More than six hundred years ago, the imperial Ming court did something unparalleled in Chinese history — it ordered the building of an enormous fleet of ocean-going vessels with the purpose of exploring the world. In 2005, investors in Nanjing set out to recreate one of the largest of these ships. It now appears the attempt to resurrect historical glory may never come to pass as work on the wooden 'treasure ship' has stalled completely and, according to a China Daily account, may never reach completion.
Almost a decade ago, Nanjing Junlong Treasure Ship Properties was established with the express purpose of raising funds to construct a 71-meter wooden replica of one of the ships — known as baochuan (宝船) in Chinese — sailing under the command of Admiral Zheng He (郑和), a Yunnan native, in the fifteenth century. The company initially raised ten million dollars and announced the vessel would be sea-worthy in time for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
That date passed with work on the ship unfinished, as did another deadline set by the company for 2012. The most recent prediction was that the ship would be ready for its maiden voyage this year and coincide with the opening ceremony of the Second Youth Olympic Games to be held in Nanjing in August. Shipbuilders working on the project now say they cannot reach that target date either.
Depending on who is giving an account of construction woes, the current delay is a scheduled pause, a workers' strike or a case of financial inadequacy. Head of Junlong Properties, Bian Guanghong, told the China Daily:
Though the construction of the hull has been suspended, we are ordering some equipment to install inside the replica. The craftsmen on the project, who have mastered traditional Chinese shipbuilding techniques and came from Fujian province to help us build the ship, are old and need to have a break this summer. That's the reason for the suspension.
Workers and contractors, however, tell a different story. A spokesman for the company hired to design the ship claims his company is owed 1.3 million yuan (US$209,300) in back pay, while a shipbuilder says the company has run out of money for salaries, leading to a work stoppage.
Regardless of who or what is causing the almost comical delays — Zheng He's fleet of 317 ships was built in only two years — it appears the replica may never set sail on any of the admiral's voyages as planned. The seven original expeditions by Zheng He were undertaken between 1405 and 1433 and the Nanjing consortium had hoped to retrace parts of these with their modern-day recreation.
During the course of his voyages, Zheng He visited the shores of some 37 modern nations, made a pilgrimage to Mecca and traded in port cities on the horn of Africa. Scholars have referred to the armada as one of the largest flotillas assembled in the history of mankind, employing 28,000 sailors and crew members.
The treasure ships themselves are a topic of spirited debate as some nautical historians maintain their immense size — by Chinese court accounts 137 meters long and 55 meters wide — would have been an engineering impossibility 600 years ago. Simply building a scaled-down version is proving difficult in Nanjing, and the ghost of Yunnan's most famous son may not sail any time soon.