|Ming treasure voyages|
Several of Zheng He's ships as depicted on a woodblock print, early 17th century
|Literal meaning||[Voyages of] Zheng He down the Western Ocean|
The Ming treasure voyages were the seven maritime expeditions undertaken by Ming China's treasure fleet between 1405 and 1433. The Yongle Emperor started building the treasure fleet in 1403. The grand project resulted in seven far-reaching ocean voyages to the coastal territories and islands in and around the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond. Admiral Zheng He was commissioned to command the treasure fleet for the expeditions. Six of the voyages occurred during the Yongle reign (r. 1402-24), while the seventh voyage occurred under the Xuande reign (r. 1425-1435). The first three voyages reached up to Calicut on India's Malabar Coast, while the fourth voyage went as far as Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Afterwards, the fleet made voyages to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
The Chinese expeditionary fleet was heavily militarized and carried great amounts of treasures, which served to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. They brought back many foreign ambassadors whose kings and rulers were willing to declare themselves tributaries of China. During the course of the voyages, they destroyed Chen Zuyi's pirate fleet at Palembang, captured the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom of King Alekeshvara, and defeated the forces of the Semudera pretender Sekandar in northern Sumatra. The Chinese maritime exploits brought many foreign countries into the nation's tributary system and sphere of influence through both military and political supremacy, thus incorporating the states into the greater Chinese world order under Ming suzerainty. Moreover, the Chinese restructured and established control over an expansive maritime network in which the region became integrated and its countries became interconnected on an economic and political level.
The Ming treasure voyages were commanded and overseen by the eunuch establishment whose political influence was heavily dependent on imperial favor. Within Ming China's imperial state system, the civil officials were the primary political opponents of the eunuchs and the opposing faction against the expeditions. Around the end of the maritime voyages, the civil government gained the upper hand within the state bureaucracy, while the eunuchs gradually fell out of favor after the death of the Yongle Emperor and lost the authority to conduct these large-scale endeavors. The collapse of the expeditions was further brought about by the elite-driven economic interests against the central state control of commerce, as the maritime enterprise had been key to counterbalancing much of the localized private trade, which drew the enmity of authorities that benefited from that trade.
Over the course of the maritime voyages in the early 15th century, Ming China became the pre-eminent naval power by projecting its sea power further to the south and west. There is still much debate about issues such as the actual purpose of the voyages, the size of the ships, the magnitude of the fleet, the routes taken, the nautical charts employed, the countries visited, and the cargo carried.
The Yongle Emperor inherited a powerful navy from his predecessor, the Hongwu Emperor. He further strengthened and expanded the Ming navy as an instrument for an expansive overseas policy. The Taizong Shilu contains 24 short entries for the imperial orders for shipbuilding, with figures pointing to at least 2868 ships, from 1403 to 1419. Over the course of 1403, Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, and Huguang's provincial governments as well as Nanjing, Suzhou, and other cities' military garrisons were ordered to begin constructing ships.
Under the reign of the Yongle Emperor, Ming China underwent militaristic expansionism with ventures such as the treasure voyages. In 1403, the Yongle Emperor issued an imperial order to start the immense construction project of the treasure fleet.Zheng He was ordered to initiate the construction of the fleet. The treasure fleet was known by its original designation Xiafan Guanjun (?; lit. "foreign expeditionary armada") in Chinese sources. It came to comprise many trading ships, warships, and support vessels. The Longjiang shipyard was the construction site for many of the fleet's ships, including all of the treasure ships. It was located on the Qinhuai River near Nanjing, where the Qinhuai flows into the Yangtze River. Many trees were cut along the Min River and upper reaches of the Yangtze to supply the necessary resources for fleet's construction. The Yongle Emperor placed great trust in Zheng He and appointed him to command the treasure fleet. The emperor even gave him blank scrolls with the imperial seal to issue imperial orders at sea.
In the third lunar month (30 March to 28 April) of 1405, a preliminary order was issued to Admiral Zheng He and others to command 27,000 troops to the Western Ocean. An imperial edict, dated 11 July 1405, was issued containing the order for the expedition. It was addressed to Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, and others.
The Yongle Emperor held a banquet for the crew on the evening before the fleet's maiden voyage. Gifts were presented to the officers and the common crew according to their rank. Sacrifices and prayers were offered to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors, in the hopes of ensuring a successful journey and safe passage during the voyage. In the autumn of 1405, the treasure fleet had assembled at Nanjing and was ready to depart from the city. According to the Taizong Shilu's 11 July 1405 entry about the dispatch of the fleet, Zheng and "others" departed for the first expedition "bearing imperial letters to the countries of the Western Ocean and with gifts to their kings of gold brocade, patterned silks, and colored silk gauze, according to their status". The treasure fleet made a stop at Liujiagang. There, the fleet was organized in squadrons while the fleet's crew honored Tianfei with prayers and sacrifices. Afterwards, the fleet sailed down the coast towards the mouth of the Min River, where it awaited the northeast monsoon at Taiping anchorage in the Changle district. More prayers and sacrifices were conducted for Tianfei by the crew while waiting for the monsoon. Afterwards, the fleet departed via the Wuhumen (lit. "five tiger passage") in Fujian.
The treasure fleet sailed to Champa,Java,Malacca,Aru,Semudera,Lambri,Ceylon,Quilon, and Calicut. From Lambri, the treasure fleet sailed straight through the Indian Ocean instead of following the Bay of Bengal coastline to Ceylon. Three days after the departure from Lambri, a ship split off and went to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. After six days, the treasure fleet saw the mountains of Ceylon and arrived at Ceylon's western coast two days later. They were met with hostility from Alagakkonara, so they left. Dreyer (2007) states that it is possible that Zheng made port at Quilon--although there is no account confirming this--because the King of Quilon traveled with the fleet to China in 1407. Mills (1970) states that the fleet may have made a four-month stay at Calicut from December to April 1407. Around Cape Comorin at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, the treasure fleet changed direction and began its return journey to China. During the return, the fleet stopped at Malacca again.
During the return trip in 1407, Zheng and his associates engaged Chen Zuyi and his pirate fleet in battle at Palembang.Chen Zuyi was a pirate leader who had seized Palembang and dominated the maritime route of the Malaccan Strait. The battle ended with Chen's pirate fleet being defeated. He and his lieutenants were executed on 2 October 1407 when the fleet returned to Nanjing. The Ming court appointed Shi Jinqing as the Pacification Superintendent of Palembang, establishing an ally at Palembang and securing access to its port.
The fleet returned to Nanjing on 2 October 1407. After accompanying the treasure fleet during the return journey, the foreign envoys (from Calicut, Quilon, Semudera, Aru, Malacca, and other unspecified nations) visited the Ming court to pay homage and present tribute with their local products. The Yongle Emperor ordered the Ministry of Rites, whose duties included the protocol concerning foreign ambassadors, to prepare gifts for the foreign kings who had sent envoys to the court.
The imperial order for the second voyage was issued in October 1407.[a] The edict was addressed to Zheng, Wang, and Hou Xian (). Lang Ying's Qixiuleigao (?) records that Zheng, Wang, and Hou were dispatched in 1407. The Taizong Shilu records that Zheng and others went as envoys to the countries of Calicut, Malacca, Semudera, Aru, Jiayile, Java, Siam, Champa, Cochin, Abobadan, Quilon, Lambri, and Ganbali.
On 30 October 1407, a grand director was dispatched with a squadron to Champa before Zheng He followed with the main body of the fleet. The fleet departed in the fifth year of the Yongle reign (late 1407 or possibly early 1408). The fleet traveled from Nanjing to Liujiagang to Changle. Then it sailed to Champa; Siam; Java; Malacca; Semudera, Aru, and Lambri on Sumatra; Jiayile, Abobadan, Ganbali, Quilon, Cochin, and Calicut in India. Dreyer (2007) states that it is possible that Siam and Java were visited by the main fleet or by detached squadrons before regrouping at Malacca. During this voyage, Zheng and his fleet did not land on Ceylon. The fleet was tasked to carry out the formal investiture of Mana Vikraan as the king of Calicut. A tablet was placed in Calicut to commemorate the relationship between China and India.
