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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 24, September 3 - 9

Mama Africa  

Hey Ayi,
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.
Sign me,

Dear Yafeila,
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 Celestial Empire.

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.


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