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Zheng He

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Zheng He

If Zheng He's diplomatic voyages for China had not abruptly ended in the 15th century, China may have risen above Britain and other European countries as the world's most dominant maritime empire. Serving under the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He led seven voyages of great historical importance. He commanded a massive fleet of ships and traveled as far as Eastern Africa in his trading ventures.

Zheng He's missions were successful, so why did they end? What happened to his mighty fleet? Why did China not continue to develop into a powerful maritime empire? The answers can be found in the life of Zheng He.

Zheng He Facts

Zheng He was born in 1371 in the Mongol-controlled Yunnan province. He was raised in a Muslim family until the age of ten when he was captured by invading Ming forces. Being captured in warfare, Zheng He was castrated and forced to become a servant to the Ming court.

The Ming Dynasty:

Also known as the 'Great Ming,' the reign of the Ming Dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644, following the collapse of the Mongolian influenced Yuan dynasty.

Zheng He distinguished himself in the military service of the future Chinese emperor Yongle. After a three-year civil war, the Yongle emperor ascended to the throne. Zheng He's power grew alongside the emperor's, and he was soon elevated to head eunuch of the Chinese imperial court.

Zheng He's birth name was Ma He. As he was a Muslim, his name 'Ma' is the Chinese version of Mohammed, paying tribute to the great religious prophet of the Islamic faith. For his service in assisting the establishment of the Yongle court, the emperor conferred upon Ma He the surname 'Zheng.'

By 1405, Zheng He was an appointed admiral of the Chinese fleet. In that same year, the emperor selected Zheng He to lead a diplomatic and trade expedition into the Indian Ocean. Zheng He's fleet comprised hundreds of ships, including 62 massive treasure ships, or baochuan. These nine-mast, four-deck treasure ships were up to five times the size of the ship Columbus used to sail across the Atlantic Ocean almost a century later!

Zheng He Treasure Ship Study Smarter

Model of a baochuan in China's national museum in Beijing. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Zheng He sailed with 28,000 men under his command and did not return to China until 1407. The royal fleet's mission was successful; China built relations with powerful courts around Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, all while flexing its military muscles. The success of this first voyage led to six successive voyages by admiral Zheng He.

Zheng He's Route

Zheng He conducted seven different voyages for the Yongle court. This map represented his travels, including some of the cities and states that he visited and traded with.

Zheng He Voyage Route StudySmarter

Map of Zheng He's Voyages. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Early Voyages

Zheng He's first three voyages (1405, 1408, 1409) ventured into pre-established trade routes in Java, Sumatra, and Calicut through the Indian Ocean, solidifying China's diplomatic and trade connections with the regions the fleet visited. The fleet traded silk and spices and met with foreign kings in their own courts. More than once, Zheng He exercised the fleet's might in defeating pirates and quelling disputes in foreign lands, proving the power of the Ming dynasty again and again.

China, the Silk Road & Islam

Beginning in the 7th century, Middle Eastern traders traversed the Silk Road and across the Indian Ocean to trade goods with China. The Islamic religion traveled with them. The Islamic faith found some influence in Medieval China, but it would not be until the Mongolian conquest of China in the 13th century that the western religion would find staying power. The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) was a successor state of the predominantly Islamic Mongolian Empire, established by Kublai Khan. Islam remained a stable religion in Ming China, along with Buddhism, Confucianism, and other religions, and is still practiced in China today.

In the fourth voyage (1413), Zheng He's fleet traveled as far as the Persian Gulf, then down the coast of Arabia, and up to Jeddah. Many impressed countries sent diplomats and envoys with Zheng He to return to China, another sign of the Yongle emperor's foreign influence through Zheng He.

The Later Voyages

The fifth, sixth, and seventh voyages (1417, 1421, 1431) led through the Indian Ocean to Eastern Africa, roughly four thousand miles from the Chinese mainland. From Africa, Zheng He returned with splendors and exotic animals, gifts from African kings to the Chinese imperial court. The giraffes that Zheng He brought to the Yongle court were of great cultural significance; the giraffe's appearance was similar to a creature of Chinese mythology, the qilin. To the Chinese, it meant good fortune and further justification of the Yongle emperor's divine rule.

Zheng He Voyage Fleet Study Smarter

The earliest artistic depiction of Zheng He's fleet. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Zheng He's seventh voyage was his last. Taking place a decade after his last expedition, and under the reign of the Yongle Emperor's successor, the seventh voyage was more of a legacy trip than anything else. Representing the might of the Ming Dynasty once more, Zheng He sailed to Java and India, where Zheng He split from his fleet and made a holy pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

Zheng He Accomplishments

Zheng He died during his seventh expedition in 1433 after a lifetime of adventures and great accomplishments. Having risen from castrated captive to admiral of the world's greatest fleet of his time (and for some time to come), Zheng He's accomplishments came through many trials and adversities. At his fleet's peak, Zheng He commanded over 300 ships and 28,000 men. His accomplished voyages into foreign seas are indicative of the future success that national navies will have in expanding a nation's power and influence.

