Cheng He

Ming Dynasty

Before 1368 China had been part of the Mongol empire that stretched from Asia to Europe. (3) After the Mongols were overthrown in 1368, the emperor of the new Ming Dynasty wanted to assert Chinese power on the sea instead, so he set about building a navy (3) Chinese officials made elaborate plans that would not be fulfilled for many years. (3)

Cheng He background

While the planning was being done, the man who would lead the navy was still an infant (3) He was born in 1371 (2) or 1372 (9) Originally named Ma Sanbao/Sanpao (3) or Ma Sanpao (5) or Ma Ho (4), or Ma He (9), he came from Kunyang, a town in southwest Yunnan (3) or Yunan (4) Province. His family, named Ma, were part of a minority group known as the Semur (3) They originally came from Central Asia (3) and followed the religion of Islam (2) Both his grandfather and father were ‘hajjis’ (4) which meant that they had made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca; (3) the family name of Ma was used by Muslims in representation of the word Mohammed. (4) Ma Sanbao/Sanpao/Ma Ho grew up hearing their accounts of travel through foreign lands (3)

Yunnan Conquered

Yunnan was one of the last strongholds of Mongol support, holding out long after the Ming Dynasty began (3) After Ming armies led by Chu Ti (5) or Zhu Di (4) conquered Yunnan in 1382 (3) / around 1382 (4,9), to take control of the area, Ma Sanbao/Sanpao/Ma Ho was taken captive and brought to Nanjing (3) He was ten years old. (9) At the age of 13 he was castrated, as were other young prisoners, and he was placed as a servant in the Zhu Di’s household. (9) Zhu Di was the Chinese Emperor’s fourth son (out of twenty-six), and was the Prince of Yan. (9) In 1403 Prince Zhu Di became Emperor of China, taking the name Yong Le. (1) or Yong Lo. (5)

Rise to Prominence of Cheng He

Ma Sanbao/Sanpao/Ma Ho was a brave soldier (3) When Zhu Di seized the Chinese throne from his nephew, Cheng He fought well on his behalf (3) Cheng He is described in Chinese historical records as tall (7 feet high according to (4)) and heavy, with ‘clear-cut features and long ear lobes; a stride like a tiger’s and voice clear and vibrant (3)’ The large, commanding and battle experienced eunuch distinguished himself during Prince Zhu Di’s bid for the throne, in both the 1399 defense of Beiping and the final campaign of 1402 to capture Nanjing. (9) When fighting outside a place called Zhenglunba, Ma Sanbao/Sanpao/Ma Ho’s horse was killed. (4) The Emperor renamed him Cheng He in memory of this event. (4) or ‘when he became emperor’ (9) Cheng He was also known as San Bao which means ‘three jewels’. (4) He was well liked and admired for his quick wit in argument (3) He became a close confidant of the new emperor and was given an important position at court (3)

Yong Le Radicalism

Emperor Yong Le (3) or Yong Lo (5) had ambitious plans (3) A vigorous man, he rebuilt the Great Wall to the condition in which it exists today (3) He also built his new capital at Beijing, next to the remains of the former Yuan capital (3) The emperor decided to go ahead with the sea voyages that had long been planned (3) In 1404 (4) he appointed ZH ‘Admiral of the Western Seas’ (3) and ordered him to oversee the construction of a Treasure Fleet to explore the seas surrounding China. (4) Admiral ZH was the first eunuch appointed to such a high military position in China. (4)

Mongol maritime enterprise

The Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries maintained the large fleet, sent emissaries to Sumatra, Ceylon, and southern India to establish influence, and Yuan merchants gradually took over the spice trade from the Arabs. (9) It was the Yuan ships of this era that Marco Polo saw and reported, consisting of four-masted ocean-going junks with sixty individual cabins for merchants, up to 300 crew and watertight bulkheads. (9) The Yuan dynasty greatly favoured sea power (somewhat at the expense of the lake and river forces, which had been developing human-powered paddlewheel ships up until this period). (9) However, while the Yuan achieved greater foreign contacts and overseas trading success, Kublai Khan failed spectacularly in his two massive maritime expeditions against Japan (1274 and 1281), and also in expeditions against the Liu Ch’iu (Ryukyu) Islands. (9) Initial successes of a Yuan armada against Java were followed by a forced retirement. (9) A major feature of the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty was a dramatic lessening of Confucian influence in the Imperial court, and a great opening to foreign influences. (9)

