Perhaps it is odd that China’s greatest seafarer was raised in the mountains. The future admiral Zheng He was born around 1371 to a family of prosperous Muslims. Then known as Ma He, he spent his childhood in Mongol-controlled, landlocked Yunnan Province, located several months’ journey from the closest port. When Ma He was about 10 years old, Chinese forces invaded and overthrew the Mongols; his father was killed, and Ma He was taken prisoner. It marked the beginning of a remarkable journey of shifting identities that this remarkable man would navigate.
Many young boys taken from the province were ritually castrated and then brought to serve in the court of Zhu Di, the future Ming emperor or Yongle. Over the next decade, Ma He would distinguish himself in the prince’s service and rise to become one of his most trusted advisers. Skilled in the arts of war, strategy, and diplomacy, the young man cut an imposing figure: Some described him as seven feet tall with a deep, booming voice. Ma He burnished his reputation as a military commander with his feats at the battle of Zhenglunba, near Beijing. After Zhu Di became the Yongle emperor in 1402, Ma He was renamed Zheng He in honor of that battle. He continued to serve alongside the emperor and became the commander of China’s most important asset: its great naval fleet, which he would command seven times.
China on the high seas
Zheng He’s voyages followed in the wake of many centuries of Chinese seamanship. Chinese ships had set sail from the ports near present-day Shanghai, crossing the East China Sea, bound for Japan. The vessels’ cargo included material goods, such as rice, tea, and bronze, as well as intellectual ones: a writing system, the art of calligraphy, Confucianism, and Buddhism.
As far back as the 11th century, multi-sailed Chinese junks boasted fixed rudders and watertight compartments—an innovation that allowed partially damaged ships to be repaired at sea. Chinese sailors were using compasses to navigate their way across the South China Sea. Setting off from the coast of eastern China with colossal cargoes, they soon ventured farther afield, crossing the Strait of Malacca while seeking to rival the Arab ships that dominated the trade routes in luxury goods across the Indian Ocean—or the Western Ocean, as the Chinese called it.
While a well-equipped navy had been built up during the early years of the Song dynasty (960- 1279), it was in the 12th century that the Chinese became a truly formidable naval power. The Song lost control of northern China in 1127, and with it, access to the Silk Road and the wealth of Persia and the Islamic world. The forced withdrawal to the south prompted a new capital to be established at Hangzhou, a port strategically situated at the mouth of the Qiantang River, and which Marco Polo described in the course of his famous adventures in the 1200s. (See pictures from along Marco Polo's journey through Asia.)
For centuries, the Song had been embroiled in battles along inland waterways and had become indisputable masters of river navigation. Now, they applied their experience to building up a naval fleet. Alas, the Song’s newfound naval mastery was not enough to withstand the invasion of the mighty Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. (Kublai Khan achieved what Genghis could not: conquering China.)
The Mongols and the Ming
Having toppled the Song and ascended to the Chinese imperial throne in 1279, Kublai built up a truly fearsome naval force. Millions of trees were planted and new shipyards created. Soon, Kublai commanded a force numbering thousands of ships, which he deployed to attack Japan, Vietnam, and Java. And while these naval offensives failed to gain territory, China did win control over the sea-lanes from Japan to Southeast Asia. The Mongols gave a new preeminence to merchants, and maritime trade flourished as never before.
On land, however, they failed to establish a settled form of government and win the allegiance of the peoples they had conquered. In 1368, after decades of internal rebellion throughout China, the Mongol dynasty fell and was replaced by the Ming (meaning “bright”) dynasty. Its first emperor, Hongwu, was as determined as the Mongol and Song emperors before him to maintain China as a naval power. However, the new emperor limited overseas contact to naval ambassadors who were charged with securing tribute from an increasingly long list of China’s vassal states, among them, Brunei, Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, thus ensuring that lucrative profits did not fall into private hands. Hongwu also decreed that no oceangoing vessels could have more than three masts, a dictate punishable by death. (The Ming Dynasty built the Great Wall. Find out if it worked.)
