Ming treasure voyages


The Travels of Zheng He (鄭和和下西洋 in Chinese, 郑和下西洋 in Chinese). 鄭和下西洋, 郑和下西洋, Pinyin Zhèng Hé xià Xīyáng, Pall. Zheng He xia Xiyang, literally: “Zheng He goes to the Western Ocean”) were seven voyages of a huge Chinese fleet to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean from 1405-1433, during the reign of Emperors Zhu Di and Zhu Zhanji of the Ming era. The leaders of the voyages (at the rank of “chief ambassadors,” zhengshi 正使) were imperial eunuchs: either Zheng He alone or Zheng He and Wang Jinghong. The fleet followed the most important trade routes around Asia, reaching South India on its first three voyages and the Persian Gulf coast on the next four. Individual squadrons of the fleet also visited many ports on the Arabian and African shores of the Arabian Sea.

It is believed that the main purpose of the voyages was to raise the prestige of the Ming Empire and to bring overseas states into the traditional system of vassal relations with China.

The third century (1402-1435), during which Emperors Zhu Di (Yongle) and his grandson Zhu Zhanzi (Xuande) sat on the Ming throne, was in many ways a very unusual period for the nearly three-hundred-year history of the Ming Empire. Compared to both his predecessors and successors, the regime of Zhu Di (and to some extent, Zhu Zhanzi) was characterized by vigorous (and costly) military and diplomatic activity aimed at strengthening the influence of the “Middle State” – that is, the Chinese Ming Empire – in all four corners of the world. During the twenty-odd years of Zhu Di’s reign, his high-ranking envoys visited virtually all of Ming China’s neighbors near and far, trying to secure at least formal, and sometimes real, recognition of the Chinese emperor as their lord.

In the opinion of historians, among the reasons for organizing these expeditions was Zhu Di’s desire for international recognition of the Ming Empire, which replaced the Mongol Yuan Empire, as well as the legitimacy of his own stay on the throne, which he had usurped from his nephew Zhu Yunwen. The latter factor may have been exacerbated by rumors that he by no means died in the fire of the Nanking imperial palace, but was able to escape and was hiding somewhere in China or beyond its borders. The official Ming History (compiled almost 300 years later) states that the search for the missing emperor was one of the goals of Zheng He’s expeditions as well. Furthermore, if Zhu Yunwen were alive and seeking support abroad, Zheng He’s expedition would have been able to thwart his plans and show who the true ruler in China was.

Another important motive that prompted Yongle to undertake large-scale maritime expeditions and improve contact with his continental neighbors was a desire to revive China’s foreign trade, which had stalled during the years of Zhu Yuanzhang’s isolationist regime. While the tax burden imposed on peasants was already heavy, Zhu Di believed that foreign trade could be a lucrative source of revenue for the imperial treasury. In addition, in the early years of Zhu Di’s rule, Tamerlane’s campaigns resulted in the closure of the usual overland trade routes with Central Asia. Some historians believe that one of the initial goals of sending maritime expeditions to the Indian Ocean could have been to find potential allies against Tamerlane’s empire; however, this goal soon lost relevance, as Tamerlane died soon after he went to war against China, and Yongle soon established relations with his heir, Shahrukh.

In any case, geographically speaking, the foreign policy of the Yongle regime was truly comprehensive. In the east, numerous Chinese and Korean embassies crossed the Yellow Sea to confirm the vassal dependence of Korea on the Ming empire. In the west, envoys of the Ming emperor visited the court of Tamerlane and his successor Shahrukh in Samarkand and Herat and invited the Tibetan karmapu to Nanjing.

In the north Emperor Yongle conducted five military campaigns to subdue the Mongols and organized exchange trade with “peaceful” Mongols, and the fleet of the eunuch-admiral Ishihi went down to the lower Amur River, declaring the local Jurchens tributaries of the Minsk Empire.

In addition to foreign policy goals, Zheng He’s expeditions were intended to produce a cartographic survey of the area and were somewhat scientific in nature. The first of them was the first of its kind, and the second was the first of its kind in the Middle Ages.

The construction of ships for Zheng He’s expeditions was in all likelihood only part of the extensive shipbuilding program deployed in the early years of the Yongle era. According to cautious calculations by Edward Dreyer, an expert on Ming military and maritime history, the fleet of Zheng He’s expeditions usually consisted of about 250 ships: 40-60 huge “treasure ships” (baochuan) and about 200 ships of the usual size for Chinese sailors and shipbuilders of that time.

The construction of “treasure ships” unfolded at the Lunjiang (“Dragon River”) shipyard. This huge enterprise was located just under the walls of Nanjing – the capital of the Ming Empire at that time, on the Qinhuai River near its inflow into the Yangtze. Very little reliable information has survived about these ships, but according to the existing historical tradition enshrined in the History of Ming, the largest of these ships were truly enormous, being 44 zhang (at least 117 m) long and 18 zhang (at least 48 m) wide. Ming sources report nothing about the draught of these vessels, but historians believe that it was close to the maximum possible draught for their passage along the Yangtze from Nanjing to the sea (and possibly along the Musi River at Palembang in Sumatra), that is about 6-7.5 m.

Although historians continue to debate the extent to which the data on the size of these vessels contained in the History of the Ming can be believed, many authors both in and outside China (including Dreyer) believe that they may well have corresponded to reality. If true, the wide and flat-bottomed treasure ships were several times larger than their modern European counterparts. They were twice the length and several times the displacement of Europe’s largest sailing wooden ships, the three-deck line ships of the 18th and early 19th centuries. They were comparable in length to the largest sailing ships ever built, such as early 20th century sailing giants like the Prussia (but these much later ships had steel hulls and auxiliary steam engines to control the sails. The draft of the “treasure” was apparently only slightly less than the “Prussia” (8.26 m), but the Minsk giant was three times as wide as the German windjammer (16.3 m).

Historians believe that Zheng He’s fleet, built on principles developed by Chinese ships in coastal seas, was mainly designed for voyages over relatively calm coastal waters and estuaries of East and South Asia. Its longest high seas crossings were through the South China Sea (from China to Southeast Asia), the Bay of Bengal (between the northern tip of Sumatra and Ceylon) and the Arabian Sea (between Ceylon or South India and the Persian Gulf, Arabia and the Horn of Africa) – that is, along traditional trade routes with a well-known and more or less predictable pattern of stable monsoon winds, where, under favorable conditions, the fleet moved at an average speed of up to 2.5 knots (4.6 km

The personnel of the expeditions consisted of about 27-28 thousand people. In some voyages the fleet was divided into squadrons, which moved separately.

