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    Re: Zheng He steered by the stars?
    From: George Huxtable
    Date: 2002 Nov 24, 13:19 +0000

    Rodney Myrvaagnes asked-
    >Do you mean each junk had 9 masts? It would be a wonder if they got
    >On Sun, 24 Nov 2002 12:28:52 +1100, Peter Fogg wrote:
    >>However a new book '1421, The Year China Discovered the World', by Gavin
    >>Menzies, published in Australia by Random House, postulates that the
    >>Chinese admiral Zheng He and his fleet of massive 9 masted junks
    >>explored much of what we assume was left to European navigators to
    >>'discover' some centuries later.
    Comment from George Huxtable-
    Well, wooden schooners with 6 or even 7 masts were built 100 years ago,
    mostly in Maine, and had some commercial success. So a 9-masted junk
    doesn't seem, in itself, so very improbable, if it was a large one.
    There is more information to be found about Zhang He's expeditions in two
    articles in "The Journal of Navigation", both by Sun Guang-Qi. "A brief
    history of Chinese Sailing Directions" is in vol 42.1 (1989), page 11, and
    "Zhang He's Expeditions to the Western Ocean and His Navigation Technology"
    is in vol l45.3 (1992), page 329. The term "Western Ocean" refers to the
    Indian Ocean and its adjacent seas.
    The second article shows a photograph of a model of Zhang He's "treasured
    ship", in the Dalian Maritime University, China. It's unclear to me what
    authenticity this model may have or what factual information it is based
    I know nothing about China or its language or its maritime history, and
    haven't read any of Needham's master-work, or seen the new Menzies book, so
    my comments about the two articles by Sun Guang-Qi are based only on
    reading those articles themselves. I found them unconvincing, to say the
    In the second article the author refers, uncritically, to the largest ship
    type as being "about 151.8 metres long", (which is 498 ft) , and about 61.6
    metres wide (202 ft). The schooner Bertha M Downes was near the limit that
    could be constructed in wood by western technology, at 175 feet long
    (presumably waterline), and 37 feet breadth. It seems that she could fit
    into the "treasured ship" SIDEWAYS ON. Unlikely? Impossible!
    The article refers to an exploration fleet of "over 200 ships", with
    27,000 men! A diagram shows a tightly ordered formation of more than 1300
    vessels. The notion of such a fleet keeping together over a many-year
    voyage, and finding places on the way to harbour so many ships and
    provision so many men seems to me inherently absurd.
    The "nautical charts" referred to are similarly unconvincing. Presumably
    the author has shown those "charts" which appear to be the most authentic,
    but I can find no connection between them and modern geography. For
    example, the presumed chart of the "Northern Indian Ocean", in the first
    article, looks like no part of the Indian Ocean that I can recognize from
    an atlas. The author has given no guidance as to just where it should be
    placed. Other "charts" look more like the pictures on willow-pattern
    teacups than anything else.
    From the second article, the level of instruction about star-navigation,
    given in the original texts, seems to be pretty useless. The only
    information of any value to a navigator was the altitude of the "Beichen
    Star" (Polaris) on the various legs of the voyage, as, for example "7
    fingers above water level", though we have to remember that at that time
    (early 1400s) Polaris was several degrees away from the pole. However,
    additional information is provided such as "to the East Vega is 7 fingers
    and to the Southwest Procyon is 8 fingers". This can be true only at a
    certain time of the night at a certain period of the year, so is useless to
    a navigator without a clock and a detailed almanac. Sun Guang-Qi says that
    beside Polaris, "The other star altitude figures are used to provide a
    comprehensive reference for position fixing", which seems to me absurd. It
    seems more likely that the text was written by someone who knew nothing of
    What relevance does this have to recent accounts of Chinese discovery of
    the world? Not a lot, perhaps, except to warn against modern scholarship
    that gives uncritical acceptance to what may be no more than folk-tales,
    however outrageous they may be. I don't claim that  Chinese voyages of
    exploration didn't happen: indeed, it's quite likely that they did.
    However, we should be do our best to filter out the claptrap and fable from
    the accounts of early voyages, and from the commentaries of credulous
    modern scholars.
    George Huxtable
    George Huxtable, 1 Sandy Lane, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon OX13 5HX, UK.
    Tel. 01865 820222 or (int.) +44 1865 820222.

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