Long before Christopher Columbus, the celebrated Chinese navigator Zheng He traveled through the south and westward maritime routes in the Indian Ocean and established relations with more than thirty countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East."

–Patrick Mendis

The admiral's successful voyages solidified the recently risen rule of the Yongle emperor and expanded China's sphere of influence across multiple seas. Zheng He was the first Chinese admiral to reach the coast of Eastern Africa. The great admiral built trade relations and diplomatic ties between distant countries, exhibiting the wealth and power of China.

Sphere of Influence

A general area or territory that is influenced by a single nation's policies, economy, culture, and military power.

Zheng He Historical Significance

Zheng He's life was proof of 15th century China's capability to become a dominant maritime empire, long before European countries had dreams of establishing ports across the globe. He expanded the Ming Dynasty's influence into many countries west of the Chinese mainland, one of the earliest and most impressive globalization efforts by a nation through sea travel. But what happened to his mighty fleet after his death?

Globalization:

Process of increasing global interactions through communication and transportation technologies.

Zheng He Significant Statue StudySmarter

Statue o Zheng He in Indonesia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After the Yongle emperor's death in 1424 and subsequent replacement by Xuande, enthusiasm for continued Chinese voyages dwindled away. Zheng He's expeditions had been as grand as they were costly. The royal court sought to repair its Great Wall to prepare against future Mongolian invasions, and investments in voyages no longer seemed worthwhile to the Ming Dynasty. Zheng He's fleet was destroyed by China (they did not even want to maintain the ships within their ports) and China quickly returned to its previous isolationism.

Isolationism:

A national policy of remaining separate from the affairs of other countries.

Although Zheng He's influence may seem short-lived, his significance to world history is undisputed. Mainly, his initial successes beg the question: what if China had continued these massive voyages? What if the Ming Dynasty had not destroyed its fleet before the rise of European maritime empires? Would China have dominated the 17th to 19th centuries as the center of colonial expansion and global trade?

Zheng He - Key takeaways

  • Zheng He was a 15th-century Chinese admiral who served the Yongle emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
  • In the 15th century, Zheng He led seven Chinese diplomatic and trade expeditions into Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Eastern Africa.
  • Zheng He's massive fleet symbolized the wealth and power of the Ming Dynasty to foreign nations.
  • Zheng He's voyages signified an impressive globalization effort via sea travel.
  • The exotic rewards that Zheng He brought to China awed the Chinese people and justified the reign of the Yongle emperor.
  • The Chinese imperial fleet was destroyed soon after Zheng He's death and just a century before European maritime voyages defined their global power.

Frequently Asked Questions about Zheng He

Zheng He was a 15th-century Chinese admiral who led seven diplomatic voyages into Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and East Africa. 

Zheng He expanded China’s political and economic presence into Western waters. He signified an increase in world globalization efforts, and his success indicated the future power of large navies –almost a century before Columbus set sail for the Americas. 

Although he led seven voyages, Zheng He did not discover any new lands. He did lead the first Chinese voyage into East Africa, however. 

Zheng He led a mighty Chinese fleet on seven diplomatic expeditions into foreign waters, expanding the Yongle emperor’s international influence. His expeditions illuminated the power and importance of navies long before Europe would begin its maritime dominance. 

Zheng He traveled as far as East Africa, approximately 4,000 miles from ports in China. 

Final Zheng He Quiz

Question

What was one of the reasons that the Ming court decided to abandon future maritime expeditions? 

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Answer

The threat of Mongolian invasion OR excessive costs of expeditions 

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Question

What Chinese emperor did Zheng He serve for the majority of his career?

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Answer

The Yongle Emperor. 

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Question

What was the furthest continent that Zheng He reached in his expeditions? 

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Answer

(Eastern) Africa. 

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Question

What animal brought to the Mind court by Zheng He was considered a cultural and spiritual signifier of the emperor's divine rule?

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Answer

The giraffe. 

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Question

What was so significant about the timing of the destruction of China's royal fleet?

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Answer

The fleet was destroyed just a century before European navies would dominate the globe. 

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Question

How did Zheng He become a eunuch? 

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Answer

He was captured by invading Ming forces at the age of ten and castrated. 

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Question

During what century did Zheng He complete his seven voyages? 

A) 14th century 

B) 15th century 

C) 16th century 

D) 17th century 

Show answer

Answer

B) 15th century 

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Question

Where did Zheng He NOT travel?

A) Eastern Africa

B) India

C) Southeast Asia

D) North America 

Show answer

Answer

D) North America 

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Question

At the fleet's height, how many ships did Zheng He command? 

A) about 30

B) about 300

C) about 3000

D) He only commanded one ship.

Show answer

Answer

B) about 300

Show question

Question

What was NOT a chief goal of Zheng He's expeditions? 

A) built diplomatic relations

B) display the might of the Ming Dynasty

C) scout Europe for future invasion

D) trade goods 

Show answer

Answer

C) scout Europe for future invasion 

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