|The Ming Voyages
From 1405 until 1433, the Chinese imperial eunuch Zheng He led seven
ocean expeditions for the Ming emperor that are unmatched in world history.
These missions were astonishing as much for their distance as for their
size: during the first ones, Zheng He traveled all the way from China
to Southeast Asia and then on to India, all the way to major trading
sites on India's southwest coast. In his fourth voyage, he traveled to
the Persian Gulf. But for the three last voyages, Zheng went even further,
all the way to the east coast of Africa. This was impressive enough,
but Chinese merchants had traveled this far before. What was even more
impressive about these voyages was that they were done with hundreds
of huge ships and tens of thousands of sailors and other passengers.
Over sixty of the three hundred seventeen ships on the first voyage were
enormous "Treasure Ships," sailing vessels over 400 hundred
feet long, 160 feet wide, with several stories, nine masts and twelve
sails, and luxurious staterooms complete with balconies. The likes of
these ships had never before been seen in the world, and it would not
be until World War I that such an armada would be assembled again. The
story of how these flotillas came to be assembled, where they went, and
what happened to them is one of the great sagas — and puzzles — in
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Emperor and His Ambitions
The Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
was a Chinese dynasty with a Chinese imperial family, as distinct
from the dynasty that came before it (the Mongol, or Yuan, dynasty
of Chinggis and Khubilai Khan) or the one
that followed it (the Manchu, or Qing, dynasty). To demonstrate Ming
power, the first emperors initiated campaigns to decisively defeat
any domestic or foreign threat. The third emperor of the Ming Dynasty,
Zhu Di or the Yongle Emperor, was particularly aggressive and personally
led major campaigns against Mongolian tribes to the north and west.
He also wanted those in other countries to be aware of China's power,
and to perceive it as the strong country he believed it had been
in earlier Chinese dynasties, such as the Han and the Song; he thus
revived the traditional tribute system. In the traditional tributary
arrangement, countries on China's borders agreed to recognize China
as their superior and its emperor as lord of "all under Heaven." These
countries regularly gave gifts of tribute in exchange for certain
benefits, like military posts and trade treaties. In this system,
all benefited, with both peace and trade assured. Because the Yongle
emperor realized that the major threats to China in this period were
from the north, particularly the Mongols, he saved many of those
military excursions for himself. He sent his most trusted generals
to deal with the Manchurian people to the north, the Koreans and
Japanese to the east, and the Vietnamese in the south. 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.
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Trusted Admiral Zheng He
Zheng He was born Ma He to a Muslim family in the far southwest, in
today's Yunnan province. At ten years old he was captured by soldiers
sent there by the first Ming emperor intent on subduing the south. He
was sent to the capital to be trained in military ways. Growing up to
be a burly, imposing man, over six feet tall with a chest contemporaries
said measured over five feet around, he was also extremely talented and
intelligent. 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 the south to head his splendid armada
to the "Western Oceans," he naturally picked the talented court
eunuch, Ma He, whom he renamed Zheng.
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China had been extending its power out to sea for 300 years. To satisfy
growing Chinese demand for special spices, medicinal herbs, and raw materials,
Chinese merchants cooperated with Moslem and Indian traders to develop
a rich network of trade that reached beyond island southeast Asia to
the fringes of the Indian Ocean. Into the ports of eastern China came
ginseng, lacquerware, celadon, gold and silver, horses and oxen from
Korea and Japan. Into the ports of southern China came hardwoods and
other tree products, ivory, rhinoceros horn, brilliant kingfisher feathers,
ginger, sulfur and tin from Vietnam and Siam in mainland southeast Asia;
cloves, nutmeg, batik fabrics, pearls, tree resins, and bird plumes from
Sumatra, Java, and the Moluccas in island southeast Asia. Trade winds
across the Indian Ocean brought ships carrying cardamom, cinnamon, ginger,
turmeric, and especially pepper from Calicut on the southwestern coast
of India, gemstones from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), as well as woolens, carpets,
and more precious stones from ports as far away as Hormuz on the Persian
Gulf and Aden on the Red Sea. Agricultural products from north and east
Africa also made their way to China, although little was known about
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. Star charts had been produced from at least the eleventh century,
reflecting China's concern with heavenly events (unmatched until the
Renaissance in Europe).
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.
Chinese ships were also noted for their advances in sail design and
rigging. Bypassing the need for banks of rowers, by the third and fourth
centuries the Chinese were building three- and four-masted ships (1000
years before Europe) of wind-efficient design. In the eleventh and twelfth
centuries they added lug and then lateen sails from the Arabs to help
sail against the prevailing winds.
By the eighth century, ships 200 feet long capable of carrying 500 men
were being built in China (the size of Columbus' ships eight centuries
later!) By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), these stout and stable ships
with their private cabins for travelers and fresh water for drinking
and bathing were the ships of choice for Arab and Persian traders in
the Indian Ocean. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) encouraged commercial
activity and maritime trade, so the succeeding Ming Dynasty inherited
large shipyards, many skilled shipyard workers, and finely tuned naval
technology from the dynasty that preceded it.
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. 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
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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
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.
