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« More Lies From Mike | Main | Star Wars Was No Star Wars »

The Legacy Of Zheng He

During the Ming Dynasty, under the leadership of the eunuch Admiral Zheng He (not to be confused with the Big He, and also spelled Cheng Ho), the Chinese had the most advanced nautical technology in the world, with ships larger than anything being built in Europe at the time.

The Admiral built over sixteen hundred multi-masted ships, and sent them out, laden with treasure, throughout the world. About a hundred years prior to the European Age of Discovery, he made several expeditions with these ships, probably reaching Europe itself. In the early 1400s, China seemed on the verge of extending a colonial empire to most of the known world at that time. Obviously, it failed to do so.

While it may not obviously be related, let me say that I've occasionally gotten emails asking me what I think about the Chinese space program.

Now, the pressure increases. In linking this story about supposed plans to extend the Middle Kingdom to Luna, complete with resource extraction, the great Instantman himself challenges me for a response.

Well, I sincerely hope that they do so. If they do, there's at least a possibility that it will shake us from our continued complacency toward serious civil space policy in this country.

And it will set up some actual precedents for determining what the Outer Space Treaty really means with regard to issues of property rights and sovereignty, which may clarify things in that regard. Actually having a recognized legal regime in place can't hurt private investment prospects, even if it's seemingly restrictive. Even a restrictive policy is probably preferable to the current uncertainty, particularly given all the other uncertainties (technical, regulatory, market) with which investors have to deal in considering space ventures.

But I don't expect it to happen soon. The Chinese don't have a great track record technologically, as the article itself points out. It's a government program, with all of the attendant problems. We got away with it with Apollo, because it was considered to be critical to the national security, and we solved many problems by simply throwing money at them.

I don't think that the Chinese have that luxury, even under a dictatorship. In addition to their technical difficulties, their economy doesn't have great prospects right now, and the temporary domestic peace bought by literally crushing the dissidents in Tiananmen Square thirteen years ago is a fragile one. The leadership knows that they continue in power only because they've brought some economic gains to the nation. If those are seen to be faltering, and they're perceived to be squandering precious resources on lunar pie in the sky, the country could be ripe for a revolt, and they know it.

The other thing that concerns me is their stated reason for doing it.

Correspondents say China's main motivation for space exploration is to raise national prestige, both at home and overseas.

The story of the Ming Dynasty is often used as a cautionary tale by space activists, as they warn us, and our government, of the dangers of a failure of vision and imagination. In this version of the story, the Chinese were on the verge of opening up the trade routes to India, and Africa, and points further east, and could have preempted the Portuguese explorations, by establishing their own beachheads and colonies decades earlier. But the Mandarin bureaucrats in the Forbidden City could see no value in these voyages and, needing resources for problems at home (building dikes and other flood control, and the like), cut off the funding for Zheng He, ordered him home, had the ships burned, and made the construction of a ship of more than three masts a capital offense. Similarly, some have argued that in essentially turning our backs on the cosmos after the rapid success of Apollo, in favor of welfare programs and pork, our own politicians have given us a similar failure of vision.

But that draws the wrong conclusion. The fact was that Zheng He's journeys were a failure. They sent out vast amounts of treasure, with which to impress the heathens, and gain tribute and the appropriate respect (just as is the goal for the current Chinese space activities). But when trade occured at all, the ships often came back with items that were perceived to be of less value than what had been sent out to the ports. The trade was not profitable. The bureaucrats were right.

The Chinese suffered a failure of expansionary will six hundred years ago, because they were doing it for the wrong reasons. And I suspect that the current leadership is similar to Zheng He in their outlook. His missions were for national prestige--not the generation of wealth. As, apparently, are the current Chinese space plans.

As was Apollo.

Space will not be settled by governments, whether Chinese, Russian, or American. It will be settled by the people who want to go, and seek their own opportunities, and dreams. Governments can help, and if the Chinese government can navigate the difficulties I describe above, and actually eventually get to the Moon, that might be one way of helping, not just the Chinese, but as the article states, all who want to go. But I suspect that there will be private activities that beat them to it, and we cannot, and should not, count on Beijing.

We will know that things are moving forward seriously in space when, in addition to remote-sensing and communications satellites, there are activities going on in space, involving humans in space, that bring more value back than is put into them. Communist goverments are not notable for their value-added activities, and I don't think that the present Beijing regime is that far removed from its predecessors, either in the Ming Dynasty, or the Mao.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 20, 2002 01:43 PM
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There's a history of "mystical journey" stories, and "shamanic flights" in ancient Chinese literature. The idea of "free and easy wandering" is also a big Daoist and Chinese Buddhist idea. Maybe because China is vast in the same way that the US is vast, deep down the Chinese share some of the expansive spirit of the US, except that it's only intermittently been let out of the box of an overly rigid social hierarchy?

I think if the Chinese try to run a space-age programme with outmoded forms of government and economy, they won't get anywhere; but if China can free its peoples' entrepreneurial and intellectual spirits, the first starships may well have Mandarin on the side! :-)

Posted by George at May 20, 2002 05:29 PM

When I read the China story, the first thing that popped into mind was "what mineral resources?"

That's always the bug under the windshield wiper: what is out there that's so valuable that you're willing to spend billions to get it?

Posted by Bill Peschel at May 20, 2002 06:37 PM

From the Moon, probably nothing that has value on earth worth what it would cost to get it, unless you're using them to build solar power satellites, which might be able to produce cheap, clean energy.

But you're right, I've no idea what they have in mind. On the other hand, many asteroids have platinum-group metals that could be interesting financially, if the mission to retrieve them were performed intelligently.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 20, 2002 07:02 PM

If China does ever free up its human and intellectual resources, we can be sure they'll be out there. However, I suspect that the people in he ships will be speaking Shanghaiese, Cantonese, or Hakka on the side, not Mandarin.

As for Zheng He, the mandarins who recalled him
were right to do so -- the resources *were* needed elsewhere, and unless they were ready to make a social revolution they didn't know they needed, and
wouldn't have known how to make, keeping up the voyages would have done no good.

Posted by Jim Bennett at May 21, 2002 07:23 AM

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