China’s Age of Discovery: The Voyages of Zheng He

Posted by – July 9, 2007

Blogging History: China’s Islamic Christopher Columbus

Decades before Christopher Columbus was even born, 18 years before Europeans began their “Age of Discovery,” an Admiral from the Chinese Empire sailed west, explored unknown lands, visited with strange “barbarian” peoples, and projected Imperial might as far away as Africa, covering more than 50,000 kilometers in his 7 epic voyages. I saw the story of the legendary navigator Zheng He mentioned in passing on History Channel’s Engineering an Empire and I was so fascinated, I had to research him so I could highlight him on my blog.

Zheng He was born Mǎ Sānbǎo in China’s southwestern frontier Yunnan province, in 1371. He was of the Hui ethic group, which is similar to the predominant Han Chinese, except the Hui have been practicing Muslims since early on in Islam’s spread. Mǎ Sānbǎo’s father and grandfather had both been on the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca (no small task).

Sānbǎo grew up during a time of great turmoil in the Chinese Empire. The majority Han Chinese got tired of being oppressed by the Mongolian-led Yuan Dynasty (dynasties never learn) and a mass peasant revolt overthrew the regime and forced the Mongols back into the steppe. In 1368, peasant leader Tai Zhū established the Ming Dynasty, ascended to the throne as the Hongwu Emperor, and enacted highly successful reforms, such as redistributing land to the peasants, which vastly increased China’s stability and power.

The Emperor proclaimed his motto “Exiling the Mongols and Restoring China,” and when Mǎ Sānbǎo was 11 years old, the Ming Imperial army overran his home province with 250,000 troops to take down a Mongol holdout. The army captured Sānbǎo in the process and castrated him. He was brought to the Imperial court as a gift to the Emperor, where being a eunuch was required to work in the royal household (to ensure that the Emperor’s aides couldn’t spawn a competing dynasty, and perhaps thinking eunuchs wouldn’t touch his hottest courtesan women).

Mǎ Sānbǎo became a court servant, and after a dynastic struggle and civil war in the wake of Hongwu’s death worked itself out and the Yong-le Emperor took the throne, Sānbǎo became the new emperor’s closest adviser. In honor of his service in the civil war, Yong-le called him Zheng He, and this was his new Imperial name (alternately translated into English as Cheng Ho).

Yong-le directed a stunning expansion of China on a scale not seen again until the 20th century. He imposed a sort of Pax Sinica on the whole region (similar to Pax Mongolica). Yong-le’s reign was one of secure dominance over all of China and no real threats to the Empire. Relative tranquility prevailed (though not if you were living in one of the several neighboring states that Yong-le violently subjugated). In addition, Yong-le forced virtually every kingdom in East Asia, even as far away as Thailand and the Philippines, to become tributaries (i.e. extorted tribute from them).

Ming Empire under Yong-le

The Yong-le Emperor marked a peak in Chinese confidence. He sought to
advertise China’s cultural superiority to the rest of the known world and to this end, he distributed 10,000 copies of the Biographies of Exemplary Women to various non-Chinese countries for their moral instruction, and he oversaw the compilation of the vast Yong-le Encyclopedia, documenting the Yong-le era and incorporating eight thousand texts from ancient times.

Yong-le Emperor

Yong-le also dominated maritime trade. This is where Zheng He comes in.

Zheng He captained seven naval expeditions to project Imperial power, protect and extend Chinese trade, and possibly vassalize far-away peoples. He assembled a huge naval fleet–317 ships holding almost 28,000 armed troops for his first voyage. By comparison, the U.S. Navy in 2007 has only 277 ships on active duty. .
Imagine if you were an early 14th century Indian or Arab, and saw 317 ships bearing down on your harbor!
This was meant to impress (and intimidate) foreign peoples into paying China tribute.