In addition to the difference in the size of the ships, their number and technology of construction between Chinese and European expeditions of the same time, there were differences of another nature. In contrast to the Europeans, the Chinese were not interested in conquering new territories – the native rulers were only required to formally recognize the Chinese emperor as lord and send embassies with gifts to Nanjing (to which the Ming court responded with generous reciprocal gifts). Also, unlike the Europeans, they did not seek to establish factories or bases there, much less introduce their own religion. The main goal of the Chinese navigators was to establish friendly diplomatic relations according to the traditional Chinese model, and weapons were only used if they encountered hostility. Whereas European explorations were driven by the desire for profit and indifference to the way capital was raised (hence everything from the spice trade to the slave trade), Chinese “commerce” was largely state-driven, with the sole aim of recouping the cost of maintaining a fleet as far as possible.

Comparing the Vasco da Gama and Zheng He expeditions, American historian Robert Finlay writes: “The Da Gama Expedition marked an undeniable turning point in world history, becoming an event symbolizing the advent of the New Age. Following the Spanish, the Dutch and the English, the Portuguese set out to build an empire in the East… By contrast, the Ming expeditions brought no change: no colonies, no new routes, no monopolies, no cultural prosperity and no global unity… Chinese history and world history would probably not have changed at all if Zheng He’s expeditions had never taken place.

Alternatives:First expeditionThe First Expedition

The first voyage began in the fall of 1405; according to the popular version of the calculations, 317 ships took part in it; according to the more realistic one, 255, including 62 “treasure ships. Leaving Nanjing, the fleet sailed down the Yangtze to the port of Liujiagan at the mouth of the Yangtze. Then it proceeded south along the Chinese coast to Taiping port (Changle town at the mouth of the Min River, near Fuzhou in Fujian province), where current repairs were carried out and the caravan waited for favorable winds during the anchorage.

The first overseas country visited by Zheng He’s fleet was the state of Thamba. At the beginning of the fifteenth century there were two states on the territory of modern Vietnam. The state of the Viets (Daiviet), occupied only the northern part of modern Vietnamese territory, and in its southern part was the country of the Tyam people, the Tiampa. Relations between the Ming empire and Daivyet were at that point on the brink of war (which began in 1406), and the Tampa, which had long been at enmity with the Vietnamese state, became a natural ally of China. Both the capital of Tampa, Vijaya, and a nearby port visited by the Chinese navy were later destroyed; the port is now replaced by the city of Quyinyeong.

The fleet then visited Java and the sultanate of Palembang in southeastern Sumatra. Since the time of the first emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, Ming policy had traditionally been aimed at supporting the independence of Palembang from the Javanese state of Majapahit. China’s relations with the latter were severely damaged as early as 1377, when the then Majapahit ruler Khayyam Wuruk executed Chinese ambassadors sent to Palembang to recognize the latter’s sovereignty.

The Chinese fleet continued along the ancient sea route from Indonesia to southern India. After visiting Malacca and small states in the north of Sumatra, it crossed the Bay of Bengal and reached Ceylon, where it was met, according to Chinese chronicles, “with cold arrogance. From there, it was not long before he reached his main destination, the city-state of Calicut in South India. The ruler of Calicut (“Zamorin”) was a patron of maritime trade, so their stay there made a most favorable impression on the Chinese. In Calicut, the Chinese first heard of the existence of “Musya”, that is, Moses, and assumed that it was a Hindu deity and that his idol was located in the city.

After the goods available on the ships were sold and the proceeds were purchased here in the port, in April 1407 the fleet turned back. Passing through the Straits of Malacca, Zheng He’s ships had to engage in battle with pirates led by Chen Zui (desperate for their salvation mariners begged for help from the patroness of sailors Tianfei, and soon appeared on the masts of the “magic lights”, after which the sea calmed down. As Daivendak also noted, the “lights” were the fires of St. Elmo. Zheng He himself believed that he owed his salvation to a miracle manifested by the grace of the goddess. The expedition soon returned to China without any further adventures.

The chronicles of the Ming dynasty kept the records of the execution of Chen Zuyi and his underlings in Nanjing (on the 2nd October 1407), the rewarding of Zheng He and other participants of his maritime campaign (the imperial decree of the 29th October 1407). At about the same time envoys from Calicut, Kilon, the states of northern Sumatra, Malacca and “other overseas countries” who arrived in Nanjing with the Chinese fleet were received by the emperor. In accordance with the customs of Chinese diplomacy, the overseas guests presented the Chinese emperor with goods from their lands and were generously rewarded with Chinese paper and copper money, with which they could buy Chinese goods.

Alternatives:Second journeySecond trip

Immediately after the return of the fleet, Yongle ordered to put to sea again, this time to bring home foreign ambassadors. It is unclear whether Zheng He participated in this voyage, or whether this time he remained in China, preoccupied with the repair of the temple of Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors, on the Fujian island of Meizhou, which is considered her homeland. If we accept the latter hypothesis, we must conclude that the second expedition was led by the eunuchs Wang Jinghong and Hou Xian.

Because of the need to handle diplomatic correspondence, the Institute of Translators (四夷館, Sy and Guan, lit. “Chamber of Four Foreigners”) was founded at the Hanlin Imperial Academy in late 1407 to train specialists in the languages of many Asian peoples.

The ships went to sea in late 1407 or early 1408. There is no exact data on the composition of the fleet. Many authors believe the total number of ships was 68, less than the last time, perhaps because the government did not consider it appropriate to send a large military escort this time. However, there is a record in the Yongle Kingdom Chronicle (“Min shilu”) for October 1407 of an order to repair (or refit) 249 ships, and Edward Dreyer logically suggests that this was the training of the Zheng He fleet, which was about the same composition as the first voyage.

The second expedition mostly kept to the same itinerary – the ships visited Siam, Java, northern Sumatra, Cochin and Calicut. This expedition was more of a political nature, and the Chinese intervened in the strife between the Siamese and the Khmer and also took part in the selection of a new ruler (zamorin) of Calicut. Mana Vikranam became the new ruler.

While Zheng He’s fleet was making its second voyage, the Brunei sultan Abdul Majid Hassan arrived in China (1408). He was the first of all the rulers of Southeast Asia to visit China in person to pay his respects to Emperor Yongle (who had recognized Brunei’s independence from the Majapahit three years earlier). During his visit to China, however, the sultan fell ill and died. The overseas guest was buried near Nanjing with honors, and a stele on a stone tortoise befitting his rank was erected in his honor.

Alternatives:The third journeyThird journeyThird trip

The third expedition set sail in 1409. Historical sources say that it consisted of 48 ships. Dreyer, however, as always, notes that the sources often described them as “treasure ships” (that is, ships of a larger class), and accordingly believes that in addition to them the fleet included the usual set of smaller support vessels, so that the full composition of the fleet was about the same (about 250 ships) as in the first two voyages.

The leaders of the expedition were Wang Jinghong and Hou Xian, along with Zheng He. The expedition was led by Wang Jinghong and Hou Xian, who led the expedition along with Zheng He.