Ming Maritime Enterprise

When the Manchus retook the Imperial throne and thus founded the Ming dynasty in the second half of the 14th century, the early Ming emperors inherited much of the Yuan maritime technology and policy. (9) There were huge ocean-going warships, large ocean capable cargo ships, a regular coastal grain delivery system transporting grain from the southern provinces to the northern ones, and considerable foreign contacts, primarily in south east Asia but extending to Ceylon and India. (9) However, two other dynamics were at work. (9) First, the Ming dynasty was continually working to restore her native culture after a century-long of foreign rule. (9) The Grand Canal, initially completed during the Sui dynasty (6th century AD) with a vast remodelling and extension to the new northern capital at Peking during the Yuan (13th century), was initially in disrepair due to the extensive conflict between the Yuan and Ming. (9) The early Ming saw the rebuilding and improvement of the Grand Canal and other canals, paved highways, bridges, defenses, temples, shrines and walled cities. (9) Second, the Ming administration was being restructured, with a resurgence of Confucian scholars as senior officials and a great development in the use of eunuchs in high office as well. (9) These two categories of high officials were in considerable conflict throughout the Ming period. (9)

Mandarins and Eunuchs

The Confucian mandarins were generally ascendant, but during the rule of the third Ming Emperor, Zhu Di, the eunuch administrators and warriors were greatly trusted and given great power. (9) This was largely because Zhu Di was a rebel warrior prince who usurped the throne of his nephew, with an initial power base purely in the north. (9) Many of the government ministers disapproved of his usurpation early in his reign, so Zhu Di preferred to entrust eunuchs with a large share of the business of government. (9) Many of the eunuch administrators (such as ZH himself) had been loyal retainers to Zhu Di in the frontier wars and the rebellion for decades, whereas the Confucian administrators and warrior princes had defended the old, recently defeated regime. (9) There thus developed a conflict between two factions of the Chinese court, one stressing the commercial and technological benefits of foreign trade, and the other the benefits in social purity of isolationism combined with an overwhelming political unity. (9) The accession of Zhu Di had tipped the balance in favour of the ‘traders’. (9)

The voyage is planned

In 1403 he issued orders to begin construction of an imperial fleet of warships and support ships to visit ports in the China seas and the Indian Ocean. (9) In the case of the Ming Indian Ocean expeditions, the Emperor Zhu Di chose the eunuch Admiral ZHas his agent and leader of the expeditions. (9) One reason for this was to try to apprehend his defeated rival, known as the ‘Jianwen Emperor’. At large, this person might well become the leader of a legitimist counter-revolution against Zhu Di. (9) The Ming Tong Jian, an unofficial history of the period, says:

Regarding the Jianwen emperor’s escape, there are some who say he is abroad. (9) The emperor ordered ZHto seek out traces of him. (9) The fleet was larger than required to reopen trade with the southern and western regions, but such magnificence might well convince any foreign ruler harbouring the deposed Chinese emperor of Zhu Di’s strength. (9) And foreign trade, such as that which had occurred fifty years previously under the Yuan dynasty, might well help a treasury depleted by a long civil war. (9)

An imperial history compiled in 1767, the Li-Tai Thung Chien Chi Lan (Essentials of the Comprehensive Mirror of History), states:

In the third year of the Yung-Lo reign-period [Zhi Di’s dynastic title, 1405], the Imperial Palace Eunuch ZH was sent on a mission to the Western Oceans. (9) The emperor [Zhu Di], under the suspicion that (his nephew) the (previous) emperor might have fled beyond the seas, commissioned ZH, Wang Ching-Hung and others, to pursue his traces. (9) Bearing vast amounts of gold and other treasures, and with a force of more than 37,000 officers and men under their command, they built great ships and set sail from… the prefecture of Suchow, whence they proceeded by way of Fukien to Chan-Cheng (Indo-China), and thence on voyages throughout the western seas… Every country became obedient to the imperial commands, and when ZH turned homewards, sent envoys in his train to offer tribute… (9) ZH was commissioned on no less than seven diplomatic expeditions, and thrice made prisoners of foreign chiefs. (9) At the same time, the different peoples, attracted to the profit of Chinese merchandise, enlarge their mutual intercourse for purposes of trade, and there was uninterrupted going to and fro. (9)


