Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Haft of his Axe


In Nanjing they have banned gas and diesel powered motorbikes, scooters, and trike-cabs or trike-trucks and replaced them with electrics. While most vehicles are retrofits, new electric bikes and trikes are sold in showrooms and all around the city repair shops, battery stores, and parts dealers are easy to find. As a result, the air is fresher, the streets are clean, and the city is much quieter. It is a pleasure to sit in an outdoor café without having to breathe two-stroke engine fumes or listen to their din. They have not yet banned petrol-fueled cars and buses, but that can’t be far away, once they have the replacements lined up.

We confess Nanjing has been on our bucket list since we read Gavin Menzies’ flawed but enticing 1421: The Year China Discovered The World. We wanted to see the Nanjing Shipyards where Admiral Zheng He had constructed the great treasure fleet that traveled the seven seas by discovering an ingenious method of calculating lines of latitude, marking and recording the timing of eclipses and the transit of Jupiter’s moons at different observation points.

Zheng He Shipyard Park, Nanjing
Whether Zheng reached the Americas is still disputed, and the official Chinese version has him going no farther than the Cape of Good Hope, but it is undisputed that he built a floating city of wooden ships like nothing the world had ever seen, before or since. Six hundred years ago the Ming armada weighed anchor on the first of seven voyages almost a century before Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama. If a 1763 replica of a 1418 chart is any evidence, Zheng’s geographers accurately charted the entire world’s coastlines. Each continent of the world has correct shape, mass, latitude and longitude, and position. All oceans of the world are displayed, along with many major rivers (the Potomac to present-day Washington DC) and innumerable islands.

Replica of Troop Ship
Decades later, the ships of Columbus and da Gama combined would have fit on the main deck of a single vessel of Zheng’s fleet. One such design, likely a troop transport at 71.1-meters (233.3 ft), was reconstructed in 2010 and is in the old drydock of Longjiang shipyards. Its stability was created by a V-shaped hull, a long keel, and heavy ballast. The keel is made from wooden beams bound together with iron hoops. In stormy weather, holes in the prow would partially fill with water when the ship pitched forward, lessening the turbulence.

National Geographic in June 2005 wrote:

Treasure Ship drydocks
The greatest seafarer in China's history was raised in the mountainous heart of Asia, several weeks' travel from the closest port. More improbable yet, Zheng was not even Chinese — he was by origin a Central Asian Muslim. Born Ma He, the son of a rural official in the Mongol province of Yunnan, he had been taken captive as an invading Chinese army overthrew the Mongols in 1382. Ritually castrated, he was trained as an imperial eunuch and assigned to the court of Zhu Di, the bellicose Prince of Yan. Within 20 years the boy who had writhed under Ming knives had become one of the prince's chief aides, a key strategist in the rebellion that made Zhu Di the Yongle (Eternal Happiness) emperor in 1402. Renamed Zheng after his exploits at the battle of Zhenglunba, near Beijing, he was chosen to lead one of the most powerful naval forces ever assembled.


We used Trip Advisor to find Zheng He’s museum at the shipyard. We took an iPhone screen shot of the Chinese characters for its address and showed that to the taxi driver, who agreed to take us there for about $7. It was an hour ride across the city, made nearly twice that long by an official motorcade with helicopter escorts that forced us off the six-lane expressway and onto the crowded back-streets, but we got there eventually and the driver agreed to wait for us while we toured the museum.

That museum, really a large and quite tranquil nature park in the middle of the city, was one of our best experiences in Nanjing. You enter through an ornate gate and pass through a large plaza with roller skaters and hot dog carts until you reach the edge of the canals, originally constructed by Zheng in the early 15th Century to get his ships from their cradle and crane assembly lines to the Yangtze River and thence down to the ocean.

Along the stone and wooden pathways are small canal-side plazas where people come to do taiji, unleash their children to run after pigeons, or sit beneath cherry trees and watch ducks.

Zheng was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty. His grandfather and father had the title hajji suggesting that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and also that young Zheng knew Arabic. His later names of Ma Sanbao (三保 ("Three Protections") and Sanbao Taijian (“Three Treasures”) suggest he may have also had Buddhist training.

