Zheng He and the Chinese Treasure Fleets: Maritime China 1

July 2023

A Ming Dynasty court eunuch, a diplomat, an explorer, a mariner, a Muslim…Zheng He lived from the 1370s to around 1433 and achieved what many have since considered to be impossible.

Between 1405 and 1433 Zeng He commanded seven expeditionary voyages. He explored the East China Sea, South China Sea, up through the Straits of Malacca to the Bay of Bengal, around India and Sri Lanka to the Arabian sea, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and on to the east coast of Africa. He did this with enormous ships in enormous fleets. If you believe the sources some of this ships were almost twice as long as any wooden ship ever recorded. On the first voyage it is believed that there were no fewer than 265 ships in total, 62 of them being of the largest type, the ‘Treasure Ships’. Historians believe these largest vessels had five or six masts and were up to 300 feet long – but that is the most conservative of estimates. There is very little physical evidence to prove any of this with the exception of one 36 foot-long rudder, a monstrous piece of timber that does suggest a ship of at least 300 feet in length.

Zheng He’s seven voyages provide a fascinating foundation for historical debate and narrative. Here is an empire using seapower to reach out beyond its borders in a golden time of exploration which does not last. The scale of the fleets, the distance of the voyages, and the activities of the Chinese are all very much unsettled in the minds of modern historians. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Professor Tim Brook, a historian of China at the University of British Columbia.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. Now, this is a series I’ve been sitting on for some time, and I’m delighted to launch it today; I’ve spent a great deal of my own time and professional career in China, working with some of the most wonderful people uncovering some of the most wonderful maritime stories. So it’s time for a few episodes on the maritime history of China. Today, we begin everything with Zheng He;  if you’re English you might read his name as Zhen He, Zen Ghe, but in Chinese, it’s pronounced Zheng He. And what a fascinating man he was. A Ming Dynasty court eunuch, a diplomat, an explorer, a mariner, a Muslim.  Zheng He lived from the 1370s to around 1433. And he did something really quite remarkable. Between 1405 and 1433 he commanded seven expeditionary voyages, which came to be known as Treasure voyages. And he explored the East China Sea, the South China Sea, went up through the Straits of Malacca to the Bay of Bengal, around India and Sri Lanka to the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and on to the East coast of Africa. And he did this with enormous ships in enormous fleets. A lot of this is still conjecture, but if you believe the sources, some of the ships were almost twice as long as any wooden ship ever recorded. On the first voyage it’s believed that there were no fewer than 265 ships in total, 62 of them being of the largest type, the Treasure ships. Now, historians believe these largest vessels had five or six masts, and were up to 300 feet long. But that is the most conservative of estimates. There’s very little physical evidence to prove any of this with the exception of one rudder, which is 36 feet long, a monstrous piece of timber, that does suggest a ship of at least 300 feet in length. Zheng He’s seven voyages provide a fascinating foundation for historical debate and narrative. Here is an Empire using sea power to reach out beyond its borders, a golden time of exploration, which does not last.  The scale of the fleets, the distance of the voyages and the activities of the Chinese when they’re abroad are all very much unsettled in the minds of modern historians. To find out more, I spoke with the absolute best in the business, someone who is very careful about what to believe in the magnificent Zheng He story. Professor Tim Brook is a historian of China at the University of British Columbia. He’s everything you want from a history professor, deeply knowledgeable, very entertaining, and of course, very suspicious. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoy talking with him. Here’s Tim.  Tim, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

     

    Tim Brook 

    It’s a great pleasure, Sam, thank you for the invitation.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Big question I think with China and their wonderful explorations in the 15th century is the kind of mystery of when they started thinking about taking to the sea.  Do we have a sense of when that happened?

     

