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Zheng He (born Ma Ho)

c. 1371 – 1435
Chinese Explorer
Exploration Ranking 7th of 26

Chart of Zheng's voyages with one of his ships. Republic of China stamp from 1994.

Zheng He was the greatest Chinese explorer. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He made seven great voyages visiting many places including Indochina, Java, Sumatra, Siam (now Thailand), the Maldive Islands, Borneo, the Persian Gulf, Arabia and the east coast of Africa. Despite these efforts the Chinese Emperor basically shut down further sea exploration by 1500. This had profound implications as the Europeans eventually took control of much of the world.


Zheng He’s ships, called junks, were huge compared with European ones of the same period. Some of Zheng He’s ships weighed more than ten times as much as those of the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

His first epic voyage included about 27,550 men on 255 ships.(1) A larger fleet would not be seen in the Indian Ocean until the advent of World War II, 500 years later. Zheng’s fleet covered more than 31,000 miles and visited thirty-seven countries during its seven voyages.

Early Life

Zheng He was born a Muslim and came from southwestern China, from the province of Yunnan. This province had a large Muslim population descended from traders who had been arriving throughout the Middle Ages. His own family had rather distinguished antecedents: they originated in Bukhara and had been in the service of the early Mongol khans. His father and grandfather must have been quite devout Muslims, as they were known as Hajji, “the pilgrim,” implying they had both visited Mecca. As a boy, Zheng He was taken prisoner after his father was killed resisting the Ming invasion of Yunnan. He was castrated and sent to the Chinese imperial court. There he rose among the ranks of the court eunuchs, whose closeness to the Emperor was often a great source of irritation to the bureaucrats who expected to gain their ruler’s ear. Zheng He became head of the Directorate of Palace Servants, a government office heavily involved in building projects, and these, like shipbuilding, required the use of enormous quantities of wood. It was his experience in organizing construction, rather than his experience as a naval commander (which was non-existent), that made him a very suitable choice to take charge of the Emperor’s fleet.(2)

The Seven Voyages

The voyages lasted, on average, two years each. The first three voyages, between 1405 and 1411, only went as far as the Malabar coast (about 3,100 miles), the principal source of the world’s pepper supply, with excursions along the coasts of Thailand, Malaya, Java, Sumatra and Sri Lanka. On the fourth voyage, from 1413 to 1415, ships visited the Maldives, Ormuz and Jiddah, and collected envoys from nineteen countries. Even more than the arrival of the ambassadors, it was the inclusion of a giraffe among the tribute that caused a sensation when the fleet returned to China. No giraffe had ever been seen in China before. On the fifth voyage, which lasted from 1416 to 1419, Zheng He followed up on the giraffe’s appearance with a prodigious array of exotic beasts for the imperial menagerie: lions, leopards, camels, ostriches, zebras, rhinoceroses, antelopes and more giraffes. In 1421 Zheng He's sixth voyage went as far as the east coast of Africa, visiting Mogadishu, Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Kilwa. After a long interval, probably caused by changes in the balance of court factions after the death of the Yongle emperor in 1424, the seventh voyage, from 1431 to 1433, was probably the furthest penetrating. It sailed 12,618 miles in all, according to the best available estimate, and renewed contacts with the Arabian and African states Zheng He had already visited.(3)

Purpose of Voyages

Strictly speaking these were not route-finding voyages. The trade routes of the Indian Ocean, across maritime Asia and into East Africa, had been familiar to Chinese merchants for centuries. There were certainly opportunities to increase commercial openings by backing initiatives with force. The trades of the region were highly lucrative, including spices, fragrant hardwoods, valuable medicinal drugs, and exotic animal products. The Chinese called Zheng He’s ships “treasure ships.” The motives, however, transcended commerce. Zheng He was engaged on what would now be called flag-waving missions, impressing the ports he visited with Chinese power, and stimulating the awe of the Emperor's home constituency with exotica which the Chinese classified as the tribute of remote peoples. 


