Zheng He: Famous Chinese Explorer

Zheng He: Famous Chinese Explorer Who Added Wealth and Power to the Ming Dynasty

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Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) is one of the most famous admirals in Chinese history, and is best known for his treasure voyages. These voyages served to project the power and the wealth of the Ming Dynasty to the known world and were sponsored by the Ming emperor, Yongle, himself. Yet, due to the way that the Yongle Emperor came to power, it has been speculated that the treasure voyages were commissioned with a more sinister goal in mind. Before going into that, however, we shall first have a look at the man who led these voyages, the admiral Zheng He.

The Story of Zheng He

Zheng He was born in 1371 to a Hui Muslim family in Yunnan, southwestern China, and was originally named Ma He. In 1378, this region was conquered by the forces of the Ming Dynasty. Subsequently, the Ming army embarked on a military campaign in this area to eliminate any remaining Yuan loyalists.

In 1381, Zheng He was captured by Ming soldiers, sent to the capital, Nanjing, castrated, and entered into the imperial service as a eunuch. He was then sent to Beiping (modern day Beijing) to serve in the household of the Prince of Yan. During this time, Zheng He proved that he was a capable military commander, as he accompanied his master on various military campaigns. Moreover, thanks to his loyalty and leadership, Zheng He soon became one of the prince’s closest confidants.  

A modern statue of Admiral Zheng He (Quanzhou Maritime Museum)

A modern statue of Admiral Zheng He (Quanzhou Maritime Museum) ( Public Domain )

Creation of the Treasure Fleet

In August 1399, the Prince of Yan led a rebellion against the Jianwen Emperor, the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who was also his nephew. The rebellion was successful, and the Prince of Yan became the Yongle Emperor in 1402.

In the official records, it is stated that the Jianwen Emperor perished in a fire that broke out in the imperial palace. Some, however, have speculated that the Jianwen Emperor survived his uncle’s rebellion, and had fled to Southeast Asia. Thus, it has been suggested that the treasure voyages of Zheng He were sponsored by the Yongle Emperor with the intention of seeking out the deposed emperor. The more commonly accepted reason for these voyages, however, is that they were meant to showcase the Ming Dynasty’s power and wealth to the world.

General Zheng He statue in Sam Po Kong temple, Semarang, Indonesia

General Zheng He statue in Sam Po Kong temple, Semarang, Indonesia ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Thus, in 1403, the Yongle Emperor commanded the construction of the ‘Treasure Fleet.’ In addition to trade ships, warships and support vessels were also built for the journey across the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The largest of these ships is said to have measured at 400 feet (121.9 meters) in length and 186 feet (56.7 meters) in width. As a comparison, Columbus’ Santa Maria is estimated to have had a deck of about 58 feet (17.7 meters) in length.

In 1405, the first of the seven treasure voyages began. At the head of this voyage was Zheng He, who commanded up to 27,870 men on board 317 ships. In addition to sailors, there were also clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, doctors, and meteorologists on this voyage. As for the cargo, the ships held large quantities of luxury goods, including silk, porcelain, as well as gold and silver items.

Woodblock print representing Zheng He’s ships.

Woodblock print representing Zheng He’s ships. ( Public Domain )

Zheng He’s Voyages

The first voyage brought the Treasure Fleet to Calicut, southwestern India, where spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and pepper were purchased. Before reaching Calicut, the fleet travelled to several areas in Southeast Asia, including Champa (southern Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Malacca, and Java. On their return trip to China, the fleet stopped at Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

In 1407, the Treasure Fleet was back in China, laden not only with spices, but also with foreign envoys who came to pay homage and present tribute to the Ming Emperor. Between 1408 and 1433, six more treasure voyages were led by Zheng He. During these voyages, Zheng He negotiated trade pacts, fought pirates, dethroned a hostile king, and brought back more envoys and tribute to the Ming court.

The Kangnido map (1402) predates Zheng He's voyages and suggests that he had quite detailed geographical information on much of the Old World.

The Kangnido map (1402) predates Zheng He's voyages and suggests that he had quite detailed geographical information on much of the Old World. ( Public Domain )

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