Recovering China's Past on Kenya's Coast

China's archeological search for a "usable past"

The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , December 04, 2010

A team of Chinese archeologists arrived in Kenya last week, headed for waters surrounding the Lamu archipelago on the country's northern coast. They hadn't made the trip to study local history. They came to recover a lost Chinese past.

In the early 1400s, nearly a century before Vasco da Gama reached eastern Africa, Chinese records say that the great admiral Zheng He took his vast fleet of treasure ships as far as Kenya's northern Swahili coast. Zheng visited the Sultan of Malindi, the most powerful local ruler, and brought back exotic gifts, including a giraffe. "Africa was China's El Dorado—the land of rare and precious things, mysterious and unfathomable," writes Louise Levathes in her 1994 history of Zheng's voyages, "When China Ruled the Seas."

Now the Chinese government is funding a three-year, $3 million project, in cooperation with the National Museums of Kenya, to find and analyze evidence of Zheng's visits. The underwater search for shipwrecks follows a dig last summer in the village of Mambrui that unearthed a rare coin carried only by emissaries of the Chinese emperor, as well as a large fragment of a green-glazed porcelain bowl whose fine workmanship befits an imperial envoy. Although Ming-era porcelains are nothing new in Mambrui—Chinese porcelains fill the local museum and decorate a centuries-old tomb—the latest finds suggest that the wares came not through Arab merchants but directly from China.

For a resurgent China with often-controversial business ventures in Africa, Zheng's voyages epitomize what the 20th-century literary critic Van Wyck Brooks called a "usable past"—a historical tradition that serves present needs. Falling somewhere between history and myth, a usable past selects and emphasizes what is relevant and resonant for the present and omits the contradictory or distracting. It both shapes and communicates identity, whether national, ethnic, artistic, religious, institutional or personal.

What you believe, or want to believe, about your past says a lot about who you are in the present. Americans celebrate the settlers at Plymouth Plantation as immigrants seeking religious freedom, thus allowing more-recent arrivals of very different faiths to identify with their story. The Pilgrims "journeyed many a day and night / To worship God as they thought right," declares a children's Thanksgiving poem, glossing over the particulars of their separatist beliefs and their disenchantment with the tolerant Dutch society from which they had fled. Nuanced history isn't the point. A usable past may be anachronistic or imprecise, but it always contains an inspiring element of truth.

As a usable past, Zheng He's story says three important things about China: It was powerful and technologically advanced, more so than European nations. It was outward-looking and adventurous. And it came to trade, not to conquer or exploit. As the long-insular country becomes a global power, this narrative maintains China's connection to its history while reassuring other countries of its benign intentions and, of course, presenting China as materially and morally superior to Europe—a bearer of "peace and friendship" rather than a colonial power.

"We're discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa," Herman Kiriama, the lead archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya, told the BBC. "Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals."

Well, maybe. Fifteenth-century exchanges of tribute were rather different from modern trade or diplomacy, as were the political notions of hierarchy and obligation in which they were embedded. Nor was Ming China a bastion of pacifist persuasion. Zheng's fleets were well-armed, and Zheng himself was a war captive who was brutally castrated when he was only a child. For all the spin, however, it's encouraging that China wants to see itself as a dynamic commercial power engaged in peaceful trade.

The real problem with contemporary China's version of the Zheng He story is that it omits the ending. In the century after Zheng's death in 1433, emperors cut back on shipbuilding and exploration. When private merchants replaced the old tribute trade, the central authorities banned those ships as well. Building a ship with more than two masts became a crime punishable by death. Going to sea in a multimasted ship, even to trade, was also forbidden. Zheng's logs were hidden or destroyed, lest they encourage future expeditions. To the Confucians who controlled the court, writes Ms. Levathes, "a desire for contact with the outside world meant that China itself needed something from abroad and was therefore not strong and self-sufficient."

Today's globalized China has apparently abandoned that insular ideology. But it still clings to the centralized autocracy that could produce Zheng's voyages in one generation only to destroy the technology and ambition they embodied in the next. It still officially celebrates "harmony" against the unruliness and competition that create sustained innovation. Its past would be more usable if it offered models of diversity and dissent or, at the very least, sanctuary from the all-or-nothing decisions of absolutist rule.