Zheng He led his fleet with 62 mammoth, nine-masted “treasure ships.” They are described as so massive (400 ft long and 170 ft wide) many experts dismiss them as impossibly large, because early modern ships of comparable size were unwieldy and usually sank. However, history is full of unexplained technology. We have no idea how the Romans accurately engineered something as large and complex as the Colosseum without Computer Aided Drafting, and we don’t know how the Byzantine flamethrower ships that saved Constantinople worked (they are neigh-impossible to duplicate even with modern welding methods). So I wouldn’t dismiss Zheng He’s treasure ships as impossible.

If the reports are to be believed, Zheng He’s ships would dwarf Columbus’ 55 ft ships.

Treasure ships likely weren’t this huge (aircraft carrier-big) but it is safe to assume they were the largest ships ever seen up to that point. Their enormity is described in Marco Polo’s writings, and Moroccan explorer ibn Battuta visited China and saw the giant fleet being constructed. He wrote that a nine-masted ship “…has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; each cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants.”

China hired a
Swedish shipwright to build a replica of a Zheng He treasure ship to serve as a symbol for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (story). At almost 250 ft long, it will be the largest wooden ship ever recorded, and they hope to retrace Zheng He’s voyages with it.

But where did Zheng He (pronounced “Zung Ha”) go with his legendary fleet? And what did he do when he got there? Well, on his seven voyages he went up and down Indonesia, visited India, Persia, Arabia and Africa. The purpose was to make “first contact” with strange new peoples (like the Starship Enterprise) but also awe them with China’s power, give gifts of their finest silk and porcelain (showing superiority) and in exchange, extract tribute. Zheng He brought back gifts of African zebras and giraffes for the Imperial zoo.

In this art from 1414, a giraffe from Zheng He is shown being led to the Imperial zoo.

In at least one instance, Zheng He’s missions included military confrontation. On several occasions, he ruthlessly took down pirate networks that had been plaguing Chinese shipping. Each of the seven voyages included stops in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), an important gateway for Chinese trade routes. Evidently, the ruler of Ceylon, King Alagonakkara, had been threatening his neighbors, and pirating Chinese traders. Zheng He came to deliver a message from the Yong-le Emperor: “stop it. respect my authoritaah.” King Alagonakkara refused, and sent troops to attack and loot the Chinese fleet. Zheng He ordered his soldiers to attack the city to draw the enemies away from the ships. He ended up capturing King Alagonakkara and brought him back to Nanjing to apologize to the Emperor.

Some speculate that tales of Zheng, a Muslim explorer from the East who made seven voyages, and his name Sānbǎo, inspired the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, but there’s nothing concrete to back this up.

Zheng He made it all the way down to Kenya (they found ancient Chinese artifacts there) and there is some evidence he went beyond the tip of Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean. Zheng himself wrote of his travels:

We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…

— (Tablet erected by Zheng He, Changle, Fujian, 1432)

Zheng He left a monument on Sri Lanka too, honoring Islam as well as the local deities (Vishnu and Buddha). He also erected a monument in India. One quack author thinks Zheng’s crew left structures in the Americas.

Did Zheng He “discover” America?

No, it’s crap. There’s no evidence to support that, but former British submarine captain Gavin Menzies (who has no historical training) has made a killing with his discredited 1421 hypothesis, and is selling books, maps and TV specials convincing people that Zheng He found the Americas before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe before Magellan. Menzies bases his theory on wild speculation, and an 18th century Chinese world map showing America that he (falsely) claims was made in the 1400s. He also alleges that old structures such as the Newport Tower were built by Zheng He (rubbish) and that Native Americans are actually children of Zheng’s crew (laughable). This is the perfect example of historical hucksterism.

Still, it revived interest in Zheng He, so I guess that’s good.
If you get the History International Channel, check out Zheng He: The True Discoverer of America? which airs tonight (Monday) at 8pm ET / 7pm CT.