A shipyard was built at the new capital of Najing (Nanking) (3) Thousand of varnish and tung trees were planted on nearby Purple Mountain to provide wood for shipbuilding (3) ZH constructed many wooden ships, some of which are the largest in the history, in Nanjing. Three of the shipyards still exist today. (2) ZH made seven (or six (4)) voyages of exploration from China to many places throughout the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Taiwan, Persian Gulf and distant Africa, (2) visiting a total of 30 countries, including Singapore. (2) Compared with Europe, the Chinese had by far the larger ships. (9) The largest ships of the ZH expeditions were about 500 feet long. (9) The dimension of the ships given in Chinese histories was always subject to the accusation of exaggeration. (9) However, in 1962, an actual rudder post of one of ZH’s treasure ships was discovered at the site of one of the Ming shipyards near Nanking. (9) This timber was 36.2 feet long, and when reverse engineered to typical proportions, this yields a ship length of 480 to 536 feet, depending upon different assumptions about the draught. (9) In comparison, the ocean-going European ships of this period were considerably smaller, more typically 100 feet long (i.e. 1500 tons for ZH and perhaps 300 tons for the Portuguese explorers). (9) or ‘some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas’. (3 and 6) or ‘four were huge wood boats approximately 400 feet (122 meters) long and 160 feet (50 meters) wide.’ (4) or ‘ZH’s main ‘treasure ship’ was four hundred feet long – much larger than Columbus’ (2) or ‘The largest vessels were the treasure ships, each 444 ft. (5) or about 475 feet (6) in length – more than all of Columbus’ ships put end to end’. (5) The four big ships were the flagships of the fleet (4) Hundreds (3) or ‘More than a hundred’ (5) or ‘more than 238’ (6) smaller vessels accompanied them (3) Including 339-foot (103-meter) long horse ships that carried nothing but horses, water ships that carried fresh water for the crew, troop transports, supply ships, and war ships for offensive and defensive needs. (4) The ships were filled with thousands of tons of Chinese goods to trade with others during the voyage. (4)


At each country ZH visited, he was to present gifts from the emperor and to exact tribute for the glory of the Ming (3) The Chinese had a unique view of foreign relations (3) Because China developed its culture in isolation from other great civilization, it has seen itself as the centre of the world (3) The Chinese called their country ‘the Middle Kingdom (3)’ The Chinese emperor’s duty was to attract ‘all under heaven’ to be civilized in Confucian harmony (3) The emperor established a school of foreign languages to train interpreters (3) During each of ZH ’s voyages, he brought back diplomats from other countries or encouraged ambassadors to go to the capital Nanjing on their own. (4) When foreign ambassadors came to the Chinese court, they ‘kowtowed1’ as they approached the emperor (3) In return for tribute from other countries, the emperor sent gifts and special seals that confirmed their rulers’ authority (3) In fact, these foreign kings were officially made part of the Ming Dynasty (3)

The Voyages Begin

The First Voyage 1405

In 1405 ZH set out on his first voyage (3) No nation on earth had ever sent such a treasure (4) fleet onto the ocean (3) It included sixty-two large ships. (3) In the fall of 1405 the fleet was ready to embark with 27,800 men. (4 and 6) or ‘about 28000 men’. (5)A Chinese historian described them; ‘The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses (3) When their sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky (3)’ The first destination of the voyage of the Treasure Fleet was Calicut, known as a major trading center on the southwestern coast of India. (4) India was initially ‘discovered’ by Chinese overland explorer Hsuan-Tsang in the seventh century. (4) Cheng / Zheng’s first port of call was in Champa, a part of today’s Vietnam (3) He was surprised to find many Chinese living there (3) Merchants and craftsmen had emigrated from the coastal provinces since the time of the Tang Dynasty (3) They had already helped to spread Confucian ideals, and Champa’s ruler willingly offered tribute for the Chinese emperor (3) In return, of course, ZH presented the king with lavish gifts that were probably more valuable (3)

