Fathoming the Unfathomable: Even Leviathans have Limits

Dr. Stephen Davies
Museum Director, Hong Kong Maritime Museum
Hon. Research Fellow, Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong

Introduction: Measuring the unmeasurable

In what follows although I have every intention of scotching some of the more absurd claims that have been made about Ming dynasty seagoing, I have no intention to be, or to be seen to be undermining, eroding, or doubting the dominance in pre-industrial nautical technology enjoyed by the maritime world of the early Ming dynasty in China over its western, Indian and Arab contemporaries in all bar, arguably, the science of navigation.

That the Ming fleets under Zhenghe (Cheng Ho) achieved voyages unprecedented for the epoch , in ships the size and complexity of which were without contemporary parallel seems to me established beyond doubt . However, when it comes to the ships in which these exploits were made, it also seems indisputable that no service is done to the technical skills of Ming dynasty shipbuilders and shipwrights in attributing to them achievements that may subsequently turn out to have been other they are at present advertised as being. As with the officers and crews, the shipwrights did what they did, not what present ideological biases might like them to have done.

Clumsy attempts at shoe-horning one naval architectural tradition into the forms demanded by the technical vocabulary of another should not mislead people into supposing what the shipwrights achieved, splendid as it was, was more than it was. To understand ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ is what counts .

Commonplace though that observation may be, as it stands there is and has been a widespread consensus, especially amongst some English language journalists and sinologist maritime historians, about a signal feature of the apogee of pre-modern Chinese maritime history – the important voyages of the Ming Dynasty Star Fleets under the leadership of the Imperial Eunuch Zhenghe between 1405 and 1433. I shall pass by the more asinine claims about sub-Arctic and Antarctic circumnavigation, dependent as they are on a litany of absurd error. Though I shall note in passing that the consensus as to the unsurpassed brilliance of Ming maritime achievements is connected, as are the battier claims for the year 1421, with a general shift in the collective Asian maritime historiographical mindset. This has now prevailed for almost a generation, though happily at last perhaps on the wane, in which over-egging the Star Fleet cake is merely one more symptom of a general turn towards vaunting one cultural tradition rather than another at the cost of a deeper duty to historical method.

The general turn in approach was of course a much needed corrective to a prevailing ‘west is best ’ tendency in historical writing in general. Itself a world historical equivalent to the more parochial ‘whig history’ of Britain, polemically condemned by Herbert Butterfield over seventy years ago .

As far as maritime history has been concerned, the broad Whiggish effect had at one time been to see the maritime history of other than European traditions as, at best, quaint by-ways which contributed little or nothing to the onward march of a progressive development in all the arts and sciences of the sea. These in their turn were defined exclusively in the light of, and as consciously taken developmental steps towards, the western dominated military, commercial, navigational, hydrographic, naval architectural and marine engineering actualities of the 20th century. An inevitable consequence was that not only were the actual maritime history and achievements of non-European cultures more or less ignored, but so also were whatever those traditions may have contributed to the present day actualities so triumphantly being celebrated.

But pendulums, when they swing back from an extreme, must of necessity swing beyond the middle point. So when the turn towards correcting the biases of extant histories came – in such landmark books as David Lewis’ We the navigators, Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, or GF Hourani’s Arab seafaring in the Indian Ocean in ancient and early medieval times - there was an inevitable tendancy to over-correct the previous Eurocentric bias

Where this applies to writing about the voyages of the Star Fleets under Zhenghe in the early 15th century, the consensus seems to date from some time in the 1970s. The form it takes, with specific respect to the naval architecture of the component vessels, I shall call ‘the ruling hypothesis’. This holds that Ming dynasty shipbuilders built larger wooden ships than have ever been built in the world since the 15th century and indeed, as we shall see, larger ships than any built in any material before the launching of the Great Eastern on Britain’s River Thames in 1857 or, arguably, until the passenger liner behemoths in Europe and America of the years between the 1880s and the First World War.

