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The Haft of his Axe

The Haft of his Axe thumbnail
“Why are we behaving as if we actually deserve to go extinct?”

In Nanjing they have banned gas and diesel powered motorbikes, scooters, and trike-cabs or trike-trucks and replaced them with electrics. While most vehicles are retrofits, new electric bikes and trikes are sold in showrooms and all around the city repair shops, battery stores, and parts dealers are easy to find. As a result, the air is fresher, the streets are clean, and the city is much quieter. It is a pleasure to sit in an outdoor café without having to breathe two-stroke engine fumes or listen to their din. They have not yet banned petrol-fueled cars and buses, but that can’t be far away, once they have the replacements lined up.

We confess Nanjing has been on our bucket list since we read Gavin Menzies’ flawed but enticing 1421: The Year China Discovered The World. We wanted to see the Nanjing Shipyards where Admiral Zheng He had constructed the great treasure fleet that traveled the seven seas by discovering an ingenious method of calculating lines of latitude, marking and recording the timing of eclipses and the transit of Jupiter’s moons at different observation points.

Zheng He Shipyard Park, Nanjing

Whether Zheng reached the Americas is still disputed, and the official Chinese version has him going no farther than the Cape of Good Hope, but it is undisputed that he built a floating city of wooden ships like nothing the world had ever seen, before or since. Six hundred years ago the Ming armada weighed anchor on the first of seven voyages almost a century before Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama. If a 1763 replica of a 1418 chart is any evidence, Zheng’s geographers accurately charted the entire world’s coastlines. Each continent of the world has correct shape, mass, latitude and longitude, and position. All oceans of the world are displayed, along with many major rivers (the Potomac to present-day Washington DC) and innumerable islands.

Replica of Troop Ship

Decades later, the ships of Columbus and da Gama combined would have fit on the main deck of a single vessel of Zheng’s fleet. One such design, likely a troop transport at 71.1-meters (233.3 ft), was reconstructed in 2010 and is in the old drydock of Longjiang shipyards. Its stability was created by a V-shaped hull, a long keel, and heavy ballast. The keel is made from wooden beams bound together with iron hoops. In stormy weather, holes in the prow would partially fill with water when the ship pitched forward, lessening the turbulence.

National Geographic in June 2005 wrote:

Treasure Ship drydocks

The greatest seafarer in China’s history was raised in the mountainous heart of Asia, several weeks’ travel from the closest port. More improbable yet, Zheng was not even Chinese — he was by origin a Central Asian Muslim. Born Ma He, the son of a rural official in the Mongol province of Yunnan, he had been taken captive as an invading Chinese army overthrew the Mongols in 1382. Ritually castrated, he was trained as an imperial eunuch and assigned to the court of Zhu Di, the bellicose Prince of Yan. Within 20 years the boy who had writhed under Ming knives had become one of the prince’s chief aides, a key strategist in the rebellion that made Zhu Di the Yongle (Eternal Happiness) emperor in 1402. Renamed Zheng after his exploits at the battle of Zhenglunba, near Beijing, he was chosen to lead one of the most powerful naval forces ever assembled.

We used Trip Advisor to find Zheng He’s museum at the shipyard. We took an iPhone screen shot of the Chinese characters for its address and showed that to the taxi driver, who agreed to take us there for about $7. It was an hour ride across the city, made nearly twice that long by an official motorcade with helicopter escorts that forced us off the six-lane expressway and onto the crowded back-streets, but we got there eventually and the driver agreed to wait for us while we toured the museum.

That museum, really a large and quite tranquil nature park in the middle of the city, was one of our best experiences in Nanjing. You enter through an ornate gate and pass through a large plaza with roller skaters and hot dog carts until you reach the edge of the canals, originally constructed by Zheng in the early 15th Century to get his ships from their cradle and crane assembly lines to the Yangtze River and thence down to the ocean.

Along the stone and wooden pathways are small canal-side plazas where people come to do taiji, unleash their children to run after pigeons, or sit beneath cherry trees and watch ducks.

Zheng was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty. His grandfather and father had the title hajji suggesting that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and also that young Zheng knew Arabic. His later names of Ma Sanbao (三保 (“Three Protections”) and Sanbao Taijian (“Three Treasures”) suggest he may have also had Buddhist training.

