Jumping on the “One Belt, One Road” bandwagon, Hong Kong’s Maritime Silk Road Society recently chose about 100 students for internship placements in the mainland, North America, Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa under its Operation Zhang Qian – Undergraduate Summer Internship Programme.

It sounds like a good idea, but I find “Operation Zhang Qian” an odd choice of name for a society with “maritime” in its title because Zhang (who died in 114BC) never made any ocean expeditions. “Operation Zheng He” would be a better title, but some might not want to name the programme after the great seafaring admiral because he was a eunuch.

In 139BC, a 100-man mission led by Zhang was sent by Emperor Wu, of the Western Han dynasty, to various Central Asian states to forge alliances against the powerful Xiongnu, their common enemy. In the course of his travels, Zhang was captured and imprisoned twice by the Xiongnu, but he did manage to visit several city-states located in present-day Xinjiang, and much of Central Asia including parts of present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Only Zhang and his adjunct made it back to China, in 126BC.

He made another trip to Central Asia in 119BC, during which he sent emissaries on the emperor’s behalf to even more far-flung places, such as Persia and India.

Zhang returned to China with exotic foodstuffs such as cucumbers, grapes, pomegranates and sesame but, more importantly, his journeys paved the way for the overland Silk Road, an important link between China and the outside world in subsequent centuries.