Charles C. KOLB

Woodcut of an ocean-going ship from the time of Admiral Zheng He. Ink on paper. From the book Wu-pei chih by Mao Yuan-i, 1626.

Zheng He was a diplomat, explorer, and fleet admiral who, between 1405 and 1433, made seven voyages to the Indian Ocean. His expeditions and four naval and land battles brought more than thirty kingdoms into the Chinese economic sphere.

Zheng He ?? was born Ma He in Yunnan Province (southwest China bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.) He was a sixth-generation son of the Ma family, descended from devout Turko-Persian Muslims originally from Bukhara in Central Asia (present-day Uzbekistan).

In 1381 a Ming dynasty army came to Yunnan to quell a revolt. Ma He was taken captive, castrated, and trained as a servant for the imperial court where he became a confidant of the Prince of Yan (1360–1424), fourth son of Hongwu (1328–1398), the first Ming emperor. Yan became Yongle, the third Ming emperor. Ma He, renamed Zheng He on 11 February 1404, was director of palace servants and held the highest rank among eunuchs.

Yongle began major shipbuilding in 1403, shortly after he assumed the throne, and orderd Zheng to command a naval expedition combining exploration and the extension of the tribute system to the Western (Indian) Ocean. Zheng ultimately made seven voyages:

? First voyage (1405–1407) to Champa (a kingdom in South Vietnam), Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Cochin, and Calicut (southwest coast of India)

? Second voyage (1407–1409) to Champa, Java, Siam, Sumatra, and Calicut

? Third voyage (1409–1411) to Champa, Calicut, Coimbatore (southern India), and Puttanpur (western India)

? Fourth voyage (1412–1415) to Champa and Calicut, Hormuz (Persian Gulf), the Maldives, and Sumatra

? Fifth voyage (1416–1419) to Champa and Calicut, the Maldives, Hormuz, Aden, Mogadishu and Malindi (both coastal East Africa)

? Sixth voyage (1421–1422) separate squadrons sailed to Champa and Calicut, Ceylon and the Maldives, Hormuz, the Arabian peninsula, East Africa, and Sumatran states (Lambri, Aru, and Semudera)

? Seventh voyage (1431–1433) followed the route to Hormuz

From 1424 to 1430, Zheng commanded the garrison at Nanking, and the fleet remained there until the new emperor, Xuande (1398–1435) sent him on his seventh and last exploration. Zheng He died during this voyage and was buried at sea.

For all but the fifth voyage, contemporary records (Mingshi, Ming History) document the numbers of ships and personnel. For instance, on the first voyage, Zheng commaned 62 treasure ships, 255 other vessels, and 27,800 armed troops and mariners; other voyages were comparable. Later historians listed the treasure ships as nine-masted junks about 127 meters (416 feet) long and 52 meters (170 feet) wide) and capable of carrying up to 1,500 tons. By comparison Columbus’s were about 17 meters (55 feet) long and carried 700–1,000 tons; a modern ship of 60 meters (200 feet) long carries 1,200 tons. Zheng’s treasure ships would have been the largest wooden ships ever built, a claim many historians now dispute.

Zheng He’s fleet consisted of treasure ships, horse ships, troop transports, and supply ships as well as auxiliary craft such as patrol boats and water tankers; overall, 1,476 wooden ships were constructed during his administration; the first voyage alone consisted of 252 vessels. The improbable sizes of the largest ships are questioned because of varying measurements given in zhang (141 inches) and chi (14.1 inches) which varied through time. Keel-less, bark-rigged treasure vessels had up to nine masts and twelve sails, and archaeological specimens suggest lengths of 164.5–183 meters (538–600 feet), while Chinese documentary accounts indicate lengths of up to 117–136 meters (385–440) feet and beams of 48–55 meters (157.5–180 feet).

Zheng’s seven expeditions and four naval and land battles brought more than thirty kingdoms into the Chinese economic sphere. During Zheng He’s tenure, China expanded its maritime exploration and seagoing trade, established and enhanced tribute systems, and embarked on territorial conquests in the north, especially present-day Mongolia, and the south into Vietnam. His seven voyages served to establish the wealth and political power and technical sophistication of China. Subsequently, China withdrew from the sea and focused on land conquests, and Ming dynasty naval efforts diminished dramatically primarily due to the costs of maintaining the fleet and financial pressures to maintain armies fighting in Mongolia.

Further Reading

Dreyer, E. L. (2007). Zheng He: China and the oceans in the early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433. New York: Pearson-Longman.

Hvistendahl, M. (2008). Rebuilding a treasure ship. Archaeology, 61(2), 40–45.

Levathes, L. (1997). When China ruled the seas: The treasure fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Ma Huan (G. Mills, trans.). (1434/1970). Yingyai Shenglan [Overall survey of the Star Raft]. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Menzies, G. (2003). 1421: The year the China discovered the world. New York: Morrow.

Source: Kolb, Charles C.. (2009). ZHENG He. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2633–2634. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

ZHENG He (Zhèng Hé ??)|Zhèng Hé ?? (ZHENG He)

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