Vietnam to Sri Lanka

After Vietnam, the fleet sailed on to Java and Malacca, (3) and then sailed away from the coast, westward across the Indian Ocean (3) The ships traveled for days out of sight of any land (3) They encountered a hurricane (3) The ships tossed wildly in the fierce storm and seemed to be on the verge of sinking (3) The terrified sailors prepared to die; some prayed to the Taoist goddess called the Celestial Spouse (3) Then a ‘divine light’ suddenly shone at the tips of the mast (3) ‘As soon as this miraculous light appeared, the danger was appeased,’ ZH wrote (3) The miraculous light that appeared on the mast was probably St Elmo’s fire, static electricity that is familiar sight to experienced sailors (3) Because the sailors had prayed to the Taoist goddess, they believed it was her sign of protection (3) From then on, they followed wherever ZH led them (3) That was why he later placed a stone (10) pillar of thanksgiving at the Temple of the Celestial Spouse in Fujian province (3) The pillar was discovered in the 1930s. (10) His mission, according to the pillar, was to flaunt the might of Chinese power and collect tribute from the ‘barbarians from beyond the seas.’ (10) In the Bay of Bengal the ships passed the Nicobar Islands: a crew member wrote that:

Its inhabitants live in the hollows of trees and caves (3) Both men and women there go about stark naked, like wild beasts, without a stitch of clothing on them (3) No rice grows there (3) The people subsist solely on wild yams, jack fruit and plantains, or upon the fish which they catch (3) There is a legend current among them that, if they wear the smallest scrap of clothing, their bodies would break into sores and ulcers, owing to their ancestors having been cursed by Buddha for having stolen and hidden his clothes while he was bathing (3)’

They reached Sri Lanka, Calicut and Cochin (cities on the southwest coast of India). (4) Sri Lanka seemed like a treasure island, where rubies and other precious stones were abundant (3) The people harvested pearls from the sea and had discovered the trick of making cultured pearls by planting a speck of sand inside an oyster’s shell (3) In Sri Lanka, the Chinese visited Buddhist Temple Hill, where Buddha was said to have left his footprint on a rock (3) They marvelled at all the temples, particularly one that held a relic of the Buddha’s tooth (3) According to a crew member, ‘the people of the island do not venture to eat cow’s flesh, they merely drink the milk. When a cow dies they bury it. It is capital punishment for anyone to secretly kill a cow; he who does so can however escape punishment by paying a ransom of a cow’s head made of solid gold’. (3) The king of Sri Lanka was an ardent Buddhist who treated both cows and elephants with religious respect (3) However, because he did not show proper respect for the ambassadors from the Son of Heaven, he was taken back to China for ‘instruction (3)’ He was returned to his island on a later voyage (3)


When the Chinese sailors reached Calicut, their giant ships created a stir (3) The ruler there presented his visitors with sashes made of gold spun into hair-fine threads and studded with large pearls and precious stones (3) The Chinese were entertained with music and songs (3) One crew member wrote that the Indians’ musical instruments were ‘made of gourds with strings of red copper wire, and the sound and rhythm were pleasant to the ears (3)’ They remained in India to barter and trade from late 1406 to the spring of 1407 when they utilized the monsoon shift to sail toward home. (4)

Return Voyage, 1407

On the way back to China, the fleet threaded its way through the Straits of Malacca, stopping at the large islands of Sumatra and Java (3) ZH established a base at the Straits that he would use for each of his seven voyages (3) with massive warehouses for sorting all the goods accumulated on this and subsequent voyages. (10) There are thousands of smaller islands in this vast archipelago, and some were pirates’ lairs (3) The pirates preyed on unwary fishermen and small merchant vessels (3) ZH , showing how the emperor treated those who disrupted harmony, attacked and destroyed a fleet of pirate ships (3) He captured the leader and brought him back to Beijing for execution (3) or ‘the Treasure Fleet was forced to fight pirates near Sumatra for several months. (4) Eventually ZH ’s men managed to capture the pirate leader and take him to the Chinese capital Nanjing, arriving in 1407’. (4) When ZH returned, the emperor was pleased (3)

