Was Sinbad a Nanjing sailor?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

From the upper-floor balcony of the pagoda on Lion Hill, we looked out in one direction over the city's modern skyline, and in the other we saw the wide, brown Yangtze. A train was crossing a two-level bridge over the river. Beyond the multicolored roof tiles of the old-style pagoda spread Nanjing.

One of the surprises of Nanjing is that it was the home port for Zheng He, who inspired the Sinbad-the-Sailor legend in "The Arabian Nights." Sun Jun, my guide, explained that this pagoda was dedicated to the great explorer whose ships were launched here in the early 1400s and who crossed the oceans on seven long voyages of adventure.

The Chinese admiral, who was Muslim, repeatedly journeyed to ports of the Persian Gulf. He made quite an impression there as an adventurous and exotic leader - his fleet may have included up to 317 ships and more than 27,000 men.

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Last summer's animated film about Sinbad revived his celebrity, but a more provocative spotlight came a few months earlier: Author and retired British naval officer Gavin Menzies speculated that in 1421 Zheng He, aka Sinbao or Sinbad, reached America before Columbus.

Nanjing (formerly Nanking) is a stately former capital, protected by the longest city wall ever built, but an adventure story like Sinbad's suits the city just as well.

"Nanjing is a mirror of China's history," Mr. Sun says. Many believe that this is where modern China began, when British gunboats steamed up the Yangtze in 1841 and forced China to open its ports to foreigners. Here, in the early 1900s, Dr. Sun Yat-sen declared China a republic, toppling the Qing Dynasty. He restored Nanjing as China's capital, and is immortalized in a mausoleum that exudes all the splendor of the Lincoln memorial. The city witnessed the horrors of modern warfare in the carnage of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937.

For me, Nanjing was a side trip from main stops in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing, but it quickly became one of the most pleasant surprises of three weeks in China.

I arrived on a domestic flight, knowing just three words in Mandarin. But Sun, the guide arranged through the China International Travel Service, met me at the airport with the poise and mild British accent of a well-traveled sociologist, although he grew up and studied in Nanjing. His parents were intellectuals whose careers were stifled by the Cultural Revolution.

"When people from Nanjing visit other cities," Sun notes, "they say they are from Jingling," its ancient name, which is translated as "golden city." It first became China's capital in the third century A.D. and again in the 1300s.

The Ming tombs on nearby Purple Mountain are a big draw, so on my first day Sun spirited me past the red Drum Tower and through the city's roundabouts to the east side.

On the hill outside the massive gray city gate, schoolchildren gamboled through the annual plum-blossom festival, as acres of pretty pink and white blossoms stretched into the morning mist. It reminded me of Washington D.C., at cherry blossom time.

We walked down the Sacred Way toward the Ming tombs, a scenic promenade past huge stone elephants, camels, and lions. At night, the path is believed by some to teem with the wandering ghosts of emperors.

In the Drum Tower's market kiosk, vendors sell polished stones, porcelain, calligraphy, and paintings. One artist unrolled for me stunning watercolors that he had painted. Through a series of gestures and pen scribbles we bargained for two cards and a landscape of Tai Hu lake area in bloom.

The city's main industries make television sets (sold in China and Cuba) and Panda computers. A computer costs almost a month's rent, but Sun's cable modem costs just 100 yuan a month - about $12. An Internet cafe named PC Bar felt like a Starbucks-cum-video-arcade; I checked my e-mail for less than 75 cents an hour.

Because I couldn't speak Chinese, getting a bite to eat by myself was more challenging than logging on. In the Hunan Road commercial district, I hunted for a noodle shop and ended up instead at a Korean restaurant with a plate of kebabs.

The next day I wanted to explore the Sinbad connection, so from the city's northwest gate Sun and I walked between the city wall and the river, toward Lion Hill. We passed the site of the temple where the British gunboats forced China to open to the West and give up Hong Kong.

Zheng He began life as a court eunuch and, through intelligence and devotion, rose to be an admiral in the navy of Emperor Yong Le. During Yong Le's reign, hundreds of scholars from Thailand, Korea, and Japan came to study at Nanjing's Guozijian National University, which was larger than its counterparts in Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris. So Zheng He would have been familiar with tales of other lands.

On his voyages he went beyond Thailand and India and took Chinese commerce to Arabia and down the eastern coast of Africa. He may have gone as far as Europe more than once.

Lion Hill's temple of the sea goddess contains a stone tablet that Yong Le dedicated to the goddess in thanks for the voyages of his fleet, including those led by Zheng He. Built in 1416, the temple commemorated the admiral's voyage to the Indian Ocean.

The stele rises 15 feet from the back of a stone tortoise and is topped by a pair of scaly, intertwined dragons. The emperor's inscription calls the sea goddess Tian Fei, "Protectress of the Empire, Benefactress of the people, mysteriously powerful, manifestly loyal, magnanimous and universally kind."

He added: "Wind, rain, thunder, lightning, all are under her sway and she has the power, according to her desire, to loose them or to withhold them.... All the foreign peoples, children of the same father, tattooed skin and multicolored garments, all come to visit me.... Our goddess protects them."

Near the entrance to Lion Hill is a bronze statue of Zheng He standing regally beside a horse. His ships were made in Yangtze shipyards nearby. We hiked to the top of the hill and entered the pagoda to find inside a model of Zheng He's ship, a rusted anchor from his fleet, and a mural. We climbed more stairs to inspect the mural's details.

It portrays, in lushly colored tiles, the admiral's contacts with other peoples - Africans, Indians, Southeast Asians - and celebrates the moment when Ming-era China saw a brief and glorious opening to the world.

The old section of Nanjing is very walkable and friendly to tourists, with attractive footbridges and yellow-suited rickshaw pullers. We stopped at the Confucian Temple and a museum devoted to the imperial examinations for civil-service applicants.

The scholar known as Confucius went unrecognized in his time, but five centuries later his works became the definitive academic curriculum and the basis for the imperial examinations. Confucius believed that a scholar should master six skills, including music and horsemanship.

The temple features magnificent carved jade panels depicting scenes from Confucius's life. In the back we heard a student practicing the stringed zither with her teacher.

Nearby stood the city's central gate, or Zhonghuamen Gate (Zhonghua is also the name for China). Beginning in the 1400s, the gate protected residents with five stone entrances, each with a vast slab that could be lowered against intruders.

Today it's a peaceful scene where old men compete using a large, antique top that they keep aloft on a string.

On the stone gate's uppermost deck, where an observation palace once stood, people were flying kites in a stiff wind.

The Chaotian Gong Palace on Machoulu Road offered another glimpse of the city's past. In the square, men played cards and women sold leather goods. Like Lion Hill, the place fared poorly during the Cultural Revolution and was rebuilt in the 1980s, based on photographs.

A museum - delightfully free of other tourists - displays a remarkable military vehicle: A little mannequin is perched atop a pole, high enough that the troops could see it from afar. An intricate gear system ensured that the figure kept pointing south no matter where the vehicle turned. Thus it acted like a compass, giving a directional reference if no other was available.

Later I visited the PC Bar again, checked my e-mail, and taxied to Hunan Road where a stone arch welcomes all shoppers.

I finally found the restaurant that Sun had recommended: Nanjing Da Pai Dang, where the maitre d' in imperial dress escorted me across a wooden bridge to my table, and I could choose dishes from a picture menu or from the cooking areas around the room. I was almost the only foreigner there.

In Sinbad's home city, I felt like an explorer. As I walked back to my hotel, I almost knew where I was going.

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