    Tim Brook 

    I have a very clear sense of that as a historian of this period; Chinese have been getting into ships and sailing down the coastline of Southeast Asia for centuries before the  big voyages. They were doing it largely for commercial purposes. So they would be smaller ships, they would perhaps have a couple of dozen crew on them, just  small coastal trading. But when it changes is when the Mongols conquered China and during the period known as the Yuan Dynasty. And this has to do with the  diplomatics  of the East Asian world. When Khublai Khan conquers China he brings to China the vision of Imperial power that was forged by his ancestor, Genghis Khan. And when Khublai becomes the Great Khan of all the Mongols he needs to send out missions to the rest of the world, to inform them that he is the greatest ruler in the world. He now rules and they should acknowledge him as  the ruler that Heaven has appointed to rule the world, and so it’s under Kublai Khan  that China first starts these large missions into the Indian Ocean. We don’t hear about these, they have been completely forgotten because of the the fascination that people started to have 30 years ago with the Zhen He voyages into the Indian Ocean, but they were already happening. And he was sending envoys to Ceylon to try and secure the famous Buddha statue there. He was trying to secure jewels, because the ruler who holds jewels, jewels are like  the crystallisation of Heaven’s power. And the more great jewels you have, the more you are able to attest to the fact that you are Heaven’s choice as the ruler of the world. And in fact this is often forgotten, but Marco Polo gets back home to the Mediterranean on one of these voyages. And that particular voyage was to send a Princess from China to Persia, who was supposed to marry the Il Khan.  But the voyage takes over two years to travel the route around Southeast Asia and across India, because it’s involved in all of these diplomatic negotiations mostly with coastal powers, to make sure that they acknowledge that the ruler of the Yuan Great State, which happens to be China at this period, is the Heaven’s appointed ruler of the world. So you’ve got China’s experience on the ocean at two levels. One, there’s this sort of commercial level of smaller vessels that are trading around Southeast Asia into the Indian Ocean, and then you have the State stepping in and sending these larger diplomatic embassies, using of course the same technology that the commercial sailors have developed using the same routes. They are  simply the diplomatic voyages or just simply tracing the routes that the commercial voyages had been working out for several centuries.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s interesting that the Mongols, sorry to interrupt there, the Mongols are the ones that take to the sea, because the Mongols are horsemen, they have no knowledge, they have no experience of it, so I suppose it takes them a while.

     

    Tim Brook 

    Yes, and Genghis Khan had no particular notion of ever going to sea but once Kublai Khan gets to the coast, he realises, well, the world continues. And I as Heaven’s choice of ruler of the world need to make sure that the world is subject  to my hegemony, so famously he  sends several fleets to Japan. And they are destroyed every time by a combination of bad luck with the weather and the Japanese resistance. So eventually Khublai has to sort of

     

    Sam Willis 

    They have just found an anchor from one of those fleets have they not?

     

    Tim Brook 

    Yes, they have There’s been some great archaeology between the Korean Peninsula and Japan to recover some of the ships, and one of the interesting findings is that the Mongols threw together these fleets so quickly that they were sailing in hulks that were ready to sink anyway, and it was a mess. They did not know how to organise a major ocean going expedition. So after a couple of decades Khublai  just sort of looks the other way and says, well, we don’t need to go to Japan, but he starts sending voyages down into Southeast Asia, to Java, he sends voyages into the Indian Ocean, not on the scale of the Zheng voyages of the 15th century, but he’s sending these ships as diplomatic vessels.

     

    Sam Willis 

    You don’t want to turn up on a diplomatic mission in a sinking ship do you?

     

    Tim Brook 

    No, and in fact the history of Chinese ship building is not as well developed as it could be and the more wrecks we can find the better we can understand that, but by the 15th century they are building sizable solid vessels that can travel all the way to the Indian Ocean.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, big ocean going junks and I suppose it’s important to point out that history of Chinese seafaring tradition; they have a wonderful variety of of ships which are designed for different types of coastal voyages in  and around the estuaries. There’s a difference with the north and the south, but the development of this sort of multi masted ocean going hulk is a kind of game changer, isn’t it?

     

    Tim Brook 

    Yes it is. I’m not the person to answer questions about boat technology, I simply admire it from a distance. What they can’t do, what they don’t develop that early on, are ships that are manoeuvrable and quick. So they have these large vessels that they can put on the water, but they’re not very manoeuvrable and they’re not particularly good in a case of a naval engagement.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So we’ve established that there’s a kind of a prehistory to these diplomatic voyages during the Yuan Dynasty, then it all changes with Zheng He. How does it change? When does it change?

     

    Tim Brook 

    Well, I’m not sure how much we can say it changes with Zheng He. It changes after Zheng He was finished, We should remember that Zheng He  was not a seaman, he’s  often called an Admiral. The reason Zheng He was put in charge of these voyages is that he is a slave of the Emperor’s household. And the Emperor does not want to put these voyages in the hands of the Chinese bureaucracy. He wants this to be under the control of the Imperial Household, so he chooses one of his castrated slaves.  Zheng He is the man he chooses, and he chooses Zheng He because he’s developed a relationship of trust with him. Also, Zheng He has proved himself to be a superb organiser. He’s largely responsible for building the Forbidden City in Beijing at the beginning of 15th century, and he does such a good job, he’s the guy I’m sending to run these missions. As far as we know Zheng He doesn’t know anything about maritime issues, he’s never been on a boat in his life until he steps aboard the first voyage that goes to the Indian Ocean. So he’s not a seafarer, he’s an organisation man who is going to run a large organisation, because these fleets into the Indian Ocean, they’re up to four dozen major vessels, and then that number, if not more, of smaller sort of accompanying pinnaces and so forth that accompanied the ship. Up to 30,000 men on these expeditions, they were enormous. They were enormous operations, and Zheng He was the guy who could run an operation on this scale, and he was also very imposing. He was over six feet tall and heavy set, and Emperor Yung-lo  wanted a representative to go to rulers around Southeast Asia in the Indian Ocean,who was going to be an impressive sight. And Zheng He will fill  that requirement very nicely.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s interesting that he was such a good administrator because it’s made me think of several maritime operations which were given to seamen who had no administrative experience, and they were all useless and they failed. I’m thinking of the Spanish Armada primarily. But there there are other examples.

     

    Tim Brook 

    And the early history of the East India Company vessels; often that company appointed a seafarer to do the mechanics of the sailing, but then they appointed a merchant who understood commerce and logistics, and one would be superior to the other. But the two would have to work together to make to make these voyages work. We know so little about the personnel on the Zheng He voyages. We have a few memoirs that  some people on those voyages wrote, but we really can’t piece them together in the detail that we can the early European voyages, which is unfortunate, it would be interesting to know more. What’s attracted my attention as a historian though is what this did to the geopolitical situation in East Asia. And it did change things because before Zheng He arrived a few other envoys were sent out before he  ever went, but they’d be sent out on two or three ships, so it’d be a smaller venture, just getting in touch with coastal polities around on the east side of the Indian Ocean to say Emperor Yung-lo was now the Emperor, he should be acknowledged.,

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s an interesting point, because if 30,000 people turn up off your shoreline that can be pretty frightening, but I suppose they needed to have at least some kind of heads up that this guy was coming.

     

    Tim Brook 

    Yes. And it was pretty frightening because that was the intention. Because although Emperor Yung-lo was Chinese, and he was ruling a Chinese dynasty, the way he understood rulership was very much in the Mongol style, in the style of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, and he wanted to be recognised that way. So these voyages were intended to intimidate to the point that there wasn’t going to be any resistance to whatever it was that was suggested. Now, they didn’t go in and say, you have to do this or that.  The local rulers were pretty savvy because by this point there were already Muslim Rajahs who had situated themselves in many of the ports of the Indian Ocean. And  locally it was understood that if there is a major embassy from China arriving in 48 ships, you’re going to go along with them, you’re not going to try and resist them. And the famous case of resistance is when the King of Ceylon decides no, I am not going to submit myself to the Emperor of China. And this leads to a long struggle, a violent struggle, the King and his family are taken hostage, they’re taken back to China. He’s officially deposed by Emperor Yung-lo who then puts one of his junior kinsman into power. But then that guy gets switched once he gets to Ceylon, I mean it’s a complicated geopoliticalstory. And  if I can put it this way, what’s bothered me about the stories of Zheng He is that they’re all about glorifying maritime expeditions. Well, maritime expeditions are fine. But you have to think about, well, what are they for, they are not necessarily to increase the wealth and understanding between the party sending the expedition and the party receiving the expedition.  They can be violent, they can be intimidatory, and they can intervene in local politics in ways that are really not conducive to the stability of the regions into which they sail.  Zheng He dies on the seventh voyage, and  by this point we’re into the 1440s. And then the court just shuts this down because it’s so expensive. These voyages are not  voyages of trade; they do engage in trade along the way but  they’re diplomatic voyages. So there’s a lot of gift giving, they give gifts to the local rulers, the local rulers give gifts to them, they sometimes convert that into supplies for the ships and so forth. But they are not designed to make money or even really to be self supporting. And the cost of running these vast expeditions is simply enormous. Arguably building those seven fleets that go into the Indian Ocean is the factor that strips South China of all of its trees. Famously, it was treed at the end of the 14th century, and by the middle of the 15th century, the trees have just been stripped because they need the wood to build the ships. And if you take the perspective of an Indian Ocean, a Port State in the Indian Ocean, this is  a high level of intimidation, and you have to work with it, you have no choice. But this idea of glorifying what China is doing is really cheering for Empires over smaller states. And it’s not something I like to do.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s a  fascinating way of looking at it.  Talking about the the sheer expense of it, and also the number of people, that 30,000 you mentioned, that obviously must say a great deal about the stability, the internal stability of China when this is going on. So is it fair to see China as a very stable state while these explorations are happening?

     

    Tim Brook 

    Well, it’s interesting that you put the question that way, It’s a good question. But in fact, when Emperor Yung-lo  came to the throne, there was profound instability because he seizes the throne, he murders his nephew,  because he wants to seize power, he’s the son of the dynastic founder of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. When he dies, he appoints his grandson to succeed him. And then one of the uncles, Yung-lo, gets in there and said no way, raises an army, marches down to the Palace, burns the Palace to the ground, and their nephew is never seen again, and he becomes the new Emperor. And he reigns with  an iron fist. So any officials who express loyalty to the Emperor that he had assassinated are immediately executed. So politically it’s an extremely unstable time, and part of the logic of sending these fleets out to the world is to get the world to confirm that Yung-lo is in fact Heaven’s choice, as the Emperor of China. If you can’t convince your own people that you deserve to be the ruler,well then if you get a line of ambassadors from all over the world saying we come here to honour Emperor Yung-lo it helps him with his attempt to create a legitimacy  for him; it’s an extremely unstable period. Now in other ways it’s a fairly  good period for China. The first half of the 15th century in climate terms is  one of the gentlest periods of the Ming Dynasty. Temperatures are normal, rainfall is higher than usual, so the crops are abundant. The economy is easonably healthy through the years of Emperor Yung-lo’s reign, which allows him to do this. And then he has a superb Imperial Household organisation that makes happen what he wants to happen. So he’s got a firm grip on the country, a firm grip on the administration. And if he wants to send a fleet of 48 ships to the Indian Ocean there is no one to say any different and politically it’s successful, although once Emperor Yung-lo  has died the enthusiasm for this sort of thing just drains away because it’s too expensive, it’s too much, it’s the use of too much resources. And there is this sort of sense of political destabilisation under the surface that I think alarms the Confucian bureaucrats,  And  frankly, if China in the middle of the 15th century needs to worry about anything it’s not the Indian Ocean, it’s the Mongols. The Mongols are a consistent threat to China through this period, and if China’s going to focus its resources and its military capacity it has to be up to the North and the West where the Mongol threat lurks, not out into the maritime zone.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The number of different expeditions I find fascinating as well. In fact there were so many of them, and they’re going to the same places.

     

    Tim Brook 

    Yes, they are, to some extent they are, and in a sense it’s a courier service, because if you go to the port of

     

    Sam Willis 

    Malacca,

     

    Tim Brook 

    If you go to Malacca and you invite the the King of Malacca to come to the capital in China, you have to take him home. So they go in a fairly regular rhythm of every three or four years in order to take heads of state and their ambassadors back and then pick up a new round of heads of state and ambassadors who will come to to China and and acknowledge Emperor Yung-lo.  So he’s setting up this sort of taxi service almost for political envoys to go back and forth between China and the Indian Ocean world.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s interesting, they’re not diplomats, they’re actually the heads of State.

     

    Tim Brook 

    In some cases,the heads of state, in most cases, they’re ambassadors. But sometimes if you’re a head of state,  Malacca is a good example of how the decision gets made about whether a head of state goes to China or not. The King of Malacca had recently established himself there; he was from another royal family in another state. And he’d been defeated and kicked out, ended up in Malacca, established a new state there. He needed the backing of China to convince his competitors that he was a major contender, and they shouldn’t mess with him. So in fact, he goes to China, meets the Emperor, is blessed by the Emperor, is sent back. And then he uses his connection to China in order to withstand threats that are coming at him from other areas. The problem though is that if you’re a King of a smaller state and you leave, you could be away for two or three years, and during that period of time you could be deposed. So it’s not wise to to go and see the Emperor of China, unless you really need his political backing. So what’s happening here is that there’s this complex political background going on to these voyages, this is not sort of China’s version of Christopher Columbus or anything like that, it’s a completely different situation. And one of the reasons that I think that everyone got so excited about the Yung-lo voyages 30 years ago was that Columbus was largely seen as the the Europe’s ticket to Imperial greatness, and it was giving China the same sort of thing. Whereas  the fact that they were in ships, that’s what they had in common. But the challenges European navigators faced on sailing out up and down the the Atlantic Ocean, going the distances and covering the latitudes they covered, that required technological breakthroughs and navigational breakthroughs that  China never made, and by making them that made Europe a more powerful sea power than China was.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s fascinating. When working to try and unpick all of this are there decent non Chinese sources which explain what’s going on, or are we all having to unpick it from the Chinese perspective?

