• James Houser

July 11, 1405 - The Voyages of Zheng He

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 11, 1405. The Yongle Emperor, ruler of Ming China, issues an imperial missive from the imperial capital of Nanjing. This order sets in motion the largest sea voyages in human history up to that point, stretching from the coast of Africa to the Philippines, all commanded by the Muslim eunuch Zheng He. They are possibly greater than even Columbus’s voyage – but these journeys exemplify the what ifs of world history.

Suppose a space alien had visited Earth in 1405 A.D. and had to pick which, of all the human civilizations, was likeliest to dominate the world someday. She would probably have pointed to the militaristic Mamluk state of Egypt, or the opulent and powerful Delhi Sultanate in India, or – most likely – to the enormous and advanced power of Ming China. She would not have picked the backwards squabbling kingdoms of England or France, the divided nations of Spain and Germany, and certainly not the lightly populated stretches of America.

It would make sense, wouldn’t it? The biggest, strongest land power, with the largest population, a literate and sophisticated elite, the first gunpowder weapons, the inventors of the printing press and the blast furnace, should obviously be the top candidate for world conquest. In 1405, China was all these things: a vibrant and flourishing empire with an ancient but resilient culture and vast resources. And yet, China failed to rise to the challenge, failed to be a truly global power until the last couple of decades. Was there a time when they could have? Was there a moment when China made the decision to reach out and take global power – only to pull back from the brink?

To many people, Zheng He’s voyages were that moment. Famously, Gavin Menzies in his book “1421” asserted that Zheng He had actually discovered America, and in “1434” claimed that the same navigator had sailed to Italy and started the Renaissance. There is no evidence for any of these claims, of course, and Menzies’ books reside in the genre of historical fiction (or, well, just bad history). Nevertheless, it’s not so far-fetched. It is certainly feasible that Zheng He could have found the Americas and that he could have reached Europe. Europeans would make the same journeys a few decades after Zheng’s death. So why didn’t they?

Zheng He was a servant of the Ming Dynasty, a relatively new force in Chinese politics. The Ming had overthrown the last remnants of Mongol rule in China, chasing their former overlords back to the wastes of the Gobi Desert and defeating them in battle. The reconquest and reunification of China under the Ming brought all of the Middle Kingdom back under ethnic Han rule for the first time since the 1100s. The Ming exploded onto the world hardened, experienced in battle and war, and bursting their boundaries. They were soon conquering lands that even the old Chinese dynasties had never ruled.

One of those areas was Yunnan, the southern border region that abuts Myanmar/Burma and Laos, a mountainous and jungled area. This region was the home of the Hui people, an East Asian ethnic group mainly comprised of Chinese-speaking Muslims. The Ming conquest of Yunnan in the 1380s scooped up a number of prisoners for service in the Imperial court, including a robust young Hui man who had refused to surrender his Mongol lord to the invaders. As punishment for his defiance, he was castrated and sent to the court of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yuan. This was Zheng He.

Zhu Di soon came to admire and respect his confident young Muslim eunuch, and gave him increasing positions of power. When Zhu Di launched a coup in an attempt to seize the throne from his nephew, Zheng He became one of his generals, and engineered many of the strategies that led him to power. Zhu Di had seized the throne by 1402 and taken the title of “Yongle Emperor” with his most trusted aide by his side.

Zheng He, unlike the classic effete and scheming court eunuch, was a commanding figure. Over seven feet tall and with a massive belly, he had a voice that was as “loud as a bell” and a booming laugh. He was a master strategist and expert organizer, and because he was both a eunuch and a Muslim he presented no threat to his superiors. He was utterly loyal to the Yongle Emperor, and the Emperor placed great trust in him. It was with this in mind that Yongle commanded Zheng to begin building a fleet. A BIG fleet.

What Zheng He put together was truly massive, even by modern standards. The first fleet consisted of 317 sailing ships with almost 28,000 crewmen, probably the largest fleet ever put into the ocean at that point. It consisted not only of warships, but also trading ships and support vessels – even hospital ships. Zheng He’s fleet was designated the Xiafun Guanjun – the Foreign Expeditionary Armada. Yongle placed so much trust in Zheng He that he even gave him blank scrolls already stamped with the imperial seal to take along on the expeditions – essentially, a blank check.

Zheng He’s mission was complex. He was not only to map and explore across the Indian Ocean, but he was also given the mission of establishing trade links, demanding tribute, and asserting Ming military dominance. China had long-standing trade contacts with Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East, and Yongle wanted to let everyone know that the Chinese were back on top again and meant to stay there.

Zheng He’s first voyage took two years, from 1405 to 1407. The massive Xiafun Guanjun set sail from Nanjing and roved through Indonesia, then ventured across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and India itself. On the way back, they ran into the pirate fleet of Chen Zuyi, who had dominated the Straits of Malacca for years, based on the island that later became Singapore. Zheng He destroyed Chen Zuyi’s fleet, and brought him back to Nanjing to be executed.

Zheng He had brought back huge holds of treasure and tribute, and had basically placed Ming China’s stamp on the whole region. Yongle, immensely pleased, immediately sent him back out again. This cycle would continue, and Zheng He would ultimately complete seven voyages in total, the largest and most intimidating naval expeditions of the age.

Zheng made sure the long arm of the Ming Emperor was felt. On Java, he ended a civil war that had been simmering for a decade. In 1411, he led an amphibious expedition into the piracy-supporting kingdom of Kotte on Sri Lanka; outnumbered two to one, the enormous Muslim eunuch smashed multiple Indian armies and finally surrounded the capital, taking the King of Kotte and his family captive to China. Zheng restored the Ming-supported ruler of Sumatra after a fierce battle. Essentially, Zheng He was asserting Ming hegemony throughout the Indian Ocean trade routes, picking and choosing leaders and settling disputes.

