Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch in the service of the Ming Dynasty, and an admiral who led a famous fleet of so-called treasure ships on a series of voyages across the Indian Ocean region from 1405-1433.
Zheng He was born in an Islamic province within the Ming empire; his father and grandfather are known to have made pilgrimages to Mecca. As a boy, he was captured by raiders, and became one of a great many prisoners of war, mainly from non-Chinese ethnic origins, who were castrated while young (Zheng He himself is believed to have been castrated at age 10 or 11), making them eligible for palace service as eunuchs. The palace eunuchs played a significant role in the coup that put the Yongle Emperor on the throne in 1402, and as a result he expanded the power and position of the eunuchs within the palace, important steps towards the much more considerable presence and influence eunuchs would wield in the later Qing Dynasty; it was in conjunction with this same set of developments that Zheng He was appointed admiral of Yongle's treasure fleet.
Zheng He headed a fleet of over three hundred ships, including 62 or 63 large ships and 255 smaller ones. The largest of the treasure ships were 120 meters long and 48 meters wide, by far the largest wooden sailing ships known to have ever sailed the seas, and carrying a total of 2200 metric tons of goods and gear. The largest caravels or galleons of the height of the European "Age of Sail" were a fraction of the size of these largest of the Ming treasure ships, and Columbus' famous journey more than half a century later included only 1,500 men on 17 ships, the largest of which would have been dwarfed by the largest of the Ming vessels. Each ship cost roughly 1,000 piculs (担, tan) of rice, and are said to have been equipped with incredible luxuries, including compartments filled with fresh water, not only for drinking, but also so the crews could keep, raise, and enjoy fresh fish during their journey. Water-tight compartments allowed the ship to suffer some damage and still float, with repairs being able to be undertaken while still at sea.
The fleet navigated by the stars, and by use of the compass, which Chinese seafarers had used since the ninth or tenth century; stern-post rudders, designed such that a single ship could adjust for shallower or deeper waters by simply changing out rudders of different sizes, had been used in China since the second or third century CE. A 10.8 meter long rudder post excavated near Nanjing is among the material evidence that these treasure ships were, likely, as large as the records indicate they were.
Zheng He's crew, captained by eunuch officers, totaled roughly 28,000 men. Most were banished criminals, but the crews also included Arabic interpreters, navigators, protocol experts, astrologers, judges, and roughly 180 physicians and herbalists. Some of his men (and ships) would leave the fleet, remaining at various ports, while men and ships from those ports joined the fleet. In this way, the voyages were far more than simply round-trip journeys of exploration, but were truly a means by which considerable cultural exchange and interaction - including migration, settlement, and thus ethnic intermixing - occurred.
On these missions, Zheng He and his men reached lands including parts of east Africa (e.g. modern-day Kenya or Tanzania), India, and the Persian Gulf region. Unlike the European transoceanic voyages of exploration which were to come less than a century later, Zheng He's voyages were not missions of conquest or colonization. Nor were they missions of exploration - Zheng's fleet carried a 6.3 meter long map of the Indian Ocean region, which included relatively accurate placenames, descriptions of the peoples of various locales, and a rough understanding of the shape of coastlines and rough distances, though the map was not drawn to scale.
These were missions seeking nominal ritual expressions of submission, and payment of tribute. According to the concept of the Sinocentric world order which underlay the tribute system, it was believed that the Chinese Emperor was the universal monarch, the source from which all civilization and virtue emanated, and that it was his responsibility to extend that civilization and virtue as far as he could, in order to bring civilization and virtue to the barbarians. Moreover, it was believed that the barbarians were meant to recognize the emperor as the source of virtue, to acknowledge their submission, and to pay tribute; this was an important part of the natural order of things, and was essential to the continued harmonious workings of the universe. If the ships themselves were not impressive enough, Zheng's missions brought a myriad of gifts for the peoples they met, including calendars, books, umbrellas, and garments, objects which surely would have been quite exotic and interesting in the eyes of these foreign peoples. Following the fourth of Zheng He's missions, Ming China enjoyed tributary relations from as many as nineteen polities in the region.
That said, there were political and economic reasons for the Yongle Emperor to dispatch these missions as well. Having killed his nephew and usurped the throne, he very much needed to make efforts to boost attitudes of his legitimacy and power at home, within the Chinese Court. Missions such as these, providing the emperor with exotic luxuries from distant lands, and oaths of submission from foreign leaders, helped to serve that purpose. Among these luxuries, furthermore, were exotic animals such as giraffes, which the emperor dubbed qilin (J: kirin), in an attempt to claim himself to be a Sage King, like the greatest emperors of old; legends told that a qilin had not been seen since ancient times, but that, were a truly virtuous Sage King to ascend to the throne, legendary creatures such as the qilin would appear again, along with other signs. One such giraffe was obtained in 1414, in Bengal; the local ruler had obtained it as a gift from a ruler in Kenya, but was persuaded to give it, in turn, as his own gift to the Chinese Emperor. Zheng's missions also brought back ostriches, rhinoceroses, leopards and lions.
Some scholars have suggested additional possible motives for these missions. They were not economically profitable in a gross/net profit sense - the treasure ships, despite their size, were not bringing back tons and tons of rice, precious metals, or other commodities. But, some scholars have suggested, the missions may have been undertaken in part because of the need for luxury goods to furnish the soon-to-be-rebuilt Beijing. Some scholars have also suggested that Yongle may have been seeking his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor, who may have escaped the attack on the palace which brought Yongle to the throne; this theory stipulates that Yongle may have sent Zheng He, in part, to find and kill Jianwen in order to secure Yongle's claims to the throne.
In addition to visiting distant lands, the treasure fleet also had interactions with overseas Chinese, including members of diasporic communities in Southeast Asia, as well as smugglers, pirates, and maritime merchants. On at least one occasion, Zheng He's fleet defeated a Chinese pirate fleet, killing according to the sources as many as 5,000 men, and bringing the pirate leader back to Beijing to be formally executed.
End of the Missions
The Yongle Emperor died in 1424, and missions of this sort were suspended for nearly ten years. Only one further mission, Zheng's seventh, took place, departing China in 1433. Zheng He died within the year, and on account of the incredible expense, the Court put an end to any such voyages. A desire to curb the power and influence of the eunuch captains may have contributed to the desire to end the voyages. The ships were placed in dry dock, and eventually rotted; in 1477, much of the records of the voyages were destroyed.
Zheng He's tomb can be found in the southern outskirts of Nishou, near Nanjing. It is an impressive structure, with twenty-eight stone steps and the inscription "Allah is Great" in Arabic over the top.
- Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 378-384.
- Matt Matsuda,Pacific Worlds, Cambridge University Press (2012), 44-46.
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 245.