Hardwood drydocks >600 years old
Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored seven naval expeditions. Vast forests were cut in Southeast Asia to supply the cranes, masts, mahoganies and teaks required not just for the ship but for the dry docks. Zheng He's first voyage departed 11 July 1405, from Suzhou and consisted of a fleet of 317 ships holding almost 28,000 crewmen. To the lands he visited, the Admiral presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; he returned with ostriches, zebras, camels, giraffes and ivory. On his 4th voyage he brought envoys from thirty states to pay their respects at the Ming court. One stone stelle says he visited more than 3,000 nations.

During the reign of the Yung-Lo Emperor Zhu Di, the Ming fleet consisted of:

  • More than 250 Nine-masted "treasure ships" (宝船, Bǎo Chuán or Pao chuan), ranging from 400 to 600 feet long (from one to two football fields) by 170 feet (55 m) beam (more than the width of a football field) and manned by 400 to 1000 crew. Contrast this with a Ford or Nimitz class aircraft carrier, with only 1/3 more length and a more narrow beam.
  • Eight-masted “Equine ships” (馬船, Mǎ Chuán), about 103 m (338 ft) by 42 m (138 ft) (roughly the size of a football field), carrying horses and tribute goods and repair material for the fleet.
  • More than 400 seven-masted supply ships (粮船, Liáng Chuán), 78 m (256 ft) by 35 m (115 ft), containing staples.
  • Some 400 six-masted troop transports (兵船, Bīng Chuán), 67 m (220 ft) by 25 m (82 ft).
  • 1350 five-masted 50-meter Fuchuan warships (福船, Fú Chuán), Zheng He’s destroyer escorts.
  • 1350 eight-oared 37-meter patrol boats (坐船, Zuò Chuán).
  • Water tankers (水船, Shuǐ Chuán) with at least 1 month's supply of fresh water, especially for the horses.

Zheng He set sail with anywhere from 300 to 800 of these ships in each voyage. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described the fleet’s largest ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their translated accounts. Niccolò Da Conti, who witnessed the fleet in Southeast Asia, estimated the Treasure Ships at 2000 tons.

Zheng He's tomb in Nanjing has been repaired and a small museum built next to it. We did not see the tomb, and anyway he is reported to have been buried at sea, but we traced the routes of the slips where the ships had launched, amazed to see teak timbers still in the ground and dating to that period. We went to the statue of Zheng He and visited the windlasses, steering wheels, and rudders from his ships, and two 2.5 m (8 foot) iron anchors weighing over a thousand pounds each, Walking among bronze statues of the shipyard workers, we watched a child play the giant ship’s bell from the Admiral’s flagship.

Ships Rudder
Zheng He reshaped Asia. The maritime history in the 15th century was essentially the Zheng He story — a story placing peaceful trade and cultural exchange above conquest and cultural destruction.

Leaving the museum we rushed back to the hotel for a rendezvous with our student guides who were taking us to meet Professor Pan Genzing, top biochar researcher at Nanjing Agricultural University. Professor Pan had arranged a welcoming supper for the distinguished members of the board of the International Biochar Initiative and because we were in China at the time, and on the board of the US Biochar Initiative, we were fortunate to have been invited.

Over the next two days we were also invited to observe the IBI board meeting, attend the unveiling of the Asian Biochar Center, take a field trip to a biochar research station, and speak at an international biochar seminar, where we gave a short slide talk on cool microenterprises and the drawdown economics of cool villages. All of these events were accompanied by elegant feasts of pretty much anything with wings, tails, fins or carapaces, served nearly whole and whirling around on huge lazy-susans. We were reminded of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.



While this cuisine is quite different than what we enjoyed at Wu Ling (and had almost no rice), it demonstrated the scope and breadth of Chinese culture, enriched in so many ways 600 years earlier by the voyages of Admiral Zheng He.

Less than a day in paradise,
And a thousand years have passed among men.
While the pieces are still being laid on the board,
All things have changed to emptiness.
The woodman takes the road home,
The haft of his axe has rotted in the wind:
Nothing is what it was but the stone bridge
Still spanning a rainbow, cinnabar red.

— Meng Chiao (9th Century)

Nanjing, October 19, 2016

As this is the fourth and final memoir in this series, we thought it best that we step back and paint the broader context.

Annette Cowie at Nanjing International Biochar Symposium
As we described in our book, The Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook (2d Ed. 2014), the Bretton Woods economic system of the West is poised at the precipice of collapse. Historically, this is normal. All civilizations cycle between growth and retraction, and when growth has been exponential, contraction will track the reverse curve. We are passing over the peak at the top of the roller coaster.


