The Forgotten Voyages Of Zheng He

Many have never heard of Zheng He, a man who sailed the ocean blue with a vast armada almost 100 years before Columbus sailed to find a new route to India. In the first part of this article, You Have Heard Of Columbus, But Have You Heard Of Zheng He? we explored the rise of Zheng He to power and his ambitious efforts to both explore the known world and expand China’s influence in the world. It seemed the pressure within emperor Yongle’s court to end China’s opening to the world through naval power, but Zheng He still had the influence to expand China’s navel power and continue to his adventures on the open seas.

In 1412, the emperor ordered a fourth expedition, which left Nanjing the following year. Besides stopping at the usual ports of call, the expedition also visited the Maldives Islands and Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, marking the first time that the Chinese ventured beyond India. A subsidiary expedition also traveled to Bengal. On its way home, the expedition descended on Sumatra, where it carried out imperial orders and defeated a usurper to the throne and restored the rightful ruler. In 1415, the fleet returned home, where the emperor ordered the execution of the usurper. For a second time, Chinese military superiority was manifestly demonstrated in Southeast Asia, and the Chinese naval presence expanded even farther into the Indian Ocean.

Ming naval expansion continued with the ordering of a fifth maritime expedition in 1416. The fleet departed in the fall of 1417 with the ostensible purpose of escorting ambassadors from nearly 20 kingdoms to their homelands. The expedition also opened up new territory by visiting the Arabian Peninsula and the east African coast, the first Ming contacts with Africa. Those new contacts were not altogether peaceful, however, and violent confrontations occurred. Still, when the expedition returned to Nanjing in 1419, it carried new foreign ambassadors to honor the Ming emperor. That success necessitated a sixth expedition, because the new foreign ambassadors had to return home eventually.

The death of the Yongle emperor in 1424 resulted in the cancellation of preparations for a seventh expedition by his successor, Hongxi. Expansionism under the Yongle emperor had caused a strain on China’s resources, and anti-expansionism sentiment began to prevail from the Confucian bureaucrats. The next emperor, Xuande, at first continued Hongxi’s anti-expansionism policy, but in 1430 he relented and ordered a seventh expedition that would travel to Hormuz and beyond. Some accounts claim that Zheng He died in 1433 at Calicut during that expedition. True or not, the maritime venture was the last for both Zheng He and the Ming dynasty. The Xuande emperor’s death in 1435 left China with an eight-year-old emperor, Zhengtong, and the anti-expansionism Confucian bureaucrats firmly in charge of the government.

Scholars continue to debate why the Ming dynasty ordered the massive expeditions and why it then abandoned them so completely. The first expedition may have been partially motivated by a search for the deposed emperor Jianwen. It might have been an attempt to outflank the marauding armies of the Turko-Mongolian leader Timur that were threatening China’s borders with Central Asia. The Strait of Malacca needed to be cleared of pirates, and Zheng He certainly managed to do that. The large-scale naval expeditions also displayed the might of the Chinese empire, thereby promoting obedience at home and abroad. They also allowed the Ming emperor to expand the traditional tribute system of Chinese diplomacy deep into the lands of the Indian Ocean. Commercial contacts naturally followed the expansion of political contacts and so benefited certain areas of the Chinese economy. The great fleets also sought treasure to bring home for the delight of the emperor, whether in the form of spices, gold, such exotic animals as giraffes, or harem girls. Finally, the massive maritime ventures were a clear-cut demonstration of Chinese cultural superiority, a theme dear to the hearts of the Chinese elite.

Zheng He’s naval adventures were not universally popular. The Confucian bureaucrats opposed them for a number of reasons. At a basic political level, Confucian bureaucrats despised eunuchs in the government, and Zheng He and the other supporters of overseas expansion were eunuchs. At a practical level, the Confucian bureaucrats considered the great fleets tremendously expensive, producing little benefit to China, and they opposed such egregious wastes of the nation’s resources. As traditionalists, they also opposed the expansionism policy on principle; it was militaristic, and they were anti-militarists. The expeditions promoted commercial expansion, while they desired economic self-sufficiency for China, and they increased China’s foreign contacts, while the Confucians advocated isolationism.

The Confucian bureaucrats won the struggle by winning over succeeding emperors to their point of view. China withdrew from the rest of the world, and a little over 60 years later, Vasco da Gama reached India by sea from Europe. In one of history’s ironic twists of fate, it was da Gama’s tattered little fleet of a few vessels and his small, dirty crew that truly changed the course of history, not Zheng He’s magnificent armada with its crew in the tens of thousands. Ming China did not become a nation of world travelers; the Western world came to them.

One has to wonder how different the world would be today if China’s emperors had continued on the path of expansionism, world exploration and expanding trade. Recently, there has been serious exploration of the idea that on one of Zheng He’s expeditions he visited the Americas years before Columbus (learn more HERE). Stranger still is that Zheng He may have been using maps created by Kublai Khan’s fleet (Kublai Khan’s maps were recently discovered at the U.S. Library of Congress and may date back to the late 13th century).

Copyright Protection

History, Humanities And Related Resources You Should Check Out …