Chinese Exploration: The Voyages of Cheng Ho, 1405-1433

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Chinese Exploration: The Voyages of Cheng Ho, 1405-1433


Between 1405 and 1433 admiral Cheng Ho (1371-1433) commanded seven grand voyages from China to southeast Asia, India, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and the eastern coast of Africa. To some western scholars, versed in the European voyages of exploration that profoundly affected much of the world's history, the voyages of Cheng Ho appear enigmatic. The voyages of Cheng Ho were significant undertakings that demonstrated China's impressive maritime technology and expertise, yet their impact was only short-lived. Undertaken with the aim of spreading China's imperial majesty to distant lands, these endeavors were to have very different consequences than the early European voyages of discovery, which took place soon after. Having achieved the aim of opening up trade and the flow of tribute from distant lands, the voyages suddenly ceased and private overseas trade banned by royal edict as China withdrew into itself.


Cheng Ho was a eunuch and a military commander who had assisted the Yongle emperor, Zhu Di (1360-1424) to overthrow his nephew and become emperor. The fleets he commanded on the seven voyages were comprised of up to 317 ships, the largest of which were treasure ships, estimated to have been between 390 and 408 feet (119 and 124 m) long and more than 160 feet (49 m) wide. Some of the voyages included a crew of as many as 28,000 men. Although Cheng Ho was nominally in charge of all seven expeditions, he did not personally participate in all of them.

Historians suggest a number of reasons for the voyages. Part of the immediate impetus for the expeditions ordered by the Yongle emperor is said to have been the search for his nephew and predecessor, the Jianwen emperor, Zhu Yunwen (1377-?), whose throne Zhu Di had seized in 1402. There were rumors that Zhu Yunwen was still alive and living abroad, so, according to an unofficial history of the time, the emperor ordered Cheng Ho to search for him across the seas.

The purpose of the expeditions is best described as diplomatic. The size and grandeur of the expeditions, designed to inspire awe, expressed the majesty and power of Zhu Di and the dragon throne to distant lands. Although their mission was primarily peaceful, most members of the crew were troops who were well equipped to defend the fleet and its interests. The most dramatic example of this was the Chinese military victory in Sri Lanka on the third voyage (1409-1411) after a refusal to pay tribute. However, the presence of military weapons and soldiers was no doubt intended to display the might of the emperor and gain the allegiance and tribute of peoples without the use of actual force, as was indeed the case in the majority of places visited.

After the Yongle emperor died, the voyages of the treasure fleet ceased for six years. Then the Xuande emperor, Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435), ordered one final voyage in 1430 that also served a diplomatic purpose. As well as encouraging peace between Siam and Malacca, it intended to reverse a decline in the tribute trade and again display the majesty of the Chinese Empire, reinforcing the authority of the new emperor.

The voyages of Cheng Ho need to be understood in the wider context of Chinese seafaring and relationships with outsiders. Although his voyages were impressive for their scale and grandeur, they were not unique as diplomatic expeditions. Twelve centuries before his voyages, China carried out a diplomatic mission which spanned two decades and included visits to southeast Asia and the Arabian Sea, reaching as far as the eastern Roman Empire. Part of Marco Polo's (1254-1324) famous voyages can also be regarded as a precursor to the voyages of Cheng Ho, as Polo undertook a diplomatic mission as far as Persia in 1292 for Khublai Khan (1215-1294). This great Mongol ruler sent emissaries to Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and southern India and the Yongle emperor possibly attempted to emulate him.

There was no sudden technological breakthrough in Cheng Ho's time that made his voyages possible. Although his journeys demonstrated technology on an impressive scale, they used ship design and navigational techniques that had been developed in China many years earlier. The enormous treasure ships were based on earlier ship designs and were built in drydocks, which were used in Chinese shipbuilding some five centuries before their appearance in Europe at the end of the fifteenth century. The ships' hulls were divided into watertight compartments to give them strength, an invention that the Chinese had perfected by the end of the twelfth century. They also featured balanced rudders which gave them gave additional stability and facilitated steering. European shipbuilders did not use these innovations until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Similarly, the compass had been commonly used as a navigational aid by Chinese seafarers since the thirteenth century.


