China has been working to go from strength to strength "while at the same time safeguarding and promoting world peace," said Huang Ju, vice premier and a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee. He was speaking yesterday at a grand ceremony marking the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's voyages to the Western Seas held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Huang said: "Zheng He's voyages facilitated cultural, economic and trade exchanges across the globe, helped establish friendly ties and contributed to the world's navigation cause."
Zheng He (1371-1435) was believed to have been the first man to establish a direct sea route between the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. His voyages predated Christopher Columbus' discovery of America by 87 years and were 114 years before Ferdinand de Magellan's round-the-world voyage.
According to Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, the voyages promoted the peaceful coexistence of various civilizations, demonstrating China's cultural tradition of friendship in international relations.
July 11 marked the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's first voyage and has also been dubbed China's Maritime Day.
A series of events have been organized to honor the navigator, who was considered an ambassador of peace, trade, Asian solidarity and cooperation.
Some of the activities include an international marine exposition that opened in Shanghai last Friday, the launch of a book called Zheng He's Route held yesterday in Suzhou in east China's Jiangsu Province, and an eight-part TV documentary featuring Zheng He's epic voyages that debuted yesterday on China Central Television.
Zheng He's fleet, comprising more than 300 vessels and manned by about 27,000 sailors, a number unrivalled in the world at the time, visited more than 30 countries and regions in Asia and Africa between 1405 and 1433.
Ceylon -- present-day Sri Lanka -- was an important stop for Zheng He's mammoth fleet. From time immemorial, Sri Lanka has attracted traders, mariners, seafarers and adventurers from both the East and the West because of its central position in the Indian Ocean, according to Lorna Dewaraja, a Sri Lankan historian who is an expert researcher of Zheng He's voyages. She was speaking in a recent interview with Xinhua News Agency.
Based on her studies, Dewaraja concluded that Zheng He landed on the island six times from 1405 to 1433.
"Zheng He landed in Sri Lanka for the first time during 1405 to 1407, but met with hostility from Vira Alakesvara, the de facto ruler and therefore sailed away," Dewaraja said.
After that, the Chinese fleet visited Sri Lanka another six times, five under Zheng He's command.
The 75-year-old historian said one of the main purposes of Zheng He's visit was to open a maritime Silk Road because the overland Silk Road across Central Asia was blocked at the time.
"When the sea route became important, Sri Lanka became important because you had to touch Sri Lanka before you went to many other places in the Indian Ocean," Dewaraja said.
According to Dewaraja, the most important event happened in the third expedition between 1409 and 1411 during which Zheng He set up an inscription in three languages, Chinese, Tamil and Persian in Sri Lanka.
The so-called Galle Trilingual Inscription was discovered in the southern city of Galle in 1911 and is now preserved at the Colombo National Museum.
The Chinese characters, which are the best preserved in the inscription, record the offerings made by Zheng He and others to the Buddhist temple on the Mountain of Sri Lanka.
The Persian is largely defaced but what is readable makes it clear that this too lists offerings to the light of Islam. The Tamil inscription follows the same pattern and the beneficiary is Tenavarai Nayanar, a Tamil god.
"It was clear that Zheng He, as a Muslim, offered valuable gifts to the Buddha, to Allah and to the God of Tamil," Dewaraja said.
Dewaraja said the multi-lingual, multi-cultural inscription is an indication of the extent of universal tolerance the Ming emperors practiced.
"It is said that the Chinese junks that set out for commercial purposes habitually carried Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist savants to provide advice and guidance," Dewaraja added.
Dewaraja described Zheng He's visit to Sri Lanka as "a great thing at that time" and it improved the good relations that had already existed between the two countries for more than 1,000 years.
"After Zheng He's visit, China and Sri Lanka had very good relations for about a century," Dewaraja said.
Dewaraja said that, in the 15th century, countries in the region with diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic groups were enjoying peaceful trade.
(China Daily July 12, 2005)