The Expeditions of Admiral Zheng He

[1] A painting depicting the great Chinese Admiral, Zheng He.
Welcome back. It’s been a long time since I have last written an article on here, and I wanted to do something different again. This time, I wanted to explore medieval Chinese history and in particular, about the great Chinese Admiral called Zheng He (鄭和). The article is divided into five main sections – discussing about Zheng He’s profile, his expeditions, his impact during and after his voyages across the Asian, Indian and African shores. Finally, there will be some discussion of the nature of Zheng He’s voyages. I hope you enjoy this article, any constructive comments are more than welcome below!

1) Profile of Admiral Zheng He
We start this article by looking at National Geography documentary, ‘Chinese Treasure Fleet: Adventures of Zheng He Documentary’. This show stars Japanese-American photographer and Asian studies scholar, Michael Yamashita, who travels according to each of Zheng He routes to understand the true magnitude of the voyage. I highly recommend you watching it, as it is very enticing and stimulating – here is the link:

I am very interested in colonial history, so I thought it would be appropriate if I continued this article with something remarkable to consider. Normally, when you ask a person who was the pioneer of navigation to discover and create ripples around the world for more, the usual response would be Christopher Columbus, King Henry the Navigator of Portugal, or perhaps, the Vikings themselves for travelling the shores of what is modern-day Canada and the US. But I want to divert the focus of the Western colonial history and move towards a more Oriental approach and look at our main protagonist, Zheng He.

Zheng He, or originally named Ma He, deriving from the Chinese version of Mohammed under the influence of his Persian and Muslim roots, was born in A.D. 1371 in Jinning, near the modern region of Yunnan Province. [3] When the young Ma He was only 10 years old, his dad was killed in a key battle between the Yuan and Ming clans (fighting around the East coast of China). [3] Consequently, captured by the victorious Ming clan, little Ma He was sent to Beijing and was turned into a eunuch. Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, was the fourth son in line. Thus, many of the top eunuchs and officials refused to aid Zhu Di. This was significant, as this allowed Zheng He (as I shall call him hereafter), excelling in military studies and an imposing figure at what was believed to be 7 feet tall, came to the young emperor, Zhu Di’s aid, becoming closer and collaborate with many domestic and foreign policies. [3, 4] For example, this was shown when the both of them fought in the battle against the Mongol aggressors from the North. [3]

2) The Seven Expeditions of Zheng He

[2] A map showing all seven journeys Zheng He made during c. 1405-33.
Throughout approximately 28 years, Zheng He travelled to many countries, including those of:

Hainan Island
Malaysia – Malacca Strait
Sri Lanka
Saudi Arabia

There were seven main expeditions that Zheng He had travelled on. Instead of listing out and recounting the voyages and in what years did Zheng He visit the particular, I thought I would pick out Malacca, as one of the few key areas from this list and discuss the impact/foreign relations that was initiated by the Admiral himself. If you would like to find out more details expedition by expedition, then do check out link 5 and 6 in the references below.

2.1) Malacca
Malacca was one of the most important trading posts for the Chinese merchants. The Ming Emperor Yung-lo (1402-24) was initially very strict with the commercial activities externally, as he prohibited many private trading – feeling this would only augment the number of pirates across the South East Asian seas. [7] However, with the main document called the Yung-li Shih-lu (永樂實碌), was eventually convinced of the magnitude and profitability of the Malacca kingdom’s spice trade by South Indian Muslim merchants. As Chinese historian Wang Gungwu demonstrated in the Yung-li Shih-lu:

“The ancient rulers honoured mountains and rivers, determined the boundaries, conferred nobility and set up feudal states in order to show special favour to the distant peoples and demonstrate no one is left out”. [7]

Consequently, this was significant, as Malacca was one of the first areas for inscription and special recognition by the Emperor himself. He saw Malacca as a commercial hub, but a strategic one where China could expand its foreign relations within the 西洋 (literally Western Ocean) or Indian Ocean. [7] Thus, the increase of missions sent by the Emperor Yung-lo himself to various ports namely Java, Cochin (modern day Cambodia) and Siam (Thailand).