Having made a short stop at Taiping Harbor in Changlae, the Chinese ships then set course for Tiampa (south of modern Vietnam) and Temasek (Singapore). Then they arrived in Malacca. The Chinese were interested in maintaining a balance of power between Malacca, Siam and Java – this balance guaranteed stability and order in the region. A few years earlier (1405), the founder of the Malacca Sultanate, Parameshwar (rus.), had visited the Ming Empire and received a seal from the Chinese in recognition of his sultanate’s independence. On his way home, however, the seal was taken away by the Siamese, who did not recognize the sovereignty of Malacca. This time Zheng He delivered a new seal to Parameshwar to replace the stolen one, which was meant to symbolize Chinese support for his sovereign authority.

Next, Zheng He’s ships visited the North Sumatran Sultanate of Samudra Pasay, from where they sailed to Sri Lanka. There the Chinese erected a stele to the glory of Buddha, Allah, and one of the Hindu deities, thus demonstrating their respect for local customs. In addition, rich offerings (of strictly equal quantity and value) were made to the temples of all three deities. An obelisk imported from China was found in 1911 near the city of Galle; it is now preserved in the State Museum in Colombo.

There were several contenders for power on the island at that time: in the north, the Hindu Tamils, the Muslim usurper, and finally, in Kotte, the legitimate Sinhalese Buddhist ruler, Vijaya Bahu VI. At this troubled time, the Sinhalese did not trust foreigners, and one of the local chiefs, Alagakkonara (or Alakeshwara), rejected the Chinese claims and forbade the installation of the stele. He was the first of the local chiefs of Nisanqa, Alagakkonara (or Alakeshwara), who rejected the Chinese claims and forbade the installation of the stele.

The fleet continued on to Kilon, Cochin and Calicut. On the way back it was still decided to punish the Sinhalese. What followed is not clear and is still the subject of debate.

The Chinese sources believe that Alakeshwara demanded tribute from Zheng He, received a refusal, and after that sent a punitive expedition of 50,000 soldiers to cut off his retreat to the ships, while the Chinese admiral had only 2,000 soldiers at his disposal. Zheng He, realizing that he was blocked by almost all of Alakeshwara’s available military forces, made a surprise maneuver and attacked the capital. After capturing it and taking Alakeshwara captive, he subsequently returned unhindered to the coast. Alakeshwara was taken to Nanjing, where he was granted pardon on account of his “ignorance” and his power was ordered to be handed over “to some of his wise associates.” The Chinese sources give no further details and appear to be confused about the power structure on the island to such an extent that it is impossible to understand who was actually taken to Nanjing – Alakeshwara, Vijaya Bahu VI or both.

In contrast, Sinhalese sources claim that Zheng He intended to overthrow Vijaya Bahu VI and declare himself the sovereign ruler of Kotta. The king’s power was also the subject of an alliance with the Chinese naval commander, Alakeshwara, who also had plans to overthrow the king. King Vijaya Bahu VI then visited China, and upon his return to the island Alakeshwara ordered his secret death and declared himself the sovereign ruler.

The Chinese sources are silent on how and why this was done, and the Sinhalese, for their part, believe that the Chinese intended to appropriate the relic for themselves. Chinese sources are silent on how and why this was done, while Sinhalese believe the Chinese intended to appropriate the relic, which is inconsistent with the respect they have shown for local beliefs. Scholars speculate that King Vijaya Bahu VI voluntarily surrendered the relic to the Chinese in order to demonstrate his status as the sovereign ruler to the emperor or to prevent the idol from falling into the hands of Alakeshwara. In any case, when the king returned to the island, the Buddha’s tooth returned with him.

The fleet returned to Nanjing in June 1411. In 1412 the construction of the “Porcelain Pagoda,” some 80 meters high, began with the money raised from the trade in Nanjing. Around the pagoda were gardens created from plants and inhabited by animals brought by Zheng He from his expeditions. The tower stood for more than four centuries until it was destroyed by the Taipings in 1856.

Alternatives:Fourth JourneyFourth trip

Since the first three expeditions had achieved their goals of establishing vassal and trade relations with the states of Southeast Asia and southern India, the fourth voyage was to visit the Persian Gulf and the coasts of Arabia and Africa. Although these places had been known to the Chinese to some extent before, they had never been systematically explored. According to many authors, the emperor’s megalomania was reflected in this new and ambitious project.

Despite the fact that the order for the expedition was given in December 1412, the Zheng He fleet apparently left Nanjing only in the autumn of 1413. As usual, the fleet stopped in Fujian and left Chinese shores only in December 1413 or January 1414.According to the Yongle Kingdom chronicle, the fleet numbered 63 ships.

Since, unlike the previous expeditions that had ended in India, the fourth expedition was headed to the shores of Persia and the Arab countries, a group of Chinese Muslims, who had some knowledge of the languages and culture of the Middle East, set sail with Zheng He. The most famous of these was Ma Huan, the expedition’s chief interpreter and an expert in Arabic. He later authored a book, which became the most detailed extant sourcebook on Zheng He’s naval voyages. Zheng He also visited Xi’an, a major center of Chinese Islam, before setting sail and took with him Hassan (哈三), imam of the Qingjing Mosque in Xi’an, as an interpreter and advisor. A number of other Muslims are known to have participated in this and subsequent voyages, such as the Fujian Muslim figure, Pu Hezhi (also known as Pu Zhihe, 蒲日), who took part in the fifth voyage .

The fleet followed the usual course to India, stopping along the way at Tyampa, Java, Sumatra, Malaysia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and finally India. Part of the fleet, under the command of the eunuch Yang Min (杨敏, Yang Min), separated from the rest, went to the kingdom of Bengal.

From the Maldives, Zheng He’s fleet set sail for Ormuz, a city-state that amazed the Chinese with its wealth. There the admiral met with the envoys of African states and persuaded them to join his fleet and, through him, convey respectful letters to Emperor Yongle.

The same year, 1414, a squadron under the command of Yang Ming returned to China, with which the Sultan of Bengal Saifuddin (en:Saifuddin Hamza Shah) arrived in Nanjing. The sultan brought an exotic gift for the Chinese emperor – a giraffe (which the Bengalis probably got from Malindi). The Chinese mistook the giraffe for a qilin, a legendary beast that appeared only during happy and peaceful reigns. The emperor regarded the giraffe as a divine sign to prove that the heavenly king and the other gods were pleased with his rule. Many courtiers, including Yang Min, hastened to lavish praise on Yongle who received such clear evidence of divine favor, but the emperor, though flattered by this, preferred to reply that he deserved the reign of his predecessor. In addition to the qilin, other exotic animals were also brought to China, such as “heavenly horses” (zebras) and “heavenly deer” (antelopes).

