Kent G. DENG

Two pages from the I Yu Thu Chih (Illustrated Record of Strange Countries) circa 1430, attributed to Chu Chuan, a prince of the Ming dynasty, and likely influenced by the knowledge gained from the expeditions of Cheng Ho. Zebras and denizens of Muslim culture are among the “exotic” sights such explorers encountered.

Exploration by sea started the process of globalization in the early modern era of world history. The best-recorded case of Chinese maritime exploration was that of Admiral Zheng He during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). By the mid-fifteenth century the Chinese were among the most knowledgeable, best-equipped, and widest-traveled sailors in the world.

Although seafaring Western explorers have received much attention for their travels, the Chinese were also active in maritime exploration. (Because China as an empire either absorbed already established settlement regions or sent soldiers to its frontiers to settle them, little, if any, overland “exploration” per se occurred.) Chinese explorations at sea reached their peak under Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433) in the mid-fifteenth century and show, by their sheer scale, China’s organizational skills and accomplishments in the maritime sector.

Resource Endowment and Early Achievements

A land-based nation, China nonetheless is surrounded by four seas—the Bo Hai, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea—which link China to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Favorable conditions for sailing from mainland China occur in terms of the climatic patterns, sea and ocean currents, tidal patterns, and inland transportation to the coast.

China’s maritime activities underwent a long evolution. Although scholars have debated when and how Chinese maritime exploration began and how much Chinese sailors achieved in their premodern era (ending around 1840), the extent of China’s maritime undertakings can be understood by examining the three types of sea routes that Chinese sailors used: local short-range routes along China’s own coast; medium-range routes to East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia; and long-range routes to West Asia and East Africa.

By the western Han dynasty period (206 BCE–8 CE) Chinese ships reached Simhala (now Sri Lanka). In the eastern Han dynasty period (25–220 CE) Chinese ships went beyond Sri Lanka to reach destinations in West Asia. In 97 CE Gan Ying, the Chinese envoy to the Roman Empire, went as far as the edge of the Persian Gulf. From the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) onward, some of these sea routes were frequently used by the Chinese, the Indians, and Arabs; they formed the so-called Silk Routes (as compared with the overland Silk Roads).

Maritime Growth during and after the Song Economic Revolution

By the tenth century most of the sea routes used by the Chinese followed coastlines. Major maritime progress was made during the Song dynasty (960–1279), when China experienced its medieval economic revolution. For the first time Chinese ships were able to cross some 2,300 kilometers of open waters in the Indian Ocean from Malacca to Sri Lanka, avoiding the coastal detour in the Bay of Bengal. They even sailed from Sri Lanka to Ghubbat al Qamar, an inlet of the Arabian Sea on the Arabian Peninsula, across another 4,000 kilometers of ocean. This was a huge leap in Chinese maritime advancement.

With ongoing incremental improvements in technology, the Chinese sailed faster and more accurately. As a result, sea voyages became progressively shorter. During western Han times a trip to the vicinity of Singapore took some 150 days, but the same trip took only 40 days during the Song dynasty. During the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) and the Tang dynasty, it took more than a month to travel from Sri Lanka to the Persian Gulf, whereas by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), to cover a similar distance took just twenty or so days.

At the center of the Chinese progress in sailing was improvement in navigation and shipbuilding. Astronomical navigation became well established in China by the end of the ninth century, and it was enhanced during the tenth century by the use of the compass, which led to the stage of partial dead reckoning, that is, navigating in part without reliance on the stars, using measured travel distance and compass positions instead. Later sophisticated seaway compass charts became available among Chinese navigators; these contained information on main landmarks, star elevations at chosen locations in different seasons, travel distances, and compass readings for various sea routes. A good example is Zheng He hanghai tu (Navigation Chart of Zheng He’s Voyages) from the fifteenth century.

In terms of shipbuilding, Chinese technology reached its maturity by the twelfth century with the Fuzhou-type ship (fuchuan), which was used exclusively for sea voyages. Its main features were a ballasted keel and bilge keels together with a low deck length-beam ratio for stability; a V-shaped bottom and multiple sails and jibs (three to twelve as recorded) for speed; multiple stern rudders for steering; and a hull of clinker-arranged planks with multiple holds for a stronger structure. During the same period the versatile “shallow-water ship” (shachuan), commonly known as the “Chinese junk,” was also invented; its distinctive features were a keel-less hull and a U-shaped bottom. The Fuzhou-type was the standard for the Ming fleet.

By the mid-fifteenth century the Chinese were among the most knowledgeable, best-equipped, and widest-traveled sailors in the world, having traveled by 1440 to a total of 153 new places in such geographically disperse regions as Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the east African coast, and even the Mediterranean region.

Ming Voyages: Glory and Outcome

Undoubtedly the best-recorded case of Chinese exploration was that of Admiral Zheng He. Without Zheng He and his publicized seven voyages to the Indian Ocean, much of Chinese maritime ability and achievements may have been obscured in history, as happened with the Polynesians.

Recruited as a young eunuch to enter the inner circle of the Ming court, Zheng was appointed in his early thirties to command a long oceangoing voyage in 1405 despite the fact that he had no apparent sailing experience. Zheng’s constant sailing for the next three decades (until 1433) apparently served for the Ming court the purpose of keeping him away from state politics—a dignified way to achieve his exile after his involvement in a court coup. In this context an element of sailing for the sake of sailing was associated with Zheng’s journeys, all of which resulted in economic losses for the Ming dynasty. Nor did Zheng He’s voyages lead to greater prosperity in foreign trade, which might have let the court recoup the cost of the voyages.