The hypothesis is based on taking the descriptions and dimensions of the Star Fleet treasure ships culled from Ming or immediately post-Ming dynasty sources at face value. The largest, called the Treasure Ships or bao chuan (sometimes dragon ships or long chuan) were 44 zhang 4 chi long, 18 zhang in beam and had nine masts . That has been rendered in western measurements as being, on the most recent estimates, around 400’ (122m) long and 163’ (50m) in beam, and glossed as meaning a vessel of some 1500 to 2500 tons burthen and displacing around 3000 tons . In descending order of hierarchy beneath the Treasure Ships come the eight masted ‘Horse Ships’ of length 339’ (103.3m) and beam 138’ (42.1m). Next come the seven masted ‘Supply Ships’ of length 257’ (78.3m) and beam 115’ (35m), the six masted ‘Accommodation Ships’ or troop transports of length 220’ (67m) and beam 83’ (25.3m) and two classes of ‘Combat Ship’, a five master of length 165’ (50.3m) and beam 67’ (20.4m) and a four master of length 120’-128’ (36.6m) and beam 49’-52’ (14.9m-15.8m).

However, and especially with respect to the Treasure Ship itself, such ready acceptance of the measurements had not been the norm in the years preceding the 1970s when, no doubt fostered by the Whiggish or culturalist turn of that earlier history, doubts as to the credibility of such leviathans were not unknown.

But the revisions of the post-colonial mood banished such doubts until, in the 1990s they resurfaced and a number of scholars again began arguing for revising the more exaggerated claims . In Chinese language sources, both on the Mainland and in Taiwan, these recent and more sober re-assessments have culminated in a fairly firm, though by no means unanimous view that whatever the Ming dynasty measurements may have been referring to, it was certainly not to a sea going ship.

Nonetheless the dominant popular view, especially in the West and in Southeast Asia, and much fomented by the fantasy world of 1421 enthusiasts, remains that Zhenghe’s treasure ships were 15th century behemoths, not only unmatched by any other maritime power for centuries – which is possibly true – but so far beyond any possible matching that the proudly quoted dimensions should boggle rather than impress any thoughtful and seamanlike mind.

The awed reverence at the splendours of a quasi-myth masquerading as an actual maritime past is, therefore, a product of the general historical reaction against what the late Edward Said called ‘orientalism’ . A reaction the tide of which has risen so high, that it has provoked from Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit a riposte anathematizing ‘occidentalism’ .

Anti-orientalism, as one might style it, has been characterized not only by what we shall see is an absurd set of claims about the Star Fleets, but as a general mythography in which the scientific, technical, political and economic inequalities between East and West that came about in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as these relate to maritime history, are shown to be unpaid debts to a previously unsung Oriental maritime splendour. Nowhere is such a transparent mythography more blatantly peddled than in the remarkable, fictional fantasizing of the British writer – he cannot be called an historian – Gavin Menzies.

But Menzies is merely the extremist – one might hazard ‘fundamentalist’ – endpoint of a generation of sedulous-to-the-point-of-credulous anti-orientalism. We are told for example, especially by Joseph Needham that to China the world owes the use of the magnetic compass at sea.

In what follows in Part I, I shall attempt a test using the only other manner available. That is, by an exercise in Popperian falsification . After all, if a Treasure Ship of the size supposed by the ruling hypothesis can be shown not to be viable or to be a very dubious proposition, then the hypothesis is either falsified or shown to be highly tendentious. It should therefore be discarded. Then, with the decks clear, the field is open to alternative hypotheses as to what the documented measurements and descriptions actually mean.

In Part II I offer two tentative avenues of exploration. They are no more than tentative – thought experiments as it were – because I am not a sinologist and I do not read Chinese, so I have been in no position to subject the hypotheses they put forward to further test . But such as they are, they may help in the re-evaluation of archaeological finds and re-interpretation of texts, thereby helping the better to clarify actual rather than quasi-mythical achievements.

For a copy of the complete paper in PDF format please click here.

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