Zheng ventured farther than India and Southeast Asia, though. On his fifth voyage from 1417 to 1419, he visited the eastern coast of Africa and the shores of Arabia, bringing ambassadors back from Mogadishu, Persia and Mombasa to meet the Yongle Emperor. He also brought a bevy of exotic animals, including leopards, ostriches, zebras and giraffes, stunning and delighting the officials of the Ming court. On his seventh voyage in 1433, Zheng He brought back a representative from Mecca itself, anxious to meet this great Emperor with his vast flotilla.

The command and control of this enormous fleet – its organization, construction, repair, supply and training – must have been a nearly godlike undertaking in the 15th Century, even for a state with the power and resources of Ming China. Zheng He’s great treasure voyages, a mixture of war, trade, diplomacy, exploration and dominance, were one of the greatest military feats of human history. Virtually the whole relevant world had been opened up to the overwhelming might and undeniable reach of the Ming Empire; within a couple of decades, it had become the world’s dominant naval power. Had Zheng He’s ships shown up in the Mediterranean or the English Channel, the result would have been no different; nothing England, France, Spain or the Pope could scrounge up would have resisted his fleet for a fortnight.

And then, in 1433, the voyages stopped and never resumed again. Historians are split as to why.

The Yongle Emperor was dead, and his successors deemed the voyages an unjustifiable cost. By this interpretation, he navy had been enormously expensive despite all the wealth and treasure it had brought. Furthermore, the presence of eunuchs (for both Zheng and many of his top subordinate were eunuchs) in positions of high power and trust bothered many of the court nobles and civil officials. The hostility of multiple factions towards the voyages, so expensive and requiring so many resources but without tangible benefit to their own interests, is one interpretation.

Another explanation is largely economic. Chinese trade policies were traditionally very protective of domestic industry and commerce, with strict monopolies and state control over almost every luxury and rare good. The massive increase in global connections and trade that Zheng He’s voyages allowed for stood a good chance of collapsing this ancient system with all its vested interests. This same system would prevent Western traders from penetrating the Chinese markets for centuries, until the British forced China open in the Opium Wars.

Another explanation is simply cultural. China was not a nation with a long seafaring reputation, and Zheng He’s massive expeditions only existed as long as a unique figure like the Yongle Emperor chose to sponsor them. China had typically focused inward, with its security concerns pointing north towards their source of greatest danger – the vast steppe lands, home of the Huns, Mongols, and Manchu. Many later Chinese emperors and officials simply did not see the point of the expeditions, and were suspicious of the eunuchs’ desire to continue them. The question in this interpretation is less “why didn’t the voyages continue?” and more “why should they continue?”

That, in the end, was what kept China from discovering America, or venturing to Europe, or establishing a permanent trans-oceanic empire stretching from Africa to Indonesia. There was simply no motivation to do so. China did not go a-conquering because they saw no tangible benefit to it. The reasons why Europe – and not China – ended up launching great voyages of discovery and establishing global empires can be boiled down to a few factors – geographic, economic, political, and cultural.

First, the coastline of Europe is far closer in absolute geographic terms to the coastline of America. Zheng He, for all the size and scope of his voyages, was not discovering brand-new lands but following already-existing trade routes – even if Chinese military missions had never gone so far. Europeans were far better positioned to both discover America and to find completely new and unused trade routes, since the Atlantic’s relative lack of exploration and development left open a great question mark to the south and west.

Second, Europeans were the ones trying to reach Asia – not the other way around. In terms of trade goods, Europe had very little to offer China or India. Wool and wheat were not exactly rare items in East Asia. On the other hand, Europeans badly desired spices, silks and incense. The Europeans had a massive economic motive to explore and find new trade routes because they were the ones seeking rare luxury goods, and because they could actually make their voyages profitable; the Chinese could not. Zheng He would have found nothing new or interesting to bring back to Nanjing if he’d sailed into the ports of Genoa or London, except maybe some new venereal disease.

Third, Europe was a mass of small competing kingdoms vying with each other for power and influence. This led to competition between merchants and kings for dominance over the spice trade, for new routes, for new opportunities and investments. Ferdinand and Isabella only took a chance on Columbus because they didn’t want him bringing his ideas to Portugal or England instead. This competition led European merchants and rulers to take risks in the hope of gaining advantage, whereas Ming China had no significant competitor to worry about. The Ming Emperors could turn the voyages on and off at whim; the Europeans had to worry that, if they stopped exploring and trading, someone else would gain the advantage.

Finally, Europe was built on a model of free enterprise and the advancement of religion. Voyages abroad were not just an opportunity to find new lands and gain new profits – they were a chance to spread the word of Jesus Christ. Christianity, with its emphasis on the individual soul and its evangelizing mission, proved a propelling force for adventurers and conquistadors to launch long voyages in search of, if not new sources of spice, new sources of souls to be converted. This emphasis not just on missionary work, but on the individual role in all things – in the eyes of God and investors – proved a motivating force propelling the explorer that did not exist in Ming China.

Am I saying that Ming China never would have gained a world empire? Of course not. Sufficiently motivated, with a few rulers of different character or a change in cultural attitudes, the Chinese would have been poised to enter the modern age as the first great world hegemon. Britain be damned, the sun never would have set on the Chinese Empire.

But they didn’t, and Zheng He’s ships rotted on the beaches, masts casting shadows on the sea as the sun slowly moved west. And that is why the West dominates the world.

For now.

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