Zheng He


Zheng He (Wade-Giles, Cheng Ho) (1371-1433), was the greatest Chinese maritime explorer in history, and the most important in Asia, as well as the commander of the largest navy the world knew until the First World War. Zheng He, also known as Ma Sanbao, was a Chinese Muslim military eunuch, sailor and explorer, especially famous for his seven naval expeditions between 1405 and 1433 during the early Ming dynasty, which some legendarily identify with the voyages of Sinbad. His contributions are key to understanding the advanced history of Chinese cartography.

During his expeditions, which began in Nanjing, Zheng He explored Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Ceylon, India, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa up to the Mozambique Channel, visiting 37 countries.

The mission of the “treasure voyages” was to project Chinese power and wealth to the rest of the world, as well as to control the main maritime trade routes in the region.His voyages produced significant diplomatic, commercial and cultural exchange with foreign countries. Despite helping to demonstrate Chinese organizational capacity and technological power, they did not produce territorial annexations due to China”s lack of tradition of colonialism and imperialism.Zheng He”s seven voyages provided much wealth to China, elevated the Empire as the world”s first superpower and expanded Chinese culture and colonizers to the farthest reaches of the globe.After his death, the Confucianists again imposed their worldview, so in the following centuries isolationism was pushed forward. Nevertheless, Zheng He left a profound mark on Chinese society and, in general, on the whole of Southeast Asia.

Family and childhood

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Hedai village in Jinning district of present-day Kunming, Yunnan province, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, about 2,000 meters above sea level, and two months” journey from the nearest seaport. Yunnan, the southern province bordering Tibet, Myanmar and Laos, inhabited by many Muslims, was the last stronghold of the followers of the Mongol dynasty.

His parents were Ma Haji and Weng, and he had an older brother and four sisters. His given name was Ma He (馬 和), indicative of his family”s Muslim origins, since “Ma” is the Chinese version of “Muhammad”. Although Chinese by nationality, Zheng He did not belong to the Chinese (Han) ethnic group but was included among what in the Ming Dynasty was called the semu caste, which included all those who were not Han, Mongol or foreigners. Within the semu caste, Zheng He belonged to the sub-caste of the Hui ethnic group, the only one of importance during the Ming, and whose characteristics are the practice of Islam and the use of Chinese as a common language.

Zheng He”s great-great-grandfather, Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar (1211-1279), was a native of Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, and was a governor of Yunnan province under the Mughal emperor Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty that ruled China from 1279 to 1368. His great-grandfather Bayan seems to have belonged to the Mongol garrison of Yunnan.

Ma He”s father and grandfather were known as Haji, the honorific title given to Muslim men who make the “hajj” or pilgrimage to Mecca. Ma He must have grown up listening to tales of their travels to distant lands. His father was said to have been a herdsman and had become impoverished. Ma He”s father remained loyal to the recently overthrown Mongol Yuan dynasty, despite the fact that rebel forces of what would become the Ming dynasty were conquering larger and larger swaths of China.

Capture by the Ming and youth

In the autumn of 1381, a Ming army invaded and conquered Yunnan province, then ruled by the Mongol prince Basalawarmi, prince of Liang. Zheng He”s father died in the fighting between the Ming armies and the Mongol forces. Wenming, the eldest son, buried his father outside Kunming. After completing his third journey, Zheng He returned as a hero and high-ranking official to his birthplace, Kunyang near Kunming in Yunnan, where he had a tomb built for his father.

Zheng He was captured by the Ming army of General Fu Youde in Yunnan in 1381. He was castrated sometime between the ages of 10 and 14, following the customary practice of the time.

Ma He was sent around 1385 to serve in the household of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, fourth son of Emperor Hongwu, who had ruled Beijing since 1380, near the northern border with hostile Mongol tribes. Zhu Di was eleven years older than Ma He and later became the Yongle Emperor. Enslaved as a eunuch servant, Ma He gained Zhu Di”s trust, while Zhu Di, as his benefactor, won the young eunuch”s loyalty and fidelity.Ma He was also known as Ma Sanbao (馬三寶

Ma He received a broad education in Beijing, including instruction in the arts of war and diplomacy, and study of the works of Confucius and Mencius, which he would not have had in the imperial capital Nanjing, as Emperor Hongwu did not trust eunuchs and believed it was better to keep them illiterate.

Ma He spent his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier, often participating in Zhu Di”s military campaigns against the Mongols, and becoming an officer. In 1387, Ma He accompanied the prince in the Ming campaign against the Mongol horde of the Urianjai, which ended with the great victory at the Battle of Jinshan and the surrender of the Mongol commander Naghachu.

Zheng He”s military career

Ma He, who as noted had become a trusted advisor to Zhu Di, prince of Yan, helped him become Yongle emperor.

In 1393 Crown Prince Zhu Biao died, and his son Zhu Yunwen was named the new heir according to strict imperial ancestral rules. Before the death of Emperor Hongwu, the Prince of Qin and the Prince of Yin died, leaving Zhu Di as the eldest surviving son of Emperor Hongwu, who had had 26 sons. Upon the death of Emperor Hongwu in 1398, the imperial throne was succeeded by Zhu Yunwen, who took the name Emperor Jianwen. That year he issued a policy known as ””xuēfān”” (Chinese, 削藩), or ””feudatory reduction,”” which sought to reduce the power and military forces of the Princes, his uncles. In August 1399, Zhu Di openly rebelled against his nephew, beginning the so-called Jignan rebellion. That year, Ma He successfully defended the Beijing city reservoir, Zhenglunba, against the imperial armies.

In January 1402, when Zhu Di began the campaign to capture the imperial capital, Nanjing, Ma He was one of his most reliable commanders. Zhu Di”s armies, after defeating the imperial armies, marched toward Nanjing on July 13, 1402. After ascending to the throne on July 17 as Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di promoted Ma He as Grand Director (太監, tàijiān) of the Palace Servants (内宫監). During the Chinese New Year, on February 11, 1404, Emperor Yongle conferred the surname “Zheng” on Ma He for distinguishing himself at the Battle of Zhenglunba against imperial troops, during the 1399 siege of Beijing, and for his services during the capture of Nanjing in 1402.

In the new administration, Zheng He also served as Chief Admiral during the seven sea voyages he made on behalf of the emperor to promote trade and collect tribute in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean.

In 1424, Zheng He traveled to Palembang in Sumatra on an official mission. When he returned, he discovered that Emperor Yongle had died during his absence on August 12, and had been replaced on September 7 by Zhu Gaozhi, heir to the throne, who took the name of Emperor Hongxi and reigned less than a year. Hongxi put an end to the enterprise of new treasure voyages, but on February 24, 1425, he appointed Zheng He as defender of Nanjing, maintaining his command over the treasure fleet for the defense of the city.