Hardwood drydocks >600 years old

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored seven naval expeditions. Vast forests were cut in Southeast Asia to supply the cranes, masts, mahoganies and teaks required not just for the ship but for the dry docks. Zheng He’s first voyage departed 11 July 1405, from Suzhou and consisted of a fleet of 317 ships holding almost 28,000 crewmen. To the lands he visited, the Admiral presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; he returned with ostriches, zebras, camels, giraffes and ivory. On his 4th voyage he brought envoys from thirty states to pay their respects at the Ming court. One stone stelle says he visited more than 3,000 nations.

During the reign of the Yung-Lo Emperor Zhu Di, the Ming fleet consisted of:

  • More than 250 Nine-masted “treasure ships” (宝船, Bǎo Chuán or Pao chuan), ranging from 400 to 600 feet long (from one to two football fields) by 170 feet (55 m) beam (more than the width of a football field) and manned by 400 to 1000 crew. Contrast this with a Ford or Nimitz class aircraft carrier, with only 1/3 more length and a more narrow beam.
  • Eight-masted “Equine ships” (馬船, Mǎ Chuán), about 103 m (338 ft) by 42 m (138 ft) (roughly the size of a football field), carrying horses and tribute goods and repair material for the fleet.
  • More than 400 seven-masted supply ships (粮船, Liáng Chuán), 78 m (256 ft) by 35 m (115 ft), containing staples.
  • Some 400 six-masted troop transports (兵船, Bīng Chuán), 67 m (220 ft) by 25 m (82 ft).
  • 1350 five-masted 50-meter Fuchuan warships (福船, Fú Chuán), Zheng He’s destroyer escorts.
  • 1350 eight-oared 37-meter patrol boats (坐船, Zuò Chuán).
  • Water tankers (水船, Shuǐ Chuán) with at least 1 month’s supply of fresh water, especially for the horses.

Zheng He set sail with anywhere from 300 to 800 of these ships in each voyage. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described the fleet’s largest ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their translated accounts. Niccolò Da Conti, who witnessed the fleet in Southeast Asia, estimated the Treasure Ships at 2000 tons.

Zheng He’s tomb in Nanjing has been repaired and a small museum built next to it. We did not see the tomb, and anyway he is reported to have been buried at sea, but we traced the routes of the slips where the ships had launched, amazed to see teak timbers still in the ground and dating to that period. We went to the statue of Zheng He and visited the windlasses, steering wheels, and rudders from his ships, and two 2.5 m (8 foot) iron anchors weighing over a thousand pounds each, Walking among bronze statues of the shipyard workers, we watched a child play the giant ship’s bell from the Admiral’s flagship.

Ships Rudder

Zheng He reshaped Asia. The maritime history in the 15th century was essentially the Zheng He story — a story placing peaceful trade and cultural exchange above conquest and cultural destruction.

Leaving the museum we rushed back to the hotel for a rendezvous with our student guides who were taking us to meet Professor Pan Genzing, top biochar researcher at Nanjing Agricultural University. Professor Pan had arranged a welcoming supper for the distinguished members of the board of the International Biochar Initiative and because we were in China at the time, and on the board of the US Biochar Initiative, we were fortunate to have been invited.

Over the next two days we were also invited to observe the IBI board meeting, attend the unveiling of the Asian Biochar Center, take a field trip to a biochar research station, and speak at an international biochar seminar, where we gave a short slide talk on cool microenterprises and the drawdown economics of cool villages. All of these events were accompanied by elegant feasts of pretty much anything with wings, tails, fins or carapaces, served nearly whole and whirling around on huge lazy-susans. We were reminded of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

While this cuisine is quite different than what we enjoyed at Wu Ling (and had almost no rice), it demonstrated the scope and breadth of Chinese culture, enriched in so many ways 600 years earlier by the voyages of Admiral Zheng He.

Less than a day in paradise,
And a thousand years have passed among men.
While the pieces are still being laid on the board,
All things have changed to emptiness.
The woodman takes the road home,
The haft of his axe has rotted in the wind:
Nothing is what it was but the stone bridge
Still spanning a rainbow, cinnabar red.

— Meng Chiao (9th Century)

Nanjing, October 19, 2016

As this is the fourth and final memoir in this series, we thought it best that we step back and paint the broader context.

Annette Cowie at Nanjing International Biochar Symposium

As we described in our book, The Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook (2d Ed. 2014), the Bretton Woods economic system of the West is poised at the precipice of collapse. Historically, this is normal. All civilizations cycle between growth and retraction, and when growth has been exponential, contraction will track the reverse curve. We are passing over the peak at the top of the roller coaster.

