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The legendary Chinese seafarer the West overlooks

In the 1400s, Zheng He sailed thousands of miles around Asia and Africa in ships the size of soccer fields, spreading Chinese innovations like compasses and gunpowder in the process. 

ByAlissa GreenbergNOVA NextNOVA Next
Zheng He crop.jpg

A statue of Zheng He at the Sam Poo Kong Temple in Java, Indonesia. Image Credit: Budianto Santosa, Shutterstock

​​The Chinese admiral Zheng He must have made quite the impression when the 300 ships under his command arrived at a new destination. The biggest vessels, known as “treasure ships,” were by some estimates longer than a soccer field. Their rigging was festooned with yellow flags, sails dyed red with henna, hulls painted with huge, elaborate birds. Accompanying them were an array of support boats, including oceangoing stables for horses, aqueous farms for growing bean sprouts to keep scurvy away, and water taxis for local transportation. The 15th century citizens who received him in what are now Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, and Yemen had never seen anything like it.

And that was before the 28,000 inhabitants of Zheng’s ships debarked to establish trade relations with the local government. They came bearing luxuries, from tools (axes, copper basins, porcelain) to cloth (fans, umbrellas, velvet) to food (lychees, raisins, salted meats). In return, they received tribute goods to carry back to China, including spices and precious stones and—on a few notable occasions—ostriches, elephants, and giraffes.

Almost a century before Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus made voyages that kicked off the era of European colonialism, Zheng spent three decades plying the waters between China and the East Coast of Africa, setting up diplomatic relationships that would reshape Asian life. His seven expeditions challenged what humans could do at sea, pushing the limits with their boats’ size, complexity, and capacity for long-distance travel.

Zheng’s influence might have been yet more outsized if geopolitical pressures hadn’t changed China instead. But his legacy still lives on from the Swahili Coast to Yemen, Kolkata to Hong Kong. Michael Yamashita, a photographer and contributor to National Geographic, spent several years writing a book and producing a multipart documentary on the Chinese mariner. “He was the greatest explorer that the world had never heard of,” Yamashita says.

Performers next to large wooden ship in city

Performers parade in front of a replica of a treasure ship sailed by navigator Zheng He at a launching ceremony in 2006 (600 years Zheng's voyages) in Nanjing, China. Image Credit: China Photos, Getty Images

Zheng (known in early life as both Ma Sanbao and Ma He) was born around 1371 in Southwest China, his family part of a Muslim ethnic minority in an area still controlled by Mongols of the recently toppled Yuan dynasty. The battles that marked the transition from Yuan to Ming dynasty in the area were brutal and bloody. During one, Zheng (who was still a boy) saw his father murdered. He was left alive but captured and, as was common practice at the time, castrated and made a eunuch.

“It is almost incomprehensible that he managed to emerge from such relatively fringe or marginal socio-political positions to become the leader of this huge maritime enterprise,” Huang Jianli, a historian at the National University of Singapore, said in an email. But he did. Zheng was assigned to serve Zhu Di, a rebellious prince, and he was by his master’s side when Zhu Di installed himself as emperor in 1402.

Zhu Di had expansive ideas about China’s role in the world and the way it could use trade and widespread diplomacy to assert its power. He assigned his trusted confidante a leadership role, naming him admiral. Starting in 1405, they worked together to establish a far-reaching web of tribute relationships with 48 countries, city-states, and kingdoms all over Asia. Zheng, who according to reports was almost seven feet tall, became a towering figure in both stature and status.

The scale of the boats he sailed was equally remarkable. China had been building mind-bogglingly enormous ships for at least a century before Zheng came along. Both Marco Polo and the Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta wrote of seeing huge seagoing vessels in their visits to the East. Some experts believe the treasure ships Zheng sailed were 400 feet long, or five times the size of Columbus’ ships, with 70,000 square-foot decks, though those numbers remain in debate. But “even if we take the estimates most people think are too small, those are twice what the Europeans used to sail around the world,” says Travis Shutz, a historian of maritime China at SUNY Binghamton.  

Both the treasure ships and the support vessels—battleships, boats carrying grain and horses, local transportation—featured divided hulls with several watertight compartments. This engineering innovation had roots in early Chinese seafaring. It allowed Zheng and other Chinese mariners to take unprecedented amounts of drinking water on long voyages, while also adding much-needed ballast, balance, and stability.

But for Shutz, what made the armada most impressive was the sheer logistics necessary to build and command it. Under Zheng’s instruction, workers in six provinces along China’s coast and inland along the Pearl River cut down trees, processed lumber, and built shipyards in order to construct scores of vessels. In inland cities, an additional team focused on dredging the river once the treasure ships were ready to float out to sea. “That’s something that makes it really impressive, how they mustered so many resources,” Shutz says.  

Replica ship hull containing giraffes and cargo

A partial replica of one of Zheng He's treasure ships at the Maritime Experiential Museum in Singapore displays its below-deck cargo. Image Credit: Choo Yut Shing, Flickr

For his National Geographic documentary, Yamashita spent years tracing Zheng’s seven voyages, following the trade winds and stopping nearly everywhere the giant eunuch went. In Indonesia, Yamashita visited some of the same sulfur mines recorded in Zheng’s ship’s log, as well as temples devoted to his spirit. In Melaka, Malaysia, he visited the enormous storehouses Zheng built to house goods going to and from points further afield. The communities that grew up around the storehouses were among the first of many permanent overseas Chinese populations that would dot the continent and eventually grow to a majority in nearby Singapore. In India, Yamashita followed Zheng to the famed pepper markets of the Malabar Coast; the spice flooded China so quickly after Zheng’s visit that it transformed from a top-shelf luxury to an everyday additive.

