The seven naval expeditions of Admiral Zheng He from Ming Dynasty China to India, the Middle East and Africa have fascinated the world for centuries. ASIAN Geographic looks at the advanced naval technology and treasures transported from China
to the rest of the world.
Text by Terence Koh
After finally overthrowing the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), ending close to a century under foreign rule, the first emperors
of China’s Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) wanted to demonstrate the power of Ming China and initiated military campaigns against the Mongolians to the north and west. The third Ming emperor, Zhu Di, or the Yongle Emperor, in particular, took this philosophy a step further by personally leading military campaigns against the Mongolians. However, one of his most ambitious projects was the revival of China’s traditional tribute system whereby neighbouring countries agreed to recognise the superiority of China with the gifting of regular tribute gifts in exchange for military posts and trade treaties. The direct execution of this policy was effected through the launching of the famed Ming Dynasty naval fleet on numerous expeditions to the territories around the South China Sea,the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa of what is now Somalia and Kenya. These naval expeditions – which were led by large wooden ships called treasure ships (宝船) reputed to be as large as 135 metres by 55 metres with as many as nine masts and sails – are are sometimes known as the “Ming treasure voyages”.
ZHENG HE AND THE MING TREASURE VOYAGES
The Ming treasure voyages consisted of seven maritime expeditions made by Ming China’s treasure fleet between 1405 to 1433. The expedition was commanded by Admiral Zheng He (郑和), the Yongle emperor’s trusted court eunuch who served as the Grand Director (太监) of the Directorate of Palace Servants in the palace. Zheng He was a member of the Hui tribe and was castrated to be a eunuch in the
palace after being captured by the Ming army as a 10-year-old boy in Yunnan in 1381. Conferred the surname “Zheng” by the Yongle Emperor, Zheng He was born Ma He and was also known as San Bao (三宝) while he was in the household of the Prince of Yan, who became the Yongle Emperor.
One of the main reasons why these voyages continue to be talked about today is because of the sheer size of the naval armada that participated in these expeditions. More than 300 ships were sent with over 60 of these being giant treasure ships. Having inherited a powerful navy from Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, the Yongle Emperor further expanded the navy and in 1403, he ordered the construction of the treasure fleet.A massive fleet of this size would not be seen again until the 20th century during World War II. Using a fleet of ships, some filled only with silk, porcelain, tea, horses and troops, water or ironworks, the Yongle Emperor wanted to show off both the power and sophistication of China’s civilisation. Like an iron fist in a velvet glove, Ming China’s ability to project both overwhelming force and diplomacy was a key component of its strategy for extracting tributes from the countries the treasure fleet visited.
Using a fleet of ships, some filled only with silk, porcelain, tea, horses and troops, water or ironworks, the Yongle Emperor wanted to show off both the power and sophistication of China’s civilisation
THE CHINESE TREASURE SHIP: A MIRACLE OF SHIPPING TECHNOLOGY
The Ming treasure ships (宝船) were the most advanced ships of their time. From naval architecture, navigation to propulsion, the Chinese were centuries ahead of the rest of the world in naval technology. Chinese merchants during the Song Dynasty had developed lucrative trade routes from Southeast Asia to India and the Middle Eeast. Into China’s ports came gold, silver and horses from Korea and Japan; hardwoods, ivory, and tin from mainland Southeast Asia; cloves, nutmeg and batik from Sumatra and Java; and pepper and gems from across the Indian Ocean. Ming China had built on the knowledge gained from these maritime trade trips to India and the Middle East and were using lug and lateen sails from the Arabs to sail against the wind by the 11th century.
The Chinese had been navigating using magnetic compasses since the ninth century (which wouldn’t be used in Europe for two hundred years). Besides compasses, the Chinese could also navigate by the stars, using detailed star charts and compass bearings. The construction of double hulls to divide the ship into many separate watertight compartments was also an unprecedented breakthrough which not only saved the ship from sinking when collision occurred; it allowed the fleet to carry fresh water on-board for passengers and animals, including tanks for keeping fish catches fresh. Fragile items such as porcelain could also be packed securely in these small compartments. Inspired by the cross-section of a bamboo stem, Chinese shipbuilders had been making sailboats with bulkheads and watertight compartments as early as the second century AD.
Since the first century, Chinese ships also had a sternpost rudder which could be raised and lowered according to the height of the water to allow the ship to navigate closer to shore. It also allowed the ship to safely navigate crowded harbours and narrow channels. The invention of the double hulls and the sternpost rudder would not seen in Europe for another 1,000 years.
The Chinese were also building three- and four- masted ships by the third and fourth centuries, a millennium ahead of Europe. In the 11th and 12th centuries, they added lug and lateen sails to help sail against the wind. China was building ships that could hold 500 men since the eighth century, which wouldn’t be built in Europe for another 800 years. The Ming treasure ships not only had private cabins for travellers, fresh water for bathing and drinking (which had been available since the Song Dynasty from 960–1279), its 135-metre length, 55-metre width, nine masts, 12 sails and four decks meant that it could carry 2,500 tonnes of cargo, including small cannons for defence.
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