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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Singer

China’s Original Maritime Influence: Zheng He’s Ocean Voyages During the Ming Dynasty

Originally published on

At a time when the People’s Republic of China is newly ascendant, a look back to the early fifteenth century when Ming China’s maritime foreign policy was spearheaded by a Buddhist-practicing, Muslim eunuch can give us insight into the present day.

A model of a portion of Zheng He’s Fleet. O. Mustafin (2019 February 05)(Ancient History Encyclopedia)

“Land Across the Seas”

The Chinese have long been fascinated with “land across the seas.” In antiquity, the mythical island of Penglai was reputed to be inhabited by Gods with the secret of immortality. The Four Seas and the Great Wilds were populated by strange beasts and fantastical sights.

The Chinese have also long had contact with “land across the seas.” There is a debated tale of fifth century Buddhist monks traveling around the Pacific Basin and landing somewhere along the west coasts of either North or Central America. The Chinese Song Dynasty looked to the oceans for commerce during the twelfth century, while Khubilai Khan of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty sent unsuccessful armadas to invade Japan and other states across the seas who did not accept Chinese authority during the thirteenth century.

The Seven Voyages of Zheng He

The pinnacle of China’s adventures on the seas are the seven voyages of the treasure fleets of Zheng He in the early years of the fifteenth century between 1405 and 1433. Zheng He was a Buddhist-practicing Muslim, a Palace official, the head of the Directorate of Palace Servants, the chief eunuch in the service of the Emperor. While one of many eunuchs dispatched abroad by Emperors over the years, Zheng He gets all the historical glory. Whether one views him as an envoy, an ambassador, an admiral or an explorer (history has assigned each of these titles to him at various times), this loyal man in service to Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, spent most of the latter half of his life abroad and at sea.

Zheng He’s Fleet

Zheng He translated his land-based construction skills into creating the most formidable naval fleet the world had ever seen. More than 200 ships per voyage, of which four or five dozen were treasure ships, launched from port in Nanjing on the Yangtze River. The largest of the treasure ships were nine-masted, flat-bottomed vessels some 440 feet long, 180 ft. at the beam, with a 20 ft. draft. By way of comparison, the largest of Columbus’ three ships that sailed across the Atlantic from Europe several decades later at the end of the fifteenth century was the Santa Maria with a length less than 60 ft., a beam less than 20 ft., and a mere six-foot draft. Even the Mayflower that brought the Pilgrims from England to North America two hundred years after Zheng He was only approximately 100 feet long, 25 ft. wide, with a 12 ft. draft. Zheng He’s fleet was immense.

Zheng He’s Routes

Zheng He repeatedly led more than 27,000 soldiers and sailors deep into the South China Sea and up across the northern part of the Indian Ocean. The first stop outside China was always at the Kingdom of Champa (shown on the map as Qui Nhon), along the east coast of what is now Vietnam. There were then stops in what are now Indonesia and Sri Lanka, ending often at Calicut on the west coast of India. A number of the voyages also traveled far beyond to the Arabian Peninsula and down the east coast of Africa. His visits must have been a sight to behold.

The Sending of the Fleet

Yongle Emperor, Hanging Silk Scroll, Artist Unknown (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

So why did the Yongle Emperor decree that these ships be built, sent out, repaired, and sent out again? And again? And again? The costs in terms of materials, labor, outfitting, and personnel were staggering. We cannot ask anyone who was there, and the official records are spotty because so much was subsequently destroyed by political opponents of the voyages and when the Qing conquered the Ming Dynasty. For what we do know, we are grateful to scholars who have tracked down clues history left to be found.

The story of Zheng He is the story of Ming Dynasty foreign policy in the early fifteenth century. The voyages were not of exploration nor were they of conquest and colonization. Sailing along established trade routes, he was not out looking to discover new lands. Zheng He fought battles when necessary, but this does not appear to have been a significant part of the voyages (though the threat thereof might well have been). Trade was a natural by-product of the voyages and was so exploited, but this also does not seem to have been the prime motivator. Instead, the voyages were mighty expeditions of Ming Empire power projection. One historian has noted that “by the time Zheng He set sail [in 1405 on the first voyage], the goal of spreading awe of China’s wealth and power seem to have dominated Yongle’s motivations” (Edward L. Dreyer, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405–1433, {2007}, Page 61).

The Tribute System

To this end, the voyages enforced a well-developed tribute system among states in North, Southeast, and South Asia with China perched at the apex. These states (mostly) pledged fealty to China, agreed to abide by her diplomatic requirements, sent emissaries with gifts (tribute) to the Imperial Court, and received favors and gifts in return. The system provided access, protection, and status to both sides. It did not require, nor did it result in, direct control of the tributary states by China. Call it common Confucian adherence to an accepted set of hierarchical roles to preserve harmony and ethical conduct. Call it a practical response by smaller actors to larger actors in the world at the time. No matter what you call it, and the motivations for different states were likely not the same, the system worked. From the mid-fourteenth to almost mid-nineteenth centuries, a period of close to five hundred years, China was involved in only two major wars with her closest neighbors, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

The tribute system was expansive. One scholar has commented that “[i]t is to be noted that the Ming government not only monopolized the tribute trade but also provided trade junks and Chinese sailors to vassal states. During the reign of Yongle, Chinese ships, Chinese sailors, and Chinese maritime technology dominated not only Asian waters but also the Indian and Arabic sea lanes” (Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle {2001}, Page 199). The trail of ambassadors traveling to China to offer their obeisances was particularly active during the years of Yongle Emperor’s rule, and Zheng He’s fleet provided a convenient taxi service for many such diplomats (in both directions).