Further Voyages

He sent his admiral on ever-longer voyages (3) Seven times, ZH ’s ships set sail for unknown lands (3) On and on he went, following his orders to travel as far as he could (3) ZH organized each expedition on an enormous scale (3) Some consisted of as many as 27,000 men (3) Besides sailors and navigators, they included doctors, scribes, shipwrights, and cooks (3) On some voyages Muslim religious leaders and Buddhist monks were brought along to serve as diplomats in lands where people were Muslim or Buddhist (3) Each ship brought enough food to last the whole voyage, in case ‘barbarian’ food was not acceptable (3) In addition to rice and other food that could be preserved, the ships carried huge tubs of earth on deck so that vegetables and fruit could be grown (3) On each voyage the fleet anchored at the Malacca base, where provisions, tribute, and gifts were stored in warehouses (3) ZH found that foreign kings and princes particularly admired the famous blue-and-white Ming porcelain dishes, vases, and cups (3) Foreigners still yearned for Chinese silk, for cotton printed with Chinese designs, and for the coarse but long lasting, brownish yellow cloth known as Nankeen because it was made in Nanking (now Nanjing) (3) The holds of ZH ’s ships were also crammed (3)with gold and silver, iron tools, copper kitchenware, and perfumes (3) In exchange for such wares, and as tribute, ZH brought back medicinal herbs, dyes, spices, precious, gems, pearls, rhinoceros horns, ivory, and exotic animals (3) On the homeward voyage, the fleet again stopped at their base to sort out the foreign goods and wait for a favourable wind to return to China (3)

Second Voyage 1407

The second voyage of the Treasure Fleet departed on a return trip to India in 1407 but ZH did not command this voyage. (4) He remained in China to oversee the repair of a temple at the birthplace of a favorite goddess. (4) The Chinese envoys on board helped to ensure the power of a king of Calicut. (4) The fleet returned in 1409. (4)

Third Voyage 1409

The fleet’s third voyage (ZH ’s second) from 1409 to 1411 consisted of 48 ships and 30,000 men. (4) It followed closely the route of the first voyage but the Treasure Fleet established entrepots (warehouses) and stockades along their route to facilitate trade and storage of goods. (4) On the second voyage the King of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was aggressive; ZH defeated the king’s forces and captured the king to take him to Nanjing. (4)

Fourth Voyage 1412

In late 1412, ZH was ordered by Zhu Di to make a fourth expedition. (4) It wasn’t until late 1413 or early (4) ‘January’ (10) 1414 that ZH embarked on his expedition with 63 ships and 28,560 men. (4) The goal of this trip was to reach the Persian Gulf at Hormuz, known to be a city of amazing wealth and goods, including pearls and precious stones much coveted by the Chinese emperor. (4) While ZH lingered in the city to amass treasure for the emperor, another branch of the fleet sailed to the kingdom of Bengal in present-day Bangladesh. (10) Here the travelers saw a giraffe that the east African potentate of Malindi had presented to the Bengal ruler. (10) The Chinese persuaded their hosts to part with the giraffe as a gift to the emperor and to procure another like it from Africa. (10) In the summer of 1415, the Treasure Fleet returned with a bounty of trade goods from the Persian Gulf. (4) When the giraffe arrived at the court, in 1415, (3) or 1419 (4) the emperor himself went to the palace gate to receive it, as well as a ‘celestial horse’ (zebra) and a ‘celestial stag’ (oryx) (3) The palace officials offered congratulations and performed the kowtow before the heavenly animals (3) The emperor’s philosophers identified it, despite its pair of horns, as the fabled chi’i-lin or unicorn, an animal associated with an age of exceptional peace and prosperity. (10) As the fleet’s merchants laid treasures from Arabia and India at the feet of the emperor, this omen must surely have seemed fitting. (10) Detachments of this expedition sailed south along the eastern coast of Africa almost as far south as Mozambique. (4)

