Admiral Zheng He and China’s Golden Age

brown and red temple

One of the most enduring symbols of the Ming dynasty’s eagerness to extend international relations under the emperor Yongle, is the seven sea voyages of admiral Zheng He. Yongle’s predecessors had been cautious to the point of isolationism when it came to foreign relations, especially after the recent Mongol invasion which saw China being ruled by descendants of Genghis Khan and his horde. More secure on his imperial throne, having supplanted it after a  three-year civil war, Yongle sought to legitimize his international legitimacy and extend out to to the rest of the world. 

The traditional presentation of tribute to Chinese emperors by smaller states in Southeast Asia was given as a preventative measure of invasion and to achieve a theoretical promise of protection in the case of an invasion by a third party. The tribute had always been a badge of approval to the Chinese, indicating that their emperor was indeed the Son of Heaven and the most powerful ruler on earth reaffirmed their cultural superiority. In the traditional tributary arrangement, countries on China’s border agreed to to recognize China as their superior and its emperor as lord of “all under heaven,” The system had lapsed during the Mongol invasion of China but Yongle wanted to revive it. Yongle wanted the surrounding countries, and the rest of the world, to be aware of China’s power and history, and to perceive it as the strong country he believed it had been in earlier Chinese dynasties, such as the Han and the Song. 

Yongle would dispatch many diplomatic missions across land routes to such places as Samarkand and Tibet, deep in the Himalayan plateau. For ocean expeditions to the south and west, however, he decided that this time China should make use of its extremely advanced technology and all the riches the state had to offer. Lavish expeditions should be mounted in order to overwhelm foreign peoples and convince them beyond any doubt about Ming power. For this special purpose, he chose one of his most trusted generals, a man he had known since he was young, Zheng He. 

Zheng He
Zheng He | Biography, Facts, & Significance | Britannica
Statue of Zheng He in Kuning, Yunnan Province, China

Born into a Muslim peasant family in Yunnan Province, Southern China in 1371, the future explorer would have a difficult childhood but certainly had the travel bug. At 10 years old he was captured by soldiers sent to Yunnan province by the first Ming emperor intent on subduing the south. He was subsequently sent to the capital to be trained in military ways. He received both literary and military training, then made his way up the military ladder with ease, making important allies at court in the process.When the emperor needed a trustworthy ambassador familiar with Islam and the ways of South Asia to head his splendid armada, he naturally picked his talented court eunuch, Zheng He. 

By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China had reached a peak of naval technology unsurpassed in the world. While using many technologies of Chinese invention, Chinese shipbuilders also combined technologies they borrowed and adapted from seafarers of the South China seas and the Indian Ocean. For centuries, China was the preeminent maritime power in the region, with advances in navigation, naval architecture, and propulsion. From the ninth century on, the Chinese had taken their magnetic compasses aboard ships to use for navigating (two centuries before Europe). In addition to compasses, Chinese could navigate by the stars when skies were clear, using printed manuals with star charts and compass bearings that had been available since the thirteenth century.

An important advance in shipbuilding used since the second century in China was the construction of double hulls divided into separate watertight compartments. This saved ships from sinking if rammed, but it also offered a method of carrying water for passengers and animals, as well as tanks for keeping fish catches fresh. Crucial to navigation was another Chinese invention of the first century, the sternpost rudder, fastened to the outside rear of a ship which could be raised and lowered according to the depth of the water, and used to navigate close to shore, in crowded harbors and narrow channels. Both these inventions were commonplace in China 1,000 years before their introduction to Europe.

Because the Yongle emperor wanted to impress Ming power upon the world and show off China’s resources and importance, he gave orders to build even larger ships than were necessary for the voyages. Thus the word went out to construct special “Treasure Ships,” ships over 400 feet long, 160 feet wide, with nine masts, twelve sails, and four decks, large enough to carry 2,500 tons of cargo each and armed with dozens of small cannons (the size of Columbus’ ships eight centuries later.) Accompanying those ships were to be hundreds of smaller ships, some filled only with water, others carrying troops or horses or cannon, still others with gifts of silks and brocades, porcelains, lacquerware, tea, and ironworks that would impress leaders of far-flung civilizations.

The Seven Voyages

The first expedition of this mighty armada (1405-07) was composed of 317 ships, including perhaps as many as sixty huge Treasure Ships, and nearly 28,000 men. In addition to thousands of sailors, builders and repairmen for the trip, there were soldiers, diplomatic specialists, medical personnel, astronomers, and scholars of foreign ways, especially Islam. The fleet stopped in Champa (central Vietnam) and Siam (today’s Thailand) and then on to island Java, to points along the Straits of Malacca, and then proceeded to its main destination of Cochin and the kingdom of Calicut on the southwestern coast of India. On his return, Zheng He put down a pirate uprising in Sumatra, bringing the pirate chief, an overseas Chinese, back to Nanjing for punishment.

The second expedition (1407-1409) took 68 ships to the court of Calicut to attend the inauguration of a new king. Zheng He organized this expedition but did not actually lead it in person.

Zheng He did command the third voyage (1409-1411) with 48 large ships and 30,000 troops, visiting many of the same places as on the first voyage but also traveling to Malacca on the Malay peninsula and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). When fighting broke out there between his forces and those of a small kingdom, Zheng put down the fighting, captured the king and brought him back to China where he was released by the emperor and returned home duly impressed.

The Seven Voyages of Zheng He
A map illustrating the route and destinations of the Seven Voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433

The fourth voyage (1413-15) extended the scope of the expeditions even further. This time in addition to visiting many of the same sites, Zheng He commandeered his 63 ships and over 28,000 men to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. The main chronicler of the voyages, the twenty-five year old Muslim translator Ma Huan, joined Zheng He on this trip. On the way, Zheng He stopped in Sumatra to fight on the side of a deposed sultan, bringing the usurper back to Nanjing for execution.

The fifth voyage (1417-1419) was primarily a return trip for seventeen heads of state from South Asia. They had made their way to China after Zheng He’s visits to their homelands in order to present their tribute at the Ming Court. On this trip Zheng He ventured even further, first to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, and then on to the east coast of Africa, stopping at the city states of Mogadishu and Brawa (in today’s Somalia), and Malindi (in present day Kenya). He was frequently met with hostility but this was easily subdued. Many ambassadors from the countries visited came back to China with him.

The sixth expedition (1421-1422) of 41 ships sailed to many of the previously visited Southeast Asian and Indian courts and stops in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the coast of Africa, principally in order to return nineteen ambassadors to their homelands. Zheng He returned to China after less than a year, having sent his fleet onward to pursue several separate itineraries, with some ships going perhaps as far south as Sofala in present day Mozambique.

The seventh and final voyage (1431-33) was sent out by the Yongle emperor’s successor, his grandson the Xuande emperor. This expedition had more than one hundred large ships and over 27,000 men, and it visited all the important ports in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean as well as Aden and Hormuz. One auxiliary voyage traveled up the Red Sea to Jidda, only a few hundred miles from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It was on the return trip in 1433 that Zheng He died and was buried at sea, although his official grave still stands in Nanjing, China. Nearly forgotten in China until recently, he was immortalized among Chinese communities abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia where to this day he is celebrated and revered as a god.

Thanks for reading!

Kareem Abdurazag


Writer | Culture & Humanities Blogger

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