On March 25, 1428, the new Emperor Xuande, son of Hongxi, ordered Zheng He and others to take charge of the reconstruction and repair of the Great Bao”en Nanjing Temple, designed and built during the reign of Emperor Yongle, and whose work was completed in 1431. He directed the work for the construction of the Porcelain Tower inside that temple, considered one of the “wonders of the world” of the classical age.

In 1430, Emperor Xuande ordered Zheng He to command a seventh and final expedition to the Indian Ocean, during which Zheng He died in 1433.

Zheng He was not a Columbus, a Magellan or a Cook, he was not an explorer or a conqueror. That was not his task and, in fact, it would have been madness to send three hundred ships and thousands of men into the unknown. He was not a navigator, but an enormously talented leader and an extraordinary admiral, the best that China and perhaps maritime history has ever known.

Physical description

Zheng He does not seem to have conformed to the usual description of eunuchs. As described by his family (whose objectivity may be doubted), Zheng He was “seven feet tall and had a chest five feet in circumference.” (It should be said that the Chinese foot is smaller than the European foot) “His cheeks and forehead were high, but his nose was small. He had luminous eyes, teeth as white with a shape as perfect as cells, and a voice as powerful as a great bell.”

Another source about his physical appearance is given by a court official, when the emperor entrusted him to captain the first of his overseas expeditions. According to this official, Zheng He”s skin was “as hard as the skin of an orange”. The separation between his two eyebrows, according to Chinese tradition a predictor of happiness, was “narrow,” suggesting that he would achieve this through his professional life. “His eyebrows were like swords and his forehead wide, like a tiger”s,” both signs of strong character and aptitude for command. His mouth was “like the sea” and from it words emanated eloquently. His eyes “tinkling like light in a swift river” evidenced his energy and vitality.


It seems that Zheng He applied syncretism in his beliefs upon reaching adulthood, practicing Islam on the one hand and perhaps interceding on behalf of his brothers of faith, as Muslims were frowned upon in the early Ming dynasty because they fulfilled the role of tax collectors in the earlier Mongol Yuan dynasty. However he was very respectful of the other religions he encountered, especially Buddhism and Taoism, as seen in the Galle inscription, and showing devotion to Tianfei, the Chinese goddess of the sea, as can be seen in the inscriptions of Liujiagang, and Changle, reflecting the central role of the goddess in the treasure fleet.


It should be noted that as a eunuch castrated before puberty, Zheng He had no biological offspring. However, he adopted Zheng Haozhao, the son of his older brother who, although he could not inherit his adoptive father”s titles, he was able to inherit the properties. That is why today some 250 Muslims in Yunnan and Jiangsu provinces and the Chiang Mai area claim descent from him.

The Chinese attraction to the dominance of the sea appeared very early in history, before the first millennium. For some 300 years, the Chinese extended their power at sea. An extensive maritime trade developed to satisfy the Chinese taste for spices and the need for raw materials. Technological developments in shipbuilding and maritime navigational arts reached a high level with the Ming dynasty.

The Song dynasty (960-1279) built a well-equipped navy, and by the 12th century the Chinese had become a truly formidable naval power. Chinese multi-sailed junks had fixed rudders and watertight compartments, an innovation that allowed partially damaged ships to be repaired at sea, and they used compasses to navigate across the South China Sea. Chinese ships sailed from ports on the east coast of China loaded with material goods such as rice, tea and bronze, and intellectual goods such as the writing system, calligraphy, Confucianism and Buddhism, crossed the East China Sea to Japan or crossed the Strait of Malacca, eventually wresting control of the spice trade from Arab ships.

The Song lost control of northern China in 1127, and with it access to the Silk Road and the riches of Persia and the Islamic world. They established a new capital in the south, at Hangzhou, a strategically located port at the mouth of the Qiantang River. Their naval fleet could not prevent the invasion of the powerful Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who conquered China in 1279. He decided to build a truly fearsome naval force. Millions of trees were planted and new shipyards were created. His aim was to control the sea lanes from Japan to Southeast Asia. With the Mongols, maritime trade flourished as never before, but on land they failed to stabilize their form of government and win the loyalty of the conquered peoples. In the 14th century, the empire was divided into a series of smaller khanates, each ruled by a different khan. The resulting anarchy and warfare on land encouraged traders to use the sea routes, so that by the end of the 14th century most long-distance trade was conducted by sea.

In 1368, after decades of internal rebellions in China, the Mongol dynasty fell and was replaced by the Ming dynasty. Its first emperor, Hongwu, decided to maintain China as a naval power, although he limited overseas contact to naval ambassadors who were responsible for collecting tribute from China”s long list of vassal states, such as Brunei, Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, thus ensuring that lucrative profits did not fall into private hands. Hongwu also decreed that no ocean-going vessel could have more than three masts, a dictate punishable by death.

Motivation for Yongle”s naval expeditions

Yongle maintained a restrictive maritime policy, prohibiting private trade while pressing hard for Chinese control of the South Seas and the Indian Ocean. To dominate the trade routes linking China with these seas, the emperor decided to assemble an impressive fleet, whose ships would have as many masts as necessary, and the man he chose as its commander was Zheng He.

Zheng He had no experience at sea, so he would probably be looked upon with condescension by the old sea dogs of the existing ships, as a court eunuch and favorite of the emperor. However, his personality and his method of work, without meddling in the work of the experts, and limiting himself to supervising the general planning of the expeditions and organizing them in the proper way to ensure their success, gradually won him the confidence of his men.

In May 1403, Yongle ordered Fujian Province to build 137 ships, for which he doubled the size of the Longjiang shipyard near Nanjing. The expansion covered several square kilometers on the banks of the Yangtze River beyond the eastern Nanjing Bridge. Seven immense dry docks were built, linked to the river by a series of locks, each of which could be subdivided to allow the construction of three ships simultaneously. Three months later, several provinces were ordered to produce 200 more ships. In October it was dictated that 188 vessels were to be adapted for deep-sea navigation. In all, between 1403 and 1407 a total of 1,681 ocean-going vessels were built or remodeled.

The motives that prompted Yongle to undertake such expeditions are not entirely clear. Chinese foreign policy was quite different from that of the Europeans who would arrive in the Indian Ocean many years later. The Chinese preferred to try to achieve their goals through trade, influence and bribery rather than through open conflict and direct colonization. Thus, some motives for such expeditions may have been:

Traditionally, the presentation of tribute to Chinese emperors by other smaller states in Southeast Asia was done to avoid invasion, to gain a theoretical promise of protection in case of invasion by a third country, or to trade in China by the diplomatic mission bringing the tribute. The Chinese saw this tribute as confirmation that their emperor was indeed the Son of Heaven and the most powerful ruler on earth, and it fed the Chinese vanity that their own culture was superior to all others. This system lapsed during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1276-1368), but Yongle wanted to revive it and have foreign ambassadors prostrate themselves in the Forbidden City and offer a beautiful display of their country”s riches.

