The progress illusion

ns_logoWHEN Admiral Zheng He led his fleet out of the eastern Chinese port of Suzhou in 1405, it must have been a sight to behold. The largest of the several hundred ships under his command were the size of modern aircraft carriers and housed 500 men apiece. The fleet made seven expeditions in all, to advertise the might of the Ming dynasty around the Indian Ocean, but having returned to port for the last time it was dismantled, vanishing along with the engineering know-how that created it. For the next few centuries China’s seagoing vessel of choice was a much humbler junk…

This article was first published in New Scientist on 4 October 2012. To continue reading, click here.