Zheng He: Ship, Facts & Voyages

Instructor: James Moeller
Admiral Zheng He was most famous for a series of voyages he took between 1405 and 1433 with an enormous fleet of nearly 300 ships. The voyages served a dual purpose of being both a trade mission and showcasing the power of the Ming Dynasty of China.

Show of Power

Towards the end of his administration, President Teddy Roosevelt ordered 16 US Navy Battleships to embark on a world voyage. Beginning in December of 1908 and lasting until February of 1909, the voyage had a number of purposes, including shoring up trade agreements. But the main purpose of the voyage was to showcase American power and prestige. Americans weren't the first to come up with this idea, though -- Ming Admiral Zheng He undertook the same mission about 500 years earlier.

The Ming Dynasty of China ran from 1368 to 1644 and was one of the most stable, prosperous, and culturally significant dynasties in all of China's history. Understanding this fact is crucial to understanding why Zheng He led these voyages. In a real sense, Zheng He, himself, was a living symbol of the Ming Dynasty's power and influence.

Zheng He's Early Life

Zheng He came from a Muslim family who claimed the Chinese province of Yunan as their home. The family name was Ma, which is derived from the word 'Muhammad.' When Zheng He was 10 years old in 1381, he was caught up in a major conflict in which the armed forces of the Ming dynasty were trying to oust the last Mongol stronghold in China, which happened to be the province of Yunan (The Mongol had ruled China as the Yuan Dynasty since 1206).

The Chinese re-conquered Yunan in 1381, and Ma He (as he was known then) was captured with a number of other boys to be orderlies and servants to members of the royal household. By royal decree, this meant the boys would have to be castrated. Ma was assigned to the Prince of Yan, who would later go on to be the Ming Emperor, Yongle.

As a junior office in the Ming army (something like a Lieutenant), Ma He distinguished himself in battle and was also very adept at diplomacy. He also made some very important connections within the army as well as in the royal palace. In 1400, the Prince of Yan rebelled against his nephew, the current Emperor, Jianwen. The Prince now took the throne and changed his name to the Yongle Emperor. As his fortunes would rise, so would Zheng He's, who later became a favorite at the Emperor's Court.

The Voyages

The Ming Emperor wanted Zheng He to undertake a the first of many voyages in 1405 to modern-day Vietnam, Thailand, Java, and parts of Indian and Sri Lanka. Amazingly, this enormous fleet consisted of 62 Capitol Ships and 238 smaller ships with a crew compliment of 27,800 officers and men.

Ancient accounts of these ships, also called Treasure Ships, defy the imagination regarding their size. Zheng He's flagship was said to be over 440 ft. in length and may have had a crew of 1,000 officers and men. The main mast was easily over 125 ft. The deck was so wide that accounts speak of a layer of soil that was placed upon it, deep enough to grow crops for the voyage, making the ship self-sustaining. By contrast, Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria was 72 ft. in length, a pygmy by comparison. The other ships in the fleet were only slightly smaller. They must have been quite a site to any official waiting in the harbor.

On the second voyage (1408-1409), Zheng again visited Calicut (part of India today, off the Malabar coast). As mentioned earlier, other than trade, Admiral He was supposed to collect tribute. Apparently on this second voyage, a King of Ceylon refused and revolted. Zheng He defeated his forces and took the King as a prisoner back to Nanking.

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