     

    Tim Brook 

    We pretty much have to use the Chinese sources.  In the book that I published a couple of years ago, Great State, I have a chapter devoted to Zheng He’s voyage to Sri Lanka, and there I was able to find local popular stories that recounted Zheng He’s time on Sri Lanka in a way that looks completely different from what it says in the official court diary. Because when Zheng He got home he had to report to the Emperor exactly what he had done. But it turns out that what Zheng He reported and what ended up in the Chinese sources was not necessarily what actually happened on the ground. We don’t have a lot of those sources, so Asia is not a great source of written sources prior to about the 16th century. We have some folk tales mostly, it’s when  the Portuguese come into the Indian Ocean, and it’s  not until the 16th century that we begin to get better European documentation about what went on, and Europeans hear about the Zheng He  voyages. But by and large, we’re restricted by the the Chinese sources, which are useful and informative. But you have to read them against the grain because they’re very much tied up with the political legitimacy of Emperor Yung-lo.  So it makes it difficult to really get to the bottom of what the reality, what the experience of those voyages was like.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Does archaeology help?.

     

    Tim Brook 

    Archaeology can help.  I should  be able to give you a better answer to this.

     

    Sam Willis 

    But they’ve  found a rudder from a treasure ship, haven’t they?

     

    Tim Brook 

    They found a few bits and pieces, but they haven’t found one of the ships, as largely these ships didn’t go down. And so when a ship got back it would be partly dismantled, rebuilt for the next voyage. So we don’t have all the archaeological finds that we have, as for example, any of the Spanish galleons that are going across the Pacific. We’ve got a couple of those, and they helped tremendously in understanding what the  the ship was like, what the ship carried, and all that sort of thing. And we don’t have that for the Zheng-He voyages.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What do you think about the way China today looks back on this period in the past and perhaps uses it.  I’m thinking about the way they are focusing so much on the Belt and Road initiative and everything, and in using their history? What does that tell us?

     

    Tim Brook 

    Well, it tells us that the current government in China needs a narrative to tell the Chinese but also to tell the world about China’s place in the world. And they want to get away from the old image of China, sort of enclosed behind the Great Wall, a Continental world that is not a maritime world. They want to change that story, and the Zheng He expeditions are there. They’re full of great stories and great characters. And that becomes a narrative that the government can use to say, well, we’ve had relations with Sri Lanka since before the 15th century.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And Cambodia as well, that matters,

     

    Tim Brook 

    Yes, and that too, so China is now back out in the world where it had once been.  I think there’s a rather high measure of cynicism in all of this, because as I’ve suggested earlier in my remarks, their arrival in Sri Lanka in the 15th century was not welcomed, it was resisted, it was violent. And that’s all, of course, just swept under the rug. And we instead have this happy story about how the Chinese and the Sri Lankans have had cordial relations for five centuries, which really isn’t the case at all. But  these are political stories that are worked up to try and make China appear to be doing what it should be doing. That is it’s not China trying to be a Western Power, it’s China re- imagining itself as what it had previous previously been. So it’s largely political tale telling rather than anything. There’s nothing of substance there really, it’s all been imanufactured in the last 15 to 20 years, as a way to try and make China visible to the world and comprehensible to the world, and in a sense a natural part of the maritime world that we inhabit.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, fascinating. Tim, thank you very much indeed for joining us today.

     

    Tim Brook 

    Well, Sam, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your interest in China’s history in this regard.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now, there’s so much more coming your way. And next up is an episode on what the shipwrecks of Southeast Asia can tell us about this fascinating period of Chinese international trade and expansion in the Middle Ages. In the meantime, please do check out our YouTube channel, which is great fun and full of videos that will change the way that you think about the maritime past I promise you, and do please leave us a rating and review however you are listening to our podcast, but especially if you’re listening on iTunes, or listening on an iPhone. This podcast comes from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research, so please do check out what both of those wonderful institutions are up to, in particular, please google Maritime Innovation In Miniature. It’s the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s latest project filming the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment.  I’ve just returned from the International Maritime Organization’s headquarters in London, filming their ship models and the results are going to be absolutely spectacular. But you can see everything that’s already been published, the Society for Nautical Research  you can find@snr.org.uk, and please sign up and join. It’s a brilliant way of supporting maritime history, it’s a brilliant way of meeting, and it’s just brilliant, full stop.

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