In this voyage, the Chinese forcibly settled the enmity between Ming China and Java. In a civil war on Java between 1401 and 1406, the King of West Java killed 170 members of a Chinese embassy who had come ashore in his rival's territory at East Java.[b] The entry dated to 23 October 1407 in the Ming Shilu states that the Western King of Java had sent an envoy to the Ming court to admit his guilt for mistakenly killing 170 Ming troops who had gone ashore to trade. It further states that the Ming court responded by demanding 60,000 liang of gold for compensation and atonement, warning that they would dispatch an army to punish the Javanese ruler for his crime if he failed to comply, and stating that the situation in Annam (referring to Ming China's successful invasion of Vietnam) can serve as an example. The Chinese accepted the payment and apology, and restored diplomatic relations. Yan Congjian's Shuyu Zhouzilu notes that the emperor later forgave 50,000 liang of gold that was still owed from this as long as the western ruler was remorseful for his crime. Tan (2005) remarks that Zheng had submitted the case of the killings to the emperor for a decision, rather than undertake a military invasion in revenge, as the killings were not willful. The Chinese would use the voyages to keep surveillance over Java.
During the journey, as recorded by Fei Xin, the fleet visited the Pulau Sembilan in the Strait of Malacca in the seventh year of the Yongle reign (1409). Dreyer (2007) concludes that the stop was made during the return journey of the second voyage as the treasure fleet did not leave the Chinese coast for the third voyage until early 1410. Fei Xin wrote that "in the seventh year of Yongle, Zheng He and his associates sent government troops onto the island to cut incense. They obtained six logs, each eight or nine chi[c] in diameter and six or seven zhang[c] in length, whose aroma was pure and far-ranging. The pattern [of the wood] was black, with fine lines. The people of the island opened their eyes wide and stuck out their tongues in astonishment, and were told that 'We are the soldiers of the Heavenly Court, and our awe-inspiring power is like that of the gods.'" The treasure fleet returned to Nanjing in the summer of 1409.
The confusion of whether Zheng undertook the second voyage stems from the fact that a Chinese envoy was dispatched before he had departed with the main body of the fleet. The imperial edict for the third voyage was issued during the second voyage while the treasure fleet was still in the Indian Ocean, so Zheng was either absent when the court issued the imperial order or he had not accompanied the fleet during the second voyage. On 21 January 1409, a grand ceremony was held in the honor of the goddess Tianfei, where she received a new title. Duyvendak (1938) thinks that Zheng could not have been on the second voyage, because the ceremony's importance required Zheng's attendance. Mills (1970), citing Duyvendak (1938), also states that he did not accompany the fleet for this voyage. However, Dreyer (2007) states that it is strongly suggested that Zheng had been on the second voyage, as Fei's account about the 1409 visit to Pulau Sembilan explicitly mentions him.
The imperial order for the third voyage was issued in the first month of the seventh year of the Yongle reign (16 January to 14 February 1409). It was addressed to Zheng, Wang, and Hou.
Zheng embarked on the voyage in 1409. The fleet departed from Liujiagang in the ninth month (9 October to 6 November 1409) and arrived at Changle the following month (7 November to 6 December). They left Changle in the twelfth month (5 January to 3 February 1410) for the seas via the Wuhumen (at the entrance of the Min River in Fujian). The fleet made stops at Champa, Java, Malacca, Semudera, Ceylon, Quilon, Cochin, and Calicut. They traveled to Champa within 10 days. Wang and Hou made short detours at Siam, Malacca, Semudera, and Ceylon. The treasure fleet landed at Galle, Ceylon, in 1410.
During the homeward journey in 1411, the treasure fleet confronted King Alakeshvara (Alagakkonara) of Ceylon.[d] Alakeshvara posed a threat to the neighboring countries, local waters of Ceylon, and southern India. When the Chinese arrived at Ceylon, they were overbearing and contemptuous of the Sinhalese, whom they considered rude, disrespectful, and hostile. They also resented the Sinhalese for attacking and committing piracy towards neighboring countries who had diplomatic relations with Ming China. Zheng and 2000 troops traveled overland into Kotte because Alakeshvara had lured them into his territory. The king separated Zheng and his men from the treasure fleet anchored at Colombo and planned to attack the fleet. In response, Zheng and his troops invaded Kotte and captured its capital. The Sinhalese army (recorded to have over 50,000 troops) hastily returned and surrounded the capital, but were repeatedly defeated in battle against the invading Chinese troops. The Chinese took Alakeshvara, his family, and his principal officials captive to Nanjing, China.
Zheng returned to Nanjing on 6 July 1411. He presented the Sinhalese captives to the Yongle Emperor, who decided to free and return them to their country. The Chinese dethroned Alakeshvara in favor of their ally Parakramabahu VI as the king with Zheng supporting him. From then on, the treasure fleet did not experience hostilities during visits to Ceylon on subsequent treasure voyages.
The Yongle Emperor attended an archery contest for the Midsummer Festival of 1413 (5th day, 5th month, 11th year) that all the Chinese officials and foreign envoys were invited to. Duyvendak (1939) states that these envoys were so numerous that they most-likely comprised many of those whom Zheng escorted back to their countries during the fourth voyage than just close neighbors. This expedition led the treasure fleet into Muslim countries, so it must have been important for the Chinese to seek out reliable interpreters. The interpreter Ma Huan joined the voyages for the first time. A 1523 inscription at a Muslim mosque in Xi'an records that, on the 4th month of the 11th year, Zheng was there to seek reliable interpreters and found a man named Hasan.
Zheng's fleet left Nanjing in 1413, probably in the autumn. It set sail from Fujian in the 12th month of the 11th year in the Yongle reign (23 December 1413 to 21 January 1414). Calicut was the westernmost destination during the previous voyages, but the fleet sailed beyond it this time. The Taizong Shilu records Malacca, Java, Champa, Semudera, Aru, Cochin, Calicut, Lambri, Pahang, Kelantan, Jiayile, Ormuz, Bila, Maldives, and Sunla as stops for this voyage.
The fleet sailed to Champa, Kelatan, Pahang, Malacca, Palembang, Java, Lambri, Lide, Aru, Semudera, Ceylon,Jiayile (opposite Ceylon), Cochin; and Calicut. They proceeded to Liushan (Maldive and Laccadive Islands),Bila (Bitra Atoll),Sunla (Chetlat Atoll), and Hormuz. At Java, the fleet delivered gifts and favors from the Yongle Emperor. In return, a Javanese envoy arrived in China on 29 April 1415 and presented tribute in the form of "western horses" and local products while expressing gratitude.
In 1415, the fleet made a stop at northern Sumatra during the journey homeward from Hormuz, where it engaged Sekandar. Sekandar had usurped the Semudera throne from Zain al-'Abidin, but the Chinese had formally recognized the latter as the King of Semudera; Even though Sekandar was an autonomous ruler, he was not recognized by the Chinese. Fei describes Sekandar as a false king who robbed, stole, and usurped the throne of Semudera, Ma portrays him as someone who attempted to overthrow the ruler, as the Ming Shilu records that Sekandar was the younger brother of the former king and plotted to kill the ruler. Zheng was ordered to launch a punitive attack against the usurper and restore Zain al-'Abidin as the rightful king. In retaliation, Sekandar led his forces to attack the Ming forces and was defeated. He reportedly attacked with "tens of thousands" of soldiers. The Ming forces pursued Sekandar's forces to Lambri where they captured Sekandar, his wife, and his child. King Zain al-'Abidin later dispatched a tribute mission to express his gratefulness. This conflict reaffirmed Chinese power over the foreign states and the maritime route by protecting the local political authority that sheltered the trade. Sekandar was presented to the Yongle Emperor at the palace gate and later executed. It is not known when this execution happened, but Ma states that Sekandar was publicly executed in the capital after the fleet returned.
On 12 August 1415, Zheng's fleet returned to Nanjing from this voyage. The Yongle Emperor had been absent since 16 March 1413 for his second Mongol campaign and had not returned when the fleet arrived. After the fleet's return, envoys bearing tribute from 18 countries had been sent to the Ming court.
On 14 November 1416, the Yongle Emperor returned to Nanjing. On 19 November, a grand ceremony was held where the Yongle Emperor bestowed gifts to princes, civil officials, military officers, and the ambassadors of 18 countries. On 19 December, the eighteen[e] ambassadors were received at the Ming court. On 28 December, they visited the Ming court to announce their departure and were bestowed robes before they left. That day, the Yongle Emperor ordered the undertaking of the fifth voyage, the aim of which was to return the 18 ambassadors and to reward their kings.
Zheng and others received orders to escort the ambassadors back home. They carried imperial letters and gifts for several kings. The King of Cochin received special treatment because he had sent tribute since 1411 and later also sent ambassadors to request the patent of investiture and a seal. The Yongle Emperor granted him both requests, conferred to him a long inscription (allegedly composed by the emperor himself), and gave the title "State Protecting Mountain" to a hill in Cochin.