The Treasure Fleet

Chinese ships had always been noted for their size. At the end of the 13th century, the explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) described their impressive dimensions: between four and six masts, a crew of up to 300 sailors, 60 cabins and a deck for merchants. Chinese five-masted ships are shown in the 14th century “Catalan Atlas” from the island of Mallorca. Also the Moroccan Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) from Tangier in the mid-14th century told us about these large ships, which could carry up to 1,000 people.

Emperor Yongle ordered all the coastal shipyards to build the ships of his first fleet, putting to work tens of thousands of carpenters, sailmakers and builders from the southern provinces around the shipyards. Tens of thousands of carpenters, sailmakers and builders from the southern provinces around the shipyards were put to work for this purpose. This resulted in the reduction of the forest cover of southern China by half. According to Professor Xin Yuan”ou of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, these shipyards were involved in assembling hulls similar to shallow-draft rice transport ships, while the Longjiang shipyard near Nanjing mastered the technology to modify them into wedge-shaped like Western ships, although it is not known how they acquired such technology. Hulls from other shipyards were transported to Longjiang for finishing.

By 1405 some 1,180 ships of various types had been built, according to Chang Kuei-sheng”s account, and Zheng He was appointed by Emperor Yongle to lead a fleet with many more and larger ships than the European ones of the time, with up to 30,000 people, to attract new tributary states into the Chinese sphere of influence. The number of ships varied from one expedition to another, but the number of people did not, so the difference had to be in the size of the ships. The Treasure Fleet was organized into squadrons, which sometimes traveled separately.

The seven types of ships in these expeditions were, from smallest to largest.

Regarding the size of the Baochuan, there is much controversy as it is difficult to believe that they were so large. The builders” own descriptions use unknown measurements (44 zhang and 4 chi in length, 18 zhang in width). Some believe that the above measurements in zhang and chi correspond to the Fujian metric system, which would give a size of 119-124 meters long and 49-51 meters wide. In Luo Maodeng”s adventure novel, Romance of the Eunuch of the Three Jewels (1597), the author describes that the ships had nine masts, and were 140 meters long and 55 meters wide. Other experts believe that the ships probably had five or six masts, and were 75 to 90 meters long.

Some authors and historians believe that at that size the ships would be unmanageable on the high seas, and that they should not exceed the size of Fuchuan ships, i.e. about 50 to 60 meters long. Generally, at least in Europe, exploration vessels were smaller and more manageable, such as Christopher Columbus” Santa Maria, built 70 years later, which was 30 meters long and eight meters wide. But “even if we take the smaller estimates, they are double what Europeans used to sail around the world,” according to Travis Shutz, a maritime China historian at SUNY Binghamton.

One possible explanation for the seemingly inefficient size of these colossal ships could be that they were used only by the emperor and imperial bureaucrats to travel along the Yangtze River, which is calmer and navigable for these treasure ships, for judicial matters and the review of Zheng He”s expedition fleet. He, a court eunuch, would not have had the privilege of commanding these ships, and would have used the other types for his expeditions.

Anyway, in 1962 a rudder tiller was found on the bank of the Yangtze River with a steering pole 11 meters long and 38 cm in diameter, from which a length of up to 164-183 meters could be deduced on some ships, and dated approximately 600 years ago.

The size of the Chinese Longjiang shipyards discovered in 2005 would suffice, as they were between 27 and 37 meters wide, and two of them reached 64 meters, while their length exceeded 450 meters in length. The Longjiang findings indicate that the ships were built in dry docks using tropical hardwood from Indonesia and were covered with palm fibers and a type of coating to maintain the seaworthiness of a hull of such large proportions. A large keel, a large amount of ballast and the use of floating anchors on their sides gave them the transverse stability needed to sail. Her counterbalanced rudder could be raised or lowered, also increasing stability by functioning as an extra keel. At the stern, two iron anchors of 2.5 meters and weighing about 500 kilos each were used for anchoring in the open sea. The bow of each large ship was decorated with wide-open snake eyes, and although they were not warships, they carried 24 bronze cannons with a maximum range of 250 meters, to underline imperial power.

The Baochuan had sixteen watertight interior compartments, two of which could be flooded without the ship sinking. Some interior compartments could be partially flooded to house the trained otters used for fishing, or used by divers to enter or exit the sea. The captain”s cabin was at the stern of the ship. Below were sixteen cabins for foreign ambassadors and others for the Chinese ambassadors of the countries to be visited. The crew quarters were on the lower decks.

The ships carried Chinese food and luxury goods (silk, tea, painted scrolls, gold and silver objects, textiles, carved and manufactured goods, and fine porcelain) with which to entice foreign rulers to show their appreciation by sending China their own riches as tribute. There was also room for expeditionary personnel, between 20,000 and 32,000, which amounted to a veritable traveling army. This included diplomats, explorers, medical officers, astrologers, translators into all the languages of East Asia, ship crews and military personnel who, along with cannons, bombs and rockets, ensured that the expedition could defend itself wherever it ventured.

Treasure ships returned to China with all sorts of exotic items: dragon spit (ambergris), frankincense and golden amber, as well as lions, gold-splashed leopards and camel-birds (golden dresses from Calicut, in southwest India, studded with pearls and precious stones; elephants, parrots, sandalwood, peacocks, hardwood, tin and cardamom from Siam.


Many of the ships built were equipped with stern rudders and watertight compartments, an engineering innovation existing since the early years of Chinese maritime navigation, which allowed increasing the amount of fresh water on long voyages, and added ballast, balance and stability for such voyages. The magnetic compass, invented in China in the 11th century, charts and paper maps were already being used for navigation. Marked incense sticks served as clocks. Each day consisted of 10 clocks of 2.4 hours each. Geographical latitude was determined by measuring the astronomical height of the North Star in the northern hemisphere, and the Southern Cross in the southern hemisphere.

Zheng He”s navigational charts, the so-called Mao Kun map, were published in a book entitled Wubei Zhi (A Treatise on Armament Technology), written in 1621 and published in 1628, but dating back to Zheng He and earlier voyages. It was originally a 20.5 cm x 560 cm strip map that could be rolled up, but it was divided into 40 pages varying in scale from 1.71 km (4.5 mi) to 1.71 km (4.5 mi).

On the maritime silk route between China and the West, the wind governed the ships and set the course of the voyages at that time. The northwest monsoon blowing in November and December pushed the ships along the coast of China to Vietnam, Borneo and peninsular Malaysia, ending up in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. There they usually had to wait another five months for the southeast monsoon wind to sweep their ships into the Strait of Malacca, heading for Sri Lanka and India. When they shifted again, the winds would usually sweep the ships up the Arabian Peninsula to the Swahili coast of Africa – Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania – where the Arabs, Indians and Chinese had established a thriving and prosperous trading arrangement.