Part of the reason so much speculation surrounds Zheng He’s later voyages is the records of them were destroyed. After the Yong-le Emperor died in 1424, Zheng He lost his influence. Conservative Confucians assumed control of the Imperial court, and seeking “inner perfection” first, implemented very isolationist policies. Also, the new emperor needed to devote considerable resources to beating back Mongol hordes in the north and expanding the Great Wall of China to keep them out, and Zheng He’s lavish missions, which were mostly for prestige (and unlike European explorations were not self-funding with loot) were no longer financially viable. The new emperor burned Zheng He’s glorious ships, destroyed a lot of his documents, and banned maritime trade. Though the subsequent emperor lifted the ban and let Zheng He voyage again, a lot was lost.

Can you imagine how history may have been different if China had continued as a maritime superpower?

Zheng He statue

If China had continued on the path of Zheng He, much more of the world may be culturally like Indonesia now. Zheng He made a significant impact on Indonesia. His voyages there are well documented, and he left Ming-style architecture behind, as well as lots of Chinese people. He relocated a lot of Chinese Muslims to Indonesia and Malay. Indonesia is the most populous majority-Muslim state on Earth today, in no small part due to Zheng He and his crew promulgating the Islamic faith there. He was buried at sea when he died during a voyage in India in 1433, but has an Islamic tomb in Nanjing. “Allahu Akbar” is inscribed in Arabic above the door.

The People’s Republic of China recently is using Zheng He as a role model to integrate its tens of millions of Muslims into Chinese culture.

They are also using him as a symbol of a peaceful rise as a superpower.

Expect to hear a lot more about Zheng He, and Pax Sinica, very soon, especially surrounding the Olympics.


  • Eliyahu


  • Leo (Not Laporte)

    Great post Nick. This was very interesting. Thanks for the great history lesson.

  • George

    Has the author of this page read '1421' ? I found the contentions to be very well researched and with impressive evidence and logic. How is something 'laughable' until you've looked over the evidence ?
    What evidence? Read the book before making such claims and no, I have no personal or financial ties to the author nor any invested interests in his theory whatsoever.

  • Guest

    You are a retarted…..

  • Guest

    when is saw your face book picture is more retarted

  • why?

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  • highcourt

    thanks like you..I became interested in Zheng He after seeing the Building the Empire series. Menzies made a great point of He making it to pre-Renaissance Venice..but another article on this in New York times made more sense.. why would He be interested.. Venice then didn’t have what China will need nor want..unlike his other ports of Call.. so even if he could –Zheng He wouldn’t bother going to Europe.
    As for theAmericas?? still a big ????

  • thanks so much for your comment. The first real comment in a long time.

    all of Zheng He’s expeditions were documented extensively, in every detail, in journals, diaries, logs, etc kept by the crew; given the national profile and prestige involved, not to mention the astronomical costs, not writing everything down would be unthinkable. Going to Venice would be unprecedented for the Chinese, extraordinary news; would you climb Mt. Everest and fail to write and brag about it? The idea that the Ming Empire would mount the greatest expedition EVAR, the equivalent scale of the Apollo program for the 15th century Chinese, reaching the New World would be like reaching the moon, maybe be even more expensive given the epic fleet of mega ships, and no one mentioned it or wrote about it?? ridiculous


  • highcourt

    I think as we a re in the 21 century we keep forgetting what it was like in the early 15th century in Europe.. which as just coming out of the Dark Ages .. Venice then wasn’t what it soon became after Columbus ‘discovering’ the Americas.. this continent called the Americas was just a bunch of land with some tribes living in it.. so it wouldn’t be a big deal for Zheng He.. as China is a huge,vast in natural they showed in their history.. they weren’t really fond invading,conquering new fronteirs unless it was to use as their buffer states against invasion by their borders.But they were fond invading each others kingdoms!
    yeah.. the more I read up on Zheng He which is for sometime..he concentrated his efforts going to lands that was well known to the Chinese and wh China mainly traded with- so most of these countries had an already established culture & civilization.. hence ancient too like china.. why he traveled to Middle East & Africa.. places China had interests in trade.Western Europe then was still in it’s infancy.. although ancient rome did trade with china..(via silk road but via North Africa)
    it’s interesting t o note: Columbus was after china ,same with Magellan.. why? Europeans always believed it was bec of Marco Polo & his writings..I’m reading 1421 right now..Menzies does have some interesting points.. but..
    I have no doubt.. Zheng He w as a legend & was talked of..