Fifth Voyage

The fifth voyage was ordered in 1416 to return the ambassadors who had arrived from other countries. (4) The Treasure Fleet departed in 1417 and visited the Persian Gulf. (4) From there ZH reached the coast of Africa, landing in Somalia on the east coast (3) In Somalia the Chinese found people who built houses of brick (3) ‘Men and women wear their hair in rolls; when they go out they wear a linen hood (3) There are deep wells worked by means of cog wheels (3) Fish are caught in the sea with nets’ (3) The Africans offered such goods as ‘dragon saliva, incense, and golden amber’ (3)’ The Chinese found the African animals even more amazing (3) There included ‘lion, gold-spotted leopards, and camel-birds (ostriches), which are six or seven feet tall’ (3) The most exciting thing that ZH ever brought back to the emperor’s court was a giraffe (3) In the Somali Language, the name for giraffe sounds similar to the Chinese word for unicorn (3) It was easy to imagine that this was the legendary animal that had played an important part in the birth of Confucius (3) Surely, it must be a sign of Heaven’s favor on the emperor’s reign (3) In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes that are clearly Asian-looking. (6) They also consider themselves as the descendants of ZH ’s crew. (6)

Sixth Voyage

The initial diplomatic contact with Malindi now encouraged ZH to plan a direct trading voyage to eastern Africa. (10) A sixth voyage was launched in the spring of 1421 and visited Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, and Africa. (4) It was smaller than the previous voyages, and its aim was to return the fifth expedition ambassadors to their countries. (9) By this time, Africa was considered China’s ‘El Dorado,’ a source of riches. (4) ZH reached Arabia, where he fulfilled a personal dream (3) He made the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the duty of every good Muslim once in his lifetime (3) He also visited Muhammad’s tomb in Medina (3) Going on to Somalia on the coast of Africa, he found himself offered such exotic items as ‘dragon saliva, incense, and golden amber.’ But even these substances paled before the extraordinary beasts that were loaded on board his ships. (10) Lions, leopards, ‘camel-birds’ (ostriches), ‘celestial horses’ (zebras), and a ‘celestial stag’ (oryx), were shipped back to the imperial court. (10) Here officials showered congratulations on ZH and bowed low in awe before the divine creatures that accompanied him. (10)

Rethinking of Maritime Enterprise after 1421

ZH returned in late 1421 (4) for the dedication of the new Forbidden City in Peking (the grand palace). (9) The remainder of the fleet didn’t arrive in China until 1422. (4)2 Soon after the dedication of the Forbidden City, however, lightning from a spring storm struck three great ceremonial halls. (9) Fire quickly spread, burned for a full day, and it was considered the most ill of portents. (9) Zhu Di was shaken by the disaster, and after conferring with his advisors, issued the following imperial edict:

My heart is full of trepidation. (9) I do not know how to handle it. (9) It seems that there has been some laxness in the rituals of honoring Heaven and serving the spirits. (9). (9)Is this what brought about [the fires]? Harshness to the people below; and, above, going against Heaven. (9) I cannot find the reason in my confusion. (9). (9)If our actions have in fact been improper, you should lay these out one by one, hiding nothing, so that we may try to reform ourselves and regain the favor of Heaven. (9)38