There are testimonies that speak of travels to the Arabian Peninsula in the time of the Han dynasty, during the first millennium. During the Song dynasty, the Chinese reached as far as India, the Persian Gulf and Africa. With the Mongol Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, Chinese knowledge of the world expanded as seen in maps that previously only showed China and its surrounding seas, and now extended further southwest, with more accurate depictions of Arabia and Africa, circulating their sea charts among Arab and Venetian sailors. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored naval expeditions to establish a Chinese presence and impose imperial control over Indian Ocean trade, impress foreign peoples in that region, and extend the empire”s tributary system, without seeking territorial expansion overseas.

The number of his voyages varies depending on the method of division, but it is generally considered that he sailed and explored “the western ocean” seven times. His squadrons are impressive when compared to his European contemporaries: around 30,000 men and a variable number of ships, ranging from forty to over three hundred. According to legend, his largest ships carried hundreds of sailors on four decks, and were almost twice as long as any wooden ship ever recorded, demonstrating Chinese excellence in shipbuilding and navigation. According to the writer Gavin Menzies, retired commander of the British Royal Navy, and author of the book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, Zheng He would have reached the coasts of America some sixty years before Columbus and would have sailed around the world a century before Magellan, although his theory has been refuted by many experts. His expeditions, even if he did not circumnavigate the world, eclipsed those of Columbus, Vasco de Gama or Marco Polo.

Although Zheng He had never set foot on the deck of a ship, he was appointed admiral of the huge troop and armed forces of these expeditions. The preparations were thorough and far-reaching, including the use of so many linguists, that a foreign language institute was established in Nanjing.

Zheng He”s fleets visited the coasts of Southeast Asia (especially Java and Sumatra), Brunei, Thailand, India, and numerous islands of the Indian Ocean (especially Sri Lanka), the Horn of Africa and Arabia, sailed up the Red Sea to Egypt, and descended the African coasts as far as Mozambique. These voyages were to be the prelude to a Chinese commercial expansion in all these regions. Zheng He presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain and silk, as well as tools (axes, copper basins,…), fabrics (fans, umbrellas, velvet,…) and food (lychees, raisins,…), and in return he collected foodstuffs (lychees, raisins,…). ), and in return collected “tribute” items from various states that included spices and aromatic products, coral, glass, ivory, sandalwood and other exotic woods, as well as exotic species of birds and animals, including even a giraffe. For example, Zheng He visited the famous pepper markets of the Malabar coast, and the spice flooded China so quickly after that visit that pepper went from being a first-rate luxury to an everyday additive.

Although Zheng He”s fleet was unprecedented, the routes were not new as it followed well-established trade routes between China and the Arabian Peninsula, used at least since the Han dynasty.

Zheng He”s first three voyages (between 1405 and 1411) followed these trade routes through Southeast Asia, sailing along the coast of Vietnam, stopping at Sumatra and Java, then through the Malay Archipelago and across the Strait of Malacca, crossing the eastern Indian Ocean to reach India and Sri Lanka. The fourth expedition reached Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and the final voyages expanded westward, entering the waters of the Red Sea, then sailing to Kenya, and perhaps even farther. A legend on a copy of Fra Mauro”s world map implies that the Chinese ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1420, before being forced to turn back for lack of wind.

Upon arrival at a new destination, Zheng He would lead a delegation to the local ruler to whom he would present messages of goodwill and express China”s peaceful intentions toward them. He would then present them with a large number of gifts and invite the ruler to come in person or send an ambassador to Emperor Yongle”s court. Many rulers accepted the offer and their delegates were accommodated on Zheng He”s ships to be taken to China on the return journey.

Zheng He used both diplomacy and the use of force to achieve his goals. Among his diplomatic successes were the resolution of a local dispute in Java in 1408 or the establishment of diplomatic relations with the sultan of Malindi (in present-day Kenya) in 1414. Regarding the use of force, Zheng He harassed most potential enemies into submission, as for example with King Alakeshvara of the Kingdom of Kotte (present-day Sri Lanka), who tried to plunder Chinese ships, so Zheng He captured him and brought him back to the Chinese imperial court, from where he was not released until he promised to pay regular tribute; He also ruthlessly suppressed the pirates infesting Chinese waters and Southeast Asia, and put an end to the attacks of the pirate Chen Zuyi in the Strait of Malacca, which links the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. All these actions strengthened the view that China was the main power in the region and its greatest source of stability.

Most of the information from these voyages was recorded by three chroniclers, the most reliable being the chronicler Ma Huan, a fellow traveler of Admiral Zheng He, of humble origin who converted to Islam as a young man and had studied Arabic and Persian, and who accompanied him on the fourth, sixth and seventh voyages, and who minutely noted elements concerning geography, laws, politics, climatic conditions, environment, economy and local customs.

Nearly a century before Vasco de Gama or Columbus made their voyages that ushered in the era of European colonialism, Zheng He spent three decades plying the waters of the Indian Ocean and up the east coast of Africa, establishing diplomatic relations that would reshape Asian life, and expanding the limits of what humans could do at sea with the size, complexity and capacity of their ships.

First voyage (1405-1407)

Yongle gave the order to put to sea on July 11, 1405, but the ships had to wait until the arrival of favorable winds, the northeast monsoon, in late autumn.

The first expedition set sail in autumn 1405 from Suzhou including 62 treasure ships. The initial objective was to reach Calicut in India, to buy pepper in exchange for silks and porcelains.

They landed at the mouth of the Min River in Fujian to make repairs after a severe storm. After ten days of sailing, they reached Xinzhou, present-day Qui Nhon, in the rich Hindu kingdom of Champa, south of present-day Vietnam. They then reached the coast of Cambodia and entered the Gulf of Siam, which they circumnavigated to the Malay Peninsula.

Loaded with ebony, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, black bamboo and a special aloe-scented wood, the junks reached the Strait of Malacca, off the island of Sumatra, where they found some colonies of Chinese merchants. After visiting Java and avoiding the many pirates in the Strait of Malacca, they headed west across the Indian Ocean, stopped at the Nicobar Islands and managed to reach the island of Sri Lanka.

The king of Sri Lanka gave the Chinese visitors a cold reception, so they returned to the sea and went to the great trading center of Calicut, a city on the west coast of India, in the present state of Kerala, whose ruler had declared it a free port, and which made a good impression on the Chinese. There they stayed for several months practicing diplomacy and trade, from December 1406 to April 1407, waiting for favorable monsoons to blow.

Zheng He then ordered the fleet to return to China, carrying with it the enormous amount of exotic goods and the numerous envoys from various Asian kingdoms to offer gifts and tribute to the Son of Heaven. Passing through the Strait of Malacca, the treasure fleet was attacked by an armada of the Chinese pirate, Chen Zuyi, who controlled those waters and the kingdom of Palembang in Sumatra. In the so-called Battle of Palembang, Zheng He succeeded in destroying the pirate fleet and killing its five thousand men, while capturing Chen and his lieutenants, who were sent to Nanjing, where they were publicly beheaded and placed on the throne Shi Jinqing as Superintendent of Pacification of Palembang, a pro-Chinese chieftain.

Back in the South China Sea, the fleet found itself in the middle of a typhoon. The frightened crew appealed to the goddess Tianfei for help. A “magic lantern” appeared on the mast (probably a “St. Telmo”s Fire”) and, soon after, the sea calmed down. For Zheng He the phenomenon was a miracle of the goddess, and since then he promoted her cult.

Upon the arrival of the fleet on October 2, 1407, the foreign envoys from the visited kingdoms appeared before the Ming court to pay homage and present their tributes to Emperor Yongle, who in turn asked his Minister of Rites to prepare gifts for the corresponding foreign kings.

The results of this first voyage were the seizure of control of the Strait of Malacca, the installation of a Chinese-friendly ruler in Palembang, the reception of ambassadors from the countries visited, and the reopening of a sea route for Chinese ships to the Indian Ocean, a route known since the Han, Tang and Song dynasties, but only used up to that time by private traders.

Second voyage (1407-1409)

After the return of the Fleet, Emperor Yongle issued an edict in October 1407 ordering another expedition to be re-organized, the main purpose of which was to return the foreign ambassadors to their places of origin.

It seems that this journey was made without Zheng He, who stayed behind to fulfill two important tasks: to restore the temple of the goddess Tianfei in Meizhou, which had protected both him and his companions during the long and dangerous first journey, and to inaugurate a school of interpreters in Nanjing, to carry out future expeditions. He also spent much time discussing with the emperor the mysterious fate of his predecessor, Jianwen, as that was one of his main tasks in his travels, to gather information about the fate of his predecessor.

The expedition was commanded by Zheng He”s lieutenants, the eunuchs Wang Joinghong and Hou Xian. The voyage began in late 1407 or early 1408, and had only 249 ships, as it was considered unnecessary to take so many warships. It followed basically the same route as the previous voyage, visiting Champa, Siam and Java as far as Calicut, without stopping in Sri Lanka.

The diplomatic skills of Zheng He”s envoys were shown in intervening in the disputes between Siamese and Khmer, carrying out the formal “investiture” of the new Zamorin of Calicut “Mana Piehchialaman”, to whom they presented titles and gifts (brocades and silks) on behalf of the Chinese emperor. An inscription in Calicut served to commemorate this investiture. After a stay of about four months, from December 1408 to April 1409, the expedition returned to China.

Third voyage (1409-1411)

The imperial order for the third voyage was issued between January and February 1409, addressed to Zheng He, Wang Jinghong and Hou Xian. The third voyage began at the end of 1409 with 48 ships and more than 27,000 crew members. On board was the chronicler Fei Xin, who would also accompany him on the fifth and seventh voyages.

They made a brief stop at Taiping Island in the South China Sea, continued to Champa, continued to Temasek (present-day Singapore), and then reached Malacca. The Chinese wanted to maintain a balance of power between Malacca, Siam and Java to ensure stability in the region. The Chinese gave a new seal to Sultan Parameswara of Malacca (the previous one had been stolen by the Siamese), symbolizing Chinese support for the local monarchy in the face of Siamese claims to sovereignty over that region.

Passing through Samudera in northern Sumatra, they then reached Sri Lanka. The island was divided into different factions, with the Jaffna kingdom in the north, inhabited by Hindu Tamils, and the Kotte kingdom in the south, inhabited by the Sinhalese of Buddhist religion, in addition to the Muslim population. The fleet brought a stone memorial tablet, dated February 15, 1409, with an inscription in three languages, Chinese, Tamil and Persian, describing the offerings made to Buddha, Allah and Vishnu, which they wanted to erect in Sri Lanka.

Zheng He arrived in Sri Lanka to establish Chinese control and ensure the stability of the sea lanes, but encountered opposition from King Alakeshvara of the kingdom of Kotte (in southern Sri Lanka), who refused to accept Chinese sovereignty of the island and erect the memorial tablet. He also demanded that Zheng He be presented with gold and silver gifts, and when he refused, he attacked the admiral”s fleet. The Chinese were forced to embark and sail to India – to Quilon, Cochin and Calicut – to continue trading, before returning to seek revenge.

On the return journey, Zheng He arrived in Sri Lanka with the firm intention of deposing King Alakeshvara. The Chinese were disdainful and contemptuous of the Sinhalese, whom they considered rude, disrespectful and hostile. Zheng He went into Kotte territory with 2,000 select warriors, lured by a trap set by Alakeshvara, who isolated them from his fleet which he planned to attack. Zheng He in response, besieged and seized Kotte, capturing Alakeshvara, his family and his chief officers. The Sinhalese army, with about 50,000 men, returned and surrounded the capital, but were repeatedly defeated by the Chinese army, superior in arms and strategy. The king of Kotte and his family were taken prisoner to Nanjing. The trilingual memorial stone was finally erected in the town of Galle.

Zheng He returned to Nanjing on July 6, 1411, having captured the pearl of the Indian Ocean and presented his captives to Emperor Yongle. The latter decided to free Alakeshvara and allow him to return to his country, having dethroned him in favor of his ally Parakramabahu VI (of the former royal house, who ruled until 1467 and managed to unite the whole island under one flag), supported by Zheng He and his fleet. From then on, the Treasure Fleet would never experience any hostility on its visits to Sri Lanka. This news quickly spread throughout the Southeast Asian region.

In 1412, with the money obtained from trade, the construction of the Porcelain Tower began in Nanjing, nine stories high, almost 80 meters high, one of the wonders of the ancient world. In the gardens surrounding it, there were plants and animals obtained thanks to Zheng He”s expeditions. The tower was destroyed during the Taiping rebellion in 1856.

Fourth voyage (1413-1415)

Up to this point, the Fleets had served their purpose of improving trade relations with Southeast Asia, although their interventions in Calicut and Sri Lanka showed the kind of non-colonialist Chinese imperialism imposed by Emperor Yongle through Zheng He. From this moment on, Yongle ordered the exploration of Arabia and Africa, places not unknown to the Chinese, but never systematically explored. For many, it is Yongle”s megalomaniac character that promotes this new and ambitious goal.

Although the edict announcing the voyage was signed on December 18, 1412, Zheng He did not set sail until late 1413 or January 1414. The destination was the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, known for its pearls and precious stones, and because the destination was so far away, the admiral devoted more time to preparations. As the destination was so far away, the admiral spent more time on preparations. The fleet consisted of 63 ships and 28,560 crew members, including for the first time the chronicler and Arabic translator Ma Huan, as they planned to sail into the lands of Muslim countries.