  • the reason Columbus and others wanted a direct route to Chinese trade, is profit, and anti-Muslim hate.

    they hated that whenever they traded over the Silk Road, the Turks and other Islamic civilizations took multiple cuts, driving up the expense in ways they felt unfair and akin to unChristian usury. And they (European Christendom) really hated the Turks (Ottoman Empire) who were not only political and imperial rivals increasingly expanding their territory into the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but were seen as the spiritual, cosmic enemy as well. The Popes of the 14th and 15th centuries especially focused on new ways to be resource independent from Ottoman trade, not rely on Turkish sources and Turkish-middleman-trading for necessities. A great example of this is the Pope trying to find home-turf sources of alum to get “victory over the Turk,” as explained in this video

    Venice was the center of Ottoman trade and the center of this story

  • highcourt

    thanks for that..
    Menzies has a huge chapter in his book whereby he insist Zheng He got to Venice–& it was Chinese maps that helped Columbus get to the Americas. Menzies also pointed out how Chinese astronomers as early as 1000BC knew the worled was round.. & circled the sun.. that when Zheng He had his maps made.. he already knew of the fixed stars like Polaris..
    now.. I find this is the part where Menzies stumbles in his theories.. granded it’s known the Chinese were into astronomy.. that’s how they built the Forbidden City.. & Zheng He left a copy of his maps to the doges in Venice.. then right there .. the Venetians will ‘know’ be aware of the Chinese theory the world is round.. *& circles the sun.. not f lat.. hence.. Galileo wouldn’t have been persecuted with their Inquisition & be called a heretic..

  • the Europeans knew about the Earth being spherical way before
    the 1st century… a spherical Earth was developed in Greek astronomy, beginning with Pythagoras (6th century BC). Aristotle accepted the spherical shape of the Earth on empirical grounds around 330 BC, and knowledge of the spherical Earth gradually began to spread to the rest of Europe from the Greeks. see
    Though I don’t doubt that the Chinese understood the spherical Earth as quickly as 1000 BC or earlier, they’re a highly educated, highly literate society and great astronomers. Europeans were still in loin cloths, in tribal societies like the Gauls, Saxons, while the Chinese were making star maps.

    Is Menzies really repeating the misconception that educated Europeans prior to Zheng He and Columbus believed in a flat Earth???

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  • highcourt

    No.. it was me whose ‘saying’.. if Zheng He truly reached Venice as Menzies is insisting in his book.. as he has a huge chapter how Zheng He left his Chinese maps.. with the Americas already on it.. & this is what helped Columbus & Magellan to navigate to the Americas later on..
    SAme token.. if the Venitians had these Zheng He maps.. then there wouldn’t have been an Inquisition on Gallileo..
    True..the Chinese ‘discovered’ a lot of things unbeknown to outsiders because they were so insular.. mainly this insularity had to do with their geographical position & in ancient times so hard to reach.. why they were saved f rom many invasions.. they were knackered & dying by the time they reached India..

  • highcourt

    PS on this:interesting about this anti-Muslim sentiment bc of their ‘cuts’.. when the Silk Road was established way before Bc time & the romans were already trading with china..
    I was watching a documentary film on the descent of the Middle East & North Africa.. by the 1600’s.. as major influential powers bec of Columbus & the Europeans finding direct routes to Asia & discovering the Americas.

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  • Mark Western

    Hi can I use your picture of Zhengs ship dwarfing the Columbus ship for my book?

  • I don’t own the picture, found it randomly, so I don’t know

  • memeisthabomb

    Hey! Enjoyed reading this. In your own words, how would you say Zheng He affect the work and knowledge of the world? Thank you! 😊