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The Voyages of Zheng He

Updated on July 6, 2012

Who was Zheng He? Had he reached North America during one of his seafaring expeditions in the early 15th century almost 80 years before Columbus? What was his purpose and under whose authority did he undertake those adventures? Why there were no written records that detailed each one of the expeditions? In the present day, the only concrete evidences that showed that such seafaring expeditions had even occurred were the folklores, porcelains, artifacts, and statues that were left behind at various islands and ports in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Early Years

Zheng He was born in 1371. When he was a young boy playing in the field not far from his home, Zheng He was abducted by a group of imperial guards on a mission to recruit servants for the Emperor’s concubines whose numbers were sometimes in the thousands. Along with the other youngsters, he was brought to the capitol city where his testicles were surgically removed, since only a eunuch could serve among the Emperor’s concubines. However, in a twist of fate, he was assigned to serve in the royal court of the emperor’s 4th son, Zhu Di, who was in charge of the Northern territory in the present day Beijing area. As Zheng He grew older and stronger, he soon gained the trust and confidence of Zhu Di due to his intelligence, royalty, diligence, and bravery in battles.

Emperor Zhu Di

Zhu Di was the 4th son of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. He was ambitious and a capable leader of a fighting army. He was greatly disappointed that he was not chosen to be the next ruler when the first son of the founding emperor died prematurely of illness. To avoid controversy, the founding emperor decreed the elder grandson (Zhu Di’s nephew) to be the next in line to the throne.

In attempting to rein in Zhu Di’s power, the young 2ndemperor at the urge of his advisors decided to take away his army. Fearing for his safety, Zhu Di revolted and in a battle, he was successful in deposing his nephew to become the Ming Dynasty’s 3rd Emperor. After the uprising, the body of Zhu Di’s nephew was never found and rumors had that he was able to escape to an island in the South China Sea. After taking over as the emperor, Zhu Di wanted to fulfill his vision to spread his power over not only the land that he could see but also the unknown land beyond the vast ocean. So, in a bold move, disregarding the Ming’s founding emperor’s decree of forbidding trade and venture over the sea and using the threat that his nephew would one day return to reclaim his rule, Zhu Di ordered his capable confidant, Zheng He, to organize a seafaring expedition to search and kill his missing nephew as well as spreading Ming Dynasty’s wealth, power, and friendship to the untamed world.

The Preparation

The task entailed building hundreds of ship big enough to house thousands of armored troops, horses, support personnel, and food supplies to last for months. Zheng He also saw the need to understand ocean currents and wind patterns, to navigate by the stars, and boat formations under different weather conditions. Since along the expedition route, Zheng He and his forces were to encounter people of unknown origins, he would be in position to conquer hostile tribes and/or to establish friendly and diplomatic relationships.

The Expeditions

The first expedition took 2 years. The official recorder as well as Zheng He himself kept a detailed diary of the conditions of the sea, the people and conflicts encountered, and the places anchored. Zheng He did not find Zhu Di’s nephew but brought back strange-looking envoys from the friendly nations, exotic animals, weapons, and presents. The emperor, Zhu Di, was pleased and convinced that the world beyond the ocean were also full of wonders as well as threats. So, he persuaded his imperial court to continue the expensive venture. Zhu Di passed away during one of his northern campaign against the remnants of Yuan's Mogols, after Zheng He had completed his 6th voyage.

During his 7th voyages in 1433, Zheng He felt sick and passed away. He was buried on the foreign land. At this time, the imperial court no longer saw the benefit to further the seafaring expedition. The efforts had been costly and the prevailing mentality had been that China had all the goods and material comforts. The outsider’s cultures were regarded as inferior and barbaric and it was best to keep them out. To prevent such wasteful and expensive undertakings from ever attempted by future generations, any records on Zheng He’s adventures including shipbuilding blue prints, navigation maps, and the places he visited were ordered to be destroyed.

Although no detailed records were available, based on historical and archeological data, Zheng He’s 7 expeditions could be summarized below.

 

1st Voyage 1405 – 1407

Ships ≈ 240 (62 large)
Crews ≈ 28,000
Places ≈ Champa (port south of Vietnam), Java (in the Indian Ocean), Palembang (South Indonesia), Malacca (Malaysian port), Aru (island eastern Indonesia), Sumatra (island western Indonesia), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kollam (South West India), Cochin (West India), Calicut (North West India).

 

2nd Voyage 1407 – 1409

Ships ≈ 240 (48 large)
Crews ≈ 27,000
Places ≈ Champa (port south of Vietnam), Java (in the Indian Ocean), Siam (Thailand), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kollam (South West India), Cochin (West India), Calicut (North West India).

 

3rd Voyage 1409 – 1411

Ships ≈ 240 (48 large)
Crews ≈ 27,000
Places ≈ Champa (port south of Vietnam), Java (in the Indian Ocean), Malacca (Malaysian port), Sumatra (island western Indonesia), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kollam (South West India), Cochin (West India), Calicut (North West India), Siam (Thailand), Coimbatore (South India)

 

4th Voyage 1413 – 1415

Ships ≈ 240 (40 large)
Crews ≈ 27,000
Places ≈ Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Kaya, Pahang, Kelantan, Aru, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Barawa, Malindi, Aden, Muscat, Dhufar

 

5th Voyage 1416 – 1419

Ships ≈ 240 (48 large)
Crews ≈ 27,000
Places ≈ Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Sharwayn, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Barawa, Malindi, Aden

 

6th Voyage 1421 – 1422

Ships ≈ 240 (48 large)
Crews ≈ 27,000
Places ≈ Hormuz, East Africa, countries of the Arabian Peninsula

 

7th Voyage 1430 – 1433

Ships ≈ 240 (61 large)
Crews ≈ 27,000
Places ≈ Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz


Afterthought

Since Zheng He’s last voyage ended in 1433, China had never attempted another official seafaring expedition. In addition, China closed all its sea ports and discouraged its people to conduct any commerce with the foreigners who came knocking at the door over the centuries. In the meantime, through Marco Polo’s memoir about his times travelling in China during the Yuan dynasty from 1271 to 1295, the Europeans were made aware of a rich and advanced civilization located on a fertile land on the far side of the ocean.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus after studying Marco Polo’s book and arming with the compass invented by the Chinese, set sail and found America instead across the Atlantic Ocean. It was followed by the Magellan's expedition of 1519–1522 that was the first circumnavigation of the world. Since then, numerous European explorers following the same footsteps had found and brought back gold and other valuable commodities from the new world.

So, the Europeans with their continuously refined seafaring knowledge and expertise were able to exploit the local inhabitants and resources along the sea routes to benefit and advance its economy and technology. After the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain with advanced ships and weapons instigated the Opium War in 1840 to force China to open its ports for trade. Other industrial nations looking for gold and other valuable commodities joined the invasion after discovering that China had a rich culture but with 15th century land and sea fighting forces. At a time when there was no world governing body, China was at the mercy of the marauders watching helplessly its country being plundered.

On his last voyage, Zheng He, sensing that the imperial court was ever losing its sight on the importance of the seafaring expedition, offered this observation: The Sea can provide great wealth but the Sea can also bring greater enemies. China was paying a hefty price for not heeding Zheng He’s advice even to the present day.


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      paul 4 years ago

      ehhhh

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      Bob 5 years ago

      A great insight to a great piece of history!

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 7 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      very good hub, thanks very much- you have a follower here!

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 7 years ago from Texas

      I had no clue. Thank you for the history lesson.

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