(This is a great story I used as introduction to a DMin paper I wrote last year. Hope you enjoy it. — Chuck)
As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, China was the undisputed master of the eastern world. Chinese culture was centuries ahead of European culture. While the library of the king of England contained a dozen books, China boasted public bookstores with printed volumes for sale. China’s army was immense and its navy was the most superior ocean-going fleet in the world.
In 1421, the third Ming emperor of China, Zhu Di, inaugurated the newly constructed Chinese capital of Beijing. Tribute-paying envoys from the entire eastern world made their way to Beijing and the Forbidden City to kowtow before the emperor of China in return for his protection and favor.
After the lengthy celebrations and homage-paying were over, the emperor ordered a Chinese armada of three thousand ships to set sail to return the foreign envoys and dignitaries to their homelands. Returning the visiting envoys to their homelands was only one part of the Chinese armada’s mission, however. The other and more important assignment was to “`proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas…to attract all under heaven to be civilized in Confucian harmony.’” In other words, China was extending its rule around the world.
The Chinese were skilled sailors who had explored the seas connecting China with Arabia, Africa, India, Japan, Viet Nam, Java, Sumatra, Malacca, and Borneo. But this voyage was different. China was at a crossroads of influence and power. Zhu Di envisioned a China that could rule the world – a China which would bring civilization to the barbaric West, including Europe and the New World. It was a grand mission, well-funded, planned to the last detail, and destined to fail.
Two months after the vast Chinese armada set sail, a violent storm broke over Beijing and the Forbidden City. The palace was struck by lightning and the ensuing fire quickly swept through the wooden buildings, killing hundreds and destroying the newly-inaugurated capital.
The emperor interpreted this as a sign from heaven that the gods were unhappy with him, and that the gods were demanding a change of emperors. Power was handed off, and Zhu Di died four years later. His son, Zhu Gaozhi, ascended the emperor’s throne and immediately recalled all the ships at sea. When they returned, the emperor ordered the great treasure ships abandoned, banned transoceanic trade, and destroyed all records of the voyages. So strong was the fear of venturing out of China again that a subsequent emperor burned a strip of land along the coast of China 700 miles long and 30 miles wide, moving the inhabitants inland and forbidding contact with foreign traders. China’s long night of self-imposed isolation would last almost 400 years.
China’s emperor, Zhu Di, had sought to do what no Chinese emperor had ever done – become master, not just of Asia, but of the entire world. Had it not been for the lightning strike on the palace, interpreted in the framework of Chinese theology, the history of the world might have been radically different. The Chinese had vision, skill, resources, and power. But, their belief system was more powerful than their warships, political alliances, or grand aspirations.
Zhu Di had tried to create the future with tools fashioned in the past. He failed, and subsequent generations of Chinese rulers, clinging to the same old beliefs, withdrew from a rapidly-changing new world.
As followers of Jesus, we in the community of faith – the church – face a similar situation. We have had grand plans, vision, and power. The church has been the friend of emperors; the king-maker in countless throne rooms; and, the irresistible arbiter of spirituality in the world of modernity. But lightning has struck the cathedral, and the position of privilege enjoyed by the church has been challenged by new belief systems whose gods are pluralism, relativism, and self-sufficiency. Dethroned and shrinking in influence in our culture, the church faces the prospect of either withdrawing from this brave new world, or creating a new future enabled by the Spirit of God, and found among the people of God. To do that, our theology must be much more adequate than the theology of Zhu Di. What we believe can change the world.
Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002).