Chinese explorer Zheng He sailed on diplomatic and business missions in the early 1400s, reaching as far as northeast Africa. This sculpture of Zheng He is on display in the Asian Reading Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
This month, NPR is examining the many ways China is expanding its reach in the world — through investments, infrastructure, military power and more.
In Nanjing, where Zheng He set out on his voyages, workers are building replicas of his massive boats.
Xu Qi/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
Tourists look out from a replica of the treasure ship. The ships sailed in enormous fleets.
Tourists look out from a replica of the treasure ship. The ships sailed in enormous fleets. Xu Qi/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
A worker in Nanjing planes a beam for a replica of one of Zheng He's treasure ships, which the explorer sailed in the 1400s.
A worker in Nanjing planes a beam for a replica of one of Zheng He's treasure ships, which the explorer sailed in the 1400s. Shen Cichen/NPR
When the United States took over from Britain as the predominant world power 100 years ago, the transition was like one between brothers — or cousins, at least. And the two countries remain close allies to this day. The rise of China in relation to U.S. predominance presents a somewhat different challenge — with decades of sometimes outright hostility and an ongoing fractious relationship.
As it re-emerges as a world power, the question is: Is China's awakening to be welcomed — or feared?
Some look to the past for clues — all the way back to the 15th century.
'We Want To Rise Peacefully'
In a huge hangar in the Chinese city of Nanjing, 170 miles inland from Shanghai, a workman is hacking away at a tree trunk that has been transported here from the forests of Indonesia. Behind him rises the skeleton of a massive wooden ship, 200 feet long and 70 feet wide.
This is the reconstruction of the flagship of a large Chinese fleet that sailed out in the early 15th century to explore and trade with peoples around the Indian Ocean — nearly 100 years before Christopher Columbus' three little boats set out for America.
Tiny splinters fly as the workman planes the wood smooth. The treasure ship, as all of the boats of China's first blue-water navy were known, was commanded by a eunuch admiral named Zheng He. His voyages pose one of the great "What ifs?" of world history: Rather than just trading in Southeast Asia, India and as far as the east coast of Africa, what if Zheng He had colonized like the Europeans were about to?
The man leading the shipbuilding project is a bluff Communist Party official named Zhao Zhigang. Zhao says the peaceful nature of Zheng He's voyages show that, in stark contrast to the West's rise, China is not an expansionist culture.
"Chinese people are very moderate; we are not a missionary culture," Zhao says. "Our navy is growing now, it's true, but we want to rise peacefully. We want to get to Western standards of living, but to do it all peacefully."
Western historians say Chinese dynasties do have a tradition of expanding their continental borders — Tibet and the Muslim northwest being examples — but that there's no doubt Zheng He's voyages show a less missionary and less expansionist side to Chinese culture.
William Kirby, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, however, says when you fast-forward 600 years to today, modern China's motivations may be more like those of Western countries.
Maps of Zheng He's voyages are documented in the Encyclopedia of Military Science, which is on file at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Reference librarian Ming Sun Poon says the maps, which were originally drawn on a single scroll, were sectioned off and transferred to wood block prints and later bound in a codex.
Records of Zheng He's seventh and final voyage indicate he sailed with a crew of 25,000 on more than 200 ships.
Records of Zheng He's seventh and final voyage indicate he sailed with a crew of 25,000 on more than 200 ships. Maggie Starbard/NPR
A section of a map of Zheng He's final voyage shows the farthest reaches of the trip, which lasted between two and three years. Maps and supporting information indicate he sailed as far as the Persian Gulf.
A section of a map of Zheng He's final voyage shows the farthest reaches of the trip, which lasted between two and three years. Maps and supporting information indicate he sailed as far as the Persian Gulf. Maggie Starbard/NPR
Along with maps of the voyage, Zheng He made extensive astronomical notations for nighttime navigation, which can be seen as patterns of circles and lines.
Along with maps of the voyage, Zheng He made extensive astronomical notations for nighttime navigation, which can be seen as patterns of circles and lines. Maggie Starbard/NPR
"It is not one of conquest; it is exploration and contact," he says. "But in no case does it result in a conquest. Whereas it does appear Zheng He's voyages were motivated by desires different from those of Columbus or Magellan or great Western explorers. Today China's role in Africa seems to me to be very similar to that of other countries. I see China following, for better and possibly for worse, an American model of needing to secure energy sources and seeking to do so in a great variety of ways, wherever the energy can be found."
China's search for natural resources comes in the context of its growing military. But many Chinese people point out that it was the West that semi-colonized China in the 19th century, not the other way around, and they stress that China's peaceful culture has not changed since Adm. Zheng He's time.
Aware of its need to project its soft power, the Chinese government has put out advertisements and expanded a whole department of the Chinese Ministry of Education to recruit teachers and send them out to foreign countries around the world, promoting the teaching of Mandarin. Xiang Huanxin, 24, went to Thailand to teach, and like many young Chinese, she believes China will never threaten anyone.
"China's rise is very different from Westerners' rise 100 years ago," she says. "For a country, if you want to rise, you can't force people to accept you. If people love you, they will accept you. That's what Chinese people think."
Xiang says Chinese young people want what Western young people want — to get out and see the world.
"First, we just want to bring our culture outside for people who are really interested in it, and we feel so proud that foreigners like Chinese culture and like to learn about Chinese language," Xiang says. "We never try to change the world. We just like to hug the world. It's peaceful; don't worry."
The Future Of Expansion
But if Chinese people just want to hug the world, it's clear the world doesn't always want to hug them back.
In Tokyo in May, the visiting Chinese prime minister was met with angry demonstrators, protesting Chinese claims to islands that Japan itself claims in the sea between the two countries. Perhaps not coincidentally, there is believed to be a major natural gas field under the seabed nearby. Many people, like Toshio Tamogami, the former chief of staff of the Japanese air force, are not buying China's claims that its rise will be peaceful.
"I don't believe it. They always say this, but they act in a different way," Tamogami says. "China wants the resources, and it also wants the islands to help clear a way for its blue-water navy to get out to the Pacific Ocean. So of course Japan will never allow China to take the islands."
Perhaps most difficult of all for China is that it is ruled by a Communist Party that continues to lock up activists and dissidents at home and continues to threaten Taiwan, which it claims as its own. A peaceful rise is possible, says David Zweig of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, but it won't be easy.
"They are doing an OK job. The risk, of course, is that they are making the world a little nervous and they don't even have to be bad to do that — just the fact that a country the size of China is rising so fast is very destabilizing for the world," Zweig says. "And the world has to come to terms with that. But China has to recognize that their rise is this highly destabilizing force, and so they have to figure out how to work their way into the system without adding to the disruption."
Six hundred years ago, Zheng He's treasure ships went out and came back peacefully, partly because China didn't need anything from outside its own realm. Now it does. How it deals with that search for energy and natural resources could be what decides whether China's rise will, in the end, be peaceful.