On a routine visit to the Samudra-Pasai Sultanate in northern Sumatra on this route, apparently on the way back from Hormuz to China, the crew of the main Zheng He fleet had to take part in the ongoing struggle between the Chinese recognized sultan Zayn al-Abidin and a challenger named Sekander. The Chinese fleet brought gifts from Emperor Yunle for Zayn al-Abidin, but not for Sekander, which angered the latter and he attacked the Chinese. Zheng He managed to turn what happened to his advantage: defeat his troops, capture Sekander himself and send him back to China.

In the summer of 1415, Zheng He and the main part of the fleet returned to China, delivering to the emperor the leader of the Sumatran rebels, Sekander, whom Yongle ordered to be executed. The Minister of Ceremonies immediately petitioned the emperor for a special ceremony to celebrate the arrival of the second qilin, but Yongle refused.

Alternatives:The Fifth JourneyFifth journeyFifth trip

On December 28, 1416 the emperor ordered Zheng He to begin preparations for a new expedition. The admiral was again tasked with bringing home ambassadors from various countries and sailing on to the African coast to establish trade with the states there. In addition, he was to deliver the state seal (a gift symbolizing Chinese recognition and support) to the king of Cochin, so as to maintain the balance of power between Cochin and neighboring Calicut.

The fleet delayed at Quanzhou, where a cargo of porcelain was taken on board, and in the fall of 1417 set out on the high seas. The traffic followed roughly the same route as before: Tyampa, Java, Palembang and Samudra Pasay in Sumatra, Pahang and Malacca in Malaysia, then the Maldives, Ceylon, Cochin and Calicut in India. The ships re-visited Hormuz and then for the first time entered the harbor of Aden, whose power extended all the way south of the Arabian Peninsula as far as Mecca. The Sultan of Aden, al-Malik al-Nasir Salah ad-Din Ahmad (an-Nasir Ahmad, Rasulid dynasty) gave the Chinese a hospitable welcome, perhaps wishing to turn them into allies against Mamluk Egypt, with whom Aden was fighting for the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

From Aden the ships headed south, reaching the African coast for the first time. With them returned envoys from Mogadishu (now the capital of Somalia), Brava (Barawa, also in Somalia) and Malindi (now in Kenya). The Swahili-speaking population of this coast was a mixed one: it came from marriages between the visiting traders (Africans, Arabs, Persians and Hindus) with local Aboriginal women.

Fay Sinh described the desolate Somali shores and the stone cities of their inhabitants. He drew attention to the aggressive nature of the inhabitants of Mogadishu and the archery exercises of their soldiers. In Lo Maoden’s novel, the ruler of Mogadishu was distrustful of the appearance of the Chinese fleet, but when he saw the superior Chinese forces he decided not to fight them.

Among other “countries” (cities) visited by this expedition, the Minsk sources mention a place whose name is rendered in Chinese as “La-sa”. They describe the desert where this city was located, but give no clear information about its location. Although it has been suggested that La-sa was in Somalia, it is more likely that it was located near Mukalla in southern Yemen. In Lo Maoden’s novel, the Chinese had to fire catapults or cannons mounted on siege towers to capture the city. However, this information does not inspire confidence in most historians because it is a novel of fantastic content. In addition, as Dreyer notes, there is no wood in the desert near La Sasa (according to the Ming sources) from which the Chinese could build the siege towers mentioned by Lo Maoden.

Zheng He’s fleet returned to China on July 15, 1419. The foreign ambassadors caused a sensation at court with their exotic appearance. They also brought with them another “qilin.

Alternatives:The Sixth JourneyThe Sixth VoyageSixth journey

The historical data on the sixth voyage of Zheng He’s fleet are very scarce and allow different interpretations even in relation to the dates of the voyage. On the one hand, the record from March 3, 1421 in the Chronicle of the Yongle Kingdom (Taizong shi-lu) mentions that foreign envoys were gifted by the emperor (including paper money with which they could purchase Chinese goods), and Zheng He and his companions were instructed to take them back home. On the other hand, the record for May 14 in the same chronicle mentions the suspension of both sea voyages of treasure ships and the purchase of horses and other goods from the peoples on the northern and western borders of China.

In this connection researchers of Zheng He’s voyages disagree on the date of the beginning of the sixth voyage. On the one hand, it is reasonable to believe that the order to stop sailing did not suspend the sixth voyage, because by May 14, 1421 the fleet had already gone to sea; this would have given it enough time to complete the voyage program and return to China by September 3, 1422, when the Taizong shi-lou has a record of Zheng He’s return. On the other hand, Chinese ships usually left the coast of Fujian for the open sea in late autumn or winter, with a passing winter monsoon. In addition, the book of Zheng He’s associate, Gong Zheng, mentions an imperial decree to send the expedition, dated November 10, 1421; on this basis, he assumed that Zheng was still in China by that time. In this case, the meaning of the decree of May 14, 1421 may have been to stop future voyages, but not to cancel the sixth voyage already being prepared.

Louise Levates solves the chronological problem by suggesting that the fleet split up already in the Samudra-Pasai Sultanate on Sumatra; another eunuch, Zhou Man, led most of the fleet to Aden and Africa, and Cheng He himself returned to China and already in November 1421 could participate in celebrations on the occasion of moving the capital to Beijing and commissioning the Forbidden City there. In another opinion, although the fleet split into three squadrons at Samudra Pasay, they all reached at least as far as India. In any case, Zhou Man’s squadron reached Aden and apparently visited other ports in Arabia and Africa.

Zheng He’s voyage to Palembang in 1424

“The Taizong Shih-lu, followed by the Ming History, mentions that in 1424 Zheng He was sent to Palembang in Sumatra due to the change of generations in the Chinese colony there: its leader Shi Jingqing died, and Emperor Yongle allowed his son Shi Jisun to inherit the post. When Zheng returned to China from Sumatra, Emperor Yongle had already passed away.

Because these sources erroneously combine the second and third voyages of Zheng He’s fleet to the Indian Ocean, this relatively short voyage of 1424 is given there as the sixth expedition (so that the “correct” number of expeditions was listed, seven in total). Since the sources considered more reliable by historians, namely the stelae erected by the admiral himself in Liujiangang and Changla, do not mention this voyage among the seven voyages made by Zheng He’s fleet, there were different opinions among historians as to whether Zheng He sailed anywhere in 1424. Diwendak, who introduced the steles into scholarship, believed they proved that there was no voyage at all in 1424. E. Dreyer, however, believes that a relatively “ordinary” voyage to Sumatra undoubtedly took place, but was simply never listed by Zheng He himself among his seven great voyages to the “Western Ocean”, due to its much smaller scale.

Alternatives:Temporary cessation of sailingTemporary cessation of voyages

The Chinese were the only ones to have the right of access to the sea, and they were the only ones to have the right of access to the sea, and they were the only ones to have the right of access to the sea, and they were the only ones to have the right of access to the sea. The chronicle of Yongle’s reign already mentions (May 14, 1421) the suspension of both the sea voyages of the treasure ships and the purchase of horses and other goods from the people on the northern and western borders of China.