Yongle was the third Ming emperor, and he took this restrictive maritime policy even further, banning private trade while pushing hard for Chinese control of the southern seas and the Indian Ocean. The beginning of his reign saw the conquest of Vietnam and the foundation of Malacca as a new sultanate controlling the entry point to the Indian Ocean, a supremely strategic location for China to control. In order to dominate the trade routes that united China with Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, the emperor decided to assemble an impressive fleet, whose huge treasure ships could have as many masts as necessary. The man he chose as its commander was Zheng He.
Although he is often described as an explorer, Zheng He did not set out primarily on voyages of discovery. During the Song dynasty, the Chinese had already reached as far as India, the Persian Gulf, and Africa. Rather, his voyages were designed as a display of Chinese might, as well as a way of rekindling trade with vassal states and guaranteeing the flow of vital provisions, including medicines, pepper, sulfur, tin, and horses.
The fleets that Zheng He commanded on his seven great expeditions between 1405 and 1433 were suitably ostentatious. On the first voyage, the fleet numbered 255 ships, 62 of which were vast treasure ships, or baochuan. There were also mid-size ships such as the machuan, used for transporting horses, and a multitude of other vessels carrying soldiers, sailors, and assorted personnel. Some 600 officials made the voyage, among them doctors, astrologers, and cartographers.
The ships left Nanjing (Nanking), Hangzhou, and other major ports, from there veering south to Fujian, where they swelled their crews with expert sailors. They then made a show of force by anchoring in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, which China had recently conquered. None of the seven expeditions headed north; most made their way to Java and Sumatra, resting for a spell in Malacca, where they waited for the winter monsoon winds that blow toward the west.
They then proceeded to Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and Calicut in southern India, where the first three expeditions terminated. The fourth expedition reached Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and the final voyages expanded westward, entering the waters of the Red Sea, then turning and sailing as far as Kenya, and perhaps farther still. A caption on a copy of the Fra Mauro map—the original, now lost, was completed in Venice in 1459, more than 25 years after Zheng He’s final voyage—implies that Chinese ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1420 before being forced to turn back for lack of wind.
Chinese ships had always been noted for their size. More than a century before Zheng He, explorer Marco Polo described their awesome dimensions: Between four and six masts, a crew of up to 300 sailors, 60 cabins, and a deck for the merchants. Chinese vessels with five masts are shown on the 14th-century “Catalan Atlas” from the island of Mallorca. Still, claims in a 1597 adventure tale that Zheng He’s treasure ships reached 460 feet long do sound exaggerated. Most marine archaeological finds suggest that Chinese ships of the 14th and 15th centuries usually were not longer than 100 feet. Even so, a recent discovery by archaeologists of a 36-foot-long rudder raises the possibility that some ships may have been as large as claimed. (A 1,200-year-old shipwreck reveals how the world traded with China.)
End of an odyssey
Zheng He’s voyages ended abruptly in 1433 on the command of Emperor Xuande. Historians have long speculated as to why the Ming would have abandoned the naval power that China had nurtured since the Song. The problems were certainly not economic: China was collecting enormous tax revenues, and the voyages likely cost a fraction of that income.
The problem, it seems, was political. The Ming victory over the Mongols caused the empire’s focus to shift from the ports of the south to deal with tensions in the north. The voyages were also viewed with suspicion by the very powerful bureaucratic class, who worried about the influence of the military. This fear had reared its head before: In 1424, between the sixth and seventh voyages, the expedition program was briefly suspended, and Zheng He was temporarily appointed defender of the co-capital Nanjing, where he oversaw construction of the famous Bao’en Pagoda, built with porcelain bricks.
The great admiral died either during, or shortly after, the seventh and last of the historic expeditions, and with the great mariner’s death his fleet was largely dismantled. China’s naval power would recede until the 21st century. With the nation’s current resurgence, it is no surprise that the figure of Zheng He stands once again at the center of China’s maritime ambitions. Today the country’s highly disputed “nine-dash line”— which China claims demarcates its control of the South China Sea—almost exactly maps the route taken six centuries ago by Zheng He and his remarkable fleet.
Dolors Folch is Professor Emeritus of Chinese History at the Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain.