Emperor Yongle and Admiral Zheng He


Zheng He’s Voyages, 1405-1433 Admiral Zheng He led a Ming-dynasty fleet on seven different voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and the East African coast. Although the voyages covered 7,000 miles (11,000 km), the sailors were not exploring but traveling on well-known hajj routes from China to Mecca and from Mecca to Mozambique. The route from the Arabian peninsula to China was the longest sea route in regular use before Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492.

Large oceangoing sailing ships were being developed in China as early as the tenth century CE. During the thirteenth century the Venetian traveler Marco Polo reported seeing four-masted merchant ships during his long stay in China. In 1973 a large thirteenth-century ship was found at Houzhou; it was about 35 meters long, with a keel and double cedar planking on the hull. Writings from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) describe the voyages of Zheng He in a fleet of nine-masted ships 120 meters long, although researchers have found no such ships. Chinese shipbuilding was suddenly ended in 1550 with an imperial ban on overseas commerce.

The autocratic turn in Chinese politics has been laid at the feet of the Mongol emperors who ruled Yuan China, yet emperors Hongwu and Yongle were decisive in hollowing out the core Confucian values of obligation and reciprocity that the Ming regime might have nurtured in the restoration of the old imperial system.

Yongle completed his revamping of the regime by moving the central administration back north to the old Mongol capital, Beijing (Northern Capital). Serious construction began in 1416, and on October 28, 1420, the city was formally designated as the dynasty’s capital. Nanjing (South- ern Capital) was demoted to the status of secondary capital.

The stench of illegitimacy being strong, Yongle had to mobilize every device he could think of to mask it. One was to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. This located the political center in his base area; it also implicitly aligned the Ming with the warrior traditions of the Jurchen Jin and the Mongol Yuan rather than with the literati traditions of the Song. Yongle looked to Khubilai for his models. Another was to announce to the maritime world, as Khubilai had done, that he was now emperor. This he did by dispatching a series of trusted military eunuchs at the head of diplomatic missions to tributary states around Southeast Asia. Best known of these is the Muslim eunuch who led six of these missions, Zheng He (1371-1433). Zheng’s first expedition between 1405 and 1407 got as far as the southwest coast of India before turning back to the Ming. Zheng He’s first voyage included more than 27,800 men and 317 ships; his largest ships measured 400 feet long and had nine masts (by comparison, the USS Constitution, built almost four hundred years later, was only 204 feet long).

Five more expeditions followed in 1407-1409, 1409-1411, 1413-1415, 1417-1419, and 1421-1422, all on a grand scale and at great cost to the Ming state. With Beijing simultaneously under construction, the financial burden was severe. A seventh was ordered, but after a fire burned three buildings in his newly constructed palace in 1421 (conventionally a sign of Heaven’s disapproval), Yongle suspended that plan and died before another could be launched. Under the advice of fiscally responsible officials, subsequent emperors agreed that the state should stop building the enormously expensive “star-guided rafts” or “treasure ships,” as his great vessels were variously known, and put the state’s re- sources to better use than sending out inflated overseas missions to impose the dynasty’s will and acquire mere exotica.

There has grown up a curious urge to view Zheng He as China’s antecedent to Christopher Columbus: as an intrepid explorer who, were it not for the penny-pinching bureaucrats back home, would have gone on to discover the Americas long before Columbus. This urge has led to much fantasizing among amateur historians, but it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the voyages of both Zheng and Columbus. Columbus was not an explorer. His voyages were vehicles of speculative commercial investment aimed at establishing direct trade links with China, a notion he was able to float to his backers in part on the basis of his reading of Marco Polo. He sailed west because he thought this route would get him there. His principal backers were the king and queen of Spain, who were able to raise the funds by siphoning off some of the money expropriated from Spanish Jews in the great expulsion of 1492. Their interest in the voyages was principally financial, not diplomatic or political or intellectual. Columbus was crossing the ocean to trade, not to colonize, though he did leave groups of men behind to establish toeholds to supply future voyages.

When Columbus is viewed this way (rather than as the heroic explorer who “discovered” the Americas and changed the world), Zheng He be- gins to emerge from the mist of misrecognition as more his opposite than his avatar. Zheng’s purpose was diplomatic: a mission to declare to all tributary states known to China that Yongle was now the emperor and that they should send him tribute to acknowledge the fact. He took with him a sizeable military force to make sure that the rulers on whom he called did not refuse his command, but he was not intent on conquest. China had an interest in lubricating commercial links throughout maritime Asia, and its fleets helped Chinese merchants to enlarge their trade circuits, but the voyages were not targets of investment. Nor were they expected to produce the stunning returns in gold that Columbus promised, and consistently failed to deliver, to Ferdinand and Isabella. Finally, Zheng’s ships did reach places to which no Chinese officials had ever traveled, notably on the east coast of Africa, but they were sailing known routes that Muslim traders in the Indian Ocean had long been using. Chinese mariners may have been unfamiliar with some of these places, but they were not in any sense “discovering” them. They were simply adding them to the roster of states that should acknowledge Ming suzerainty. Zheng He was not an explorer-entrepreneur out on the ocean to discover the world; he was an imperial servant sent to get the one thing that his usurper-emperor craved: diplomatic recognition. This was political theater, and no less important for being so.