Zheng may have left the Chinese coast in the autumn of 1417. He first made port at Quanzhou to load up the fleet's cargo holds with porcelain and other goods. Archaeological finds of contemporary Chinese porcelain have been excavated at the East African places visited by Zheng's fleet. A Ming tablet at Quanzhou commemorates Zheng burning incense for divine protection for the voyage on 31 May 1417. The fleet visited Champa, Pahang, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Shaliwanni (possibly Cannanore), Liushan (Maladive and Laccadive Islands), Hormuz, Lasa, Aden, Mogadishu, Brava, Zhubu, and Malindi. For Arabia and East Africa, the most-likely route was Hormuz, Lasa, Aden, Mogadishu, Brava, Zhubu, and then Malindi. The Tarih al-Yaman reports that Chinese ships reached the Aden coast in January 1419 and did not leave the Rasulid capital at Ta'izz before 19 March.
On 8 August 1419, the fleet had returned to China. The Yongle Emperor was in Beijing but ordered the Ministry of Rites to give monetary rewards to the fleet's personnel. The accompanied ambassadors were received at the Ming court in the eighth lunar month (21 August to 19 September) of 1419. Their tribute included lions, leopards, dromedary camels, ostriches, zebras, rhinoceroses, antelopes, giraffes, and other exotic animals, amazing the courtiers in the Ming court.
The Taizong Shilu's 3 March 1421 entry notes that the envoys of sixteen countries (Hormuz and other countries) were given gifts of paper, coin money, ceremonial robes, and linings before returning to their respective countries. The imperial order for the sixth voyage was dated 3 March 1421. Zheng was dispatched with imperial letters, silk brocade, silk floss, silk gauze, and other gifts for the rulers of these countries.
Gong Zhen's Xiyang Fanguo Zhi records a 10 November 1421 imperial edict instructing Zheng He, Kong He (), Zhu Buhua (), and Tang Guanbao () to arrange the provisions for Hong Bao and others for their dispatch to escort foreign envoys home. The envoys of the 16 different states were escorted to their homelands by the treasure fleet. It is likely that the first few destinations were Malacca and the three Sumatran states of Lambri, Aru, and Semudera. The fleet was divided into several detached squadrons at Semudera. All the squadrons proceeded to Ceylon, whereafter they separated for Jiayile, Cochin, Ganbali, or Calicut in southern India. The squadrons traveled from there to their respective destinations at Liushan (Maldive and Laccadive Islands), Hormuz at the Persian Gulf, the three Arabian states of Djofar, Lasa, and Aden, and the two African states of Mogadishu and Brava. The eunuch Zhou (probably Zhou Man) led a detached squadron to Aden. Ma mentions Zhou Man and Li Xing in connection to the visit of Aden. Their squadron may have also visited Lasa and Djofar. According to the Mingshi, Zheng personally visited Ganbali[f] as an envoy in 1421. Of the twelve visited nations west of Sumatra, this was the only one explicitly reported to have been visited by Zheng himself. Even though Quilon was not visited, the squadron for Mogadishu probably separated near Quilon as a navigation point while the main fleet continued to Calicut. A large squadron proceeded further from Calicut to Hormuz, which may have traveled via the Laccadives.
Upon return, several squadrons regrouped at Calicut and all the squadrons regrouped further at Semudera. Siam was likely visited during the return journey. The fleet returned on 3 September 1422. They brought with them envoys from Siam, Semudera, Aden, and other countries, who bore tribute in local products. The foreign envoys, who traveled to China with the fleet, proceeded overland or via the Grand Canal before reaching the imperial court at Beijing in 1423.
On 14 May 1421, the Yongle Emperor ordered the temporary suspension of the voyages.[g] At the expense of the treasure fleet's voyages, imperial attention and funding was diverted to the third, fourth, and fifth Mongol campaigns. Between 1422 and 1431, the treasure fleet remained in Nanjing to serve in the city's garrison.
In 1424, Zheng departed on a diplomatic mission to Palembang.[h] Meanwhile, Zhu Gaozhi inherited the throne as the Hongxi Emperor on 7 September 1424 after the death of the Yongle Emperor on 12 August 1424. Zheng's returned from Palembang after his death.
The Hongxi Emperor did not support the treasure voyages. and on 7 September 1424 he terminated further ones. He kept the treasure fleet as a part of Nanjing's garrison. The fleet also retained its original designation Xiafan Guanjun. On 24 February 1425, he appointed Zheng as the defender of Nanjing and ordered him to continue his command over the treasure fleet for the city's defense.
On 25 March 1428, the Xuande Emperor ordered Zheng and others to supervise the rebuilding and repair of the Great Bao'en Temple at Nanjing. The temple was completed in 1431, and it is speculated that the funds to build it were diverted from the treasure voyages.
Gong records that an imperial order was issued on 25 May 1430 for the arrangement of necessary provisions for the dispatch of Zheng, Wang, Li Xing, Zhu Liang, Yang Zhen, Hong Bao, and others on official business to the countries of the Western Ocean. It was addressed to Yang Qing (), Luo Zhi (), Tang Guanbo (), and Yuan Cheng (). On 29 June 1430, the Xuande Emperor issued his orders for the seventh voyage to Zheng and others. The Xuanzong Shilu reports that Zheng, Wang, and others were sent to distant foreign lands to bring them into deference and submission. The emperor wished to reinvigorate the tributary relations that were promoted during the Yongle reign. Before departing for the seventh voyage, Zheng and his associates had the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions inscribed.
The Xia Xiyang provides information about the dates and itinerary for this voyage.[i] The fleet embarked from Longwan (lit. "dragon bay") in Nanjing on 19 January 1431. On 23 January, the fleet stopped at Xushan, an island in the Yangtze where the crew hunted animals. On 2 February, the fleet sailed through the Fuzi Passage (present-day Baimaosha Channel) to the Yangtze River's estuary before arriving at Liujiagang the following day (3 February). On 14 March, the Liujiagang inscription was erected there. On 8 April, the fleet arrived and stayed at Changle from 8 April to mid-December. The Changle inscription, dated to the 11th month of the 6th year of the Xuande reign, was erected during the end of their stay. On 16 December 1431, they traveled to the Fu Tou Shan, possibly near Fuzhou. The treasure fleet sailed through the Wuhumen on 12 January 1432. On 27 January, the fleet briefly stopped at the capital city Vijaya (near present-day Qui Nhon) of Champa before departing on 12 February. On 7 March, the fleet arrived at Surabaya, Java. The fleet remained in the region before departing on 13 July. The fleet stayed at Palembang from 24 - 27 July. From Palembang, the fleet sailed down the Musi River, through the Banka Strait, and passed the Lingga and Riau archipelagos. The archipelagos had pirates that threatened passing ships, but they posed no threat to the treasure fleet. On 3 August, the treasure fleet arrived at Malacca and left on 2 September. The fleet's next destination was Semudera, where it stayed from 12 September to 2 November. On 28 November, the fleet arrived at Beruwala on Ceylon and left on 2 December. It stopped at Calicut 10 - 14 December 1432, beforie arriving at Hormuz on 17 January 1433. The treasure fleet remained in Hormuz for almost two months before traveling homeward on 9 March 1433.
Of the eight destinations recorded for the seventh voyage in the Xia Xiyang, Hormuz was furthest west. The Mingshi and other sources describe the voyage visiting a total of seventeen countries (including those already mentioned in the Xia Xiyang). The additional destinations reported in the Mingshi are Coimbator (Ganbali), Bengal, Laccadive and Maldive island chains, Djofar, Lasa, Aden, Mecca, Mogadishu, and Brava. Gong recorded a total of 20 visited countries. During the voyage, as Fei mentions, the fleet stopped at the Andaman and Nicobar island chains. He writes that, on 14 November 1432, the fleet arrived at Cuilanxu (probably the Great Nicobar Island) where it anchored for three days due to the unfavorable winds and waves. He further writes that the native men and women came in log boats to trade coconuts. The neighboring Aru, Nagur, Lide, and Lambri were certainly visited by a few ships, according to Dreyer (2007), on the fleet's way to Semudera in northern Sumatra.
Zheng is mentioned in the Mingshi in connection to the visits of Ganbali (possibly Coimatore),Lasa, Djorfar, Magadishu, and Brava. Dreyer (2007) states that the account is unclear on whether he went to those places in person, but the wording in the Mingshi could indicate that he proclaimed imperial instructions to the kings of these countries. Dreyer also speculates that it might have not been the case, as the fleet only made short stops at Calicut (4 days outward and 9 days homeward), which would not have provided enough time to travel overland to Ganbali, unless the location did not refer to Coimatore but elsewhere in southern India. The overland journey may have been undertaken by someone else than Zheng. The Mingshi's report of Lasa states that ambassadors from Lasa, Aden, and Brava traveled with Zheng to China, which means the ships carrying them possibly reassembled with the main fleet in Calicut if Zheng visited those countries in person. Dreyer (2007) thinks that the detached squadrons had probably already assembled at Calicut for its homeward journey, because the main fleet did not stay there for long.
Hong commanded a squadron that Ma was in for the journey to Bengal. It is not known when they exactly detached from the treasure fleet for Bengal.[j] They sailed directly to Bengal from Semudera. At Bengal, they traveled to Chittagong, Sonargaon, and finally to the capital Gaur. Afterwards, they sailed directly from Bengal to Calicut; Zheng's fleet had departed from Calicut for Hormuz by the time Hong's squadron arrived in Calicut. Hong noticed that local ships were being prepared for Mecca and he sent seven Chinese men to accompany a ship[k] bound for Mecca; It is likely that one of the seven men was Ma.[l] After a year, the seven men returned with commodities and valuables that they had purchased, including giraffes, lions, and ostriches. Dreyer (2007) suggests that Hong may also have been involved with several other destinations, such as Djofar, Lasa, Aden, Mogadishu, and Brava.
Dreyer (2007) states that the following countries may also have been visited by a few of the ships when the fleet passed by them: Siam; the northern Sumatran states of Aru, Nagur, Lide, and Lambri (when sailing to Semudera); and Quilon and Cochin (when sailing to Calicut). Mills (1970) concludes that Zheng's associates--not Zheng himself--had visited Siam, Aru, Nagur, Lide, Lambri, Nicobar Islands, Bengal, Quilon, Cochi, Coimbatore, Maldive Islands, Dhufar, Lasa, Aden, Mecca, Mogadishu, and Brava. Pelliot (1933) suggests that the squadrons detached from the fleet at Hormuz to travel to Aden, the East African ports and perhaps Lasa.
The Xia Xiyang also provided the dates and itinerary, as described hereafter, for the return route of the seventh voyage.[i] The fleet at Hormuz departed on 9 March 1433 and arrived at Calicut on 31 March before leaving on 9 April. The fleet stayed at Semudera from 25 April to 1 May. On 9 May, the fleet arrived at Malacca. The fleet arrived at the Kunlun Ocean[m] on 28 May.[n] On 13 June, the fleet arrived at Vijaya (present-day Qiu Nhon) and left on 17 June. The Xia Xiyang notes several geographical sightings[o] at this point until the fleet entered Taicang on 7 July. The Xia Xiyang notes that it did not record the journey from Taicang to the capital. On 22 July 1433, they arrived in Beijing. On 27 July, the Xuande Emperor bestowed ceremonial robes and paper money to the fleet's personnel.
Dreyer (2007) states that they did not stop at Ceylon or southern India, because they were sailing under favorable conditions and were running before the southwest monsoon. Ma records that the various detached ships reassembled in Malacca to wait for favorable winds before continuing their return.
Zheng returned with envoys from 11 countries, including one from Mecca. On 14 September 1433, as recorded in the Xuanzong Shilu, the following envoys came to court to present tribute: King Zain al-Abidin of Semudera sent his younger brother Halizhi Han, King Bilima of Calicut sent his ambassador Gebumanduluya, King Keyili of Cochin sent his ambassador Jiabubilima, King Parakramabahu VI of Ceylon sent his ambassador Mennidenai, King Ali of Djofar sent his ambassador Hajji Hussein, King Al-Malik az-Zahir Yahya b. Isma'il of Aden sent his ambassador Puba, King Devaraja of Coimbatore sent his ambassador Duansilijian, King Sa'if-ud-Din of Hormuz sent the foreigner Malazu, the King of "Old Kayal" (Jiayile) sent his ambassador Abd-ur-Rahman, and the King of Mecca sent the headman (toumu) Shaxian.
During the course of the voyages, Ming China had become the pre-eminent naval power of the early 15th century. The Yongle Emperor had extended imperial control over foreign lands during the span of the voyages. However, in 1433, the voyages ceased and Ming China turned away from the seas.
The trade flourished long after the voyages had ceased. Chinese ships continued to control the east Asian maritime trade and trade with India and East Africa. However, the imperial tributary system over the foreign regions and state monopoly over the foreign trade gradually broke down as time progressed as private trade supplanted the centralized tributary trade. Foreign commerce shifted to the domain of local authorities, which further undermined the authority of the central government. The Ming treasure voyages had been a means to establish direct links between the Ming court and foreign tribute states, which had effectively outflanked both private channels of trade and local civil officials who were sabotaging the prohibitions against overseas exchange.
The nobility and military were an important part of the ruling elite during the Hongwu and Yongle reigns. Over time, the political power gradually shifted to the civil officials; as a consequence, the eunuch faction was unable to gather enough support to initiate projects opposed by the civil government. Civil officials remained wary of future attempts by the eunuchs to restart the treasure voyages. Moreover, no later emperor would seriously consider undertaking new expeditions. The withdrawal of Ming China's treasure fleet left an enormous void in the dominance over the Indian Ocean.
It is not exactly known why the voyages completely ended in 1433. Duyvendak (1939) suggests that the cessation of the expeditions was partly due to the considerable expenses, but Ray (1987), Finlay (1992), and Dreyer (2007) note that the costs for undertaking the voyages had not overburdened the Ming treasury. Ray (1987) adds that the Ming treasure voyages were a profitable enterprise and rejects the notion that the voyages were terminated because they were wasteful, costly, or uneconomic.
Even though civil officials had ill feelings towards eunuchs for their overbearing nature and interference in state affairs, much of the hostility that came to characterize the relationship between the officials and eunuchs manifested long after the voyages ended, when eunuchs wielded their power to enrich themselves through extortion and persecute their critics. According to Lo (1958) and Ray (1987), the hostility between these factions can not explain the cessation of the voyages. Lo (1958) also notes that Zheng was on friendly terms with many high officials and was respected by them, while Ray (1987) mentions that eunuchs such as Zheng and Hou were held in high esteem by the court. The voyages were also favorably depicted in contemporary records.
Ray (1987) states that the cessation of the Ming treasure voyages primarily happened as traders and bureaucrats, for reasons of economic self-interest and through their connections in Beijing, gradually collapsed the framework supporting both the state-controlled maritime enterprise and the strict regulation of the private commerce that was subjected to prohibitive policies. Similarly, Lo (1958) states that rich and influential individuals used their connections in Beijing to undermine efforts to restore the trade to official channels and possibly revive the voyages, because they tried to safeguard their interests and were antagonistic to the government's monopoly of foreign trade.
The voyages were diplomatic, militaristic, and commercial in nature. They were conducted to establish imperial control over the maritime trade, to bring the maritime trade into the tributary system, and to force foreign countries to comply with the tributary system. The diplomatic aspect comprised the announcement of the Yongle Emperor's accession to the throne, the establishment of hegemony over the foreign countries, and safe passage to foreign envoys who came bearing tribute.
The Chinese did not seek territorial control, as they were primarily motivated by the political and economic control across space entailing a domination over a vast network with its ports and shipping lanes. Finlay (2008) underscores the goal of controlling maritime commerce in which the Ming treasure voyages are regarded as an attempt to reconcile China's need for maritime commerce with the government's suppression of the private aspects, representing "a deployment of state power to bring into line the reality of seaborne commerce with an expansive conception of Chinese hegemony." The trading centers along the maritime routes were kept open to other foreign people in a joint effort to further promote international trade. Neither the pursuit for exclusive access nor the forceful integration of foreign countries' wealth (through exclusive exploitation by removal of natural or human resources) was a feature of the expeditions.
The voyages changed the organization of a maritime network, utilizing and creating nodes and conduits in its wake, and restructured international and cross-cultural relationships and exchanges. It was especially impactful as no other polity had exerted naval dominance over all sectors of the Indian Ocean prior to the these voyages. The Ming promoted alternative nodes as a strategy to establish control over the network. For instance, due to crucial Chinese involvement, ports such as Malacca (in Southeast Asia), Cochin (on the Malabar Coast), and Malindi (on the Swahili Coast) grew as key contenders to other important and established ports.[p] Through the voyages, Ming China intervened with the local affairs of foreign states and asserted itself in foreign lands. The Chinese had installed or supported friendly local regimes, captured or executed rivals of local authorities, and threatened hostile local rulers into compliance. The appearance of the Ming treasure fleet generated and intensified competition among contending polities and rivals, each seeking an alliance with the Ming.
The voyages brought about the Western Ocean's regional integration and the increase in international circulation of people, ideas, and goods. It provided a platform for cosmopolitan discourses, which took place in locations such as the ships of the Ming treasure fleet, the Ming capitals of Nanjing as well as Beijing, and the banquet receptions organized by the Ming court for foreign representatives. Diverse groups of people from across the maritime countries congregated, interacted, and traveled together as the Ming treasure fleet sailed from and to Ming China. For the first time in its history, as Sen (2016) emphasizes, the maritime region from China to Africa was under the dominance of a single imperial power and allowed for the creation of a cosmopolitan space.
Another purpose of the Chinese expeditions was the maintenance of political-ideological control across the region. In this regard, foreigners needed to acknowledge that China was the supraordinate power in the region, not cause disturbances towards neighboring territories, and accept the tributary system out of their own interest. Foreign rulers were compelled to acknowledge the inherent moral and cultural superiority of China, an obligation expressed by paying homage and presenting tribute before the Ming court. The Chinese had the intention to civilize the many foreign peoples by bringing them into formal submission within Ming China's greater world order. During the course of the voyages, the Yongle Emperor reasserted the political and cultural hegemony of Ming China over all others. The cultural aspect of the voyages appears in the Liujiagang inscription, stating that "those among the foreigners who were resisting the transforming influence (genghua) of Chinese culture and were disrespectful, we captured alive, and brigands who indulged in violence and plunder, we ex-terminated [sic]. Consequently the sea-route was purified and tranquillised [sic] and the natives were enabled quietly to pursue their avocations."
The treasure fleet was, as Mills (1970) characterizes, "an instrument of aggression and political dominance." It brought forth the manifestation of China's power and wealth to awe foreign lands under Chinese hegemony. This was actualized by showing the Ming flag and establishing a military presence along the maritime trade routes. Diplomatic relationships were based on a mutually beneficial maritime commerce and a visible presence of a Chinese militaristic naval force in foreign waters. The Ming Chinese naval superiority was a crucial factor in this interaction, namely because it was inadvisable to risk punitive action from the Chinese fleet. In addition, the worthwhile and profitable nature of the Ming treasure voyages for foreign countries was a persuading factor to comply.
There is a theory, considered very unlikely, suggesting that the voyages were initiated to search for the dethroned Jianwen Emperor. This search is mentioned as a reason for the voyages in the later Mingshi. As the Yongle Emperor usurped the throne, he may have actually sought to legitimize his reign by forcing the foreign countries to recognize their tributary status within Ming China's greater world order. To this end, according to Wang (1998), the Yongle Emperor announced his intent to find the deposed Jianwen Emperor may have served no more than a public justification for the voyages in face of the prohibitive policies for military actions overseas from the Hongwu reign. Another theory, also considered very unlikely, explains that the voyages were a response to another power across Asia: the Timurid state of Tamerlane, an enemy of Ming China. However, Ming China was left unchallenged by the Timurid after Tamerlane's death in 1405, because the new Timurid ruler Shahrukh (r. 1405-1447) normalized diplomatic relations with China and was preoccupied with holding his state together. There is no evidence for both theories in contemporary historical sources, so they lack the support and conformation to be accepted.
Zheng He served as the Grand Director in the Directorate of Palace Servants, a eunuch-dominated department, before his appointment to command the expeditions. Construction projects were usually the domain of eunuchs, who were often assigned to supervise them. The treasure fleet's construction was not different in that eunuchs were assigned to supervise it, while the military was assigned to carry it out. Civil officials criticized the state expenses brought by the fleet's construction, but the emperor was set to continue his grand plans.
In the Ming court, the civil officials were the faction who opposed the voyages. In contrast, the eunuch establishment stood at the head of the fleet and the expeditions. The civil officials condemned the expeditions as extravagant and wasteful, but the Yongle Emperor was unconcerned about the costs of the voyages and was determined to complete them. Traditionally, the civil officials were not only political opponents to the eunuch faction, but also to the military who crewed the fleet. This political and institutional disadvantage within the state system contributed to the inherent opposition of civil officials against the voyages. On cultural grounds, the civil officials were hostile to the voyages, because the trade and acquisition of strange foreign goods conflicted with their Confucian ideologies. The undertaking of these expeditions only remained possible as long as the eunuchs maintained imperial favor.
The Hongwu Emperor was wary of the political and social consequences that maritime commerce could bring, so he sought to restrain it by outlawing private maritime trade. This policy continued well into the Yongle Emperor's reign. In addition, the Yongle Emperor aimed at consolidating imperial control over maritime commerce, stopping the coastal criminality and disorder, providing employment for mariners and entrepreneurs, exporting Chinese products to foreign markets, importing desired goods for Chinese consumers, extending the tributary system, and displaying imperial majesty to the seas. The voyages functioned as trade commissions in the government's attempts to regulate maritime commerce by establishing an imperial monopoly over it and incorporating it into the tributary system. There was supposedly an idea about a foreign policy comprising an extended foreign trade supported by a heavy military naval presence and a cultivation of shared interests with local allies.
The emperor's interest in the voyages was the highest during the period spanning the first three voyages, but he became more occupied with his offensive military campaigns against the Mongols after establishing the capital at Beijing. By the fourth voyage, the emperor showed interest in the expansion of trade and diplomatic activity to West Asia. Therefore, the Chinese sought and employed Persian and Arabic interpreters, such as Ma Huan and Guo Chongli, to accompany the fleet. After the capital was transferred from Nanjing to Beijing, the south and the seas were given less and less attention from emperors and officials alike. The Hongxi Emperor wished to revert his predecessor's relocation of the capital, but he died on 29 May 1425 before he could do so; he was succeeded by the Xuande Emperor who remained in Beijing. In contrast to the Hongxi Emperor who relied on civil officials during his reign, the Xuande Emperor relied on eunuchs. Dreyer (2007) states that the prospects for the voyages would have been better if the capital was relocated back to Nanjing, because the court would have been near the Longjiang shipyards where most of the ships were built and where the voyages started.
Minister of Finance Xia Yuanji () was a vocal opponent to the treasure voyages. The Hongxi Emperor was also fiercely against the treasure voyages throughout his reign. After taking Xia's advice, the emperor ordered the cessation of the treasure voyages on 7 September 1424, the day of his accession to the throne. When the Xuande Emperor ordered the seventh voyage, he went against the general court opinion.
After 1433, the civil officials succeeded in halting subsequent maritime expeditions. The ships were left to rot and their lumber was sold for fuel in Nanjing. The mariners were reassigned to load grain on barges of the Grand Canal and to build the emperor's mausoleum. After the voyages, subsequent Ming emperors would reject the Yongle Emperor's policy of bringing the maritime trade into the structure of the tributary system.
The Chinese fleet comprised an array of ships, each of which fulfilled specialized functions. Each treasure ship was crewed by about 500 men according to Mills (1970) or at least 600 men according to Finlay (1992). The high-ranking officers--Admiral Zheng He and his associates--were from the eunuch faction. The crew was predominantly from the Ming military and was primarily recruited from Fujian.
There were seven Grand Directors (taijian) who served as the ambassadors and commanders of the fleet, and were followed by 10 Junior Directors (shaojian): they were all eunuchs. Zheng was one of the Grand Directors. In total, there were 70 eunuchs in command of the treasure fleet. They oversaw 2 brigadiers (du zhihuishi), 93 captains (zhihuishi), 104 lieutenants (qianhu), and 103 sub-lieutenants (bohu).[q] There were also 180 medical personnel, a Ministry of Finance bureau director,[r] two secretaries, two Court of State Ceremonial protocol officers,[s] an astrological officer, and four astrologers. The personnel also had guard judges (wei zhenfu) and battalion judges (suo zhenfu). The remaining personnel included petty officers (qixiao or quanxiao), brave corps (yongshi), power corps (lishi),[t] military soldiers (referred as guanjun, "official soldiers", or qijun, "flag soldiers"), supernumeraries (yuding), boatsman (minshao), buyers (maiban), and clerks (shushou).