In reality, the sole purpose of the ill-defined voyages was as a public relations campaign to win friends for China overseas. Indeed, Zheng and his men behaved like philanthropists, distributing gifts wherever they went. Even so, the actual effectiveness of the campaign remains highly questionable. The number of countries that paid tribute to the Ming court increased little during and after Zheng’s voyages. The main evidence that “international peace” was promoted by Zheng’s visits comes from the fact that Zheng set up four regular stopovers in Champa (in present-day southern Vietnam), Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and Guli (Calicut in present-day India) instead of turning these places into China’s colonies.

Spectacular as his voyages were, these multiple-legged trips were by no means unprecedented in Chinese diplomacy: Twelve centuries earlier, during the Three Kingdoms period (220–265 CE), Sun Quan, the king of Wu, sent Zhu Ying and Kang Tai overseas for a twenty-year-long diplomatic mission, during which time they visited Southeast Asia, the South Asian subcontinent, and the Arabian Sea region. Similar efforts were made during Yuan dynasty rule (1279–1368). And Zheng He was not alone in his adventuring during the Ming dynasty: Another navigator, Shi Jinqing (?–1421), toured Asia as imperial commissioner, traveling at least as far as Sumatra, Java, and Japan.

Because of the unclear motives, extravagant nature, and doubtful impact of Zheng’s voyages, the Confucian literati during the Ming dynasty did their best to ignore them. Zheng’s records survived only in the hands of his closest aides, Ma Huan and Fei Xin, in the form of travelogues entitled Yingya shenglan (Tours to Great Sites Overseas) and Xingcha shenglan (Voyages on Heavenly Rafts), written in 1451 and 1460, respectively. Since then most of Zheng’s findings have remained unknown to the large majority of the Chinese population.

However, the sheer scale of Zheng’s operation shows China’s organizational skills and accomplishments in the maritime sector: As many as 208 vessels and 28,640 marines were involved in a single voyage, taking multiple sea routes simultaneously with detachments in order to maximize geographic coverage. Scholars have suggested that Zheng’s detachments may have visited even Australia and part of North America across the Atlantic Ocean.

In the end, Zheng’s voyages proved to be unsustainable. Cool-headed cost-benefit calculation finally prevailed among Confucian decision makers, and such wasteful voyages were never undertaken again. Chinese sailors during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) were content to remain within the China seas. In a twist of historical fate, this made Zheng a legend and his journeys the pinnacle of Chinese maritime history; Zheng achieved a worldwide record that was broken only by Europeans with different political and economic institutions and agendas, as seen from the activities of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

Historical Perspective

China’s achievements in exploration over the long run (from the beginning of the Han dynasty in 206 BCE until the end of Zheng’s journeys in 1433 CE) were significant by premodern standards. However, as in many other areas, the Chinese were ruthlessly surpassed by the post-Renaissance Europeans, who enjoyed the fruit of the science revolution, the military revolution, and, finally, the Industrial Revolution. All these revolutions took place after Zheng’s era.

Ironically, during the late nineteenth century when Chinese took to the sea again in large numbers, they were no longer accomplished mariners on showy Chinese treasure ships. Rather, they were helpless coolie laborers on foreign ships on the way to sell their cheap labor to the West, showing just how poor and weak China became after Zheng’s time.

Further Reading

Deng, K. G. (1995). An evaluation of the role of Admiral Zheng He’s voyages in Chinese maritime history. International Journal of Maritime History, 7(2), 1–19.

Fei Xin. (1460). Xingcha shenglan [Voyages on heavenly rafts]. Publisher unknown.

Gang Deng. (1997). Chinese maritime activities and socio-economic consequences, c. 2100 BC–1900 AD. New York, London, and Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Huan Ma. (1955 [1451]). Yingya shenglan [Tours to great sites overseas]. Beijing: Zhonghua Books. (Original work published 1451)

Levathes, L. (1994). When China ruled the seas: The treasure fleet of the dragon throne, 1405–1433. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sheng-lan Ying yai. (1433). An overall survey of the oceanic shores (J. V. G. Mills, Trans.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Menzies, G. (2002). 1421: The year China discovered the world. London: Bantam Books.

Naval Institute of Ocean Cartography and Department of Maritime History, and Dalian Sea Transportation Institute. (1988). Xinbian Zheng He hanghai tuji [A new compilation of the navigation charts of Zheng He’s voyages]. Beijing: People’s Communication Press.

Needham, J. (1959). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 3. Mathematics and the sciences of the heavens and the earth. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Needham, J. (1962). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 4. Physics and physical technology: Part 1. Physics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Needham, J. (1965). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 4. Physics and physical technology: Part 2. Mechanical engineering. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Needham, J. (1971). Science and civilisation in China, Vol. 4. Physics and physical technology: Part 3. Civil engineering and nautics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Zhao Rukuo. (1912). Zhufan Zhi [Records of foreign peoples] (F. Hirth & W. W. Rockhill, Trans.). St. Petersburg, Russia: Printing Office of the Imperial Office of the Academy of Sciences.

Zhou Yusen. (1959). Zheng He hanglu kao [On Zheng He’s sea routes]. Taipei, Taiwan: Maritime Press.

A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens.


Hè lì jī qún

Source: Deng, Kent G. (2009). Exploration, Maritime. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 784–787. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Exploration, Maritime (Hánghǎi tànxiǎn 航海探险)|Hánghǎi tànxiǎn 航海探险 (Exploration, Maritime)

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