When the first cracks in the delusion of infinite fossil energy consumerist cornicopia appeared in the form of the 2008 market crash they were papered over with new and bigger debt. Money was fiated out of thin air by an exponential expansion of government lending. China sees that.

L-R: Pan, Lehmann, Renaud, Miles, Sohi

Russia sees that. Europe is in a condition of Keynesian extend and pretend. The United States simply doesn’t discuss the subject. It imagines that in a pinch it can just lend again. And again. 2008 is viewed as a liquidity crisis, solved by creating more liquidity, ie: debt.

The new guys on the block, knowing nothing of petrocollapse or ponzinomics, figure that the one thing the US has going for it still, empire wise, is its military power. So like Roman Senators, the architects of the Third Reich, or the Mayan Overlords, the Pentagon crazies continue along a course of conquest, intent on sucking more resources to the center from the periphery to fuel even greater military expansion. Since the early 90s the US has been busy ringing China and Russia with more than 400 military bases and modernizing its now dangerously archaic nuclear arsenal.

Electric conversion

China, for its part, has had a quite adequate supply of atomic rocketeers on low alert for the last 40 years. Their missiles and warheads were in separate buildings. After the recent US election, that changed. China has moved to high alert, mounted its warheads and prepared to fuel its missiles on short notice. Both Russia and China have said they do not seek war but, echoing Bismarck, “If you want war, you shall have it.”

Vegetables growing in sand at China Biochar Research Center

In 1966 Robert F. Kennedy said, “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May you live in interesting times.’” He was not far wrong, although the proverb was not Chinese. In Cantonese, “interesting” can mean dangerous or turbulent, therefore the phrase could, in Chinese, be something of a curse.

Make no mistake: the empire in decline is the United States. The empire in ascent is China. But both suffer the fatal disease of addiction to exponential fossil-fuel based consumer culture and the cancer of biological degradation of the ecosystems required, not just to sustain empire, but for human life on the planet. Any ascent by China that adheres to the Western growth model will be short-lived.

Yellow Bikes, Nanjing

China is the world’s top holder of U.S Treasuries — $1.16 trillion as of September — and any decision to dump those would have impact. President-Elect Trump, who has financed his personal fortune by borrowing heavily and plans to do the same for military and infrastructure spending, will surely understand that. He may want to trot out the big guns in order to make offers that cannot be refused.

A clash of declining empires is not something to look forward to, especially when both are armed to the teeth with suicidal weapons and at least one side thinks they should be free to use those to get their way.

“I will have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody,” Donald Trump told GQ. “It is highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely that I would ever be using them.”

Stephen Joseph and Annette Cowie

The Chinese, along with the rest of humanity, can only hope he is sincere. Given the choice between slow extinction later this century when warming passes 5-degrees C (while holding out for the possibility of rescue by a cadre of energized young emergency planetary technicians) or immediate, but nonetheless painful, death-by-atomic-holocaust, which would you choose? The pistol or the poison?

It is all so silly, and so unnecessary. Is there something in the water, or some worm eating away at our brains? Why are we behaving as if we actually deserve to go extinct? 

Chinese milennials are hip, intelligent, highly educated and well-traveled. They suffer a naïvete similar to their Western counterparts when discussion turns to the advanced state of climate change and the future availability of energy and other resources. To set them up as patsies for the ideological insecurities of USAnians is nuts. To engage China militarily is suicidal. Why can’t we all just get along?

The Great Change by Albert Bates

25 Comments on "The Haft of his Axe"

  1. forbin on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 7:28 am 

    “Why are we behaving as if we actually deserve to go extinct?”

    because we’re no smarter than yeast ?


  2. rockman on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 7:42 am 

    “Why are we behaving as if we actually deserve to go extinct?” But “we” aren’t going extinct. “We” are living our lives as we chose to do so. If you’re breathing then you’re not “extinct”…nor will you go extinct. Worse case individual scernario…you just die. LOL.

    Of course one can discuss the extinction of our species. But given that could occur many generations beyond those alive today as well as those born many decades in the future there’s little reason for the vast majority of the global population to give any thought to the extinction of our species…let alone that of any other “lower species”.

  3. Kenz300 on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 8:10 am 

    Too many people .create too much pollution and demand too many resources.

    China made great progress in moving its people out of poverty. One reason was slowing population growth.

    If you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.

    CLIMATE CHANGE, declining fish stocks, droughts, floods, air water and land pollution, poverty, water and food shortages, unemployment and poverty all stem from the worlds worst environmental problem OVER POPULATION.

