Archaeologists are closing in on the ship of a Ming dynasty hero, write Xan Rice and Tania Branigan.

It is another chapter in the now-familiar story of China's economic embrace of Africa. Except that this one begins nearly 600 years ago.

This week a team of 11 Chinese archaeologists are due to arrive in Kenya to begin the search for an ancient shipwreck and other evidence of commerce with China dating back to the early 15th century. The three-year, £2 million ($3.5 million) joint project will centre on the tourist towns of Lamu and Malindi and should shed light on a largely unknown part of both countries' histories.

The sunken ship is believed to have been part of an armada commanded by the Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He, who reached Malindi in 1418. According to Kenyan lore, reportedly backed by DNA testing, a handful of shipwrecked survivors swam ashore. After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay and marry local women, creating an African-Chinese community whose descendants still live in the area.

A likely shipwreck site has been identified near Lamu, according to Idle Farah, director general of the National Museums of Kenya, which is working on the archaeology project with its Chinese equivalent and Beijing University.

''The voyages of the Portuguese and the Arabs to our coasts have long been documented,'' Farah said. ''Now, by examining this shipwreck, we hope to clarify with clear evidence the first contact between China and east Africa.''

The project forms part of efforts by China to celebrate the achievements of Zheng, a Muslim whose ships sailed the Indian and Pacific oceans decades before the exploits of more celebrated European explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Starting in 1405, Zheng made seven journeys, taking in south-east Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa, in fleets of up to 300 huge ships with nearly 30,000 sailors in total, according to Chinese records.

On his voyages, Zheng dished out gifts from the Chinese emperor, including gold, porcelain and silk. In return, he brought home ivory, myrrh, zebras and camels. But it was a giraffe that caused the biggest stir. The animal is known to have been a gift from the sultan of Malindi, on Kenya's northern coast, but theories vary about how exactly it got to China. One account suggests that the giraffe was taken from the ruler of Bengal - who himself had received it as a gift from the sultan - and that it inspired Zheng to later visit Kenya.

Herman Kiriama, Kenya's head of coastal archaeology, said the joint archaeological team would try to locate the Sultan's original village, thought to be around Mambrui village, outside Malindi. Late next month the project will move underwater, when specialist maritime archaeologists from China arrive.

''Though we have not located the shipwreck yet, we have good indications of where it might have gone down,'' says Kiriama.

The team's confidence in finding the sunken ship is bolstered by DNA tests on a Swahili family in Siyu village whose oral history and hints of Chinese facial features led them to believe they were descendants of Zheng's shipwrecked sailors.

Zheng's remarkable adventures appeared to have been forgotten within a few years of his death, as China turned its back on such bold exploration and embarked on a long period of isolation.

But, since 2005, when China held lavish celebrations to mark the 600th anniversary of his voyages, he has been lauded anew. As the country seeks to allay fears of its growing global influence, it has turned to the admiral as the exemplar of its ''peaceful rise''.

''I want to assure you that China is not to be feared,'' said Dai Bingguo, state councillor and a leading figure in foreign affairs, on a visit to Indonesia this year. He added: ''Leading the most powerful fleet in the world, Zheng He made seven voyages to the Western seas, bringing there porcelain, silk and tea, rather than bloodshed, plundering or colonialism.''

But the historian Geoffrey Wade says Zheng's voyages used force, or the threat of force, to control ports and shipping lanes for China's benefit.

Readers in the West know Zheng because of 1421, the best-selling book by the British author Gavin Menzies, which claims that the Chinese ships reached America and Europe, circumnavigating the globe. Most historians dispute that.

Guardian News & Media