After Zhu Di (Emperor Yongle) died on August 12, 1424, his eldest son Zhu Gaoqi inherited the throne as Emperor Hongxi. Zhu Gaoqi ascended the imperial throne on September 7, 1424, and on the same day he instituted a permanent ban on overseas expeditions instead of a temporary cessation. At the same time other trade operations on the outskirts of the empire, such as exchange trade with the Mongols (tea for horses) and government procurement in Yunnan and “Jiaoji Province” (as the northern Vietnam was called in the Ming Empire) were also stopped.

An important factor in stopping the travels already in 1421 was their cost to the imperial treasury, which, apart from them, also incurred huge expenses for the war in Vietnam (English), the war with the Mongols and preparations for moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where the Forbidden City was under construction for the emperor. In addition to the advice from his financiers, the Yongle emperor also heeded a sign from on high: the fire in the newly built Forbidden City (May 9, 1421), which started as a result of lightning, was understood as a sign of the emperor losing the Heavenly Mandate indicating the need to immediately change his policies.

The replacement of the temporary cessation of voyages by their complete stoppage during the reign of Zhu Gaoqi (Hongxi era) had both objective and subjective reasons. The financial situation of the empire during the last years of Yongle’s reign hardly improved; Chinese paper money was depreciating. For Zhu Gaoqi himself, the priority was not the gigantic projects of the Yongle era, but reducing the tax burden on the peasantry. He freed from prison his father’s former courtiers who had protested against the costly measures of the Yongle era, in particular former finance minister Xia Yuanji, who had been jailed in 1421 for refusing to finance Zheng He’s sixth expedition.

In imperial China, particularly in the Ming period, there was a struggle for influence at court between two “parties”: the Confucian intellectuals and the eunuchs. As a prince, Zhu Gaoqi surrounded himself with Confucianists and endorsed their view that the stability and prosperity of the empire rested on agriculture and a balanced state budget, rather than ambitious foreign policy campaigns.

The first order issued on the very day of Zhu Gaoqi’s coronation as Emperor Hongxi was unequivocally against sea travel:

Despite Emperor Hongxi’s policy of diminishing the role of the eunuchs, Zheng He, removed from command of the fleet, was appointed to the important and honorable position of commander of the troops in the Nanjing district, where the emperor planned to return the capital from Peking. During the short Hongxi era (the emperor died on May 29, 1425), Zheng He supervised the completion of the Bao’en Temple and the repair of the future imperial quarters.

Alternatives:The Seventh JourneyThe Seventh VoyageSeventh Journey

Emperor Zhu Gaochi died nine months after his accession to the throne, the throne was inherited by his eldest son Zhu Zhanzi, who took the throne name Xuande. The new emperor’s style of rule was partly borrowed from his father and partly from his grandfather. While supporting Confucianism, he also brought many eunuchs closer to him. Like his father, the new emperor tried to curb the growth of taxes. He ended the war in Vietnam by recognizing the head of the Vietnamese rebels, Le Loi as the Vietnamese emperor, and tried not to start new wars.

At the same time, like his grandfather Zhu Di, Emperor Xuande sought to raise the international prestige of the Ming Empire. He was concerned that the flow of overseas envoys arriving in China with tribute had clearly declined since the sixth journey, and China’s external position had also weakened. Therefore, on June 29, 1430, shortly after the death of Xia Yuanzhi, one of the most ardent opponents of maritime travel, it was ordered to begin preparations for a new expedition, led by the experienced naval eunuchs Zheng He and Wang Jinghong.

Because of the six-year gap between voyages, these preparations took longer. There is no exact data on the composition of the fleet, but it is widely believed that this time 300 ships were to go to sea, much more than on previous voyages. Dreyer, however, believes that the composition of the fleet was about the same as on other voyages (which he believes usually involved about 250 ships).

The main purpose of the expedition was to maintain peace among the overseas tributary countries of China. The names of the ships themselves are eloquent testimony to this: “Perfect Harmony,” “Lingering Tranquility,” or “Pleasant Rest.

Unlike the other six voyages, historians have detailed information about the route and dates of the seventh voyage, thanks to an unknown voyage participant whose notes titled “Xia Xian” (下西洋, “To the Western Ocean”) have come down to us in the collection “Qianwen Ji” (前闻记, “Notes on Heard”) of Zhu Yunming. There is also information about this voyage in the books of Ma Huang and Fei Xin. From the same voyage came two memorial stelae erected at the behest of Zheng He: one in Liujiangang at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the other in Changla at the mouth of the Min River, on which was carved a brief chronicle of the previous six voyages and plans for the seventh.

The fleet left Nanjing on January 19, 1431, and arrived in Liujiangang on February 3, where on March 14 the first stele was erected, which narrated the departure of the fleet to the overseas countries to convey imperial decrees to their inhabitants. On April 8, 1431, the fleet arrived at Changlae, where it spent the rest of the year to replenish supplies and increase the crews of the ships through additional recruitment, as well as to complete the construction of temples in honor of the goddess Tianfei, patroness of sailors. In December 1431 or the first days of January 1432 a second stele was erected there, in which Zheng He mentioned that the fleet was waiting for a fair wind (i.e. the winter monsoon) and asked for divine help. It was not until January 12, 1432 that the fleet left China.

The fleet arrived in Quy Nhynh (the state of Tyampa in the south of modern Vietnam) on January 27, 1432. These data allow us to estimate the average speed of the fleet in favorable conditions (constant tailwind – winter monsoon) at 2.5 knots (910 nautical miles from Chanle to Quyenyong for 15 days).

Leaving Quinyon on February 15, the fleet arrived at Surabaya in Java on March 7, 1432 (the ships left Surabaya on July 13 and arrived at Palembang (in Sumatra) on July 24 (again 2.5 knots). It is not known exactly whether the entire fleet went up the Musi River all the way to Palembang, but Dreyer believes that most likely it did.

On 27 July the fleet left Palembang, arriving in Malacca on 3 August. This was followed by a crossing from Malacca to Samudra Pasay (1.4 knots), which became the usual gathering point for the crossing of the Bay of Bengal. This was followed by what was considered the most dangerous leg of the journey: the crossing of the Bay of Bengal, away from any land and in comparatively less predictable weather conditions than in the waters more familiar to Chinese sailors. The fleet reached Beruwala at an average speed of 1.5 knots, including, however, a stop in the Nicobar Islands.

Crossing from Beruvala to Calicut (1.8 knots).

