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Admiral Zheng He and the diplomatic value of China’s ancient East African contacts

ZhengHeShipBy Bob Wekesa

In fashioning her relationship with Africa, China has carefully packaged the relationship as springing from a deep historical wellspring. But rather than just mouth times-gone-by as a platitude justifying present rapprochement, China has followed this with an evidence-based archeological enterprise.

The Chinese government is today bankrolling a $2.4 million archeological project along Kenya’s coast to retrace the footsteps of ancient Chinese seafarers who touched our shores some 600 or so years back. The narrative goes that in 1418, an intrepid Chinese admiral named Zheng He, led expeditions with fleets that would make those of Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama look like toys in a pond. On one of expeditions, one of the vessels was shipwrecked off the coast of Lamu with Chinese survivors swimming ashore to Siyu Islands, intermarrying with locals and leaving behind offspring and descendants that DNA tests have confirmed to have Chinese ‘blood’.

On the trail of this archeological mission in Malandi recently, I met the leader of the project, Peking University Professor Qin Daxu overseeing excavations along with National Museums of Kenya archeologists. China is not only keen to confirm that it had contact with East Africa six centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese, but is unearthing evidence to re-enact these adventures and furnish a fuller account.

Buoyed by discoveries of bits and pieces of tell-tale artifacts and spurred on by the discovery of a ship sunken in the Pate Channel, Professor Qin reveals some of the plans China will be rolling out to preserve these historical gems. He says the archeological finds will be subjected to scientific investigation including carbon dating, books will be written, lectures, workshops and seminars will be convened and terrestrial and marine museums to preserve the relics.

A Kenyan marine archeologist, Caesar Bita, adds media publicity dimensions to the reenactment of Kenya-China ties of yore. He says since the project commenced in 2010, Kenyan and Chinese media have been updated every step of the way. His colleague, Jambo Haro, head of Coast Archeology, expresses gratitude for skills and knowledge advancement working alongside the team of Chinese archeological experts.

A keen analysis of the Kenya-China archeological project yields major soft power capital for China and indeed Kenya. The fact that Chinese voyagers had contact with East Africa well before Westerners would effectively repudiate the notion that China is a recent, voracious and mercantile entrant into the African sphere. Moreover the fact that the Chinese sought only trade and felicitations with East Africa is in stark contrast to the conquests of the Europeans as witnessed by military fortresses such as Mombasa’s Fort Jesus and the ‘grabbing’ of territory!

When I sought out Ms Hou Xianghua, a Director General the Ministry of Culture last year in Beijing, I learned that plans are underway to erect a statue in Mombasa of Admiral Zheng He, the Muslim-eunuch leader of the pioneering voyages. The statue would join many other Zheng He installations in China and Malaysia. But more importantly, visitors to the coast will be ‘softly’ persuaded to appreciate that China had contact with Africa many years ago.

Indeed, one of the descendants of the Chinese voyagers, Dr Mwamaka Sharifu – a spitting resemblance of Chinese people – is today undertaking master’s studies in traditional Chinese medicine on a Chinese government scholarship. She is a living ambassador of ancient Chinese roots in Africa.

Quite apart from the fact that nearly all Chinese officials speaking about their country’s links with Africa are wont to throw in Zheng He and his armada, the historical events have weaved into diplomacy. In 2010 for instance, a Chinese hospital ship visited Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and other ports on the East African coast to offer medical assistance. During an official welcoming speech, Chinese ambassador to Kenya, Liu Guangyuan talked of ‘giraffe diplomacy’.

For the uninitiated, this would be an echo from the fact that the Chinese voyagers of yore brought many oriental items of trade – silk, ceramics, chinaware – and returned with African merchandise. On one occasion, the voyagers took back a giraffe to the then reigning Chinese emperor, a fact that has been confirmed in ancient Chinese scripts, calligraphy, art and folklore. ‘Giraffe diplomacy’ is therefore a dainty way of scooping from the depths of history to justify present relations.

For China, history – Taoism, Confucianism, etc. – is an important source and shaper of modern polity and policy. For Kenya and Africa, history will decidedly provide a raison d’être for close ties with China.

The author is a PhD candidate at Communication University of China researching on China in East Africa with support from the Journalism Dept. of  the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa 

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