The immediate impacts of Cheng Ho's voyages were primarily diplomatic and economic. He established the flow of overseas tribute from as many as fifty new places, underscoring the radiance of the emperor and the dragon throne, as well as stimulating China's overseas trade—indeed the voyages have even been credited with signaling an age of commerce in southeast Asia. Cheng Ho took with him cargoes including silk, porcelain, silver, and gold to offer as gifts to foreign rulers and exchange for luxuries, including spices and rare woods. He even built a transfer station in Malacca for trading purposes, an event unique in China's history. The spectacular porcelain pagoda built by Zhu Di at Nanjing from 1412, considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world by later European observers, is said to have been built using revenue from the voyages.

Cheng Ho had two tablets erected in 1431 documenting the achievements of his voyages. According to one of these, the Changle tablet, Cheng Ho believed that the achievements of "[t]he Imperial Ming Dynasty, in unifying seas and continents" surpassed those of previous dynasties. He added that "[t]he countries beyond the horizon and at the ends of the earth have all become subjects.... Thus the barbarians from beyond the seas, though their countries are truly distant ... have come to audience bearing precious objects and presents" for the emperor. The tablet also suggests that the voyages had made a significant contribution to Chinese geographic knowledge, allowing "the distances and the routes" of foreign lands to be calculated, "however far they may be."

However, the long-term consequences of the voyages were less impressive. Just at the point at which the Chinese had demonstrated their superior seafaring capabilities, the voyages ceased and the empire withdrew into itself. The strength of the Ming navy was greatly reduced over the following century and overseas trade outside the tribute system was banned. The tribute system itself declined. In 1477 another powerful eunuch named Wang Zhi wished to mount an expedition. When he asked for the official records from the voyages of Cheng Ho, the records were declared "lost" and his efforts were frustrated.

Such behavior may seem inexplicable to western scholars but it accorded with contemporary Chinese cultural beliefs and political climate. Internal conflict at court between the eunuchs and Confucian officials played a major role in creating this climate. Seafaring was traditionally the domain of the eunuchs while the Confucians adhered to an ethical code that regarded foreign travel and commerce as distasteful. By successfully stopping the voyages, the Confucians were striking a blow at their rivals. Moreover, they regarded the voyages to be a waste of the empire's resources and believed that China had no need of foreign curiosities. Indeed, there were economic and political factors that made the voyages seem less practical. There was severe inflation in the mid-fifteenth century and the empire's tax base shrank by almost half from what it had been at the turn of the century. In addition, the increased Mongol threat along the northern frontier diverted the empire's military resources away from coastal areas.

Unlike the European nations whose voyages of discovery gained rapid momentum in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Chinese were not interested in colonization. The difference between the experiences of Europe and China were economic and cultural rather than technological. As the voyages of Cheng Ho demonstrate, the Chinese certainly possessed the maritime technology and expertise to undertake long voyages of discovery. However, the Chinese were not interested in the wholesale exploitation of the resources of foreign lands, unlike subsequent European voyages of discovery. In Europe, such behavior was driven in part by the fierce competition between nation-states, which had fostered an attitude that encouraged the appropriation and adaptation of ideas and material resources from outside lands. China, however, believed itself to be self-sufficient and culturally superior to foreign lands, which meant it had no real need of outside resources, a belief that the voyages of Cheng Ho appeared to confirm.


Further Reading

Duyvendak, J. J. L. China's Discovery of Africa. Arthur Probsthain: London, 1949.

Gang Deng. "An Evaluation of the Role of Admiral Cheng Ho's Voyages in Chinese Maritime History." International Journal of Maritime History, vol. VII, no. 2 (December 1995), pp.1-19.

Goodrich , L. Carrington, and Chaoying Fang (eds).Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644, vol.1, Cambridge University Press: New York & London, 1976.

Levathes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-33. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1994.

Mirsky, Jeannette (ed.). The Great Chinese Travellers. George Allen & Unwin Ltd: London, 1964.

Snow, Philip. The Star Raft: China's Encounters with Africa. Weidenfeld & Nicolson: New York, 1988.

Willets, William. "The Maritime Adventures of Grand Eunuch Ho." Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Sept. 1964), pp.25-42.

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Chinese Exploration: The Voyages of Cheng Ho, 1405-1433

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