It took 34 more days to cross the Arabian Sea from Calicut to Ormuz (December 14, 1432 – January 17, 1433). On this route described in the main source (according to its anonymous author, on March 9, 1433 the fleet has left Hormuz on a way back. From Ormuz the fleet returned to China by a somewhat more simplified route than on the route from China to Ormuz (without calling at Beruwala, Palembang or Java, or even at Changle), and only with rather short stops, arriving at Liujiagan on July 7, 1433, and at Nanjing on July 22.

However, other sources, in particular the Ming History, mention that emperor Xuande’s envoys visited not only 8 countries listed in the Xia Xiyang, but also 17 other countries. Although what some of the names listed in the “History of Ming” mean remains an open question for historians (e.g., there is speculation that “Ganbali” is Coimbatore in South India, located at a considerable distance from the sea), most of them correspond to the Arabian Sea coast in Arabia and Africa, such as Aden (in Yemen) and Mogadishu (the capital of modern Somalia). It has been suggested that these regions may have been visited by a squadron separated from the main fleet (whose route is documented in Xia Xian) at Calicut. A similar squadron also visited Bengal. According to Dreyer’s reconstruction, it was the same squadron, under the command of the eunuch Hong Bao. This squadron had already separated from the main fleet at Quy Nyon or Semuder and after visiting Bengal in 1432 (as the former on board Ma Huan tells us) arrived in Calicut. Ma Huan at this time left the Chinese fleet with a special assignment (see below), and the flotilla of Hong Bao sailed to the Arabian and African shores of the Arabian Sea, but without entering the Red Sea.

Modern biographers of Zheng He (Levates or Dreyer) do not attempt to specify which specific ports in Bengal were visited by Hong Bao’s ships. However, based on the books of Ma Huang and Fei Xin, we can assume that the Chinese fleet visited at least Chittagong, Sunargaon (rus.) and the then temporary capital of Bengal, Panduu (rus.).

One of the most interesting episodes of the seventh voyage was the visit of a group of Chinese to the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. As translator Ma Huan tells in his book, eunuch Hong Bao, being with his flotilla in Calicut, sent seven men of his staff, including Ma Huan himself, to the country of “Mocce” (Mecca) on “a ship of that country” (that is, Calicut), which at that time was sailing toward Mecca. A detailed description of the journey to Mecca and Medina (by sea to Jeddah, and then by dry route through the desert) and the Muslim shrines there occupies the last chapter in Ma Huang’s book. Mecca becomes known to Chinese readers as Tianfan (天方), that is, “Heavenly Cube,” in honor of its main shrine, the Kaaba temple. In the description, however, there are a number of obvious errors: the journey from Mecca to Medina takes only one day (the entrance to the Kaaba is decorated with two stone lions (statues of living creatures are traditionally forbidden in Islam). On this basis, some authors believe that Ma Huan was not actually in Mecca, but wrote his report from the words of third parties.

The first time he was in the city, the second time he was in the city, the second time he was in the city, and the third time he was in the city, the third time he was in the city. According to Levates, he did not even swim to Hormuz this time either, but remained in Calicut because of his failing health, as did Ma Huan.

The overseas ambassadors, who came with a fleet or later on their way from Malacca and Sumatra, were granted an audience with the emperor in September, and among the gifts brought were five more “qilin”. The emperor was pleased that maritime trade had been restored, but did not have time to take advantage of it, as he died of a fleeting illness in 1435.

What were the most distant points visited by Zheng He’s fleet squadrons during their 4th-7th voyages? Among historians of navigation and cartography there is quite a wide range of opinions on this question. The visits to Malindi, in modern Kenya, are accepted by most authors without question. However, E. Dreyer cautiously observes that the information contained in the Mina sources about this port is so scanty (compared to the much more detailed accounts of the Somali and Arabian cities) that the possibility that the Chinese ships were not actually there, but simply took the Malindian ambassadors aboard in some more northern port is not excluded. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the 麻林地 (Malindi) indicated on Mao Kun’s map is in fact not Malindi, but the much more southern port of Kilwa-Kisiwani (according to this version 麻林地 means “land (di) Mahdali (Malin)”, after the Mahdali dynasty that ruled in Kilwa.

According to the annotation on Mao Kun’s map, the most distant point reached by the Chinese fleet was “Habur” (due to severe storms, the fleet could not proceed further. Although the map does not show this “Habur”, it has been suggested that it may correspond to the coast of the province of Natal in South Africa. And Seattle’s Zhang Guisheng, an expert on ancient Chinese maps, even suggested that “Habur” is the same island as the one shown on the map by the Taoist Zhu Xiben (Russian (1320), southeast of the African coast, “Habila” island, and is none other than the sub-Antarctic island of Kerguelen (49°S).

Some scholars also link Zheng He’s name to a map by the Venetian Fra Mauro (c. 1450) indicating that a certain Asian (possibly Chinese) ship reached the southern tip of Africa, the text beside which reads:

The historical documents of the Ming period do not contain any information about Zheng He’s death or about his activities after the seventh expedition. Therefore, historians generally accept the traditional version of his family, according to which Zheng He died on his way back to China during the seventh expedition and his body was buried at sea, with the subsequent construction of a cenotaph on Nyushou Hill near Nanjing. However, there is also an opinion, expressed, for example, by the biographer of Zheng He Xu Yuihu (徐玉虎), according to which the naval commander safely returned to Nanjing and served as a military commandant of Nanjing and commander of his fleet for two more years, dying only in 1435.

Wang Jinghong, the second (along with Zheng He) leader of the Seventh Voyage, briefly outlived his colleague. In 1434, one of the Sumatran rulers sent his brother, whose name is known from Chinese sources as Halizhihan (哈利之汉, pinyin Halizhihan), with tribute to the emperor Zhu Zhanji. In Beijing, the Sumatran envoy fell ill and died. Wang Jinghong was instructed to visit Sumatra to convey condolences from the Chinese emperor to the ruler there, but he died in a shipwreck off the coast of Java.

For some time after the return of the seventh expedition, representatives of overseas countries both near and far continued to arrive in China. Thus, Bengal maintained relations with China for several years after the last voyage of Zheng He’s fleet. “Ming history” mentions that the Bengalis delivered “qilins” (giraffes apparently supplied to Bengal from Africa) to China in 1438 and 1439, but then contact with them ceased. The delivery of tribute from Cambodia gradually decreased and by 1460 it was nonexistent. The Javanese envoys also became rare guests in China after 1466.

The Chinese ally, the state of Champa, located in the south of modern Vietnam and visited in all the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet, was conquered by the Vietnamese in 1471. The Vietnamese also conquered Malacca, whose formation as an independent country was closely linked to Zheng He’s voyages, in 1511, when the Portuguese massacred the Chinese traders who had been there.

