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March 16, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Tale of the Good Ol’ Mariners

In December 2008, the BBC reported an ‘epic battle’—involving wine bottles and water jets—between pirates and Chinese seamen onboard the Zhenhua 4, off the coast of Somalia. Shortly afterwards, China announced it would contribute naval ships to the multi-national armada already patrolling the region. The Chinese media, both within China and elsewhere, were quick to point out this was the first time in 600 years the Chinese navy had revisited the eastern coast of Africa on an official mission.

Admiral Zheng He and his ‘treasure ships’ have long been household names in Chinese communities all over the world. A Muslim, Zheng He commanded the largest fleet as well as the largest ships of his time, on a (mostly) diplomatic mission for the Ming emperors in the early 15th century. Unlike the Western powers that arrived afterwards (Magellan, da Gama etc.), Ming China did not set out to conquer, colonise or exploit other peoples in distant lands, but rather inform them of the strength and wealth of China, and tell them why it was a good idea for them to pledge allegiance and pay tribute to the ‘Son of Heaven’ in Beijing. In other words, it was mostly about ‘face’. True, the mission was backed up by the thousands of soldiers that sailed with the fleet, but it was still much less destructive than Western-style colonisation.

Zheng He’s fleet visited many different peoples and uncharted waters from Southeast Asia, across India and Arabia, to Africa. According to Gavin Menzies’ very controversial 1421 hypothesis, some of his men even managed to come all the way down to New Zealand. If—and that’s a big IF—that were true, then the Chinese would have visited not long after the Maori had established themselves in Aotearoa. Their ancestors having come from somewhere in Eastern Polynesia in their famous waka, to discover the last significant landmass yet to be discovered by humankind.

One thing most people—probably even Winston Peters, who quite correctly noted that the ancient Polynesians had originally come from somewhere off coastal China—have not noticed is that the seafaring skills of the Maori and Zheng He’s men may not be entirely unrelated. It is my conjecture—and it’s just that, a conjecture—that such amazing maritime abilities might, in fact, be ‘in their blood.’

A clue lies in genetics, namely Haplogroup O1 and, to a lesser extent, Haplogroup O3 (to a lesser extent), found in the Y-chromosomal DNA of many people of Austronesian as well as southern Chinese ancestry. Apparently, the early Austronesians, of which Polynesians are a sub-group, having utilised their seafaring skills and sailing all over the vast Pacific, did not all abandon their homeland in Taiwan and southeastern China. To this day, indigenous tribes such as the Amis and Atayal continue to live on Taiwan, and while Han culture had spread over most of mainland China, the Austronesian bloodlines apparently remain a significant component of China’s southern populations. This is evidenced by the widespread occurrence of Haplogroup O1 (M119) in southern (and not northern) Han Chinese populations. Many southern Chinese dialects also remain quite distinct from standard Mandarin—a northern dialect, itself influenced by nomadic tribes that invaded China from the northern steppes. It was mostly southerners from the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, long renowned for their shipbuilding and seafaring abilities, who were selected to man Zheng He’s ocean-going fleet.

Incidentally, the first Chinese settlers to arrive in New Zealand (and elsewhere) also came mostly from Guangdong (the Cantonese). But that was in the 19th century—assuming the ‘1421 hypothesis’ to be nothing but hogwash.

CHINESE TAKEAWAY: Check out Analects 12:5.

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