with Japan among others over oil exploration, and the fact that they want a role in ANSEAN that India saddly doesn’t seem willing to take on. Also, I’d say the new China-Russia-Central Asia axis to preserve the oil/gas of the region from outside manipulation has just as much potential for sparking conflicts. I say all this as a big fan of Chinese culture, and remembering that Mao brought them out of the Middle Ages kicking and screaming only 60 years ago and thus laid the foundation for the superpower Deng built on the back of the peasants and rural underemployed with land reform after ’76-’77 and that Hu persues now as a world-wide strategy.

  2. #2 Mattias N
    August 18, 2007

    Well, Martin. She may be right. Zheng He and his voyages are reasonably well documented, at least as far as Cape Good Hope. Their vessels where huge and dwarfed the nutshells we Europeans would use later. They where true ocean-going vessel. Sadly, for the chinese, during a political upheaval, narrow-minded Mandarins managed to convince the Emperor that all this voyaging, trading and general mingling with other cultures was only for the bad. China had nothing to learn form the rest of the world, so whatever they brought back would only corrupt China.
    When Zheng He returned from his last and maybe longest voyage, he was ordered to abandon his ship, destroy all the logs and in general eradicate all memory of the travels AND of the technology behind the huge treasure ships. They where just left to rot at anchor while the admiral spent the last years of his life at land, forbidden to go to sea or tell about what he and his crews had seen and achieved.
    The chinese have always been very good at cover-ups, but every scrap of information could not be found. A chart made by the japanese shows lots of Africa very correctly, and the japanese who had partaken in the voyages where beyond the grasps of the chinese imperial authority.
    And the most interesting piece of information, bar some archaeological finds that indicate sporadic chinese presence here and there, is a chinese book on foreign zoology written in 1428. It contains among other things, very good pictures of lamas and armadillos, and other south americans species.

    Well, of course this does not mean that the kenyan islanders claim is right, BUT they may be true, or at least they may be related by chance and does not know about how true it is! ;D

  3. #3 Martin R
    August 18, 2007

    I gather that urban culture layers all along the east coast of Africa are full of China ware. Not necessarily because the Chinese went to each of those ports, but because they were linked by a trade network along the shores of the Indian Ocean.

  4. #4 Christina
    August 18, 2007

    No, and just becasue the Germans used Kossinna to give them right to invade Scleswig-Holstein doesn’t mean we should watch for other political entities to use archaeology for political purposes…right?

  5. #5 Amenhotep
    August 19, 2007

    I haven’t read Menzies’ book on this (1421), but although in principle it’s not *impossible*, the evidence all seems to be indirect and circumstantial. Whatever contact may have been established quickly perished, and this “legend” sounds very contrived. Maybe someone should get the DNA kits out there and do some testing. My guess is that they will find African, European, Arabian and Indian mtDNA and Ys, but no Chinese at all.

    At least it’s not as bad as Afrocentric pseudohistory, but these things can gather their own crazy momentum.

  6. #6 Mattias N
    August 20, 2007

    The evidence for remaining chinese settlers is VERY circumstancial, BUT the evidence for long range travels that reached Africa at least as far as Cape Good hope are good. Among them is the by mentioned japanese map and for travels in general the 15th century chinese zoologica is pretty good evidence for chinese reaching South America.

    I have Read Menzies book “1421” and it is a good read. His evidence and theories are circumstancial and very phantastical when we pass Good Hope, but he does make a good argument for them. A north European archaeologist can smile a bit wryly at some of his enthusiastic interpretations, but still, I would dissmiss him altogether.
    And his case for chinese contacts over a longer time with the east coast of the American continent is better than those for the Atlantic area. So I suggest that one reads this book as a jump start into the subject.

    The Chinese HAD the finest ocean going technology at this time period. No treasure ship have so far been found, and that is something of a wet dream for marine archaeologists in that region, but a big rudder, a VERY big rudder, that could reasonably only have belonged to such floating behemoth, was found in Shanghai harbour (I think it was Shanghai anyway) and by its dimensions it seem only to be able to fitt it to one of the treasure ships.

    Sure, the way china is using the history is not good, BUT the history in itself is not false just because it is misused. To just say “nay” to the possibility of chinese travels to East africa, without getting into the evidence, is a bit Eurocentristic. ;-)

    No, I would be suprised if some chinese would have stayed behind, but it is not impossible that a few traders would have been stranded by the abrupt cancelling of the expeditions, so the legend about a heritage from the chinese is probably not that true. BUT the chinese travels is quite another matter.