Nevertheless, maritime contacts with a number of neighboring states (Ryukyu, Japan, Thailand), which had been active under the Hongwu emperor, long before the voyages of the Zheng He fleet, continued in one way or another almost throughout the entire Ming period. However, the focus of Ming diplomacy, like the Ming capital itself, shifted from the south to the north, where the struggle with the Mongols and then with the Manchus continued with varying success throughout the two-plus centuries that remained of the Ming empire. By the end of the fifteenth century, responsibility for relations with China’s southern neighbors was entrusted to the local authorities of the frontier and coastal provinces: Guangxi, for example, sent instructions to Vietnam (1480), and Guangdong dealt with Java (1501). When other overseas visitors, the Portuguese, arrived on Chinese shores in the early 16th century and then established a colony in Macao, they met with a similar treatment: they were dealt with by provincial authorities from Guangzhou or regional ones from Wuzhou (where the Governor-General of Guangzhou and Guangxi was based), or more often by county authorities, from Xiangshan (now Zhongshan). An attempt to send a delegation led by Tome Pires (it took Jesuits Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci a combined effort of more than 20 years (1579-1601) to finally gain entry to the Forbidden City.

After 1435 the construction of ships for the needs of the state and the state seafaring in general quickly fell into decline. There is no historical data on the fate of those ships that returned to China in 1433 from their last voyage to the Indian Ocean, but experts believe that their life span was not much different from the Chinese ships of the 16th century, which were subject to repair every 3-5 years and complete rebuilding after 10 years of service, and the replacement of ships out of order was no longer made. In 1436, after the death of Emperor Xuande and the beginning of the Zhentong era (when the country was actually ruled by the minor emperor’s grandmother and eunuchs headed by Wang Zheng), a decree prohibiting the construction of ocean-going ships was issued, and the volume of smaller ships was also reduced.

Mass maritime cargo shipments from the Yangtze Delta to the north – mainly grain to supply Beijing and the troops – ceased even earlier, after the opening of the reconstructed Grand Canal in 1415, which in turn caused a decline in the construction of ships.

The specific reasons for the change in the state’s priorities and its abandonment of large-scale maritime policy remain a subject of debate among historians. Important factors include both the objective situation (the need to save state budget funds amid almost constant struggle with the Mongols and general economic problems of the empire) and the age-old enmity between Confucian intellectual officials (whom, a century later, the Portuguese nicknamed “mandarins”) and court eunuchs (with whom Confucians associated fleet construction and other risky and costly undertakings).

The negative view of the eunuchs increased in society as a result of the disastrous developments of the Zhentong era (1435-1449). Zhu Qizhen, who was barely seven years old when he came to power in 1435, became a plaything in the hands of the palace eunuchs led by Wang Zheng. When, in 1449, the half-million-strong Chinese army was destroyed by the Mongols at the Battle of Tumu and the emperor himself was captured by them, the blame for what happened was placed on the eunuchs, and especially on Wang Zhen, himself also killed in that battle). The period of “arbitrariness of eunuchs” is also associated with the names of two other eunuchs of the following decades, Cao Jixiang (Russian) and Wang Zhi (Russian).

There are many versions of the story of how the records of Zheng He’s voyages were destroyed as a result of the feud between the mandarins and the eunuchs. According to one popular version, in 1447 Wang Zhi, a eunuch who attempted to organize a new overseas expedition, requested information on Zheng He’s voyages, but received it from the Minister of Defense, Xiang Zhong (in fact, the information was hidden or destroyed by an official of the same (or related) ministry, Liu Dashi (in Chinese), to “prevent further dissipation of public funds” and aimless death of fellow citizens conscripted for naval service. For his patriotic act, Liu Dasya earned the admiration of the minister and later took up a high position himself. According to another version of the story of the patriotic archivist, Wang Ji was about to go to war in Vietnam and requested documents on the Vietnam War of the Yongle period, which Liu Dasya destroyed to prevent a war that would have devastated the entire southwest. According to this version, the minister who approved of Liu’s act was Yu Zijun.

There is also a tradition linking the destruction of documents to the Minister of Defense Yu Qian (1398-1457), who is usually regarded as a heroic figure who saved the country after the Tumen disaster and fought against the domination of eunuchs. However, historians believe that this tradition represents only a widespread tendency of people to associate certain well-known events with the names of famous people; in reality, the destruction of documents happened later.

When the piracy problem worsened in the mid-16th century, Qi Jiguang, who led the fight against pirates, was able to acquire only a small fleet of small patrol vessels; no attempt was made to build a large fleet like Zheng He’s again. The government often believed that the most effective means to combat pirates would be a “maritime prohibition”: prohibiting the building of any ships or going to sea, restricting legal maritime trade to a very small number of ports, and sometimes even forcibly evacuating people from the coastal area. These prohibitive measures did further harm to the economy, and the decline in revenues from maritime trade led to a boom in smuggling, of which the coastal populations were prey.

Despite the destruction of archival documents, a certain amount of documentary information about Yongle-era voyages has survived among Ming military specialists. For example, in the 1620s military encyclopedia Ubei ji there is a navigation map showing the routes of the voyages from the lower Yangtze through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to Arabia and Africa. This map is undoubtedly based on data collected during the voyages of Zheng He

Zheng He in the Memory of Chinese Society

As the crisis of the Ming dynasty developed, sentiments intensified to discover and heroize figures of the past who personified a better life and better times and China’s ability to defeat external enemies. The names of Zheng He and Wang Jinghong reappeared in popular memory.

For example, in 1597, when the Japanese dared to attack China’s closest ally, Korea, and were driven from the peninsula only at great cost and loss, Luo Maodeng (罗懋登) published a fantasy-adventure novel, Zheng He’s Voyage to the Indian Ocean. In this work, authentic information drawn from historical sources is supplemented by the author’s imagination. Zheng He’s voyage appears to be an event of epic scale, full of battles with hostile forces (unlike the official history, which mentions only three major military operations – against pirates in Palembang, against rebels in Semuder and Ceylon – plus clashes with Javanese in 1407). The commander himself is depicted as a cruel conqueror who shot enemy cities and ruthlessly massacred civilians.

In 1615, a play by an unknown author appeared entitled By Imperial Order, Sanbao Set sail on the Western Ocean (奉天命三保下西洋).

At the beginning of the 20th century, on the wave of the movement to free China from foreign dependence brought on by the European fleets, the image of Zheng He at the head of a powerful Chinese navy gained new popularity. The article “Zheng He – the great navigator of our motherland” by the publicist Liang Qichao published in 1905 made a great contribution to the popularization of this image.

In modern China, Zheng He is regarded as one of the outstanding figures from the country’s history, and his voyages (usually seen as a model of China’s peaceful policy toward its neighbors) are contrasted with the invasive expeditions of 16th- and 19th-century European colonizers

The Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia

Zheng He’s travels gave a powerful impetus to the growth of the Chinese diaspora, which, growing ever larger through merchants and deserters, settled in the coastal lands stretching from the Chinese borders all the way to India. Many Chinese communities in Malaysia and Indonesia regard Zheng He and Wang Jinghong as founding figures, almost as patron saints. Shrines and monuments have been erected in their honor.

