Decades before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a water route to Asia, the Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages of the "Treasure Fleet" that solidified Chinese control over much of Asia in the 15th century.
The Treasure Fleets were commanded by a powerful eunuch admiral named Cheng Ho. Cheng Ho was born around 1371 in China's southwestern Yunan Province (just north of Laos) with the name Ma Ho. Ma Ho's father was a Muslim hajji (who had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and the family name of Ma was used by Muslims in representations of the word Mohammed.
When Ma Ho was ten years old (around 1381), he was captured along with other children when the Chinese army invaded Yunan to take control over the region. At the age of 13 he was castrated, as were other young prisoners, and he was placed as a servant in the household of the Chinese Emperor's fourth son (out of twenty-six total sons), Prince Zhu Di.
Ma Ho proved himself to be an exceptional servant to Prince Zhu Di. He became skilled in the arts of war and diplomacy and served as an officer of the prince. Zhu Di renamed Ma Ho as Cheng Ho because the eunuch's horse was killed in battle outside of a place called Zhenglunba. (Cheng Ho is also Zheng He in the newer Pinyin transliteration of Chinese but he's still most commonly called Cheng Ho). Cheng Ho was also known as San Bao which means "three jewels."
Cheng Ho, who was said to have been seven feet tall, was given greater power when Zhu Di became emperor in 1402. One year later, Zhu Di appointed Cheng Ho admiral and ordered him to oversee the construction of a Treasure Fleet to explore the seas surrounding China. Admiral Cheng Ho was the first eunuch appointed to such a high military position in China.
First Voyage (1405-1407)
The first Treasure Fleet consisted of 62 ships; four were huge wood boats, some of the largest ever built in history. They were approximately 400 feet (122 meters) long and 160 feet (50 meters) wide. The four were the flagships of the fleet of 62 ships assembled at Nanjing along the Yangtze (Chang) River. Included in the fleet were 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 warships for offensive and defensive needs. The ships were filled with thousands of tons of Chinese goods to trade with others during the voyage. In the fall of 1405, the fleet was ready to embark with 27,800 men.
The fleet utilized the compass, invented in China in the 11th century, for navigation. Graduated sticks of incense were burned to measure time. One day was equal to 10 "watches" of 2.4 hours each. Chinese navigators determine latitude through monitoring the North Star (Polaris) in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Cross in the Southern Hemisphere. The ships of the Treasure Fleet communicated with one another through the use of flags, lanterns, bells, carrier pigeons, gongs, and banners.
The destination of the first voyage of the Treasure Fleet was Calicut, known as a major trading center on the southwestern coast of India. India was initially "discovered" by Chinese overland explorer Hsuan-Tsang in the seventh century. The fleet stopped in Vietnam, Java, and Malacca, and then headed west across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and Calicut and Cochin (cities on the southwest coast of India). 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. On the return voyage, the Treasure Fleet was forced to battle pirates near Sumatra for several months. Eventually, Cheng Ho's men managed to capture the pirate leader and take him to the Chinese capital Nanjing, arriving in 1407.
Second Voyage (1407-1409)
A second voyage of the Treasure Fleet departed on a return trip to India in 1407 but Cheng Ho did not command this voyage. He remained in China to oversee the repair of a temple at the birthplace of a favorite goddess. The Chinese envoys on board helped to ensure the power of a king of Calicut. The fleet returned in 1409.
Third Voyage (1409-1411)
The fleet's third voyage (Cheng Ho's second) from 1409 to 1411 consisted of 48 ships and 30,000 men. 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. On the second voyage, the King of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was aggressive; Cheng Ho defeated the king's forces and captured the king to take him to Nanjing.
Fourth Voyage (1413-1415)
In late 1412, Cheng Ho was ordered by Zhu Di to makea fourthexpedition. It wasn't until late 1413 or early 1414 that Cheng Ho embarked on his expedition with 63 ships and 28,560 men. 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. In the summer of 1415, the Treasure Fleet returned with a bounty of trade goods from the Persian Gulf. Detachments of this expedition sailed south along the eastern coast of Africa almost as far south as Mozambique. During each of Cheng Ho's voyages, he brought back diplomats from other countries or encouraged ambassadors to go to the capital Nanjing on their own.
Fifth Voyage (1417-1419)
The fifth voyage was ordered in 1416 to return the ambassadors who had arrived from other countries. The Treasure Fleet departed in 1417 and visited the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa, returning envoys along the way. They returned in 1419.
Sixth Voyage (1421-22)
A sixth voyage was launched in the spring of 1421 and visited Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, and Africa. By this time, Africa was considered China's "El Dorado," a source of riches. Cheng Ho returned in late 1421 but the remainder of the fleet didn't arrive in China until 1422.
Emperor Zhu Di died in 1424 and his son Zhu Gaozhi became emperor. He canceled the voyages of the Treasure Fleets and ordered shipbuilders and sailors to stop their work and return home. Cheng Ho was appointed military commander of Nanjing.
Seventh Voyage (1431-1433)
The leadership of Zhu Gaozhi did not last long. He died in 1426 at the age of 26. His son and Zhu Di's grandson Zhu Zhanji took Zhu Gaozhi's place. Zhu Zhanji was much more like his grandfather than his father was and in 1430 he resumed the Treasure Fleet voyages by ordering Cheng Ho to resume his duties as admiral and makea seventhvoyage in an attempt to restore peaceful relations with the kingdoms of Malacca and Siam. It took a year to gear up for the voyage which departed as a large expedition with 100 ships and 27,500 men.