Chinese Ocean Exploration Stops

Zheng’s efforts helped extend the Chinese maritime and commercial influence throughout the regions bordering the Indian Ocean. Despite this, the Chinese stopped further sea exploration. The reasons for its abandonment have been much debated. Part, at least, of the context of the decision to abort Zheng He’s missions is clear. The examination system and the gradual discontinuation of other forms of recruitment for public service had serious implications. China became increasingly governed by scholars, with their indifference toward expansion, and gentlemen, with their contempt for trade. In the 1420s and 1430s the balance of power at court shifted in the bureaucrats’ favor, away from the Buddhists, eunuchs, Muslims and merchants who had supported Zheng He. When the Hongxi Emperor succeeded the Yongle Emperor on the throne in 1424, one of his first acts was to cancel Zheng He’s next voyage. He restored Confucian officeholders, whom his predecessor had dismissed, and curtailed the power of other factions. In 1429 the shipbuilding budget was cut almost to extinction. The scholar elite hated overseas adventures, and the factions that favored them, so much that they destroyed all of Zheng He’s records in an attempt to obliterate his memory. Moreover, China’s land frontiers became insecure as Mongol power revived. China needed to turn away from the sea and toward the new threat.

By 1500, an imperial edict made it a capital offense for a ship with more than two masts to put to sea. In less than a hundred years, the greatest navy the world had ever known had ordered itself into extinction. These actions had profound implications because the Europeans eventually took control of much of the world in subsequent centuries.

Chinese disengagement from the wider world was not the result of any deficiency of technology or curiosity. It would have been perfectly possible for Chinese ships to visit Europe or the Americas, had they so wished. Indeed, Chinese explorers probably did get around the Cape of Good Hope during the Middle Ages. A Chinese map of the thirteenth century depicts Africa in roughly its true shape. But there was no point in pursuing such initiatives: they led to regions that produced nothing the Chinese wanted. Although the evidence that Chinese vessels ever crossed the Pacific to America is, at best, equivocal, it is perfectly possible that they may have done so. Again, however, it would have been folly to pursue such voyages or attempt systematic contacts across the ocean. No people lived there with whom the Chinese could possibly wish to do business.

To a lesser--but still sufficient--extent the same considerations applied to other maritime peoples of the Indian Ocean and east and southeast Asia. The Arabs, the Swahili merchant communities, Persians, Indians, Javanese and other island peoples of the region, and the Japanese all had plenty of commercial opportunities in their home ocean to keep them fully occupied. Indeed, their problem was, if anything, shortage of shipping in relation to the scale of demand for interregional trade. That was why, in the long run, they generally welcomed interlopers from Europe in the sixteenth century, who were truculent, demanding, barbaric and often violent, but who added to the shipping stock of the ocean and, therefore, poverty favored Europeans, for the scarcity of economic opportunities at home compelled them to explore elsewhere. The most spectacular explorations, moreover, departed from the edge of the edge--for Europe was the rim of Eurasia, and the rim of Europe, jutting into the ocean, was Iberia.

Zheng is ranked seventh because of what he did not do, i.e. establish any colonies or settlements in India or Africa. This is coupled with the fact that China was the dominant civilization in the Eastern world. China influenced Korea and Japan principally, and to a lesser extent Vietnam. If the Chinese had continued their far-flung maritime exploration and possibly established settlements in India and Africa, the world would be a very different place than it is today and Zheng would be ranked higher.


(1) David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea (New York, 2019), p. 254. 

(2) Ibid., p. 258.

(3) Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration (New York, 2006), p. 112.

Key References

1. Zheng He is the more recent Pinyin transliteration from the Chinese. Using the older Wade-Giles system it was Cheng Ho. Both renderings of the name are used depending on the source. Ying Yai Sheng Lan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores) by Ma Huan, originally in Chinese, begun in 1416; completed about 1435; first published in 1451, translated by J.V.G. Mills, Cambridge University Press, 1970. Ma Huan was a Muslim translator who accompanied Zheng He on his fourth, sixth and seventh voyages.

2. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne - 1405-1433 by Louise Levathes, 1994.

3. Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433 by Edward Dreyer, 2007.

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