Zhu Yunming's Xia Xiyang records the following personnel: officers and petty officers (guanxiao), soldiers (qijun), mess leaders (huozhang), helmsman (tuogong), anchormen (bandingshou), interpreters (tongshi), business managers (banshi), accountants (susuanshi), doctors (yishi), anchor mechanics (tiemiao), caulkers (munian), sailmakers (dacai), sailors (shuishou), and boatmen (minshaoren).
The Liujiagang inscriptions record Zheng He () and Wang Jinghong () as the principal envoys. It also records Zhu Liang (), Zhou Man (), Hong Bao (), Yang Zhen (), and Zhang Da () as deputy envoys. The Changle inscription repeats this, but adds Li Xing () and Wu Zhong () as deputy envoys. All envoys are recorded to have carried the rank of Grand Director in both inscriptions, except Zhang Da who was reported with the rank of Senior Assistant Director in the Liujiagang inscription and the rank of Grand Director in the Changle inscription. Additionally, the Changle inscription mentions Zhu Zhen () and Wang Heng () as the brigadiers. These people and unnamed "others" are mentioned on the respective inscriptions as those who have composed it. The Changle inscription also mentions that the Daoist priest Yang Yichu () begged to erect the respective stele.
For the first voyage, the fleet had a personnel of 27,800 or 27,870 men and 317 ships. The Mingshi states that there was a crew of 27,800 men and that 62 of the ships were treasure ships, though Dreyer (2007) suggests the possibility of an extra treasure ship. Tan Qian's () Guoque () records 63 treasure ships and a crew of 27,870 for the first voyage. The Zuiweilu records a personnel of 37,000, but this is probably an error. Yan Congjian's () Shuyu Zhouzilu records an imperial order for the construction of 250 ships specifically for the voyages to the Western Ocean: it is actually two separate imperial orders--as recorded in the Taizong Shilu--both of which were issued to the Nanjing's capital guards for 200 ships ( haiyunchuan; lit. "seagoing transport ships") on 4 September 1403 and for 50 ships ( haichuan; lit. "seagoing ships") on 1 March 1404. However, the Taizong Shilu did not record the purpose of these 250 ships. It also records an imperial order issued on 2 March 1404 for Fujian to construct five ships (haichuan) to be used in the voyages to the Western Ocean. These 255 ships plus the 62 treasure ships add up to 317 ships.[u]
For the second voyage, it is thought that the treasure fleet comprised 249 ships. On 5 October 1407, as the Taizong Shilu records, Wang Hao was ordered to supervise the conversion of 249 ships in preparation for embassies to the countries at the Western Ocean. This was close to the date when the second voyage was ordered, thus the fleet likely comprised these 249 ships for the second voyage. The number of treasure ships or personnel is not known.
For the third voyage, Fei Xin's Xingcha Shenglan records that the fleet had 48 haibo (; lit. "ocean traders") and a crew of over 27,000. Dreyer (2007) states that Fei was probably referring to the treasure ships as haibo. Yan's Shuyu Zhouzilu and Lu Rong's Shuyuan Zaji use the term "treasure ship" instead when they mention the 48 ships for this voyage. Coincidently, the Taizong Shilu records the imperial order issued on 14 February 1408 for the construction of 48 treasure ships to the Ministry of Works at Nanjing; these were possibly the 48 treasure ships for the third voyage. Dreyer (2007) states that the treasure fleet likely had an undisclosed array of support ships besides the 48 treasure ships.
Ma's Yingya Shenglan records 63 treasure ships for the fourth voyage, which were probably accompanied by support ships. The fleet was crewed by 28,560 or 27,670 men. Fei records a personnel of 27,670 for this voyage, but another source records 28,560.
On 2 October 1419, an order was issued for the construction of 41 treasure ships from an undisclosed shipbuilder. It is possible that Zheng used these ships for the sixth voyage. Most scholars conclude that these were likely used for the sixth voyage, but many other treasure ships had already been constructed or were in construction by that time. There is no specific figure for the ships or personnel of the sixth voyage. The treasure fleet probably made use of several dozen of the treasure ships each accompanied by half a dozen support vessels.
For the seventh voyage, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions speak of over a hundred large ships ( jubo; lit. "giant ships"). Dreyer (2007) suggests that this probably included most of the remaining treasure ships, which were likely accompanied by support ships. In the Xia Xiyang, Zhu Yunming gives the names of several ships--Qinghe (; "pure harmony"), Huikang (; "kind repose"), Changning (; "lasting tranquility"), Anji (; "peaceful crossing"), and Qingyuan (; "pure distance")--and notes that there were also ships designated by a series number. The fleet had 27,550 men as personnel for the voyage.
Before the voyages, there was turmoil around the seas near the Chinese coast and distant Southeast Asian maritime regions, characterized by piracy, banditry, slave trade, or other illicit activities. The treasure fleet had a large number of warships to protect their precious cargo and to secure the maritime routes. They established a substantial Chinese military presence around the South China Sea and trading cities in southern India. The early stages of the voyages were especially characterized by highly militaristic objectives, as the Chinese stabilized the sea passages from hostile entities as well as strengthened their own position and maintained their status in the region. Even though Zheng sailed through the oceans with a military force larger and stronger than any local power, there is no written evidence in historical sources that there was any attempt that they forcibly tried to control the maritime trade in the regions of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Dreyer (2007) adds that foreign nations must have seen a "terrifying apparition" when the large Chinese fleet came within visible reach before their coastlines, bringing any state into submission by the sole sight of it alone. From the fourth voyage onwards, the treasure fleet ventured further than their usual end-destination of Calicut to lands beyond where there would be less direct hostilities.
The fleet engaged and defeated Chen Zuyi's pirate fleet in Palembang, Alakeshvara's forces in Ceylon, and Sekandar's forces in Semudera, bringing security and stability of the maritime routes via Chinese control. These actors were viewed as hostile threats in their regions and the battles served as a reminder of the tremendous power of Ming China to the countries along the maritime routes.
On the Malabar coast, Calicut and Cochin were in an intense rivalry, so the Ming decided to intervene by granting special status to Cochin and its ruler Keyili (). For the fifth voyage, Zheng He was instructed to confer a seal upon Keyili of Cochin and enfeoff a mountain in his kingdom as the Zhenguo Zhi Shan (?, Mountain Which Protects the Country). He delivered a stone tablet, inscribed with a proclamation composed by the Yongle Emperor, to Cochin. As long as Cochin remained under the protection of Ming China, the Zamorin of Calicut could not invade Cochin and a military conflict was averted. When the Ming treasure voyages ceased Cochin was eventually invaded by Calicut.
In Malacca, the Chinese actively sought to develop a commercial hub and a base of operation for the voyages into the Indian Ocean. Malacca had been a relatively insignificant region, not even qualifying as a polity prior to the voyages according to both Ma and Fei, and was a vassal region of Siam. In 1405, the Ming court dispatched Zheng He with a stone tablet enfeoffing the Western Mountain of Malacca as well as an imperial order elevating the status of the port to a country. The Chinese also established a government depot () as a fortified cantonment for their soldiers. It served as a storage facility as the fleet traveled and assembled from other destinations within the maritime region. Ma Huan reports that Siam did not dare to invade Malacca thereafter. The rulers of Malacca, such as King Paramesvara in 1411, would pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in person. In 1431, when a Malaccan representative complained that Siam was obstructing tribute missions to the Ming court, the Xuande Emperor dispatched Zheng He carrying a threatening message for the Siamese king saying "You, king should respect my orders, develop good relations with your neighbours, examine and instruct your subordinates and not act recklessly or aggressively."
In 1420, the Sultan of Bengal appealed for aid from the Ming to send aid against attacks from the neighbouring Sultan of Jaunpur. Hou Xian was dispatched with a military force which succeeded in keeping the peace without using violence.
The treasure ships had an enormous cargo comprising various products. The commodities that the fleet's ships carried included three major categories: gifts to be offered to rulers, money for exchange of goods or payment of goods with fixed prices at low rates (e.g. gold, silver, copper coins, and paper money), and luxury items that China monopolized (e.g. musks, ceramics, and silks). It was said that there were sometimes so many Chinese goods unloaded into an Indian port that it could take months to price everything. In turn, Zheng returned to China with many kinds of tribute goods, such as silver, spices, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, ebony, camphor, tin, deer hides, coral, kingfisher feathers, tortoise shells, gums and resin, rhinoceros horn, sapanwood and safflower (for dyes and drugs), Indian cotton cloth, and ambergris (for perfume). The ships even brought back exotic animals, such as ostriches, elephants, and giraffes. The imports from the voyages provided large quantities of economic goods that fueled China's own industries. For example, there was so much cobalt oxide from Persia that the porcelain industry at Jingdezhen had a plentiful supply for decades after the voyages. The fleet also returned with a large amount of black pepper that the once-costly luxury became a common commodity in Chinese society.
