Quick: Name one great Asian mariner. Chances are you would be unable to name even one. The vast oceans seemed to have intimidated the Oriental people--either that or wanderlust at the high seas was simply a peculiar trait of the Western man. Was it?
Perhaps, but there was one great Asian voyager that predated the exploits of Magellan and Columbus: Admiral Zheng He who six hundred years ago (the anniversary was last July 11) set sail to see the world. Beijing Review has a cover story commemorating the coming 600th anniversary of the ocean expeditions of Zheng He.
What was remarkable about Zheng He's expeditions?
1) The size of his fleet was unparalled in world history and would not be seen again until World War II. While Magelan had five ships, Zheng He had 240 ships in each of his voyages, carrying about 27,000 men. And his voyage took place 87 years before Columbus, 92 years before Vasco da Gama and 116 years before Magellan.
2) He didn't conquer. Unlike the Western voyagers who laid claim to the lands they "discovered,' Zheng He didn't require the natives to pledge allegiance to Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. In fact, the main reason for Zheng He's voyages was simply to showcase the power of China and develop cordial relations with other countries. It was simply a trip of good will and he brought gifts to the countries he visited. Everywhere he went, he left good impressions of the Middle Kingdom.
3) Zheng He was a eunuch--and a Muslim.
China has an ulterior motive in trumpeting the expedition of Zheng He and its 600th anniversary. It is pointing out that there is no need to fear China as a rising world power because when it was powerful and had the opportunity to conquer, it didn't.
Taiwan, I guess, is another matter altogether.