On the return trip in1433,Cheng Ho is believed to have died; others state that he died in 1435 after the return to China. Nonetheless, the era of exploration for China was soon over as the followingemperorsprohibited trade and even the construction of ocean-going vessels.
It's likely that a detachment of one of Cheng Ho's fleets sailed to northern Australia during one of the seven voyages baseduponthe Chinese artifacts found as well as the oral history of the Aborigine.
After the seven voyages of Cheng Ho and the Treasure Fleets, Europeans began to make headway toward China. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded Africa's Cape of Good Hope, in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached China's favorite trading city of Calicut, and in 1521 Ferdinand Magellan finally reached Asia by sailing west. China's superiority in the Indian Ocean was unrivaled until the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived and established their colonies along the rim of the Indian Ocean.
The voyages were intended to display China's power and culture and bring foreign treasures back to the Ming court. Zheng He set sail on his first voyage in 1405, commanding some 27,800 men.What is one specific explanation for why the voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He were halted by 1340 CE? ›
First, the Yongle Emperor who sponsored Zheng He's first six voyages died in 1424. His son, the Hongxi Emperor, was much more conservative and Confucianist in his thought, so he ordered the voyages stopped.Why were the voyages of Zheng He important? ›
Zhèng Hé's voyages expanded China's political influence in the world. He was able to secure and construct diplomatic ties with other nations while developing the trade between the east and west.What were the results of the voyages of Zheng He? ›
Zheng He's voyages to western oceans expanded China's political influence in the world. He was able to expand new, friendly ties with other nations, while developing relations between the east-west trade opportunities. Unfortunately, the official imperial records of his voyages were destroyed.What was the Chinese voyage of Exploration? ›
Chinese exploration includes exploratory Chinese travels abroad, on land and by sea, from the travels of Han dynasty diplomat Zhang Qian into Central Asia during the 2nd century BC until the Ming dynasty treasure voyages of the 15th century that crossed the Indian Ocean and reached as far as East Africa.Why did Chinese voyages end? ›
Linked to eunuch politics and wasteful policies, the voyages were over. By the century's end, ships could not be built with more than two masts, and in 1525 the government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships.What happened to Zheng He on his final voyage? ›
On his seventh and final voyage, from 1431 to 1433, Zheng He apparently died at sea and was likely buried off the coast of India, although some of his descendants believe that he made it back to China and died soon after his return.What led to the downfall of Chinese exploration and the Chinese navy? ›
"The emperors of China, worried about threats to their power from merchants, banned oceangoing voyages in 1430, so that Admiral Zheng He's explorations were an end, not a beginning," Deaton writes. China retracted into itself and the industrial revolution sprouted first in Western Europe, three centuries later.What happened to Zheng He on his 7th voyage? ›
Zheng He's seventh and final voyage left China in the winter of 1431. He visited the states of Southeast Asia, the coast of India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa. Zheng died in Calicut in the spring of 1433, and the fleet returned to China that summer.How did the voyages impact China and the Chinese government? ›
The voyages impacted China because they won prestige for their government and also opened up new markets for Chinese goods because of their successful and mighty voyage of the Ming dynasty. Exotic treasures were brought back from Zheng as well as an understanding of the rest of the world.
Zheng He's Death Brought the Voyages to an End
Then, China's Age of Exploration came to a crashing halt. In 1433, while returning from the seventh voyage, the 62-year-old admiral died and was buried at sea.
Despite leading some of the largest voyages in size and length, Zheng He's voyages are not universally well known. Zheng He's voyages shouldn't be celebrated due to the fact that he didn't discover new places, he wasted Chinese resources, and his voyages lead to the enslavement and oppression of foreign people.What are some fun facts about the voyages of Zheng He? ›
He brought a giraffe back to China
Upon his return, Zheng He presented a tribute that included a giraffe, which the Chinese thought to be a qilin, a mythical chimera. During his voyages, he was also presented with exotic animals such as lions, leopards, zebras and rhinoceroses for the emperor's menagerie.
From Africa, Zheng He brought back such exotica as lions, leopards, camels, ostriches, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes. These animals caused wonder back in China, where the giraffe, for example, was considered living evidence of the qilin, a sort of Chinese unicorn which represented good fortune.What effect did Zheng He's voyages have on foreign influence in China? ›
After this expedition, eighteen states from today's Việt Nam to the distant coast of East Africa sent tribute envoys to the Ming court. Chinese political power and influence reached its height thanks to Zheng He's voyages. The fifth voyage that began in 1417 was intended to bring home the envoys of the eighteen states.What was the goal of the Chinese relief expedition? ›
The China Relief Expedition was designed to rescue non-combatants, but the focus shifted to suppressing the Boxer rebels. By 1902, the Boxer Rebellion had been effectively controlled in the city of Peking.What was the purpose of the Chinese junk ship? ›
As Battuta's account suggests, junks were used as warfare ships. But they served other purposes as well, including trading, fishing, housing, recreation and… exploring the world. Chinese junks have been known to set out for Indonesian and Indian territories as early as the Middle Ages.What was the goal of the Chinese treasure fleet? ›
The purpose of the voyages
In addition to its economic and diplomatic goals, the Treasure Fleet was also a symbol of the power and might of the Ming Dynasty. The massive ships and impressive naval technology were a clear demonstration of China's ability to project its power and influence far beyond its borders.