And after stopovers in Sri Lanka and Yemen, Yamashita visited the islands off of Kenya’s Swahili Coast, where he found people fishing with Chinese-style nets. Local legend has it that several of Zheng’s ships wrecked there, caught in some of the world’s most extreme tides, and the mariners on board married into the population. “We found lots of Ming pottery all over the place,” Yamashita says. “They used it to decorate the houses.”

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But, Shutz says, after decades of travel and trade, the sheer logistical and labor costs of maintaining what amounted to a floating metropolis began to wear on Emperor Zhu Di—especially as the Mongols began threatening from the north, forcing the Chinese capital to move to Beijing. Producing and stocking giant ships became prohibitively expensive. Zheng’s last voyages were mostly focused on returning foreign trade envoys to their homelands.

Then Zhu Di died, and a new ruler with deeply different priorities replaced him. Eunuchs like Zheng, who valued trying new things, enriching imperial coffers, and building China’s world reputation, suddenly had much less power. Instead, more conservative Confucian courtiers had the new emperor’s ear. They were more focused inward, on protecting China from the Mongols with the construction and expansion of the Great Wall.

Zheng embarked on his last voyage in 1431, and he died en route in what is now Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). He was buried at sea. Soon after, the new emperor outlawed most formal maritime trade. Forget soccer-field-sized boats: the Chinese state wouldn’t finance any voyages again for several hundred years. When they returned to the ocean, the world would be a very different place.

Performers and flags on large ship deck

Performers atop a replica of a treasure ship sailed by Zheng He at a 2006 launching ceremony in Nanjing, China. Image Credit: China Photos, Getty Images

In the decades that followed, any suggestion of China returning to the high seas was firmly rejected.  Many of the records of Zheng’s voyages were reportedly destroyed during political fights or simply lost to the vagaries of time. The loss of those documents has left a hole in what we know about Zheng, leading to academic arguments about everything from exactly how big his boats were (we know they were significantly larger than Columbus’, but how large?) to why he went where he did (was it proto-colonialism or just posturing?). The author Gavin Menzies even found success publishing “1421: The Year China Discovered the World,” a best-selling—but now widely debunked—book that claimed Zheng actually circumnavigated the globe in his sixth voyage.

What we do know is that Zheng’s voyages had a lasting impact on Asia, setting up patterns of migration and cultural exchange that continue today. After the state abandoned virtually all maritime trade, coastal communities stepped back in, some residents turning to smuggling and piracy to meet market demand. Other families instead emigrated to one of the many new overseas Chinese communities taking root in places like Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Many of those new communities sprang up at nodes where Zheng had stopped to develop trade relationships. That’s one reason Southeast Asia is dotted with temples devoted to him.

Those trade networks, Shutz says, were also essential to the spread of two Chinese technologies that helped build our modern world: gunpowder and compasses. Both items were conceived and commonly used for different purposes in China: compasses for divination practices and gunpowder for firecrackers. Thanks to the trade relationships Zheng helped establish, they were much more widely taken up for navigation and warfare across Asia and Africa—and eventually used by Western colonial powers to reshape the world for the next several centuries.

Yamashita also sees Zheng, a Muslim wielding power in a mostly Buddhist society, as a man with “really modern thinking” about equality. In particular, he cites a set of stone tablets Zheng left behind in a temple in Sri Lanka as evidence of this mindset. The trilingual carvings mark offerings to Buddha in Chinese, to Hindu deities in Tamil, and to Allah in Persian. In these carvings, Yamashita sees a legacy of tolerance—a message, he says, of “equal gifts for all; all gods exactly the same.”

Light blue building on sunny day

Gallery of Admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia. Image Credit: Chongkian, Wikimedia Commons

Historians like to imagine what might have happened if Chinese voyages hadn’t stopped with Zheng. “What if they had still been in Mozambique when the Portuguese showed up?” Shutz wonders. Would the two powers have traded or gone to war? How would that have affected the violence European powers inflicted as they divided up the world for colonization? “It would have been a different path for sure,” he says.

Instead, for centuries, Zheng’s voyages “remained a testimony of China’s maritime capability if and when it wished to summon,” Huang says. It’s a reminder that’s become increasingly pertinent in the past few decades as China has reasserted itself in world economics and politics.

Now, Huang sees in Zheng’s rise and fall a warning for the United States as it continues to pour money into maritime military maneuvers in Asia and Russia. These ventures “are extremely costly to the state coffer and people’s welfare,” he writes—one reason they were ultimately halted in China in Zheng’s time. “Instead of building more aircraft carriers and staging endless military exercises the world over, U.S.A. should spend its hard-earned money on its failing domestic infrastructure and solving its deep socio-economic problems.”

Even so, until recently Zheng’s accomplishments either received only a passing mention or weren’t taught at all in Western history curricula, Shutz says. While he didn’t learn about Zheng during his own schooling some 20 years ago, Shutz’s younger sister learned about him in her junior high school history class in 2015. In this small change, Shutz sees the beginning of a bigger trend in the American approach to world history. “It’s much less focused on Europe and more focused on the world writ large,” he says, “letting all these varying cultures speak for themselves.”

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