Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Chinese Treasure Fleet

Name some of history’s greatest naval powers . . . England. Yes. Spain. Another yes. The Dutch. Sure. The French. Yep. Portugal. Yes. China. What?

Indeed, not only was China a great naval power in history, it could have surpassed the otheres and could have colonised far more lands than the others ever did.

Some facts. . . 

Zhu Di and Zheng He:

Although most people think of historical China as an insular, closed off country with a land based population, the Chinese were masters at shipbuilding and navigation. Chinese sailors reached Madagascar during the 5th or 6th century BC and, according to most scholars, sailed to Central and South America before the birth of Christ.

Although the Chinese were the major traders in the Indian Ocean by the 7th century AD, Confucius’s teachings took hold and saw a pull back. Confucius believed the commercial world to be common and debasing, that men owed their higher loyalty to their parents and should not leave them alone whilst making long journeys.

In the later part of the 14th century, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang captured a 13 year old Muslim boy named Ma He whilst invading Mongolia. In accordance with Chinese custom, Ma He was castrated along with all the other prisoners. For some reason He was then assigned to be the servant of Prince Zhu Di, the emperor’s fourth son. The two grew to be close companions, Zhu Di becoming an accomplished and brilliant military leader, Ma He (renamed Zheng He by the Prince) a learned and brave soldier and fighter in battle.  He was of imposing stature, 2 metres (6 feet 6 inches) in height. 

Zhu Di

Zheng He

In 1398 the Emperor died, having named his nephew as the heir to the throne. Zhu Di opposition resulted in a civil war, eventually leading to his being crowned emperor in 1402. Ambitious building and political projects followed: he rebuilt the Great Wall, constructed a new capital at Beijing and commissioned the building of a fleet of treasure ships.

The ships:

The ships ordered built by Zhu Di were the biggest that the world had ever seen.

Recorded as 137m (350 feet) long and 55m (180 feet) wide, they were at least twice as long as the largest European ships at the end of the 16th century. Some scholars are critical of such dimensions, pointing out that ocean going treasure ships of such prodigious size would have been hard to manage and unstable. Still others submit that the largest ships would have been used on the calmer waters of the Yangtze River, part of the emperor’s display of power.

There is no doubt, however, that the treasure ships were enormous, having up to 9 masts and four decks. They could accommodate between 500 to more than 1,500 passengers, as well as large amounts of cargo. Marco Polo, in his account of his travels, described Chinese ships with multiple masts and carrying from 500 to 1,000 passengers.

Some features of the treasure ships: 

  • They were wide in ratio to their length with a V shaped hull, with a long keel and heavy ballast, providing great stability. 
  • The keel consisted of wooden beams bound together with iron hoops. 
  • In stormy weather, holes in the prow would partially fill with water when the ship pitched forward, thus lessening the violent turbulence caused by waves. 
  • Treasure ships used floating anchors cast off the sides of the ship in order to increase stability. 
  • The stern had two 2.5 m (8 foot) iron anchors weighing over a thousand pounds each, used for mooring offshore. 
  • Watertight compartments were also used to add strength to the treasure ships. 
  • The ships had a balanced rudder which could be raised and lowered, creating additional stability and the ships easier to steer. 

Between 1403 and 1505 the shipyards on the coast of China built ship after ship, a total of 317 ships that would accommodate 27,000 men, an armada the size of which would not be seen again until World War 1.

A stationary full-size model of a "middle-sized" treasure ship (63.25 m long) at the Treasure Ship Shipyard site in Nanking. It was built ca. 2005 from concrete and wooden planking

Inside the model Treasure Ship at Nanjing Treasure Boat Shipyard

Cutaway of a Chinese Treasure Ship 

Chinese treasure ship compared with Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria

Ming Dynasty Treasure Ship compared with Vasco De Gama's ship

A replica of a small section of a treasure ship. The ship did bring back rhinos and giraffes to China when the fleet sailed to Africa. 


With the fleet of 317 ships and 27,000 men ready to depart on its first voyage in 1405, emperor Zhu Di did something extraordinary. He named his companion, the eunuch Zheng He, as admiral in charge of the fleet. Never before had a eunuch and slave held such a high military command.

Next week: The Voyages.


  1. Where did you source the material for this article?

  2. Various sources, Wikipedia has considerable material on it.


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