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The Mystery of Zheng He's Boat

The story of the great Ming dynasty Adventurer Zheng He gained fame with people throughout China when about 600 years ago he set out on seven voyages to discover the West, traveling to over 30 countries. The kind of boat used by the navigator during those voyages remains a mystery, with experts uncertain if the hull was pan or wedge shaped. Recent media coverage of the navigator's achievements has once again aroused interest in the shape of the pioneering craft. Experts from Shanghai Jiaotong University have been looking into the mystery.

Xin Yuan'ou, a professor of navigation at Shanghai Jiaotong University, has spent many years studying the history of Zheng He's journey. According to his research, the boat was a modified pan shaped, similar in design to those used to transport rice. The shallow draw of pan shaped boats can prevent them from becoming grounded in shallow waters.

Boat design evolved in China during the Ming dynasty, as Western methods of boat building began to influence Chinese designs. China introduced some aspects of the Western wedged-shaped hull to the traditional pan design, recognizing the Western advantages of the wedge shaped hull for deep sea journeys.

According to Xin, most of the boats were initially built in the pan shape, then transported to Nanjing Longjiang Boat Factory to have the wedge added to the hull. It was this combination of Chinese and Western shipbuilding expertise that helped Zheng He sail throughout the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, visiting Taiwan and distant Africa along the way.

(CCTV February 27, 2004)

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