The fleet continued on its usual course to India, calling at Champa, Java, Sumatra and Malaysia. From there, a part of the fleet commanded by the eunuch Yang Min, separated from the main fleet and headed for the kingdom of Bengal. After accomplishing its mission, this fleet returned to China in 1414, bringing as its guest the king of Bengal, who brought a curious present to the Chinese emperor. It was a giraffe, which the Chinese believed to be a qilin, a mythological animal that only appeared when there was a good government of peace and prosperity, and on the other hand according to Chinese mythology, a qilin announced to a virgin woman that she would have a son, who was Confucius, so the emperor seeing this animal considered that heaven and the gods favored his reign. Many in the court congratulated the emperor for this good omen, but the emperor, although pleased, refused the congratulations and said that the merit belonged to the previous emperor.

Then Zheng He went to the Maldives to acquire ambergris, which was worth its weight in gold, before proceeding to faraway Hormuz, without lingering in Sri Lanka or Calicut. The city of Hormuz impressed the Chinese with its riches. The welcome was warm and they traded exceptionally well, exchanging porcelain and silks for topaz, rubies, pearls, coral and carpets. In that port, the admiral met envoys from three city-states on the East African coast-Malindi, Barāwe, and Mogadishu-and convinced them to travel with him to China and offer their gifts to the emperor.

On the return journey in 1415, in northern Sumatra, Zheng He had to intervene between the king of Samudra-Pasai and a usurper who had seized the throne, Sekander. The Yongle emperor was sending his gifts to the former king, and Sekander attacked Zheng He. The latter captured him and took him to China.

On August 12, 1415, Zheng He arrived in China with envoys from 18 Southeast Asian states and Africa to pay homage to the Chinese emperor. Emperor Yongle had been absent since March for his second campaign against the Mongols, and did not return to Nanjing until November 14, 1416. A solemn audience took place on November 19 where the emperor bestowed gifts on his officials, and where the 18 ambassadors and their gifts were received.

The rebel Sekander was presented to the emperor, who ordered his execution. The Malindi ambassadors also brought another giraffe, which produced a new request from the Minister of Rites to make a ceremonial act of congratulation for the appearance of a new qilin, but Yongle did not accept this time either. In addition to the qilin, other fabulous animals such as celestial horses (zebras) and celestial deer (antelopes) appeared.

Fifth voyage (1417-1419)

Emperor Yongle ordered in December 1416 to prepare a new journey to return the ambassadors to their countries of origin, and to proceed to Africa to establish trade relations. In addition, he would carry a seal of recognition for the king of Cochin, the other major Indian city on the Malabar coast with Calicut.

The fleet loaded porcelain at Quanzhou, and in the winter of 1417 began its voyage, keeping to the familiar route: Champa; Java; Palembang, Samudera and Aceh in Sumatra; Pahang and Malacca in Malaysia; the Maldives; Sri Lanka; Cochin and Calicut in India; and Hormuz. They then traveled along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, until they reached the port of Aden, whose kingdom covered the south of the Peninsula as far as Mecca. The fleet was well received by the Sultan of Aden, who saw the Chinese as desirable allies against the expansionism of the Mamluks of Egypt. The Chinese exchanged porcelain, sandalwood and pepper for pearls, precious stones, coral and rosewater, and the Sultan sent tribute to Emperor Yongle with a gift consisting of lions, leopards, zebras, ostriches and a giraffe.

Later, the boats crossed the turbulent waters of Bab el-Mandeb until they reached the African coast. It returned ambassadors from Mogadishu, Barāwe in Somalia, and Malindi in Kenya. The purpose of the expedition to this area, known only by hearsay to the Chinese, was the search for a second animal of Chinese mythology, the unicorn, symbol of abundance and longevity.

These coasts were inhabited by a Swahili-speaking population, a product of the mixture of African, Arab, Persian and Indian merchants with the native population. The natives were distrustful due to the frequent raids they received, so they did not welcome Zheng He, and his chronicler Fei Xin described them as “unruly”.

The Fleet returned to China on July 15, 1419, bringing a new qilin, as well as other exotic animals. The foreign ambassadors and these animals caused a sensation at court because of their strange appearance, and they remained two years as guests of the Yongle emperor, until they were ordered to return home in the spring of 1421.

Sixth voyage (1421-1422)

The origin of the sixth voyage was the imperial order of Emperor Yongle to return the ambassadors to their home countries on March 3, 1421, and departed in the spring of 1421. It appears that this brief voyage was also driven by the desire to continue exploration of the newly rediscovered lands of Africa and Arabia, with which they had had trade relations in the past.

While Zhou Man led the main fleet to Aden and Africa, Zheng He quickly returned to China where he arrived in November of the same year. The reason for Zheng He”s quick return may have been the need to attend the inauguration of the Forbidden City in Beijing, which had been the official capital since 1420.

The main fleet returned to China on September 3, 1422, bringing envoys from Siam, Samudera, Aden and other countries.

Temporary suspension of travel

Upon the death of Emperor Yongle there was a temporary suspension of the Treasure Fleet”s voyages.

In August 1424 Emperor Yongle died in Mongolia, far from his capital, while leading a military campaign against a tribal chief who had refused to pay tribute. The last years of his reign were shaken by various misfortunes, such as a fire in 1421 in the recently completed Forbidden City caused by a storm, which was interpreted as a divine sign of disapproval, or an epidemic that claimed thousands of victims in the southern provinces.

His first-born son Gaozhi ascended to the throne on September 7, 1424, who took the name of Emperor Hongxi, and who had completely different priorities. He ruled for eight months until May 29, 1425, and decided to suppress the influence of the eunuchs at court and restore that of the Confucianists. His short reign was characterized by a desire to lower taxes on the population.

His first decree, issued the same day of his coronation, made clear his attitude against the continuation of the voyages, ordering the end of the construction and repair of the treasury fleet.

When Yongle died, Zheng He was on a diplomatic mission to Palembang on the island of Sumatra, where he had been sent to settle a dispute between successors to the throne of the city-state, and he was also not present when Hongxi was proclaimed emperor and issued the above edict stopping the voyages of the Treasury fleet.

Although Hongxi deprived Zheng He of the responsibility of commanding the Treasure Fleet, the latter did not fall from grace, but was appointed military commander of Nanjing, where he built a huge and sumptuous home, and where Hongxi intended to relocate the capital. It is unclear why Hongxi granted Zheng He such responsibility. In the following months Zheng He oversaw the completion of the Bao”en temple and repairs to future imperial quarters.

When Emperor Hongxi died in 1425, his eldest son, 26-year-old Zhu Zhanji, became Emperor Xuande. He was cautious, scholarly and Confucianist, and decided to reduce the influence of the eunuchs. He initially felt that travel consumed too much money from the Chinese treasury, which was needed to defend against the military threat of the Mongols and other nomadic peoples on China”s northern and western frontiers, repair and expand the Great Wall, and feed people in famine-ravaged provinces.

Seventh Voyage and Death of Zheng He (1431-1433)

The style of the new emperor Xuande combined elements of his father and grandfather. He retained Confucianist advisors, but reinstated many eunuchs. Like his father, he tried to keep taxes low and avoided militaristic adventures, but he also wished to maintain intense diplomatic and commercial relations like his grandfather.

