Zheng He and the Era of the Great Chinese Maritime Expeditions

Updated: Feb 22


Map of Zheng He's expeditions from 1763 © Sanao / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons


In this article we will discuss the life and voyages of admiral, officer and diplomat who played a crucial role in the development of China’s maritime and commercial influence during the 14th and 15th centuries. Almost a century before Portugal reached India through the Cape Route, Zheng He had already commanded seven naval expeditions to the regions that bordered his country in the Indian Ocean.


Zhèng Hé’s voyages expanded China’s political influence in the world. He was able to secure and construct diplomatic ties with other nations while developing the trade between the east and west. The knowledge and ideas that he was able to bring home from his voyages created an interest in other countries and their wealth (Cartwright, 2019), and together with his leadership and principles, this legacy has remained over the centuries. July 11th is celebrated today as China’s National Maritime Day commemorating the beginning of his first voyage (Mariner's Museum, 2017).


Born in 1371 near Kunming Yunnan province, the last Mongol hold in China, at the age of 10 he was captured, castrated and sent to the army by the Chinese forces that reconquered the region. By the time he was 19 years old, he had already made a name as a junior officer, with many influential friends in court. He was known for his skills in war and diplomacy (Lo, 2019).


In 1402, and until 1424, China was under the administration of Emperor Yongle , part of the Ming dynasty. While his predecessors stood out for their caution in foreign affairs, especially due to their fear of a possible Mongol attack, after the conquest of the last occupied region, Yongle gained confidence and intended to build himself some legitimacy in the international arena (Cartwright, 2019).


Therefore, the emperor made the decision of sending one of his best admirals on the voyages to demonstrate his power over other countries, that being Zhèng Hé 郑和. He was directly selected by the emperor to be the commander of 208 vessels on the Western Ocean missions that began in 1405 (Mariner's Museum, 2017). The world had never seen such an assembly, and it would have had to wait until World War to see that once again. . “The story of how these ships came to be assembled, where they went, and what happened to them is one of the great sagas — and puzzles — in world history”, according to Gronewald (2009).


In two years, Zhèng Hé 郑和 and his crew visited several cities in today’s Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, as well as the island of Java, to finish the trip in India and Sri Lanka (Mariner's Museum, 2017). During their stops, he led a delegation to the local ruler to build relations on behalf of the Chinese emperor, presenting gifts and inviting ambassadors back to China, and he also used his time to trade spices and other exotic goods (Cartwright, 2019).


His second and third voyages took place in 1408 and 1409, with a similar route and duration. Seeing his success, in 1413 the emperor decided to send Zhèng Hé 郑和 to his fourth expedition, the most impressive so far, commandeering and 27.000 men on 63 large ships to sail to Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India. Instead of staying in Calicut as they had done in previous voyages, this time they sailed along the strait of Hormuz to the Persian Gulf (Tong, 2019). As he had done before, during the journey Zheng He traded goods like silk and spices. When he returned to China in 1415, he also brought back with him several envoys and "representatives of various countries for the emperor to meet and learn from" (Mariner's Museum, 2017), such as the king of Bengala, ambassadors from Malindi and today's Somalia (Wikipedia, 2019).


The fifth voyage, which took place in 1417, and the sixth in 1421, were mainly return trips for the seventeen heads of state in South Asia to their homes after they paid a visit to the emperor Yongle. On these trips, howeverZhèng Hé 郑和, kept sailing to the Red Sea and the coast of East Africa, stopping in today’s Somalia and Kenya (Gronewald, 2009). From Africa, Zheng He brought back animals such as lions, leopards, camels, ostriches, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes, which arose great interest in China (Cartwright, 2019).


During the years of the Yongle administration, the country’s economy was devastated. After his death, the subsequent Ming emperors also wanted to display their naval power before the states of South and Southeast Asia. For more than 300 years, China had been constantly expanding its power to the sea, and commerce soon followed, pushed by the growing need for industrial materials, spices, and aromatic herbs. Sea traveling reached new heights during the beginning of the new Ming rule (Lo, 2019).


Thus, the new emperor sent Xuande (宣德帝) Zheng He on his seventh and last voyage. Commandeering more than a hundred ships, he visited all the important ports in the Chinese Sea and the Indian Ocean, as well as the Persian Gulf. On the return trip, in 1433, Zhen He died and was buried in the sea. His official grave still stands in Nanjing, China (Cartwright, 2019). After his death, there would not be any more great maritime expeditions, because the emperor Xuande (宣德帝) decided to put an end to them due to their great economic cost, which wasn’t matched by the value of the tributes and goods that were brought back. He went as far as to ban the manufacture of any ocean ships and prohibited the ones that already existed to sail farther than the Chinese coast. This marked the return to the isolation that Yongle’s predecessors had also promoted (Cartwright, 2019).



Ariadna Mañé is a 21-year-old Spanish journalist. She is currently taking part in the Central and Eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian International Master’s program at the University of Tartu and Glasgow. Her bachelor's degree is in Journalism, from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She believes anyone interested in International Politics must be knowledgeable about China, as a continuously growing world power affecting the construction of the present and the future. You can find her on Twitter and on LinkedIn.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.



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References

Cartwright, M. (2019). The Seven Voyages of Zheng He. [online] World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1334/the-seven-voyages-of-zheng-he/ [Accessed Oct. 2021].


Gronewald, S. (2009). The Ming Voyages. [online] Columbia University. Available at: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_1000ce_mingvoyages.htm [Accessed Oct. 2021].


Lo, J. (2019). Zheng He | Biography, Facts, & Significance. [online] Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Zheng-He [Accessed Oct. 2021].


Mariner's Museum (2017). Zheng He - Ages of Exploration. [online] Marinersmuseum.org. Available at: https://exploration.marinersmuseum.org/subject/zheng-he/ [Accessed Oct. 2021].


Tong, P. (2019). Zheng He’s voyages (1405-33). YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpXvqalkGDs [Accessed Oct. 2021].


Wikipedia (2019). Zheng He. Wikipedia. Available at: https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He



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