I venture to guess that most people in the United States don’t know who Zheng He was. Due to our country’s dominant Eurocentric culture, we are usually only taught about the exploration of the world as it happened by explorers and sailors from Europe. While we debate whether Lief Erickson or Christopher Columbus first discovered America, we neglect the admiral of the world’s greatest navy, Zheng He.
I can only scratch the surface of Zheng He’s life and accomplishments in this sketchy blog post. Volumes could be written about the man, the people, and the ships he commanded. 87 years before Columbus piloted his tiny fleet across the Atlantic Ocean, Zheng He began the first of seven huge expeditions that are still unmatched in world history.
The great explorer began life in 1371, as a son of a Muslim family who named him Ma He. The family lived in the southwestern district of China in today’s Yunnan Province. When Ma He was ten-years-old, he was captured by soldiers of the first Ming emperor in their campaign to subdue the southern regions. The remarkably intelligent and talented youth was raised as a court eunuch and given a military training. His expertise and important connections enabled Ma He to position himself as a high ranking officer in the service of the emperor.
Before the dawn of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese naval technology was unmatched anywhere in the world. Small fleets of Chinese ships had long traded throughout the South China seas and the Indian Ocean. At least 200 years before Europeans used magnetic compasses for navigation, the Chinese used them to enhance their celestrial navigation techniques. Chinese skilled use of compass bearings, star charts, and maps put to shame the primitive state of European technology of the time. In fact, Chinese mariners had used detailed star charts since at least the 1000s.
Shipbuilding technology also put European efforts to shame. Already, many ships were constructed with double hulls featuring separate watertight compartments that decreased the chances of sinking if the ships were rammed. Chinese ships were equipped with rudders that could be raised or lowered to accomodate shallow or deep waters.
Their ships tended to be quite large compared to those built in the rest of the world. Chinese ships that measured 200 feet long with a carrying capacity of 500 people were common in the 700s. European ships would not reach that size until 800 years later. Early Chinese ships had the capability for fresh water storage to use for drinking and bathing. Some ships were even built with private compartments for travelers.
A thousand years before the Europeans built three masted ships, the Chinese were already sailing three and four masted vessels. By the eleventh century, they adapted Arabic techniques of sail design to enable travel against prevailing winds.
These technologies and others set the stage for the great treasure voyages. The addition of a skilled commander-ambassador was needed to fulfill the wishes of the emperor. The most obvious choice was the talented court eunuch, and Grand Director, Ma He. Upon the appointment, the Ming monarch renamed Ma He as Zheng He.
At his disposal was the largest armada ever assembled. It consisted of hundreds of ships. Several of which, were gigantic “treasure ships” that measured 400-feet in length, 160-feet in width, and multiple stories high. The enormous vessels had nine main masts and at least twelve sails. Important passengers travelled in sumptuous staterooms equipped with balconies. It must be remembered that some of these descriptions are probably embellishments.
Zheng He departed port in the summer of 1405 with a fleet of 317 vessels. Historians believe maybe 60 of those ships were the enormous Treasure Ships. The expedition was comprised of around 28,000 men. There were literally thousands of sailors and soldiers on board. Also along, were repairmen, doctors, astronomers, scholars, linguists, and diplomats.
The first stop was Champa, today’s Vietnam. The fleet then sailed on to Siam and to Java. From Indonesia, the ships sailed through the Straits of Malacca in Malaysia then westward. The fleet made its way to the primary destinations along the southwestern coast of India. Along the way, the ships collected tribute in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
By 1430 a new Emperor appointed Zheng He to command his seventh, and final grand expedition. The admiral was given the title “Three Treasures”. Records are sketchy about Zheng He’s death. Some historians believe he died shortly after returning from the seventh voyage in late 1434. Experts believe he was buried at sea, but others think he may have been buried in a tomb at Nanjing.
Following Zheng He’s death, Imperial officials believed that grand expeditions were a gross waste of the empire’s resources, so no more major voyages took place. The grand fleet fell into disrepair and official Chinese historians minimized the importance of Zhenh He and his efforts.
再见 zai jian
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that a large fleet of the size of Zheng He’s would not be assembled until the early 20th century for the first World War. Zheng He once commanded 3,500 ships.