Vol. 5 Num 659 Wed. April 05, 2006  

Envoy of Peace from China
An ancient mariner and his quests

YEARS before Christopher Columbus sailed the oceans in search of a route to India, the Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages of the "Treasure Fleet" that established trade relations with much of Asia and parts of Africa in the 15th century. The fleets were commanded by a powerful admiral named Zheng He (AKA Cheng Ho).

To celebrate the 600th Anniversary of Zheng He's remarkable voyages (1405-1433 ACE) the Embassy of the People's Republic of China is holding an exposition at the National Museum, Shahbagh.

Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, Minister for Commerce inaugurated the exhibition on April 3. The Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Chai Xi and Enam Ahmed Chowdhury, chairperson of Privatisation Commission attended the event as special guests.

The Chinese Ambassador said in his speech, "Zheng He was a pioneering explorer who utilised highly advanced nautical technology and established trade and cultural bonds with nations including African countries. He never engaged in slave trades, never resorted to aggression. He believed in global harmony. Chittagong was one of the major ports where Zheng's fleet approached.

"China has evolved in six centuries but the nation's values remain unchanged. We still believe that through peaceful commerce and cultural exchange, global harmony can be attained. May the Sino-Bangladesh friendship thrive."

The Commerce Minister said, "Zheng He's navigation skills were incredible. He had left a touch of China in over 30 countries during his seven voyages. Traces of Chinese silk and porcelain found in distant countries bear the evidence of Zheng's expeditions. This informative exhibition is a commendable effort by the Ministry of Culture, the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Embassy in Bangladesh."

The exhibition includes photographs along with notes, replicas of antiques from the era of Zheng He's voyages and copies of maps devised by the mariner. An added treat is a documentary on Zheng He and his adventures.

Photographs show Muslim tombs decorated with Chinese porcelain in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa and Pyrethrum grown in the country; the plants were transplanted from Europe, which acquired the seeds from China.

In another photograph, the Thailand Seabed Archaeology Team is seen studying Ming Dynasty porcelain salvaged from a sunken Chinese ship. Objects made of Chinese porcelain are also seen being displayed at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Zheng He Hanghai Tu (Zheng He's Nautical Charts) offers a comprehensive summary of the marine data collected during the voyages. An image of a stele shows inscriptions in Tamil, Persian and Chinese. Zheng He erected the stele during his 1409 trip to Sri Lanka.

From the notes it also becomes apparent that Zheng played a key role in solidifying relations between the Ming Dynasty and the Islamic world. Zhang was a Muslim from the Hui ethnic group and had perhaps heard of Arabia from his father and grandfather as they travelled on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Replicas of tri-coloured pottery figurines of men riding horses from Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), bronze Buddha statue, bronze burner from the Xuande reign, Ming Dynasty (1426-1435) and more are visual delights.

The exposition will be open till April 15.

A view of the exhibition (right), replicas of antiques from Ming Dynasty. PHOTO: Shawkat Jamil