Admiral Zheng He’s fleet must have impressed everyone who saw it. Over twenty-eight thousand men staffed the full fleet of over three hundred massive wooden ships. The biggest Chinese ships-200 foot (61 m) long “treasure ships”- were the largest ships in the world at that time. In 1341, at Calicut, Ibn Battuta had praised Chinese ships for their wooden compartments that offered individual travelers privacy; Zheng He’s sailors filled similar compartments with fresh water and stocked them with fish for their dining pleasure.

In most cases, the ships landed at a port, gave gifts to the local ruler, and left, but they intervened in local affairs if the ruler did not obey them. In 1411, the Chinese forces took the capital city of Sri Lanka, defeated the local armies, and captured the ruler, whom they dispatched to Nanjing. They replaced him with a puppet ruler loyal to Chinese interests.

The farthest they went was more than 7,000 miles (11,000 km) to the coast of East Africa, which they visited in 1418, 1421-1422, and 1431-1433. The ships broke the long journey into smaller legs by stopping frequently at ports along the way. In leading China’s navy to India and Africa, Admiral Zheng He was following well-established hajj routes taken by both pilgrims and Muslim merchants. His route from China to East Africa was simply the mirror image of Ibn Battuta’s from East Africa to China. Although they covered enormous distances, Zheng He’s ships never ventured into unknown waters. They were not exploring: their goal was to display the might of the Yongle emperor.

One of Zheng He’s men, Fei Xin (1385-ca. 1436), recorded what he had been able “to collect as true facts from the explanations” of others about Africa. Much more detailed than Zhao Rugua’s 1225 descriptions of Africa are Fei Xin’s descriptions of Mogadishu in modern-day Somalia: “This place lies on the sea-shore. Piles of stones constitute the city-wall. . .. The houses are of layers of stone and four or five storeys high, the places for dwelling, cooking, easing oneself [going to the bathroom], and entertaining guests all being on the upper floors.” * Fei Xin’s informant describes what he saw from on board ship; the Chinese did not venture inland.

Because Zheng He’s ships also engaged in trade, usually giving suits of clothing in exchange for horses, animal skins, gold, and silver, his men were well informed about local trading conditions. The commodities traded at Mogadishu included such things as “gold and silver, colored satins, sandalwood, rice and cereals, porcelain articles, and colored thin silk.” Fei Xin’s description of the known world ends with a description of Mecca, an indication that his account, although written in Chinese, was modeled on the Islamic genre of rihla travel accounts used by Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Fadlan, and Ibn Battuta to record their journeys, further evidence that the Chinese of the Ming dynasty inherited the cartographic knowledge of the Mongols, who had learned so much from Islamic geographers.

The Chinese voyagers who participated in the trade did so as members of the imperial navy, not as independent entrepreneurs. When the Ming government suspended the voyages in 1433, the year Admiral Zheng He died, the trips to Africa came to an abrupt halt. Placed in storage, the treasure ships subsequently rotted away. The Ming dynasty shifted its resources from the sea to the north and rebuilt the Great Wall in the hope of keeping the Mongols from invading.


There has been a pronounced reassessment of the great voyages of the eunuch Zheng He (1371-1433) in the early Ming. Leaving aside the questionable conclusions of writers such as Gavin Menzies about Zheng’s status as the early modern world’s greatest explorer, specialists in the field have drawn attention to the underlying purpose of these missions as being a form of maritime force projection by the usurper Emperor Yongle (r. 1403-24), who was eager to legitimise his rule and assert the symbolic (and to some extent real) hegemony of Ming China over its neighbours. Thus, while contemporary Chinese politicians such as Jiang Zemin have been wont to extol Zheng’s supposedly peaceful intentions and engage in what some political scientists have dubbed `Zheng He diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia, “his policy was implicitly one of force. Beneath any moral gloss, his immensely powerful fleets formed what today would be called an oceanic strike force”. 6 Such statements are reified by the fact that Zheng’s fleets did intervene on multiple occasions in local power disputes to further Ming interests. Of course it is without question that the general military and commercial orientation of the Ming temporarily shifted away from the sea after the deaths of Yongle and Zheng He owing to internal political debates that prioritised the Mongol threat in the northwest and augmented by the subsequent related prohibitions of maritime trade


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