The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral By ADI IGNATIUS It's never hard finding adventure in China. By driving just half an hour outside of Nanjing, the former Ming dynasty capital that today is a metropolis of 4.5 million, we have slipped back into a China not exactly of imperial times but one that modernity has scarcely touched. The rice stalks, newly planted, undulate in the breeze as they stretch toward the sun. Children of the local soil, their skin darkened from long days helping seed the paddies, splash around in muddy watering holes. Traffic comes to a stop whenever a water buffalo chances onto the road. We are on a quest to retrace the route of the man who ranks as perhaps China's greatest adventurer, the 15th century admiral, Zheng He. A Muslim, a eunuch, a warrior, Zheng He vastly outdid his approximate contemporaries, the Western naval heroes who helped define the global Age of Exploration. His armada of giant junks was several times bigger than any of the fleets Columbus commanded nearly a century later. And his ships were five times longer than those of the celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. With more than 300 oceangoing vessels and a crew of nearly 30,000 men, Zheng He helped transform China into the region's, and perhaps the world's, 15th century superpower. He exacted tribute, brought Sultans to their knees and opened up trade routes that helped develop the enduring taste abroad for Chinese porcelain and silk. He brought home quirky items, too, including the first giraffe China had seen initially misidentified as the qilin, the unicorn central to Chinese mythology. Explorer, conqueror, diplomat, trader and yet Zheng He is largely unknown outside of China. In fact, he attracts only limited attention within the Middle Kingdom. Sure, school kids read of his exploits. But in a country perpetually obsessed with both its history and its contributions to world culture and knowledge, there is surprisingly little to remind today's citizens of Zheng He's remarkable achievements. And that's partly why, driving through the back roads outside of Nanjing, we're having far more of an adventure than we had bargained for. We are barreling around Jiangning county, in the west of Jiangsu province; our vessel is a Volkswagen Santana, made in China. The target is Zheng He's tomb, and we are lost. How does a country forget its greatest adventurer-hero? How does a man who ruled the seas for China and projected the Emperor's power become consigned to a neglected burial spot and a perpetually shuttered museum? One explanation, surely, is that the Chinese typically do not revere adventurers. This is a society that for centuries was dominated by a Confucian ideology that ascribed overwhelming virtue to orderliness. Everyone had a prescribed role to play according to his social status; everything fit into its rightful place. Only then was civilization thought to thrive. Even Chairman Mao, the peasant rebel who would become the Great Helmsman of the modern era, is admired not so much for leading revolutionary upheaval but for restoring stability to China after the tumult dynastic collapse, civil war, Japanese invasion of the first half of the 20th century. Fear of change is an enduring legacy of Confucianism, says Henry Tsai Shih-shan, a University of Arkansas history professor who has written several books on the Ming dynasty. Chinese continually fail to appreciate that expansion can create power and wealth, not chaos. For a brief interlude, Zheng He challenged such conservative tendencies. By the end of his fleet's seven voyages, China had become an unrivaled naval power. As a result of the expeditions, the Emperor in Nanjing (and later Beijing when the capital was moved north in 1420) commanded the fear and respect of leaders throughout South and Southeast Asia. China had established itself as a trade and diplomatic force, its authority backed up by the thousands of troops who accompanied Zheng He on his travels. If countries could be said to own centuries the 20th century is often viewed as America's; the previous one arguably belonged to colonial superpower Britain the 1400s were all China's. Or at least they could have been, had the country not suddenly turned inward. There are many theories as to why China curtailed its maritime aspirations in the mid-15th century. The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. Barbarian nations were thought to offer little of value to China. Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transport and other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century's end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. Oceangoing vessels were destroyed. Eventually, even records of Zheng He's journey were torched. China's heroic age was over; its open door had slammed shut. The expeditions wasted tens of myriads of money and grain, a 15th century Minister of War complained. Roderick MacFarquhar, a sinologist at Harvard University, characterizes the conservative triumph this way: Yellow River over blue water. The philosophical dispute is far more than a historical curiosity. Through the centuries, China has struggled to find its proper place in the world. The pendulum has shifted back and forth between openness and insularity, between the spirit embodied in Zheng He and that of, say, Yang Rong, the Confucian tutor to the Emperor who argued for rolling back the power of eunuch adventurers like Zheng He. The Confucians won; China wouldn't emerge again as a naval force until the past decade or so, as it began to build up a sizable fleet, probe disputed islands like the Spratlys and project a presence in Asia's sealanes. The internal conflict has fueled some of China's most dramatic confrontations. Zheng He was born in 1371, during the first years of the Ming dynasty, to an Islamic family in what is now the western province of Yunnan. (His name at birth was Ma He.) When the Ming armies moved into the region to wipe out the last vestiges of Mongol influence, 11-year-old Ma gained the attention of a conquering general. He was taken back to Nanjing, where he became a page to a young prince, known as Zhu Di. He was castrated and destined for a life serving with other eunuchs in the imperial household, guarding the harem and offering wisdom to the dynastic clan. Somehow the prince and the castrate became friends and when Zhu Di launched a coup d'Etat in 1402, Ma was at his side. The prince, who became the Yongle Emperor, awarded Ma an honorific surname Zheng and made him head eunuch. When the Emperor sketched out a plan for Chinese ships to sail to the Indian Ocean, he named his loyal charge to lead the fleet. Zheng He proved to be a stunning success. In his initial expedition, which began in 1405, he set out to find the deposed Emperor, Yongle's nephew, who was thought to have taken refuge somewhere in Southeast Asia. The voyage was also a chance for the young dynasty to show the world the power and capability of the Ming ruler. This was a China on the rise, a nation striving to return to the glory of the high Tang dynasty, when Chinese troops occupied territory as far away as today's Iran. Zheng He supervised the building of the fleet of treasure ships, which assembled before embarking at the port of Liujia in Taicang, a coastal town 40 km from Shanghai. Before the fleet set off, the men would visit the Jinghai Temple in Taicang to pray to the Taoist goddess known as Tianfei for protection at sea. Spiritually fortified, they boarded their ships, which would head down the Liu Creek to the Yangtze River and eventually into the open seas. With Tianfei's blessing, Zheng He and his men spent two years at sea, landing at present-day Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and, eventually, India. Over the next 28 years, Zheng He's flotilla embarked on six other grand voyages. It was an unprecedented massing of naval power. The ships, described collectively as swimming dragons, boasted as many as nine masts apiece; and the largest could hold 1,000 people. Dotted with dragons' eyes to help them see, they carried soldiers, doctors, cooks, interpreters, astrologers, traders and holy men. The senior captains were eunuchs. The expeditions covered a total of nearly 300,000 km, roughly equivalent to 7 1/2 circumnavigations of the world. This was a China that sought to dominate the region. In all, the fleet landed in more than 40 countries. Crew members brought back tales of exotic places and customs. They marveled at the prosperity of city-states in southern India and the violence of the Javanese. In what is present-day Thailand, they were thrilled to discover that the local men were happy to allow their wives to entertain and even sleep with the visitors. China's age of exploration began to come to a close, however, when Zheng He died in 1433 during a stopover in the once great Indian port city of Calicut. The fleet returned to China and was soon disbanded. Zheng He himself suffered an ignoble end. Normally, significant eunuchs were reunited at death with their genitals, which were kept in sealed jars. That way the body could move on intact to the afterlife. Zheng He had no such luck. For a taste of Eternal China, take a look at the Jinghai Temple today. = China's door is reopened. It's impossible to close. As for the ports that launched Zheng He's fleets, they are long gone, destroyed by five centuries of tumult and neglect. Just ahead, the Yangtze River seems as wide as an ocean. The winds pushing toward the coast seem to be saying, China is back.