Zhu Di remitted a substantial number of taxes to reduce the burden of the people and temporarily suspended future voyages of the treasure fleet. (9) But he was old and sick, his regime sorely troubled. (9) Emperor Zhu Di (4) or Yong Le (1) or Yong Lo (5) died on campaign (9) in 1424, at the age of 64 (9) and his studious elder (9) son Zhu Gaozhi (4) or Hong Xi (3) became emperor. (4) As Zhu Di settled into his emperor role and the nephew he had deposed never reappeared, the need for expensive overseas prestige diminished. (9) The expense of the maritime adventure was put on the political account of the eunuchs, who were placed in a defensive political position. (9) Finally, challenges on the northern border from the Mongols became more serious, and they required investment in land power (army, land defences) for survival. (9) Zhu Di, who had created the treasure fleet, himself diminished the sea service after the fifth expedition that was conducted from 1416 to 1419 due to these pressures. (9) In 1411 the important Grand Canal was fully repaired and brought to full capacity in all seasons by an improved water supply at the summit section. (9) The completion of the Grand Canal as a more efficient and safer means of grain transport caused a decline in the importance of the Chinese ocean-going navy. (9) It had become dependent in the 15th century on a set of maritime missions that were overly fragile and thus the Chinese navy was vulnerable to relatively minor changes in the strategic situation. (9) Maritime threats were always considered secondary in China to continental or land-based threats, and thus in difficult economic times such as the middle Ming dynasty, the maritime solutions to national security (i.e. the navy) lost resources to the continental solutions (i.e. the army). (9) The developing conflict with the Mongols on the western borders was hardly ‘a minor change’, and China needed to devote resources to that struggle. (3) The mandarins (scholar-officials) were able to criticize ZH’s achievements, complaining about their great expense. (3) The voyages had been the idea of the eunuchs at court (like ZH himself), and so Hong Xi decided to take the mandarins’ advice and curb their influence. (1)

Zhu Gaozhi

The new emperor was no warrior, (9) and he began plans to reverse many of his father’s policies including the heavy taxation for military campaigns and public projects. (9) He cancelled the voyages of the Treasure Fleets and ordered ship builders and sailors to stop their work and return home. (4) He prohibited trade. (4) When a court favorite wanted to continue ZH ’s voyages, he was turned down (3) and ZH was appointed military commander of Nanjing instead. (4) Book 3 clearly suggests that this was the end of the voyages, (‘Mysteriously, China did not follow up on these voyages’) but Books 1, 4 and 5 disagree: they say that the leadership of Zhu Gaozhi (4) or Hong Xi (3) did not last long – he died in 1426 at the age of 26. (4) (perhaps of heart failure, perhaps by poison) after only nine months as emperor, and was succeeded in turn by Zhu Zhanji in 1426. (9) His son and Zhu Di’s (4) (or Yong Le’s (1)) grandson Zhu Zhanji (4) or Xuan de (1) (also aged twenty-six) (9) took Zhu Gaozhi’s place. (4)

Seventh Voyage

This fifth Ming emperor was much more like his grandfather than his father was (4) a good combination of his warrior, spendthrift grandfather and scholarly, fiscally conservative father, and his reign was a time of peace, prosperity and good government. (9) He commissioned ZH to resume his duties as admiral (4) and accomplish one final, seventh treasure ship expedition in 1430, for increased prestige and restoration of the tribute trade, (9) and in an attempt to restore peaceful relations with the kingdoms of Malacca and Siam. (4) It took a year to gear up for the voyage which departed as a large (4) or ‘the largest’ (9) expedition with 100 (4) or 300 (9) ships and 27,500 men. (4) When ZH came back from his seventh voyage in 1433, he was sixty-two years old (3) Or ‘ZH died on the way home’ (4 and 5) ‘in 1433’ (4) or ‘between 1426 and 1429’. (5) He had travelled, he said, ‘more than 1000 li’ (3) equivalent to 50,000 km., (2) or 35,000 miles. (3) He had accomplished much for China, spreading the glory of the Middle Kingdom to many countries that now sent tribute and ambassadors to the court (3) Though he died soon afterward (3) in 1435 (2), his exploits had won him fame (3) He was buried at sea (10) or ‘he was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull’s Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing. (2) The Arabic words ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is great’) are inscribed on top of the tomb. (2) Plays and novels were written about his voyages (3) In such places as Malacca and Java, towns, caves, and temples were named after him (3) He is even today revered as a god in remote parts of Indonesia (10)


