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Ancient Chinese Fleet Sailed from China to India and Africa in the15th century

Updated on January 25, 2011

The other night I watched an astonishing documentary on public television. It has played before and will play again. It covered all the very substantial evidence about the great Chinese fleet (200 vessels, 30,000 men) of 1421 A.D.

As the PBS website describes: "At the behest of Chinese emperor Zhu Di, Zheng He sailed this fleet to far-flung outposts throughout the eastern hemisphere, established major ports and extended the commercial reach of "the Middle Kingdom" far beyond its previous bounds.The first segment recounts this story through re-enactments, extensive location filming and innovative computer graphics imaging models of the fleet itself."

I did not watch the segment about the hypothesis that the fleet discovered America because I was impressed enough with what I saw in the first segment.

What I saw was what documentaries can do so well: They related historical evidence to the present and showed that ancient cultures were in communication with one another. Globalization is nothing new. This dimensionality is a great strength of the documentary genre and why so many of us watch them.

What struck me, though, was not merely the incredible depth and breadth of this documentary, but its incredible contrast with what we consider as sources of information about our current world, that is, the news in its many, many forms today.

To be brief, the documentary offered all of what was missing in what we call "the news."

It showed both the heroic capacities of the ancients and the ordinary life of those who live in the present. Too often, I think, we look at the past with disdain (and with ignorance), so impressed are we by our own achievements of jet planes and ipods. We forget that our achievements are based on monumental achievements of the past, such as the development of navigation data and techniques, which we rely on today. For example, the invention of latitude and longitude and the use of the compass.

Besides the dimension of historical understanding, the documentary offered a view of ordinary life today in countries such as India and Arabia. No terrorists, no great leaders bad or good, no bombs, no fires, no accidents, no celebrities. What one viewed was ordinary life and work in warehouses, docks, herb markets, and family homes.

My point is that by reading and watching that which calls itself "the news" in media including the internet, television, movies and newspapers, most of our population develops a warped view of lives in other places, a view of the world colored by anger, fear and violence. And these news sources, as many have said, provide no context, no larger view of the connections and continuities of human life, particularly historical continuity.

There is a tiny number of people in the world who watch instructive (not angry, violent and fearful) documentaries and read books that contextualize world life. But the media that involve the vast majority of the world provide a poor model of the enormous reality which is human life today and its interaction with itself and  with nature.


When we make a model of a boat, an airplane or a tyrannosaurus rex, we necessarily and intelligently leave out a lot--that is what "model" means. We omit, certaiinly, size, but also the complexities of engines and organs which make the real object operate. We may claim we retain the "essentials," but, of course, it is a matter of judgment 1) whether what he have kept are actually the "essentials" and 2) what appreciatin of the reality we have lost with our model.

The following is a series of videos comprising a complete documentary about the ancient Chinese fleet of Zheng He


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