3) Impact – during his voyages
During Zheng He’s expeditions, it was a continuation of the advanced trading and shipbuilding skills that the Chinese had developed since the 8th century, way before the age of Christopher Columbus. Let us start with the ship technology first. [5] The treasure ships, as they came to be known, were a symbol of the advanced technologies in China. Many of these ships were 400 feet long, 16 feet wide, with nine masts and 12 sails, fixed with double hulls as watertight compartments. [5] Putting all these dimensions into perspective, the Chinese ship was 4 to 5 times bigger than Columbus’ starship, the Santa Maria.

The sheer size of these ships were a statement of intent by the Chinese Ming Emperor, showcasing the armada and Chinese glory to the world at large wherever they travelled to. This was one of the most effective technologies that the Chinese shipbuilders had, where they were could, using withstand leakage more readily. Consequently, less ships were lost this way and could continue efficiently navigating and trading.

Another important impact that Zheng He had during his voyages was the trading he initiated. As the Chinese were more commercial navigators rather than expansionist and colonial ones as the time of Columbus in the late 15th and 16th centuries, many luxury items were traded with many Muslim, Indian and African merchants across these travels.

4) Impact – after
Within the approximately 30 short golden years that Zheng He was commissioned to be the Chinese admiral, one main trait that remained was the Chinese diaspora and spread of Chinese culture into these lands themselves. [2] Today, there are major traces of Chinese population across Malaysia and Singapore and many festivals commemorating the Admiral himself as a god, primarily in Malaysia (Malacca), many islands scattering around Indonesia and other South Eastern countries still remain to this day.

5) Nature of Zheng He’s voyages – colonial or commercial?
Contrary to common belief that Zheng He’s expeditions were positive and commercial, one major question that can be raised when discussing Zheng He’s voyages, is to ask whether they were out of colonial or commercial reasons. Dr Geoff Wade, an Australian scholar and fellow researcher at the National University of Singapore, presented his argument that Zheng He’s expeditions. [8] For example, Wade used his “majority” thesis, arguing that Zheng He’s 300 to 400 ships were largely warships and that with around 28,000 military troops, the admiral’s incentives were in fact colonial and expansionist. [8] Conversely, other historians like Tan Ta Sen disagree with Wade’s thesis; demonstrating that Zheng He in fact had a variety of ships and that this military troops were in fact for self-defence against pirates like Chen Zuyi (later arrested and executed by the imperial Ming court), across the Indonesian shores of Palembang, guarding against valuable goods and products like jewellery, silk and porcelain. [8]

Effectively, during the time of Admiral Zheng He, the Chinese civilisation was technologically advanced with their shipbuilding skills and commercial activities with other countries. Many of these inventions like the double hull technology, greatly aided the Chinese fleet en masse to efficiently travel further. One of Zheng’s biggest remaining traits is the huge Chinese diaspora that has primarily expanded in the Malaysian Peninsula across Malaysia and Singapore. Elsewhere, his status as a great navigator and trader, has made him what has been perceived as a god-like figure in Malaysian and Indonesian festivals alike.

Furthermore, with such an overwhelming fleet, scholars like Dr Geoff Wade argued that Zheng He’s expeditions were out of colonial, expansionist and influential incentives rather than simply the commonly perceived positive, commercial ones. I will leave you to decide which one it was and you can discover more in Leo’s Suryadinata’s edited book, Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia in sources 7 and 8 below. Finally, I wanted to end this article by asking a few reflective and counter-factual questions (as food for thought) so that it stays more interesting when you finish reading. If the Chinese had continued with their expeditions:

1) Would Zheng He have met European travellers (the pioneers of that area – say the Portuguese and Spanish)? How would that have changed the Chinese Emperor’s incentives?
2) And if the Chinese had more colonial interests rather than commercial/peaceful ones, how much and how different would that have changed the hegemonic theatre we have today (leaving the obvious point of a perhaps Chinese dominated world)?
3) How far would globalisation be shaped in the Chinese way, in this case?

Hopefully, you enjoyed your read here. It’s been far too long since my last article. If you haven’t already, do check out my other articles on this site and see you soon around! 🙂

[7] Gungwu, W., “The Opening Relations between China and Malacca, 1403-05”, Chapter 1, in Suryadinata, L., Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia,, date of access: 06/07/2014, pages 1 to 25
[8] Tan, S. T., “Did Zheng He Set Out to Colonise Asia?”, Chapter 3, in Suryadinata, L., Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia,, date of access: 06/07/2014, pages 42 to 57