His missions showed impressive demonstrations of organizational capability and technological might, but did not lead to significant trade, since ZH was an admiral and an official, not a merchant. (1) orZH CH’s voyages … established Chinese trade routes throughout Asia and Africa.’ (5) After that, China abandoned its overseas voyages (3) again. (5) They destroyed their ocean going ships and halted further expeditions. (3) The Confucian courtiers and a general trend towards a sterile conventionalized version of Neo-Confucianism, very idealistic in metaphysics, led to a widespread loss of interest in geographical science and maritime techniques. (9) In its worldview, it was improper to go abroad while one’s parents were still alive. (10) The introspective culture of the Middle and Late Ming periods was one cause of many for a decline in many branches of science and technology. (9) The court officials destroyed the logs that ZH had kept. (3) We only know about his voyages from inscriptions on a pillar and some accounts that his crew members wrote (3) The navy collapsed. (9) The building of ships with more than 3 (6) 2 (9) masts without special permission (9) was made a crime punishable by death (6) in 1500. (9) By 1474 it was down to one third of its Early Ming size. (9) By 1503 the navy was down to one tenth of its Early Ming size, desertions were widespread and the corps of shipwrights disintegrated. (9) Sailors were sent inland to support the Grand Canal, and loss of prestige for the navy precluded effective recruitment. (9) The anti-maritime party grew more powerful and made its power known through imperial edicts. (9) A ruling of 1525 authorized officials to destroy the larger classes of ships. (9) China entered a xenophobic isolationist phase similar to (but less intense than) the Tokugawa Shogunate (10) which closed Japan for two centuries. (9) The navy and Chinese-borne overseas trade was gone. (9) ZH had started the process that could have led the Middle Kingdom to greater glory. (3) Unfortunately the rulers of the Ming Dynasty refused to follow his lead (3) This reversal of policy was a result of a political power struggle between the eunuch administrators, stressing the commercial and technological benefits of foreign trade, and the Confucian scholar officials who stressed the benefits in social purity of isolationism combined with an overwhelming political unity. (9) The debate within the Ming dynasty was over topics of domestic agriculture versus sea-borne trade, canal transport versus coastal transport, and cultural purity through isolationism versus cultural improvement through extensive foreign contacts. (9) This set of debates with application to relative worth of maritime power was common to most dynasties, and in most the Confucian, agriculture, canal and cultural purity side of the debate won, and not without good reason. (9) The primary threat was generally from the broad land boundary to the north from the Mongols. (9) The canal transport system was safer from marauding sea-pirates and weather. (9) The Chinese were culturally inclined to be uninterested in non-Chinese products and ideas, with a few notable exceptions. (9) And the Confucian ideals had longer powers of persuasion than any temporary good eunuch leadership, especially since the eunuch system more often than not created abuses. (9) The early Ming period, especially that of the third Ming emperor Zhu Di, was unique. (9) As a recently established successful rebel, Zhu Di had trusted, capable and experienced eunuchs available to fill a leadership gap. (9) He had a need to create personal and dynastic prestige combined with maritime technology inherited from the Sung/Song and Yuan (and extrapolating upon the ever present Chinese canal and river boat marine technology). (9) The damaged canal system, due to the long civil war, was supplemented by the coastal transport route, which required sea-going protection and created a nursery of deep-water sailors. (9) However, after the efficiency of the inland canal grain transport route had been proven in supplying the northern capital, the coastal grain transport service was abolished in 1415, while thousands of new canal sailing barges were constructed. (9)


  1. Wikipedia
  2. ‘China the Beautiful’ ( to Text

  3. Malacca Home Page by Robert Leo ( To text



  6. Telegraph article

  7. by Michael L. Bosworth

  8. Michael L. Bosworth Mike can be contacted at

  9. Nova Online

1 The required process of ‘kowtow’ was to kneel three times and bow one’s head to the floor three times at each kneeling

2 This may have been the voyage on which a detachment of one of ZH’s fleets sailed to northern Australia. (4) This idea is based upon the Chinese artefacts found there as well as the oral history of the Aborigine. (4) The official history also mentioned ‘Franca’ (which was the territory to describe today’s France and Portugal) and Holland. (6) The Hollanders were described as tall people with red hair and beard, long nose, and deep eye sockets. (6) If ZH did meet with the Europeans in their native countries, then the only way would be to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope before the Suez Canal was a throughway. (6)


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