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Factions at court had long been critical of the Yongle emperor's extravagant
ways. Not only had he sent seven missions of the enormous Treasure Ships
over the western seas, he had ordered overseas missions northeast and
east, had sent envoys multiple times across desert and grassland to the
mountains of Tibet and Nepal and on to Bengal and Siam, and had many
times raised armies against fragmented but still troublesome Mongolian
tribes to the north. He had embroiled China in a losing battle with Annam
(northern Vietnam) for decades (most latterly due to exorbitant demands
for timber to build his palace). In addition to these foreign exploits,
he had further depleted the treasury by moving the capital from Nanjing
to Beijing and, with a grandeur on land to match that on sea, by ordering
the construction of the magnificent Forbidden City. This project involved
over a million laborers. To further fortifying the north of his empire,
he pledged his administration to the enormous task of reviving and extending
the Grand Canal. This made it possible to transport grain and other foodstuffs
from the rich southern provinces to the northern capital by barge, rather
than by ships along the coast.
Causing further hardship were natural disasters, severe famines in Shantong
and Hunan, epidemics in Fujian, plus lightning strikes that destroyed
part of the newly constructed Forbidden City. In 1448, flooding of the
Yellow River left millions homeless and thousands of acres unproductive.
As a result of these disasters coupled with corruption and nonpayment
of taxes by wealthy elite, China's tax base shrank by almost half over
the course of the century.
Furthermore the fortuitous fragmentation of the Mongol threat along
China's northern borders did not last. By 1449 several tribes unified
and their raids and counterattacks were to haunt the Ming Dynasty for
the next two centuries until its fall, forcing military attention to
be focused on the north. But the situation in the south was not much
better. Without continual diplomatic attention, pirates and smugglers
again were active in the South China Sea.
The Ming court was divided into many factions, most sharply into the
pro-expansionist voices led by the powerful eunuch factions that had
been responsible for the policies supporting Zheng Ho's voyages, and
more traditional conservative Confucian court advisers who argued for
frugality. When another seafaring voyage was suggested to the court in
1477, the vice president of the Ministry of War confiscated all of Zheng
He's records in the archives, damning them as "deceitful exaggerations
of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people's eyes and
ears." He argued that "the expeditions of San Bao [meaning "Three
Jewels," as Zheng He was called] to the West Ocean wasted tens of
myriads of money and grain and moreover the people who met their deaths
may be counted in the myriads. Although he returned with wonderful precious
things, what benefit was it to the state?"
Linked to eunuch politics and wasteful policies, the voyages were over.
By the century's end, ships could not be built with more than two masts,
and in 1525 the government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing
ships. The greatest navy in history, which once had 3,500 ships (the
U.S. Navy today has only 324), was gone.
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- Describe the many projects of the Yongle emperor to proclaim Ming
power. Why do you think that the voyages to the west were the most
- Why has the Yongle emperor been called one of the most active
of the Ming emperors, both militarily and politically?
- Why has the role of the Mediterranean Sea for Europe been compared
to that of the Indian Ocean for Asia?
- Why did the Ming court rely so heavily on imperial eunuchs like Zheng
He to carry out its policies rather than on traditional Confucian officials?
- Compare China's maritime power in the fifteenth century with Europe's
at that time. What was the basis for China's naval power?
- Why do you think that the overseas voyages were halted? Just as important,
why do you think that the Yongle emperor's attempt to reinstate the
traditional tributary system was abandoned? What were some of the implications
of these decisions?
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- Divide the class into seven groups. Have each group research one
of Zheng He's voyages, detailing the itinerary, the exchange of tribute
and trade, and the reactions of the Chinese to the regions visited.
- Imagine you were a resident or a leader of one of the sites visited
by Zheng He. Write journal entries or letters to the Yongle emperor
to be sent with Zheng He about your impressions of the Chinese and
the problems and possibilities of more contact with them.
- Make a map of the trade and tribute routes of Ming China, with a
key that indicates all the products that were exchanged at its borders:
northeast, north, northwest, west, south, southeast, and east.
- Role play the discussions at the Ming court. Select a student to
be the Chinese emperor. Divide the rest of the class into pro-expansionist
advisers and anti-expansionist advocates. Write memorials to the emperor
detailing your position and then role play discussions at court. You
might hold several of these discussions for different periods in Ming
history, for example, one at the beginning of Yongle's reign, another
after the Forbidden City was built, a third after the Mongol threat
- Make a model or diagram of one of the Treasure Ships, carefully
making to scale the important features of fifteenth century Chinese
- The Chinese were not the only peoples to go on ocean voyages in
the fifteenth century. Research Muslim, Malayo-Polynesian, West and
East African, and South American expansion pre-1450. Then place the
Iberian expansion of this period in this context.
- Go to the website The
Great Chinese Mariner Zheng He [Cheng Ho].
Use the student reading and the image of a sixteenth-century Iberian
ship superimposed on one of Zheng He's treasure ships (at the top of
the page) to compare the Chinese fifteenth-century treasure ships
with the ships used in Portuguese and Spanish maritime voyages.
Acknowledgment: Dr. Sue Gronewald, a specialist
in Chinese history, was the author of this unit.
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