    Yet the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house and provide energy and water for every year… this is unsustainable… and is a big part of the Climate Change problem

    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness

  4. joe on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 8:16 am 

    Thanks for the faux history lesson. This fleet may indeed have been a coastal fleet on a tour of power of Chinas known world. However the fact they could not round Africa shows the technological weakness of the fleet. Such giant junk barges would have been burned by the small European ocean going ships as proved by the British destruction of the Spanish Armada. Its not that big ships were unknown to Europe, they were just useless, Columbus ships were built small and tough and repairable. Jheng Hes fleet lost allot of vessels and men and added little to Chinese trade routes and economy, thats why they stopped exploring, they lacked the vision of Europeans whos desperation at being kept out of global trade by Islam were forced to evolve. Humanity faces the same challange now.
    All the evidence of this so called global fleet is basec on maps produced after 1492, and crucially nobody in Europe ever saw this fleet in an age when all coasts were litterally full of small vessels trading and working, it was a wind sail based economy and nobody in Europe saw it? How is that global? More Chinese ubermench propaganda.

  5. Sissyfuss on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 10:06 am 

    Joe, sounds like you’re comparing the incompetent over built qualities of Zheng Hes’ fleet to say, the F-35s.

  6. Jef on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 10:07 am 

    The extinction rate is currently over 100X the base rate. In other words extinction always occurs but it is happening 100 times faster than normal and that rate is increasing.

    Earth is losing life supporting habitat at an exponential rate. Its a fact and nothing points to it getting any better…what don’t you get?

    If/when the arctic collapses as it is now doing that will release massive amounts of methane, as it is now doing which can insure human extinction in a decade or less.

    This is fact but don’t worry I’m sure theres an app for that.

  7. Sissyfuss on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 10:08 am 

    By the way, I found the article fascinating. Biochar for breakfast!

  8. Apneaman on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 11:01 am 

    The definition of “tipping point” means once it’s tipped it cannot go back. There are too many tipping points that the humans have caused to be tipped to list. Deserve to go extinct? Meaningless judgement. Going to go extinct? See tipping points.

  9. penury on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 11:01 am 

    Humans being human, nothing to see here move along.

  10. Yadayada on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 11:44 am 

    After 40 years of a one child only policy, most Chinese grandparents must be waiting to be replaced by a solitary grandchild. When will the population start collapsing?

  11. rockman on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 11:48 am 

    P – Sad but true. So many “solutions” offered to solve our various problems ignore the difficulty of getting the vast majority of mankind to stop acting like humans.

    Need more focus on “fixing” humans then fixing the environment.

  12. joe on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 1:01 pm 

    Dont know anything about planes Sissyfuss, except they burn allot of oil and they cost allot.

  13. Anonymous on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 1:18 pm 

    Hey joe, are trying to out-retard plant and boat with your bullshit, crackerjack version of history there?

    Just wondering…

  14. makati1 on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 6:29 pm 

    Anon, maybe joe is a Boat bot? His comment was as ridiculous as we hear from Boat regularly. By not debating Sissy, he proved his ignorance on current events.

    The F-35 is about $1 trillion over budget and about 12 years behind schedule. Only in America…

  15. Anonymous on Sun, 25th Dec 2016 6:50 pm 

    He could be, his comments are all follow the same pattern-totally in-coherent, and demonstrably false.

    Yeah, he could easily be a boat\plantatard bot…

  16. Dredd on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 5:32 am 

    It is all so silly, and so unnecessary. Is there something in the water, or some worm eating away at our brains? Why are we behaving as if we actually deserve to go extinct?

    What type of analysis does the question beg?

    Perhaps: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” – Occam’s Razor

    “Welcome to the new age …” – Arcade Fire (Is A New Age Of Pressure Upon Us? – 12).

  17. Dredd on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 5:37 am 

    “the difficulty of getting the vast majority of mankind to stop acting like humans.”

    Not to mention getting Oil-Qaeda to act human (Oil-Qaeda: The Indictment).

    One should not blame the victim.