The treasure voyages resulted in a flourishing Ming economy and significantly boosted the lucrative maritime commerce. The expeditions developed into a maritime trade enterprise where the Chinese began trading and supplying the commodities that were non-Chinese in origin. This highlighted the commercial character of the voyages in which the Chinese expanded upon the already large profits from their trade. The impact of the expeditions on commerce was on multiple levels: it established imperial control over local private commercial networks, expanded tributary relations and thereby brought commerce under state supervision, established court-supervised transactions at foreign ports and thereby generate substantial revenue for both parties, and increased production and circulation of commodities across the region. The voyages induced a sudden supply shock in the Eurasian market, where the Chinese maritime exploits in Asia led to disruptions of European imports with sudden price spikes in the early 15th century.
Imperial proclamations were issued to foreign kings, meaning that they could either submit and be bestowed with rewards or refuse and be pacified under the threat of an overwhelming military force. Foreign kings had to reaffirm their recognition of the Chinese emperor's superior status by presenting tribute. Those rulers who submitted received political protection and material rewards. Many countries were enrolled as tributaries. The treasure fleet conducted the transport of the many foreign envoys to China and back, but some envoys traveled independently.
In 1405-1406, 1408-1410 and 1417, the treasure fleet under Zheng He visited the kingdoms of the Philippines such as Pangasinan, Manila, Mindoro and Sulu, establishing tributary relations and even stationing a "governor", Ko-ch'a-lao, to oversee them. These visits helped to elevate Sulu into a major centre of commerce.
The passage of the treasure fleet precipitated the formation of a tributary relationship with Brunei in 1405. The Ming subsequently invested the new ruler of Brunei in 1408 while the Bruneian royals were visiting China, and freed Brunei from paying tribute to the Majapahit, which in 1407 had been successfully pressured by show of force into apologising for the mistaken killing of Ming soldiers.
During the onset of their voyages, the treasure fleet would embark from the Longjiang shipyard, north-west of Nanjing. They would then sail down the Yangtze River to Liujiagang. Once there, Zheng would organize his fleet and make sacrifices to the goddess Tianfei. Over the course of the following four to eight weeks, the fleet would gradually proceed to Taiping anchorage in Changle, Fujian, and wait there for the favorable northeast winter monsoon[v] before leaving the Fujian coast. They would reach the sea through the Wuhumen and mostly sailed through established trade routes to other regions. The port of Qui Nhon in Champa was always the first foreign destination that the fleet visited.
During the first three voyages from 1405 to 1411, the fleet followed the same basic maritime route: from Fujian to the first call in Champa, across the South China Sea to Java and Sumatra, up the Strait of Malacca to northern Sumatra for assembly of the fleet, across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon, then along the Malabar Coast to Calicut. At the time, the fleet sailed no further than Calicut. During the fourth voyage, the route was extended to Hormuz. During the fifth, sixth, and seventh voyages, the fleet traveled further to destinations in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. For the sixth voyage, the treasure fleet sailed up to Calicut, where several detached squadrons proceeded to further destinations at the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. For the seventh voyage, the treasure fleet followed the route up to Hormuz, while detached squadrons traveled to the other far-lying destinations at the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
The treasure fleet sailed the equatorial and subtropical waters of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, where they were dependent on the circumstances of the annual cycle of monsoon winds. Therefore, the fleet's navigators precisely organized the voyages under careful considerations of the periodical patterns of the tropical and subtropical monsoon. For the southward route from Changle in China to Surabaya in Java, the fleet followed the northeast wind, crossed the Equator (where the northeast wind changes into the northwest wind due to the Coriolis force), and then followed the northwest wind. At Java, the fleet waited for the arrival of the tropical southeast wind in the Southern Hemisphere and used it to sail towards Sumatra. At Sumatra, the fleet was halted due to the change of the southeast wind into a strong southwest wind at a northern latitude close to the equator and waited until next winter for the northeast wind. For the northwestward route towards Calicut and Hormuz, the Chinese took advantage of the northeastern wind. The return journey was set during the late summer and early autumn because favorable monsoon winds were present at that time. The fleet left Hormuz before the southwestern monsoon arrived over the Indian Ocean. They made use of the northern wind for the southward journey from Hormuz to Calicut. For the eastward journey from Sumatra, the fleet used the newly-arrived southwestern monsoon over the eastern parts of the Indian Ocean. After the fleet passed through the Strait of Malacca, the fleet caught up with the southwest wind over the South China Sea to sail back to China. As maritime conditions were limited by the monsoon winds, squadrons were detached from the main fleet to diverge to specific destinations. The first point of divergence was Sumatra from where a squadron would travel to Bengal. The second point of divergence was Calicut, from where ships sailed to Hormuz as well as other destinations at the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Malacca was the rendezvous point where the squadrons would reassemble for the final leg of the return journey.
During all the voyages, the fleet departed from Sumatra to sail westward across the Indian Ocean. Northern Sumatra was an important region for the fleet's anchorage and assembly before they proceeded through the Indian Ocean to Ceylon and southern India. Its location was more important to the fleet than its wealth or products. Ma wrote that Semudera was the main route to the Western Ocean and characterized it as the most important port of assembly for the Western Ocean. The journey from Sumatra to Ceylon took about two to four weeks without seeing land. The first part of Ceylon that became visible after departure from Sumatra was Namanakuli (or Parrot's Beak Mountain), the easternmost mountain (6680 ft in elevation and 45 miles away from the coast). Two or three days after its sighting, the treasure fleet adjusted their course to sail south of Dondra Head at Ceylon. After a considerable long time at sea since leaving Sumatra, the fleet arrived at a port in Ceylon, usually at Beruwala and sometimes at Galle. Even though it stopped at both locations, it preferred Beruwala over Galle. Ma characterized Beruwala as "the wharf of the country of Ceylon."
Ming China had cordial relations with Calicut, which was valuable as they tried to extend the tributary system to the states around the Indian Ocean. Ma described Calicut as the "great country of the Western Ocean" and had a positive response to the Calicut authorities' regulation of trade and attention to weights and measurements. Fei described Calicut as the "great harbor" of the Western Ocean countries.
During the voyages, the fleet acquired and collected a large amount of navigational data: these were specifically recorded by the astrological officer and his four astrologers. The navigational data were processed into different types of charts by a cartographic office,which included an astrological officer, four astrologers, and their clerks. It provided the expeditionary commanders with the necessary navigational charts for their voyages. Many copies of the expeditionary charts were housed in the Ministry of War. Additional navigational data were probably also supplied by local maritime pilots, Arab records, Indian records, and earlier Chinese records.
The Mao Kun map is associated with the voyages' routes. The map is collected in the Wubei Zhi, compiled by Mao Yuanyi. It depicts various geographic locations, from Nanjing to Hormuz as well as the East African coast, with routes illustrated by dotted lines. The directions are expressed by compass points and distances, with references to navigational techniques (such as depth sounding to avoid shallow waters) and astronomy (particularly along the north-south route of Africa where the latitude is determined by the height of constellations relative to the horizon). The distances are expressed by time according to a watch system (two hour periods). The Mao Kun map is appended by four stellar diagrams that are used to determine the position of the ship in relation to the stars and constellations on specific sections of the maritime route.
The faith of the treasure fleet's crew centered around Tianfei, the "Heavenly Princess" who was the goddess of sailors and seafarers. The Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng's life was mostly defined by the treasure voyages and that his devotion to Tianfei was the dominant faith that he adhered to. The two inscriptions honored and commemorated the goddess Tianfei. Zheng and his associates established these inscriptions at the temples of Tianfei at Liujiagang on 14 March 1431 and Changle between 5 December 1431 and 3 January 1432. These inscriptions make reference to the crew witnessing St. Elmo's fire during dangerous storms and interpreting it as a sign of divine protection by Tianfei. The Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions are considered the epitaphs of the Ming treasure voyages.
