The Seven Voyages of Zheng He
The story so far:
The accession of Zhu Di to the position of emperor of China in 1402 resulted in the implementation of a number of major building projects, including the construction of a fleet of treasure ships, amongst them the largest ships the world had yet known. In 1405 the fleet was ready to sail. Zhu Di appointed as admiral his companion from childhood, the eunuch Zheng He.
Zheng He’s promotion to admiral was not an ill-advised court appointment, he was (as events would show) the right man for the job. Amongst the people he selected to travel with the fleet were eunuchs who acted as ambassadors and persons skilled in foreign languages and protocols.
The first voyage of the fleet began in autumn 1405 – 317 ships and 27,000 men. Imagine what the logistics and effect would have been of such number of ships and men arriving in Botany Bay in 1778.
The fleet included:
· ships transporting horses;
· tanker ships filled with fresh water;
· food supply ships, which had large tubs of earth growing fresh fruit and vegetables;
· troop transports;
· warships with the latest weaponry;
· cargo ships with first class trade goods – silk, ceramics, gold and silver, iron tools, copper kitchenware.
The ships communicated with each other via bells, gongs, carrier pigeons and displayed banners.
A comparison between one of the Chinese treasure ships and Columbus’s Santa Maria
The voyages of Zheng He
The first voyage took the fleet to Formosa, today known as Taiwan, where they waited out the winter. With spring the fleet sailed to what is now Vietnam, where they engaged in trade, then travelling to Java where it did the same. In the places they visited they interacted with the locals, including watch a Hindu funeral where the wife leaped into the flames of the funeral pyre to join her dead husband. Privately they recorded the locals as “savages” and as “snake-eaters and devil-worshippers.”
The fleet then travelled to India, arriving in December 1406 and staying until spring 1407. During that time they carried out major trading. Although the Chinese considered most foreigners to be barbarians, they were impressed by the Indians – their willingness to abide by agreements and their efficiency.
The return voyage saw a military engagement with the pirate Chen Zuyi, one of the most feared and respected pirate captains, that lasted for months but in which the fleet was finally victorious. Both Chinese naval tactics and weaponry were superior to those of the pirates, including mortars that sent flammable material into the pirate sails and launched grenades made of gunpowder and paper soaked in acidic poison. Chen Zuyi was captured and taken back to Nanjing for execution.
Also on the way home the fleet was battered by a storm. Zheng He and the rest prayed to the goddess Tian Fei, the Celestial Consort, the protector of sailors. A blinding white light suddenly appeared on the mast of Zheng He’s flagship and the winds dropped. Although we know the phenomenon to be a naturally occurring one – St Emo’s fire – for the men of the fleet it was a miracle.
Zhu Di was so pleased with the voyage that he immediately ordered another.
Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He made 7 voyages.
Some comments on the voyages:
- Zheng He's fleets visited Brunei, Java, Thailand and Southeast Asia, India, the Horn of Africa and Arabia.
- Some writers believe that Zheng He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached America’s east coast but there is no evidence of this.
- Zheng He presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; in return, China received such novelties as ostriches, zebras, camels, and ivory from the Swahili. The giraffe he returned from Malindi was considered to be a qiin (a mythical Chinese creature said to appear on the passing of a ruler or illustrious person) and taken as proof of the favour of heaven upon the administration. The qiin was also a sign of peace, prosperity and fortune.
- Other items they received in trade were:
mahogany for ships’ rudders from Sumatra;
aloe, incense and tin from Siam (now Thailand),
pearls and fabrics from Malacca;
- The Chinese knew of western Europe from Arab merchants but had no wish to go there – they regarded the westerners also as barbarians and the trade goods offered, wool and wine, were of no interest to them.
- Although backed by an impressive army, navy and military machine, Zheng He preferred to achieve his goals by diplomacy. Whether visiting Buddhist, Hindu r Islamic countries or places, he participated in their religious observances and practices (he was under the impression that Christianity had originated in India).
- Part of the philosophy of trade without colonisation was that foreigners were inferior. What was the point of conquering inferiors?
- Writer Joseph Cummins has observed that:
“The Chinese also realised how hard it was to continuously resupply garrisons in distant outposts. Much wiser to subjugate through trade, to let prosperity be the reward for allegiance. It took Western powers another 400 years to learn this lesson.”
The emperor Zhu Di died in 1424. His son Zhu Gaozhi took over and surrounded himself with inward focused Confucians. The voyages were stopped and Zheng He was recalled, being appointed military commander of Nanjing. Zhu Gaozhi died after 9 months and the new emperor, Zhu Zhanji, commissioned another voyage, the seventh and the largest. It set sail in 1433 and visited Vietnam, Sumatra, Ceylon, India and sailed down the east African coast to as far as modern day Kenya,.
Zheng He died during the voyage and was buried at sea.
Zhu Zhanji died suddenly in 1435, leaving a 7 year old heir. Confucians again took over, the shipyards were closed and overseas trade was made punsihab,le by death. The logs of all seven of Zheng He;’s voyages were destroyed, leaving only three eyewitness accounts, two by officers aboard the treasure ships and one by a Muslim translator who travelled on the later voyages. Other countries stepped, or rather sailed, into the trading vacuum created by China departing the scene. As Spain, Portugal and European powers rose, the Chinese Navy disappeared. Not only was it unable to defend itself against foreign invasions, it could not even defend its own coastline from pirate attacks,
Long before the later naval powers were colonising, China ruled the waves. Columbus discovered America in 1492; England began to develop a fleet only after 1500, yet 100 years earlier a vast armada that was superior in size, scale and technology, had set sail and could have dominated the world.
We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…
- Tablet erected by Zheng He prior to departure on his seventh and final voyage in 1433