November 27, 2011
The Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, occupying several large shop houses near the river in Malacca, is a fascinating stop for devotees of history, surveying the astounding career of a Chinese admiral who explored a swath of the globe on seven naval expeditions from 1405 to 1433. In "1421: The Year China Discovered America," author Gavin Menzies makes the case that Cheng Ho, also known as Zheng He (1371-1433), sailed around the world almost a century before the fleet of Magellan.
The Chinese admiral is revered in Malacca because he visited it numerous times, making alliances with the sultan and using the port as a forward base for documented voyages that took him throughout Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa.
The Cheng Ho Museum sprawls over three floors, with galleries on his birth into a Muslim family in southwestern China; his career as a palace eunuch and counselor to the Ming emperor; incredible voyages in fleets of as many as 200 treasure ships carrying more 28,000 men; peaceful expansion of the Chinese tribute system, bringing rich and exotic gifts to the emperor, including a giraffe; and death in the Persian Gulf during a last journey, after which China's appetite for exploration waned.
Whether he made it to the New World remains a matter of speculation, but there is enough historical evidence to place him in the ranks of Columbus and Magellan.
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