Zheng He Research Paper

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Zheng He was a diplomat, explorer, and fleet admiral who, between 1405 and 1433, made seven voyages to the Indian Ocean. His expeditions and four naval and land battles brought more than thirty kingdoms into the Chinese economic sphere.

Zheng He commanded seven great maritime expeditions dispatched by emperors of China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to Southeast Asia, India, Iran, Arabia, and East Africa between 1405 and 1433. The fleets were launched by the Yongle emperor (reigned 1402–1424), although the last expedition in 1431 was ordered by the Xuande emperor (reigned 1426–1435). Yet Zheng He, an imperial servant and Muslim eunuch, eventually became more renowned than those formidable sovereigns. He is regarded as a tutelary deity in Indonesia, as a folk-hero in fiction of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), as an exemplary patriot in textbooks of the People’s Republic of China, and as the Chinese counterpart of Vasco da Gama (c. 1460–1524) and Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in modern studies of world history. A recent work even makes the fantastic claim that his captains discovered and colonized America and Australia in 1421.

A native of Yunnan in southwestern China, Ma He (as Zheng was born) traced his descent from Sayyid Ajall (c. 1210–1279), a Muslim from Bukhara (in contemporary Uzbekistan) who governed the province for Khubilai Khan (reigned 1260–1294), founder of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). When the Ming conquered Yunnan in 1381, the eleven-year-old Ma was among many boys castrated and enrolled in the eunuch establishment of the dynasty. Enterprising and competent, Ma commanded troops under the future Yongle emperor. As a reward for Ma’s valor in a crucial encounter, the emperor gave him the name Zheng, the name of the battle site.

When the emperor commissioned his maritime expeditions, he placed Zheng He in command, entrusting him with the powers of a viceroy. Typically comprising some two hundred ships and twenty eight thousand men, the fleets indisputably were the greatest the world had ever seen and included the largest wooden ships ever built. But debate persists about everything else, such as the dimensions of the biggest vessels, called treasure ships, the nature of the navigation charts employed, and the timing and destinations of particular voyages. Above all, there is no consensus on the purpose of the mammoth expeditions. In part, confusion and mystery surrounds them because of the opposition they encountered among Confucian scholar-officials of the empire, a powerful group that deplored the eunuchs in control of the fleet. In 1477, when a prominent eunuch administrator proposed a renewal of the voyages, Confucian ministers ordered destruction of the records of the Yongle venture.

While this was a grave loss to history, the ambitions of the Yongle emperor suffice to explain the task he gave Zheng He. Having usurped the throne from his nephew, the Jianwen emperor (reigned 1398–1402), Yongle sought a warrant of legitimacy by enrolling tribute clients abroad, a task made effortless by display of awe-inspiring force. An aggressive and militaristic ruler, he led five campaigns against Mongol khans and, in 1406, he ordered the invasion of Vietnam. The fleets complemented this last endeavor, with the Ming sovereign curbing the power of kingdoms in Java and Thailand while also providing an umbrella of protection over the port of Melaka and those of the northern Javanese coast. Given his large and experienced army, Zheng He naturally met little opposition. In 1407, he intervened in a struggle for power in the Majapahit kingdom of Java, and soon after, his troops destroyed ten pirate ships and killed numerous followers of Chen Zuyi, the Chinese chieftain of Palembang in Sumatra. In 1411, Zheng fought off an attack by Vira Alakasvara, the monarch of Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and shipped the hapless ruler to captivity in China.

These forceful actions cannot be separated from the commercial dimensions of Zheng He’s voyages. In the interests of imperial security, Yongle aspired to suppress Chinese private seaborne trade; hence Zheng’s ships came loaded with Chinese commodities, especially silk and porcelain, goods to be sold to eager customers as well as gifts to be bestowed on compliant rulers. The junks returned to China laden with black pepper, spices, sandalwood, precious stones, Indian cottons, and exotic animals (especially giraffes and elephants).

Whether acting as admiral of the fleet, troop commander, or trade commissioner, Zheng invariably was an agent of Yongle, not an adventurous explorer in search of new sea routes and undiscovered lands. Less significant in world history than Columbus or da Gama, Zheng loyally and capably obeyed the will of his sovereign. After Yongle died, there was only one more expedition, ordered by Xuande to take tribute envoys back to their kingdoms. In all likelihood, Zheng He died on this final voyage, and he perhaps is buried near Nanjing, not far from where his treasure ships departed for the southern seas.


  1. Fei Xin. (1996). Hsing-ch’a-sheng-lan: The overall survey of the Star Raft (J. V. G. Mills, Trans. & R. Ptak, Ed.). Weisbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz.
  2. Finlay, R. The treasure-ships of Zheng He: Chinese maritime imperialism in the age of discovery. Terrae Incognitae: The Journal for the History of Discoveries, 23, 1–12.
  3. Levathes, L. (1994). When China ruled the seas: The treasure fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405–1433. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Lo, J. (1976). The termination of the early Ming naval expeditions. In J. B. Parsons (Ed.), Papers in honor of Professor Woodbridge Bingham, a Festschrift for his seventy-fifth birthday (pp. 127– 140). San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center.
  5. Ma Huan. (1970). Ying-yai sheng-lan: The overall survey of the ocean’s shores [1433]. (J. V. G. Mills, Ed. & F. Ch’eng-chun, Trans.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Needham, J. (1971). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 4. Physics and physical technology: Part 3. Civil engineering and nautics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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