When the first cracks in the delusion of infinite fossil energy consumerist cornicopia appeared in the form of the 2008 market crash they were papered over with new and bigger debt. Money was fiated out of thin air by an exponential expansion of government lending. China sees that.
L-R: Pan, Lehmann, Renaud, Miles, Sohi
Russia sees that. Europe is in a condition of Keynesian extend and pretend. The United States simply doesn’t discuss the subject. It imagines that in a pinch it can just lend again. And again. 2008 is viewed as a liquidity crisis, solved by creating more liquidity, ie: debt.

The new guys on the block, knowing nothing of petrocollapse or ponzinomics, figure that the one thing the US has going for it still, empire wise, is its military power. So like Roman Senators, the architects of the Third Reich, or the Mayan Overlords, the Pentagon crazies continue along a course of conquest, intent on sucking more resources to the center from the periphery to fuel even greater military expansion. Since the early 90s the US has been busy ringing China and Russia with more than 400 military bases and modernizing its now dangerously archaic nuclear arsenal.

Electric conversion
China, for its part, has had a quite adequate supply of atomic rocketeers on low alert for the last 40 years. Their missiles and warheads were in separate buildings. After the recent US election, that changed. China has moved to high alert, mounted its warheads and prepared to fuel its missiles on short notice. Both Russia and China have said they do not seek war but, echoing Bismarck, "If you want war, you shall have it.”

Vegetables growing in sand at China Biochar Research Center

In 1966 Robert F. Kennedy said, “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May you live in interesting times.’” He was not far wrong, although the proverb was not Chinese. In Cantonese, "interesting" can mean dangerous or turbulent, therefore the phrase could, in Chinese, be something of a curse.

Make no mistake: the empire in decline is the United States. The empire in ascent is China. But both suffer the fatal disease of addiction to exponential fossil-fuel based consumer culture and the cancer of biological degradation of the ecosystems required, not just to sustain empire, but for human life on the planet. Any ascent by China that adheres to the Western growth model will be short-lived.

Yellow Bikes, Nanjing
China is the world's top holder of U.S Treasuries — $1.16 trillion as of September — and any decision to dump those would have impact. President-Elect Trump, who has financed his personal fortune by borrowing heavily and plans to do the same for military and infrastructure spending, will surely understand that. He may want to trot out the big guns in order to make offers that cannot be refused.

A clash of declining empires is not something to look forward to, especially when both are armed to the teeth with suicidal weapons and at least one side thinks they should be free to use those to get their way.

“I will have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody,” Donald Trump told GQ. “It is highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely that I would ever be using them.”

Stephen Joseph and Annette Cowie
The Chinese, along with the rest of humanity, can only hope he is sincere. Given the choice between slow extinction later this century when warming passes 5-degrees C (while holding out for the possibility of rescue by a cadre of energized young emergency planetary technicians) or immediate, but nonetheless painful, death-by-atomic-holocaust, which would you choose? The pistol or the poison?

It is all so silly, and so unnecessary. Is there something in the water, or some worm eating away at our brains? Why are we behaving as if we actually deserve to go extinct? 


Chinese milennials are hip, intelligent, highly educated and well-traveled. They suffer a naïvete similar to their Western counterparts when discussion turns to the advanced state of climate change and the future availability of energy and other resources. To set them up as patsies for the ideological insecurities of USAnians is nuts. To engage China militarily is suicidal. Why can't we all just get along?



3 comments:

Danny C said...

An interesting trip to the past illustrates that we here, in modern times, don't have much over those who have preceded us in this adventure to where we are now. I admire the sheer will it took to conceive of such an organized armada and see it thru to completion. Is this perhaps a lesson we can take to reinvent a society where our actions become for the betterment of mankind and the planet? The only difference being it is for our survival which in itself can be an adventure of discovery? I hope so.

Michael Traugot said...

Hope enough folks "get it" pretty soon . . .

Unknown said...

I thought the Bretton-Woods agreement went bottom up when Nixon took the US off the Gold index, closing the "gold window." But I think people of all nation's need to recognize that the private, usury (debt) based, money economy is at its end due to the limits of growth and that the remedy is for nations to reclaim their economic sovereignty from international finance and issue sovereign money for the general welfare of their populations. This will help us begin the necessary decentralization of of food, fuel energy and clean water production to create a new and more prosperous and sane human societies reestablishing their connection with place. It is an idea that has been around for some time but whose time has now come. I think, motivated by the economic/ecologic crisis it should be the focus of citizen's action world-around.

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