    “There is a great deal of human nature in people.” – Mark Twain

  18. joe on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 8:52 am 

    Sure, im a bot. Im Anonymous. It makes sense if you think about it. Or maybe I am Makatai1, actually I am because Im always right, especially in the way I am so full of shit. As for debate, there is a reason I dont debate, because debate is a about logical positions and arguement based on fact. I have no interest in planes except they burn allot of oil and cost allot, if I was interested in debating people about planes I wouldnt be on a peak oil/conspiricy theories site commenting on why articles open with lies about ancient Chinese treasure fleets based on defunct lies taken from ONE SINGLE BOOK. Ive actually READ that book, he also says that the fleet must have been real because Chickens in South America look like Asian ones. Get over it, fact is, Chinas bullshit of racial superiority is as bullshit as Germanys Aryan race bullshit and Islams Arab superiority bullshit. Sad truth is that Columbus discovered America BY ACCIDENT because Europe was dying under siege by Islam. The people in America were so stupid they had never developed complex navies nor even the simplest vision to use the wheel. Many here delight in the idea of death by mass famine, as if being alive long enough to say i told you so is going to make your pain any easier, or so called prepping is going to save you in any meaningful way. But hey what do I know, im just a Makatai1 bot. Right?

  19. Sissyfuss on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 9:03 am 

    I never thought you be a bot, Joe. I enjoy your unique perspective on various topics. It takes a variety of narratives to come to informed conclusions. We use Plant and Boat as stimuli as their postings are hard to accept at face value. Keep stirring the pot and never mind the frog in it. He’s not paying attention anyway.

  20. Davy on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 9:15 am 

    Joe, ignore makati and his boy wonder anonymous. They are clearly deeply troubled individuals preaching hate and discontent along with their own narcissistic advancement. These type of people are emotionally the weakest and intellectually the laziest. They deliver some fact and valid points but this is drowned out by their ignorance. I enjoy your posts Joe. I don’t always agree with them but you deliver them fairly and in a balanced way so keep up the good work.

  21. Cloggie on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 9:52 am 

    Neither makati, joe nor boat are bots.

    Bots can be recognized when all of a sudden many “newcomers” post all at once at the same time.

    British destruction of the Spanish Armada.

    LOL. The Spanish Armada was mostly destroyed by storms, not by Dad’s Army.

    When hundred years later a Dutch fleet with a size of four times the Spanish Armada showed up at your shores, you folks didn’t even bother to fight, so the Dutch could finally pacify you by turning you into fine Protestants:

    “The 1688 invasion of Britain that’s been erased from history”

    But the British rather not to talk about that event and instead prefer to watch Monty Python making fun of Hitler:

    The British still think they won WW2, where in reality the lost the largest empire in world history, became a US colony and as a consequence their capital is now majority Muslim with a Muslim major.

    If that’s a win, I wonder how the British define a loss.

    The Dutch succeeded where Napoleon and Hitler failed: invade Britain and subjected the place to a major renovation, as well loot the British treasury to keep the French in check.

  22. Freddy Kruger on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 12:37 pm 

    WTF was this article attempting actually say? Was it a history lessor or ???

    Ok, nobody else knows either. More gobbledygook pablum from the Peak Oil site. Author deliberately goes unnamed (embarrassment perhaps?).

    The question was rhetorical. We are reaping what we sow; ie., we deserve what we get, so yes, we are behaving as if we deserve to go extinct. It was a stupid question.

    Typical say-nothing, do-nothing fare for online publishing these days. Thanks for wasting my time.

  23. Anonymous on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 1:53 pm 

    You are full of shit joe. Your make-believe historical narratives are laughable, and often times not even especially relevant.

    Case in point:joe says…

    ” The people in America were so stupid they had never developed complex navies nor even the simplest vision to use the wheel. ”

    Are describing amerikans in CE 2016, or CE 16? I cant tell. But I totally agree with you on that point at least, the people of are amerika(2016) ARE that stupid.

    On a more serious note. The reason for this is rather simple. Those people had no pressing need to develop complex navies. They had everything they needed. Remember ‘complex navies’ were built principally for a) large-scale war, and b), to find new lands to plunder and exploit. If you were on the receiving end of such ‘complex’ navies activities and actions, you would likely not think they were so grand…..

  24. Truth Has A Liberal Bias on Mon, 26th Dec 2016 8:15 pm 

    Anyone who believes Gavin Menzies’ bullshit based on no evidence whatsoever is an idiot. His hooks are garbage. Any historian will tell you that. Zero evidence for anything Gavin states in his books. Zero. The map is a 17th century French copy of a 15th century Chinese map. It shows California as an island. Just like 17th century French maps. It’s obviously an amalgamation. It stands up to zero scrutiny and historians laugh Gavin Menzies out of the room every time. He’s a retard.

  25. Apneaman on Tue, 27th Dec 2016 1:20 pm 

    The Haft of his Axe?
    Wasn’t that a John Holmes 80’s “movie?”

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