Thursday, June 19, 2008

China's Forgotten Fleet

The National Geographic Society did not have the facilities necessary to host the spectacular exhibit on ancient Afghan art now at the National Gallery. Thankfully, then China sponsored a very interesting exhibit in the Society's own gallery about China's forgotten treasure fleets. For more, see:

The exhibit tells this relatively unknown story. Starting in the early 1400's the Chinese sent large trading fleets to far flung ports including Malacca, Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of India, the Arabian Peninsula, and Malindi in East Africa, East to Sri Lanka and Indonesia and South and West to Africa and the Persian Gulf. In doing so, the Chinese Emperor sought to learn more about the "barbarian peoples" as well as trade with them, and perhaps enlist them as vassals. Certainly, history would have been far different had China continued these explorations, rather than to end them precipitously and instead turn inward.

As a "guy," I must admit I loved the well done models of all the types of ships that were part of the fleets. These ranged from small oar and sail powered vessels to the large "treasure ships' that had multiple sails and watertight compartments. There is some dispute about the size of the largest "treasure ships", but they certainly dwarfed the size and bested the technology of anything the West or the Arab world had afloat at the time.

The exhibit also featured displays of navigational equipment, pictures of the various ports of call, and typical trading goods, including porcelain and coins. The coins, of course, especially piqued my interest. Such coins- with their distinctive center hole for stringing them together-- are found even today in great numbers in East Africa and in countries such as Indonesia.

But they travelled even further. The exhibit did not mention it, but believe it or not, similar coins are also commonly found in archaeological contexts in the American West. These coins, however, are not from these early voyages. Rather, they were brought along by Chinese migrants in the 19th c.

The show definitely also had some subtle political overtones. In particular, the show billed China of the day as "the world's only superpower" with the implication that "our time has come once again." Further in that regard, it is also interesting to note that China decided to to send an exhibit about sea power to Washington at the very same time Washington naval strategists have expressed alarm about China's plans to build a modern fleet of warships, complete with aircraft carriers. Could the exhibit then be viewed as a subtle warning to Washington about China's hopes to be able to confront the U.S. Pacific Fleet and its Japanese allies sometime in the not too future, perhaps in the Taiwan Strait?

But I digress. For purpose of a weblog on cultural property, it is sufficient to note that this exhibit rightly celebrates China's first effort to send trade goods around the known world.

Under the circumstances, isn't it odd that such trade goods-- including coins and porcelain-- also figure in the pending request for import restrictions on cultural artifacts from China?

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