The legend that Zheng He, on his way to Malacca in the 15th century, brought a Chinese princess named Han Libo, who was to marry the Malacca monarch, is very popular in Malaysia. The princess brought with her 1,500 servants and 5,000 young girls who settled in the “Chinese Hill” (Bukit China) area of Malacca and became the ancestors of the old Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore, known as baba nyong, or peranakan (in contrast to the later wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived during the British rule in the 19th and 20th centuries).

This story, however, is absent from the Chinese annals. If we believe the chronicle of Fei Xin and the early Portuguese accounts, we can assume that in reality one of the Malacca sultans married a Chinese woman, the daughter of one of the sailors who had remained in Malacca.

In Europe.

At the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portuguese navigators penetrated the Indian Ocean and began to establish their control over its trade routes, along which (in the opposite direction) the Zheng He fleet had sailed less than a century before. The memory of the Chinese armadas was still alive in the ports of that ocean, although at first the Portuguese were not too clear where they were coming from. One of the first known European mentions of the mysterious visitors is a letter from the Florentine businessman Girolamo Cernigi, who worked in Lisbon, about Vasco da Gama’s first expedition, which he sent home in July 1499. According to him, the Portuguese learned in Calicut that a fleet of well-armed “white Christians, with long hair like the Germans” had been there 80 years before them, who then returned every two years. Since the Portuguese knew nothing about any German expeditions to India, Sernigi speculated that perhaps the Russians had a port in the region and it could have been them. Soon, however, the Portuguese learned from the Indians that the mysterious strangers were called “Chin” (a name that in the first half of the 15th century Europeans had not yet identified with “Catay”, where Marco Polo was), and in 1508 Manuel I instructed Admiral di Siqueira to

As historians note, it took the Portuguese the better part of a century to answer all of King Manuel’s questions. Nevertheless, the (alleged) recent Chinese control of the coastal regions of India, Malacca and many of the islands of Southeast Asia, as well as the decision of the Chinese leadership to leave the overseas countries, soon became a well-known fact for Europeans, although the name of Zheng He himself never appears in the European literature of this period. This view of Asian history is presented already in the first European book on China, Tratado das cousas da China by the Dominican monk Gaspar da Cruz (English) (Russian (1569), where it is supported by references both to various kinds of architectural and cultural monuments of Chinese origin in those regions and to the “eternal memory” of Chinese domination existing there. The same motif is repeated in the “bestseller” of the Spanish Augustinian Juan González de Mendoza (English) (Russian (1585) Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China.

A far-sighted veteran of Portuguese expansion in Asia, Diogo Pereira “of Malabar” (Diogo Pereira, o Malabar), in a letter written to Don João III shortly before his death in 1539, even recommended that the Portuguese king follow the example of the Chinese and leave the Indian colonies. The Portuguese historian João de Barros (1496-1570) believed that, by abandoning land and sea colonial expansion, the Chinese were far more far-sighted than the Greeks, Carthaginians, or Romans, who, in conquering foreign countries, eventually lost their own. According to contemporary historian J. M. dos Santos Alves, by this comparison di Barros also drew a parallel between the Chinese decision to cease operations in India and the need for little Portugal to choose the right geographic priorities in its program of global expansion. Later, the Portuguese economist of the Iberian Union, Duarte Gomes Solis (port.) (rus.), incorporated the argument about the Chinese abandonment of India into his lengthy discourse on the undesirability of Spanish trade with China (importation of Mexican silver through the Philippines), as harmful to Portuguese trade with it (through India and Macao).

In the Muslim world

In the popular literature, it was even suggested that Zheng He was a prototype of Sinbad the Sailor. The main reason for this is the similarity in sound between the names Sindbad and Sanbao, and the fact that both of them made seven voyages at sea.

In Africa

On the coasts and coastal islands of southern Somalia and northern Kenya live a small Bajuni people who have long been known as fishermen and sailors. They speak Swahili and have had strong Arab and possibly Persian influences. A number of authors have also suggested that their ancestors may include people from Asia, in particular related to the Polynesians (which is not surprising, since the ancestors of the current Malagasy could have followed these shores from Indonesia to Madagascar).

Journalists have suggested that the Bajuni may have “Asian blood” and cultural traits from the Zheng He sailors who remained in Africa. The elders of the small Famao clan in the village of Siyu on Pate Island in the Lamu Archipelago off Kenya claim that their ancestors included Chinese sailors who were shipwrecked there. According to journalists, some members of this clan even look more Asian than African.

In Australia.

The Aboriginal legends of the Arnhem Land Peninsula in northern Australia tell us that in ancient times their land was visited by certain “baijinis” who were engaged in catching and processing trepangs, rice farming, and building stone houses. Although most historians believe that the legendary Baijin were one of the peoples of what is now Indonesia (it is well known that the Makasars harvested trepangs in these places in the 18th and 19th centuries), there is also the view that the Baijin were of Chinese descent.

There is also an interpretation of Fei Xin’s chronicle that Zheng He’s fleet visited Timor, the nearest Indonesian island to Australia. In this connection, the American journalist Louise Levates suggests that one of the ships of his fleet managed to reach Australia, although there is no documentary evidence to that effect. She also draws attention to the similarity between the names of the mysterious “baijinya” and the African “bajunya.

In the Western press and popular literature

Because of its scale, its distinction from previous and subsequent Chinese history, and its outward similarity to the voyages that began the European period of the Great Geographical Discoveries a few decades later, Zheng He’s voyages became one of the most famous episodes of Chinese history outside of China itself. For example, in 1997 Life magazine placed Zheng He in 14th place on its list of the 100 people who had the greatest influence on history in the last millennium (the other 3 Chinese on the list were Mao Zedong, Zhu Xi and Cao Xueqin).

In connection with Zheng He’s voyages, Western authors often ask: “How is it possible that European civilization in a couple of centuries involved the whole world in its sphere of influence, while China, although it began large-scale ocean voyages earlier and with a much larger fleet than Columbus and Magellan had, soon stopped such expeditions and passed to the policy of isolationism? “, “what would have happened if Vasco da Gama had met on his way a Chinese fleet similar to Zheng He’s?”.The answers, of course, are different, depending on the scientific or political views of the author. The most peculiar answer is given by a retired British submariner, Gavin Menzies, who says in his books that Zheng He’s Chinese fleet supposedly discovered America and sailed to Europe, but there is no information about this in the sources on his voyage. Historians do not take these works seriously and point to Menzies’ unprofessional interpretation of the sources (who does not speak Chinese) and substitution of arguments with fantasies.


  1. Путешествия Чжэн Хэ
  2. Ming treasure voyages