Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Following in the wake of Zheng He

A journey that recreates the historical voyage of the Chinese sea captain 600 years ago is being organized by a Taiwanese group

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

In July 1405, Admiral Zheng He (鄭和) of the Ming Dynasty (明朝) in China, led a fleet of 200 ships, with 27,800 people on a voyage to the seas west of China. In 28 years he went on eight voyages, to the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and to the east coast of Africa.

Six hundred years later, in July next year, Zheng's voyage will be recreated, with volunteers from Chinese societies. The expedition team is called "Gazing at Zheng He's Era, 600 years After, 2005 to 2008 (鄭和八下西洋探險隊, 2005 -- 2008).

"We want to commemorate Zheng as the first hero in the history of Chinese sea exploration. And we want to look for the kind of adventurous spirit and the peace-loving mind and generosity which was demonstrated in Zheng's journeys," said Alan Hsu (徐海鵬), director of the Society of Extreme Exploration, Taiwan (山河探險協會, SEE Taiwan).

After the Taipei press conference on Dec. 19, the society held another press conference in Beijing, announcing its recruiting project. "We want people from the four regions of Chinese society to come join us," Hsu said.

At the preliminary stage, the society will choose 30 members and 10 substitute members. After a few months of training, the team will be wittled down to 10 people, as the final number of team members.

"Ideally, we hope to have four from Taiwan, four from China, one from Hong Kong and one from Macao," Hsu said.

If all goes well, "Gazing at Zheng He's Era" will be a rare sea adventure in the Chinese-speaking world. In previous years, in Taiwan and China, there have been various events sponsored by the public and private sectors to commemorate Zheng's historical achievement.

July 11 has been set by the Taiwan government as "Sailing Day" (航海節) since 1955, but few Taiwanese know that the origin of the date was to commemorate Zheng.

In China, museums, monuments and academic research institutes that celebrate Zheng's achievements have been launched.

Last May, Taitsang City -- the original port of departure for his journeys -- held the first Zheng He Sailing Festival.

But the first adventure event celebrating the 600th anniversary of Zheng's voyage was started by a Taiwanese non-profit organization.

"Anyone over 20 years old, from any of the four regions, are eligible to apply. This will be an unforgettable experience and achievement for anyone involved in the project," Hsu said.

One particular attraction of the trip is that it will painstakingly recreate the conditions and tools of the time. After two years of research, SEE Taiwan has found junk-building masters from Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiansu provinces.

The society is still looking for a suitable shipbuilding plant and it is estimated that it will take about 10 months to a year to finish building. The cost, according to Hsu, willl be around NT$90 million. The boat will be 25m long, 5.5m wide and about 60 tonnes to 70 tonnes, Hsu said -- several times smaller than the size of the giant junks used in the Ming dynasty.

The replica junk will be installed with an engine and modern navigation technologies such as a GPRS navigation system, weather maps and a computer system. It is, according to Hsu, a motorized junk.

In Zheng's time, of course, the fleet was entirely dependent on wind. The fleet set off from Taitsang and stopped at the ports of Changle City (長樂市), Fujian Province, and waited for the northeast trade winds for three months. According to historical texts, the team set off from Changle in November.

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