On the other hand, Xuande was concerned that tributary trade had declined since the sixth voyage and that he was losing influence abroad. After the death of Xia Yuanji, one of the strongest detractors of the voyages, he announced his intention to follow in his grandfather”s footsteps, i.e. to continue with an expansionist policy and expeditions to enhance China”s prestige, and ordered to begin preparations for a new expedition, which took longer than on previous occasions, due to the six-year hiatus. This expedition would be commanded by the eunuchs Zheng He and Wang Jinghong.

It was one of the largest expeditions, with more than 300 ships and 27,550 crew members. The main purpose of the expedition was to restore peace on the seas, re-establish peaceful relations with the kingdoms of Malacca and Siam, and resume trade, which in this period without expeditions had declined. The emperor wanted to win the submission of these foreign countries and revitalize the tributary relations that had been promoted during the reign of his grandfather Yongle.

The fleet sailed from Nanjing on January 19, 1431, but stopped in Jiangsu and Fujian to refuel and recruit crew members, and arrived in Changle on April 8. In early 1432, Zheng He erected two tablets at the mouth of the Yangtze River and at Changle, at the mouth of the Min River, recounting the achievements of his voyages.

Finally, Zheng He left China on January 12, 1432, and stopped at Quy Nhơn (Vietnam) on January 27, Palembang (Sumatra) on July 24, Malacca (Malaysia) on August 3, Samudera (Sumatra) on September 12, and finally arrived at Calicut on the Malabar coast of India on December 10, 1432.

There the fleet was divided in two. One part stayed at Calicut, and the other under the command of the eunuch Hong Bao traveled as far as Hormuz, where it arrived on January 17, 1433, and from there to the west side of the Arabian Sea and the Horn of Africa, before heading down the east coast of Africa, reaching as far south as Kenya and Mozambique. Two ships attempted to unload goods at Aden, but were poorly received because of local political tensions. They then headed for Dhofar, where the Chinese loaded frankincense, myrrh and benzoin, and Jeddah, the port of Mecca located on the Red Sea. There, Hong Bao appears to have sent seven sailors, including Ma Huan, to Mecca and Medina.

It is said that Zheng He, as a devout Muslim, took advantage of this last expedition to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. However, his faithful chronicler Ma Huan does not mention him and even his description of Mecca and Medina is vague and seems to be by a different hand. It is more likely that Zheng He was already ill in his 62nd year, and that he stayed in Calicut, together with Ma Huan, waiting for the return of his ships. Once the fleet was reunited, they set out on their return to China.

It seems that Zheng He died on the return trip to China and was buried at the bottom of the sea according to his family”s assurances. In addition, an absent-body funeral was held at this time in Semarang on the island of Java. However, his shoes and a handful of his hair were taken to Nanjing to be buried in a Buddhist cave.

The fleet arrived in China in July 1433, and the ambassadors were presented to the emperor in September bearing gifts, including five new qilin. Xuande was able to watch with satisfaction as tributary trade was restored, but he died in 1435 after a brief illness.

In Nanjing, on Niushou Hill, a horseshoe-shaped tomb was built for Zheng He, a cenotaph believed to contain his clothes and headdresses. In 1985, the tomb was rebuilt in the Muslim style.

The death of the young Emperor Xuande in 1435 marked the final victory of the isolationist faction of the court and, with it, the end of China as a great maritime power. This led to an era of isolationism and obscurantism in the Chinese empire.

The new emperor Zhengtong was barely eight years old when he ascended to the throne, so the eunuch Wang Zhen was the one who took care of state affairs in his early years. In 1449, Mongol cavalry ambushed an expedition of Emperor Zhengtong at the fortress of Tumu, less than a day”s march from the walls of the capital, defeated the Chinese army and captured the emperor. Later, they caused a political crisis in China when they released him after his half-brother had already ascended and declared the new Jingtai era. It would not be until 1457, after the restoration of the old emperor, that political stability would return. The Confucianists blamed the eunuchs for the disaster and advised getting rid of them. Zheng He was subject to some demonization by the scholarly elites, who even destroyed part of his records, so that today we have scarce sources from those enterprises. There were various purges and eunuchs were banned from engaging in overseas trade, the construction of ships with more than two masts was prohibited, and the isolationist Chinese Hajin policy that restricted private maritime trade and coastal settlement was enforced. In 1477, for example, a court eunuch requested the records of Zheng He”s voyages to restart the program, but was told by the scholar in charge of the records that the documents had been lost. The loss of these documents has created a hole in what we know about Zheng He, and opened up scholarly discussions about the size of his ships or how far he went.

The haijin restrictive measures ended up proving counterproductive as they decreased trade revenues and forced the coastal population to engage in smuggling. Illegal activity and the reduction of the navy (by 1477 only one-third of the warships remained), attracted wakō pirates (originally Japanese, but with a growing Chinese proportion) who wreaked great havoc. The wakō pirates went into decline only with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century.

China had managed to control the China Sea and much of the Indian Ocean, but the logistical and labor costs of maintaining a floating metropolis began to weigh heavily on the Empire. The expense of the expeditions and goods transported did not always compensate for the value of the tribute received. Not all the countries visited agreed that China, the self-styled Middle Kingdom, was the center of the world. In any case, the change of policy of the Chinese Empire to abandon the naval power accumulated since Song times cannot be explained only by economic reasons, since the tax revenues collected were enormous.

When asked why China, when it was at the height of its power, with a flourishing economy and unparalleled scientific, technological and military might, decided to withdraw into itself and disbanded Zheng He”s fleet, the answer may lie primarily in the magnitude of the civilian projects carried out by the Ming dynasty, especially under Emperor Yongle, which had to subject the population to an enormous burden and empty the treasury coffers.

Some other reasons that could have influenced the end of the Treasury fleet could have been:

Therefore, the Treasury Fleet was abandoned due to its prohibitive cost, as they did not bring much profit to the imperial court and could even create a financial deficit. The great treasure ships were not destroyed, but dismantled for the time being, and in the absence of money for their maintenance, the ships were gradually scrapped. The plans of the naval engineers who built them were destroyed, and even the reports of Zheng He”s voyages were declared to be false exaggerations of strange facts extracted from the testimony by the eyes and ears of the people. The expeditions ordered by Yongle were described as a useless waste of money and grain which, in addition, cost the lives of many men, the products that the fleets brought to China were considered useless and trade with foreign countries was forbidden.

All of China”s naval technology and power was lost. Despite the Confucianists” attempts to erase the figure of Zheng He from the history books, the sailors and subordinates of his fleet left several books narrating his voyages. Only the chronicles of two of his interpreters on board, the Muslim experts Ma Huan and Fei Xin, where they describe his routes and the local customs, living conditions or gastronomy of the places visited, are preserved.