Foreign affairs is a political business, and Zheng He’s voyages served a domestic political purpose as well. The Yongle Emperor apparently craved and basked in the personal glory that tribute offered him. The seven voyages resulted in continued, grand adoration proffered by distant subjects; in the visible display of giraffes, ostriches, white elephants (the real kind), and other exotics added to the Imperial inventory; and in demonstrating to his Chinese audience that the Emperor indeed had the bona fides to lead with the Mandate of Heaven. Since Yongle rose to power under a cloud of intrigues (involving being passed over for succession, family in-fighting, and the tragic demise of the chosen successor), the latter would likely not have been an inconsequential consideration.

The End of the Voyages

Six of Zheng He’s seven voyages were made during Yongle’s reign (the last was ordered by a grandson successor for old time’s sake). The voyages in fact were on pause even during the late Yongle period, and with it the beginning of the end of China’s foreign policy power play. So what happened? Why did the tide turn and the voyages stop?

The short answer is that domestic affairs finally trumped international affairs. The drain on the Treasury had long been a point of contention. Frequent military campaigns against Mongolians and others in the north and elsewhere were always top of mind (as well as manpower and pocketbook). A shift in Chinese society saw the rise in power and stature of Confucian civil officials at the expense of the nobles, eunuchs, and military professionals who had previously been leading voices in governance. As a Chinese dynasty replacing a foreign dynasty, the Ming espoused a return to the Confucian moral system held in esteem from the prior Chinese Song and Tang Dynasties. Merchants and traders and international relations were not high on the pecking order in this evolving Confucian system.

All of this led Yongle’s successors to ban the construction of oceangoing vessels. And they did not stop there. Foreign trade was also banned as was contact with those areas “beyond the seas.” Though not complete in its inward turn (select missionaries served in China and Chinese products continued to find their way overseas throughout succeeding centuries), China increasingly focused on internal and direct border concerns as the Ming Dynasty went on. The northern campaigns continued. The government also dealt with rampant coastal piracy (even during the time of Zheng He’s voyages) by focusing greater efforts on maintaining the Grand Canal to provide a secure, inner waterway to bring grain, materials, and people to the new capital at Beijing.

Far-reaching consequences of societal change generally take generations to become manifest. This was true for the Ming rulers. Though the Chinese stopped going out after Zheng He and the Yongle Emperor had both passed on, representatives from abroad still came to them. For a while. But, “little by little, the imperial tribute system was beginning to break down. Foreign countries no longer showered the emperor with tribute gifts, and the emperor was hesitant to give any gifts at all….In less than one hundred years, the greatest navy the world had ever known had ordered itself into extinction” (Lousie Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405–1433 {1994}, Pages 174–175).

As China turned to tackling more immediate internal issues, those from the lands across the seas began to assert themselves on the seas. By the sixteenth century, the European powers were in control of much of the area outside China, and in the nineteenth century, they came charging into China. By then, Zheng He’s ocean voyages were a long-lost memory.

Maritime Influence 2.0

In the early twenty-first century, China is once again flexing maritime muscle. There are economic reasons for this (protecting trade routes, securing resources, and promoting commerce). There are political and military reasons for this (establishing boundaries and power spheres). In places, the economic, political, and military reasons all intersect (for example, the South China Sea). However, another key reason underpinning this resurgence that should not be underestimated is nationalist and draws increasingly tightly on the ancient thread of China’s original maritime history and strong, recaptured memory.

This maritime flexing is thus not new territory for the Chinese. It will be different than the last time six hundred years ago, but the roots are the same. It may, as then, be constrained by domestic considerations over time. It certainly, as then, also speaks to a domestic audience. The formal tribute system has been dismantled, though one could argue that the modern-day desires of foreign companies to enter the Chinese market remain the same as when the Europeans came knocking and bearing gifts (attempted tribute) several centuries ago.

As during the Yongle Emperor’s time, this maritime flexing is, in no small part, an attempt to (re-)establish Chinese empire power projection. The effort is causing heartburn in many quarters, more so because it is taking place during a sensitive and tenuous time in global relations. The world dynamic now is not the dynamic then, and how nations and peoples respond to China will not be, and already is not, the same. The Chinese efforts are disrupting the status quo. Disruption and change are often charged situations that result in uncertainty and conflict until a new equilibrium is achieved.

A review of Zheng He’s life, his voyages, his place in Ming Dynasty foreign policy, and the thoughts and designs and goals of that foreign policy can give us insight into understanding and responding in the current day.

--Andrew Singer


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