I am from Ethiopia and I want to give my Chinese friends some books
about Africa so they stop asking me dumb questions about it. Why can't
I find a single book about Africa in Beijing bookstores? If you can't
recommend a book, please tell me a little about Sino-African relations
so I can enlighten my friends.
What can I say, you're right. It seems we have hidden all the interesting
books about Africa. Which is a shame because China and Africa have had
what the China Daily would call 'friendly tiesí since at least the Yuan
Dynasty (1271-1368). Despite the fact that Mongolian-ruled China was
the largest country the world has ever known, with a voracious appetite
for colonizing new lands, the Mongolians were a little scared of water
and exploratory naval missions were rare. But in the 14th century, a
Chinese navigator named Wang Dayuan sailed a small wooden boat to the
coast of East Africa. The gold, red sandalwood, ivory, and other exotic
materials he brought back to the Middle Kingdom piqued the interest
of the Chinese court.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperor Yong Le was as enthusiastic as a Mongolian
about expanding China's influence. Yong Le's methods were a little more
subtle than Kublai Khan's: instead of sending wild horsemen to rape,
loot and pillage. Yong Le preferred to send envoys who would diplomatically
ensure that the new lands swore their allegiance to the Celestial Emperor.
Yong Le sent officials to Korea, South Asia and to some Pacific islands.
In 1407, a man named Zheng He was entrusted with the mission to sail
into unknown waters, find new lands, and offer the leaders of these
countries a deal they couldn't refuse: to become vassal states of the
Zheng He (1371-1433) was originally named San Bao. He was from a Muslim
Hui minority family in Yunnan. When he was 12 years-old, he was captured
by the Ming army on a forced conscription campaign in Yunnan. He was
sent to Beijing where he was forced to undergo a rather unpleasant operation
that resulted in him becoming a palace eunuch. He became adept at court
politics and made his name by taming a city riot in Beijing. The emperor
gave him his new name - Zheng He - and soon afterwards granted him the
naval commission to boldly go where no Chinese man had gone before.
Zheng He began his great journey in 1407. His fleet consisted of 65
ships, the largest of which was 449 meters long and 180 meters wide.
On his fifth marine expedition, Zheng He sailed all the way across the
Indian Ocean and made it all the way to the Horn of Africa, landing
near Mogadishu in present-day Somalia. He exchanged tea and silk with
the Somalians, who gave him jewels, spices and camelís milk in return.
But Zheng He left us for the great ocean in the sky a long time ago,
and after his spectacular expedition there was not much contact between
Africa and China until the 20th century.
In recent years, many Chinese people have come to know about Africa
though the travelogues and novels of San Mao. San Mao was born in Chongqing
in 1943, but grew up in Taiwan and is famous for writing about her travels
in the Sahara desert.
At age five San Mao began to read The Dream of the Red Chamber (hong
lou meng). This book affected her whole life, I am afraid. Of course,
we Chinese have a proverb about this:
shao bu du hong lou
lao bu du san guo
Donít read The Dream of the Red Chamber as a child
Donít read The Three Kingdoms as an old man
The reason is that The Dream of the Red Chamber is supposed to make
children dreamy and romantic - not a good thing when there are exams
to be taken and family businesses to be maintained! The Three Kingdoms
is supposed to make old men evil as they try to imitate the cunning
machinations of military commander Cao Cao. San Mao's mind was corrupted
by romance at a young age and she longed to travel. In 1973, she went
to the Sahara desert with her Spanish husband who was working as an
engineer on infrastructure projects. He died in a diving accident in
1976. San Mao was still living there, spending much of her time among
local people and writing about people and scenery of the desert as well
as anti-colonial struggles in North Africa.
Many Chinese only know of Africa from the books of San Mao, but there
are hundreds of thousands of engineers and workers who know something
of the continent from personal experience. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Chairman
Mao wanted to further the cause of world revolution and to make friends
at a time when China was isolated on the international political stage.
Financial and technological assistance was given to many African countries
in those years, despite the fact that China was extremely poor: Soviet
revisionists (sulian xiuzheng zhuyizhe) had treacherously withdrawn
all help to China and the country had just recovered from the calamitous
Great Leap Forward or dayuejin (1960-62). In the spirit of the slogan
'Asia, Africa and Latin America unite and destroy American imperialism!í
(yafeila tuanjie qilai dadao meidiguo zhuyi!), Chairman Mao undertook
to build an 1860 kilometer-long railway from the Tanzanian port city
of Dar Es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi, just north of Zambia's capital Lusaka.
Previously, the only port accessible to Zambia was Durban in South Africa.
All imported and exported goods had to come through South Africa and
Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), both of which were run by racist white governments.
The Chinese-built TAZARA Railway (Tanzan Tielu) allowed the newly independent
Zambia to boycott the Rhodesian Smith regime and the South African apartheid
government, and gave Tanzania an efficient system of distributing goods
(including Chinese-made AK47s) to Zambia and beyond to other Southern
African countries such as Angola and Mozambique. The TAZARA railway
was built as a gift for which the Chinese government never required
compensation. It stills functions today, taking about three days to
get from the Indian Ocean to the heart of Zambia.