This ended the era of Chinese voyages of discovery, knowing that just in 1434, the Portuguese navigator Gil Eanes rounded Cape Bojador on the northern coast of the Western Sahara of Africa, an important step in the discovery of the sea route to India and thus also an important step towards European expansion.

In fact, China maintained its maritime trade, with a short-lived cessation in 1551 under the Jiajing Emperor. The Middle Kingdom remained the most important maritime trading power in East Asia. Chinese ships continued to engage in trade in Southeast Asia until the 19th century, and with India and East Africa until well after the time of Zheng He, relying for their navigation on the traditions of Zheng He.


Zheng He”s story survived in the accounts of crew members, including those of Fei Xin, Gong Zhen and Ma Huan, and the adventures of the fleet were reflected in some Chinese novels based on his voyages, such as the Romance of the Eunuch of the Three Jewels (三宝太监西洋记通俗演义) of 1597. His voyages have been known mainly in China and abroad since the publication of his biography The Great Navigator of Our Fatherland by Liang Qichao in 1904.


The Treasure fleet left stone markers at the places they visited. There are two temples and three granite stelae in China related to Zheng He:

The cult of Zheng He

After the hiatus in state travel, some coastal communities resorted to smuggling and piracy to meet market demand, and other families migrated to the new overseas Chinese communities of Singapore, Siam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, places where Zheng He had stopped. Among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Zheng He became a figure of popular veneration.

China: Travel greatly increased the Chinese knowledge of foreign countries, and of Muslim and Christian religions, although they believed that their origin was in India. Zheng He called Arabia Western India, until he realized upon arriving there that it was far from India.

The decline of the Ming dynasty made the Chinese look for historical figures to represent better times. The figure of Zheng He reappeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming a sort of patron saint of Chinese emigrants.

In the People”s Republic of China, July 11 is Maritime Day, dedicated to the memory of Zheng He, and July 11, 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of Zheng He”s first voyage. Moreover, the People”s Liberation Army Navy ship Zhang He (AX-81) is a Chinese training ship named in his honor, and acts as China”s goodwill ambassador, having completed a circumnavigation of the world in 2012.

Rest of Asia: Missions to Southeast Asia continued for decades after Zheng He, although their frequency was sometimes restricted. The Ming History records imperial edicts forbidding Java, Champa, and Siam to send ambassadors more than once every three years. Temples where Zheng He is venerated as a deity are preserved in various places in Southeast Asia such as Sri Lanka, Java, and Malacca.

Indonesia: Some sources attribute to Zheng He the building of Chinese Muslim communities in Palembang and along the coasts of Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines, following the Hanafi school in the Chinese language. There are Hanafi mosques in Semarang and Ancol that became temples of the Zheng He cult during the 1460s and 1470s. The Sam Poo Kong temple in Semarang was built to commemorate Zheng He”s journey to Java. The Chinese community has established temples dedicated to Zheng He in Jakarta, Cirebon and Surabaya.

Malaysia: According to a popular legend in Malaysia, Zheng He sailed bringing a princess from China to betroth the king of Malacca, who arrived with 1500 servants and 5000 Chinese virgins. This group of Chinese settled in Bukit Cina, and their descendants are the core of today”s Chinese community. This account is not recorded in Chinese annals. Another legend says that Sultan Mansur Shah (r. 1459-1477) requested the hand of a Ming imperial daughter in marriage, and according to Malay annals a princess named Hang Li Po was sent from China in 1459 to marry the sultan, accompanied by 500 high-ranking young men and a few hundred maidens as her retinue. They all settled in Bukit Cina and many intermarried with the local population, creating the descendants now known as the Peranakan.

Australia: The records of the chronicler Fei Xin indicate that Zheng He”s fleets passed through Timor, and it could be that some ship of that fleet reached Australia, although there is no record of it. The aboriginal tribe of the Baijini could have a Chinese origin according to certain evidences (remains of boats, rice cultivation, constructions, clothing, etc).

Europe: European knowledge about Zheng He was blurred over the years. The natives of East Africa explained to them that years before they had been visited by fleets of very large ships. In Fra Mauro”s Atlas there are two inscriptions that could indicate that some Chinese ship, perhaps Zheng He, rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The first Portuguese who arrived in India heard of Chinese voyages, but without finding precise details. The best testimony was given by Girolamo Sernigi, who wrote in 1499 that fleets of “white Christians” had arrived in Calicut some 80 years earlier. The description they give makes Sernigi identify them as Germans or, more likely, Russians. Unfortunately, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 destroyed much of the Portuguese documents of Zheng He”s time.

Zheng He”s influence on Portuguese expansion into the Indian Ocean is a matter of debate. Some claim that Zheng He”s voyages unintentionally contributed to Portuguese expansion since the Chinese generally acted peacefully and this predisposed the natives to welcome future visitors. Others object that the natives were unimpressed by the Portuguese (quite understandable when comparing Chinese expeditions to Portuguese expeditions), so Zheng He”s voyages would have hindered Portuguese expansion.

Muslim world: In his travels, Zheng He visited Islamic shrines in Fujian and other places, and spread the worship of the Chinese sea goddess Matsu, which favored the development of relations between China and Islamic countries. Some scholars believe that the figure of Sinbad could be inspired by Zheng He, due to the phonetic similarity of Sinbad and Sanbao, and the fact that both made a total of seven voyages. On the other hand, the Bajuni tribe of Kenya (note the similarity of the Bajuni and Baijini names of the Australian aborigines) could be descendants of Chinese sailors, as stated by the natives themselves and by the phonetic similarities between Chinese words and some Bajuni words.

Final considerations

Zheng He”s voyages, unlike those made by the Europeans a few years later, never had a conquering or expansionist spirit. His intentions were always exploration, trade and demonstration of Chinese power to its neighbors, favoring cultural, technological and commercial exchange, increasing maritime traffic and economic growth in the region.

Zheng He was the Yongle emperor”s best-known diplomatic agent. Some see his naval expeditions as a way of flattering the emperor”s vanity, but these missions had the effect of extending China”s political influence over maritime Asia for half a century, even if they did not lead to the establishment of trading empires. In their wake, however, Chinese emigration increased, resulting in the Chinese colonization of Southeast Asia and the related tributary trade.

We know that Zheng He”s travels had a lasting impact on Asia, establishing patterns of immigration and cultural exchange that continue today, and were essential to the spread of two Chinese technologies that helped build our modern world; gunpowder and compasses, used by Western colonial powers to reshape the world for centuries to come.

Zheng He”s voyages show that Chinese ships could have ruled the Indian Ocean for a long time and could have sailed all the way to America. Comparing Zheng He”s exploits with those of the most famous European navigators reveals the huge gulf that existed between Chinese naval technology in the 15th century and that of their Western counterparts a century later.

Professor Richard von Glahn of UCLA believes that “Zheng He reshaped Asia” because maritime history in the 15th century was essentially the story of Zheng He and the effects of his voyages.



  1. Zheng He
  2. Zheng He