  7. #7 Martin R
    August 20, 2007

    I have no problem believing that Chinese ships reached East Africa. But I don’t believe in recent folklore about people’s origins.

  8. #8 mary
    August 20, 2007

    I have also gotten the impression that the blue&white export porcelain found in W. Africa port sites is Mostly But Not Entirely derived from secondary exchanges from the Arab-Indian Sea trade routes; the fact of Zuang He’s voyage has never been seriously disputed as far as my limited knowledge goes. Also, from somewhere in the recesses of my memory, there is or was somewhere an ancestral temple for the admiral (not exactly a real one as he was an enuch)….So, Europe doesn’t have archaeology in service of the state? I would like to think we are engaged in a pure science or science-like activity, but the fact is that the information can always be twisted to support a political agenda/myth. I’ve been wondering for a couple of years if I should read 1421, as it might just corrupt my mind with hogwash, but since it is out in Spanish I’m more inclined to give it a chance, particularly based on what Matthias says.

  9. #9 Martin R
    August 20, 2007

    Real archaeology with scientific method is seldom useful for propaganda purposes. Particularly in barbaric backwaters like Scandinavia.

  10. #10 Jerry
    August 22, 2007

    The reasons for Ming-China to abandon the great voyages was complex. Mostly it was due to the struggle of power and influence between political groups. When Zheng He started his voyages one such group, which included the eunuchs, had the ear of the emperor. During Zheng Hes lifetime one emperor died and the next one preferred another political group, including many of the mighty mandarins, who opposed the extremely expensive diplomatic voyages which main purpose was to impress and exchange gifts, not to conquer new territory or trade. These voygaes didn┤t actually bring some cash back to China, at least not if one look at it in a short perspective. On top of that China had problems with attacking mongols and also with japanese pirates and raiders. So the new emperor finally shut down the big expeditions so money and recources could be used on the other problems China faced.
    Still though Chinese merchants continued to send smaller trading vessels round the Indian Ocean and this small scale trade just continued many hundred years.

    Zheng He himself died on his final voyage in the year 1433.

    Most serious researchers in the subject believe that the farthest Zheng He and his ships went was the coast of East Africa. That he should have reached America is just wild fantasies.

    About DNA. The girl Mwamaka Sharifu actually claims that chinese scientists took DNA samples from her mothers hair. According to ms Sharifu these samples confirmed that she was of chinese ancestry.

  11. #11 johannes
    August 23, 2007

    The confucian scholar-officials obviously distrusted sailors and merchants, who they considered little better than pirates.

    Zheng He was an eunuch and of muslim origin – clearly not a “respectable” person by classic confucian standards.

    The huge ships used by Zheng He for his expeditions were also a thread for the confucian order of things – they could have been used to transport rice from the Yangtze Valley to northern China by sea, thus making the grand canal superfluous. And huge hydraulic projects, like the grand canal, were in many ways the raison d’etre of the confucian bureaucracy.

    As far as the presence of asiatic influences in east Africa is concerned, they are certainly there, but might as well reflect austronesian settlements. If the austronesians settled Madagascar, the probably also had colonies on mainland Africa.

  12. #12 Jerry
    August 24, 2007

    One can say that both ideological and practical/economic reasons lie behind Chinas abandonment of the grand scale voyages. Often one hear that the reasons were mostly ideological but that is probably not true. The economic/practical reasons were maybe more important in the long run.

    Zheng He and his fleet were not Chinas first presence in the Indian Ocean. Many earlier chinese authors are mentioning travels in the Indian Ocean and to the East African Coast. So one can say that Zheng He many times followed ancient trade rutes, drawn up hundreds of years earlier. East Africa in ancient times were not isolated, it was a part of a network of traderoutes which included China, South East Asia, India, Persia, the Arabic peninsula and other places.

  13. #13 Evan
    April 28, 2010

    There is a truly ancient connection between East Africa, the Indian Ocean and Asia. But this connection has nothing to do with the Chinese. It involves the seafaring Austronesians

  14. #14 kn
    March 9, 2012

    Be a skeptic all you want, but DNA does not lie ! It has established Ms. Mwamaka Shariff’s family bloodline all the way to China.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.