In Galle, Ceylon, Zheng set up a trilingual inscription dated 15 February 1409.[w] The inscription is in three languages, in which the Chinese section praised the Buddha, the Tamil section praised the local god Tenavarai Nayanar (an incarnation of Vishnu), and the Persian section praised Allah. Each section contains a similar list of offerings, such as 1000 pieces of gold, 5000 pieces of silver, 100 rolls of silk, 2500 catties of perfumed oil, and a variety of bronze ornaments. As shown by this inscription, the Chinese paid their respect to the three dominant religions in Ceylon.
On 20 September 1414, Bengali envoys presented a giraffe as tribute in the name of King Saif Al-Din Hamzah Shah of Bengal (r. 1410-1412) to the Yongle Emperor of Ming China. The giraffe was presented as the qilin, but the Yongle Emperor dismissed this association and did not want his officials to send laudatory memorials on behalf of its auspicious appearance during his reign.
There are several extant contemporary accounts, including Ma Huan's Yingya Shenglan [?],[x]Fei Xin's Xingcha Shenglan [?], and Gong Zhen's Xiyang Fanguo Zhi . Ma served as an interpreter on the fourth, sixth, and seventh voyage; Guo Chongli was Ma's collaborator on the Yingya Shenglan and participated in three of the expeditions; Fei served as a soldier on the third, fifth, and seventh expedition; and Gong served as Zheng's private secretary on the seventh voyage. These three sources provide observations to the political, economic, social, cultural, and religious conditions of the lands visited throughout the voyages. In addition, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions are considered to be valuable records by Zheng and his associates.
The Ming Shilu provides a lot of the information relating to the treasure voyages, particularly the exchange of ambassadors. The work is divided into individual sections about the reigns of Ming emperors. Zheng lived through the reigns of five Ming emperors, but he directly served three emperors. He is mentioned in the Taizong Shilu of the Yongle reign, the Renzong Shilu of the Hongxi reign, and the Xuanzong Shilu of the Xuande reign. The Taizong Shilu combined the second and third voyages into one expedition, which misconstrued Zheng's Palembang journey from 1424 to 1425[y] as the sixth voyage instead of his seventh. However, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions make a clear distinction between the second and third voyage as they correctly date the second voyage from 1407 to 1409 and the third voyage from 1409 to 1411. The Taizong Shilu was followed by the History of Ming.
A number of later works have been preserved. The accounts in the History of Ming (1739) and Huang Xingzeng's Xiyang Chaogong Dianlu  (1520) rely on the Yingya Shenglan. Zheng Xiao's Wuxuebian  (ca. 1522) relies on Zhang Sheng's rifacimento of the Yingya Shenglan.[z] Zhu Yunming's Qianwen Ji ("A Record of Things Once Heard") (ca. 1526) contains his Xia Xiyang (; lit. "Down the Western Ocean"), which provides a detailed itinerary of the seventh voyage. There are also Lu Rong's Shuyuan Zaji (?; lit. "Bean Garden Miscellany") (1475),Yan Gongjian's Shuyu Zhouzilu (; "Record of Despatches Concerning the Different Countries") (1520), and Gu Qiyuan's Kezuo Zhuiyu (?; "Boring Talks for My Guests") (ca. 1628).Mao Yuanyi's Wubei Zhi () (1628) preserves the Mao Kun map , which is largely based on material from the treasure voyages.
Luo Maodeng's Sanbao Taijian Xia Xiyang Ji Tongsu Yanyi () (1597) is a novel about the exploits of Admiral Zheng He and his fleet. In the preface, Luo states that Chinese maritime power was essential to maintain world order. In Luo's work, Zheng sailed the oceans to search for a sacred imperial seal that would restore harmony in the Middle Kingdom. He never finds this seal in the story, suggesting that the world order cannot be restored by any other means than military force according to Finlay (1992). Luo's novel contains a description of different classes of ships with their sizes: the 36 nine-masted treasure ships (baochuan) were 44.4 by 18 zhang, the 700 eight-masted horse ships (machuan) were 37 by 15 zhang, the 240 seven-masted grain ships or supply ships (liangchuan) were 28 by 12 zhang, the 300 six-masted billet ships or troop transports (zuochuan) were 24 by 9.4 zhang, and the 180 five-masted combat ships or warships proper (zhanchuan) were 18 by 6.8 zhang. Dreyer (2007) argues that this work holds little to no evidential value as a historical source, but also notes that Duyvendak thinks that it may be based on some truth.
The Kezuo Zhuiyu and the Shuyu Zhouzilu describe the following circumstances of what happened to the official archives about the expeditions. The Chenghua Emperor issued an order to retrieve the documents concerning the expeditions to the Western Ocean from the Ministry of War archives, but the official Liu Daxia () had hidden and burned the documents. Liu dismissed the accounts as "deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people's ears and eyes."
The Shuyu Zhouzilu adds the following to the story: The Minister of War Xiang Zhong (; in office 1474-1477) sent a clerk to retrieve the documents, but the clerk could not find them after several days of searching. Liu eventually confessed and justified his actions to Xiang by stating that "the expeditions of Sanbao to the Western Ocean wasted tens of myriads of money and grain, and moreover the people who met their deaths [on these expeditions] may be counted by the myriads. Although he returned with wonderful things, what benefit was it to the state? This was merely an action of bad government of which ministers should severely disapprove. Even if the old archives were still preserved they should be destroyed in order to suppress [a repetition of these things] at the root." Xiang Zhong was recorded to have been impressed by this explanation.
The Mingshi, the Xuanzong Shilu, and the Mingshi Jishi Benmo () attribute the reason for the suppression and destruction of the archived records to prevent eunuch Wang Zhi () from consulting it for his invasion of Vietnam. Dreyer (2007) notes that Liu could not have had access to the records and doubts his alleged involvement. Duyvendak (1939) states that the Ministry of War officials were not influential enough to stop the retrieval of the documents and speculates that Liu may have destroyed them with the Minister of War's approval.
Southeast Asian sources also provide clues about the Ming treasure voyages, but Suryadinata (2005) remarks that their reliability should be scrutinized as these local histories can be intertwined with legends but still remain relevant in the collective memories of the people concerned. For instance, he highlights the difficulties of doing research in the role of the Chinese voyages in the Islamization of Java and Malacca, as these activities are not mentioned in the Chinese chronicles and local accounts may contain more legend than history.
In 1499, shortly before Vasco da Gama's return from India to Portugal, Girolamo Sernigi reported on the Portuguese accounts from da Gama's expedition that "certain vessels of white Christians" had made port at Calicut on the Malabar coast generations before their arrival. He speculated that these unknown mariners could have been the Germans or the Russians, but concluded that they may learn who those people are when da Gama arrives. After his arrival at Calicut, da Gama began hearing tales of pale bearded men who sailed with their giant ships along the local coastal waters of Calicut generations before: the Portuguese had encountered Malabar traditions that preserved the memory of Zheng's voyages, but they were not aware that these tales were about his fleets. They would eventually discover that these unknown mariners were, in fact, the Chinese. Da Gama's men were apparently even mistaken for the Chinese at first on arrival at the East African coast, because the Chinese were the last pale-skinned strangers arriving in large wooden ships in the memories of the East African people.
In the late 16th century, Juan González de Mendoza wrote that "it is plainly seene, that [the Chinese] did come with shipping into the Indies, having conquered al that is from China, unto the farthest part thereof. . . . So that at this day there is great memory of them . . . in the kingdom of Calicut, where be so many trees and fruits . . . were brought thither by the Chinos when that they were lords and governours of that countrie."
In November 1997 during a Harvard University speech, President Jiang Zemin praised Zheng for spreading Chinese culture abroad. Many present-day Chinese people perceive that these expeditions were conducted in accordance with Confucian ideals. Since 2005, in commemoration of the Ming treasure voyages, China has annually celebrated its National Maritime Day on 11 July. That year also marked the 600th anniversary of Zheng's maiden voyage.
Although the present-day popular narrative may emphasize the peaceful nature of the voyages, especially in terms of the absence of territorial conquest and colonial subjugation, it overlooks the heavy militarization of the Ming treasure fleet to exercise power projection and thereby promote its interests. In present-day Chinese political discourse, with rising developments in China's maritime capabilities and ambitions, the Ming treasure voyages are evoked to underscore a peaceful emergence of modern China. It is suggested that, by drawing parallels between contemporary China and the historical narrative as provided by these voyages, this political process provides several functions for China: it stimulates national pride, shapes national identity, reaffirms a maritime identity, legitimizes the development of maritime power, provides an image of a harmonious and peaceful development, highlights interconnectedness with the broader world, and provides contrast to the violent nature of western colonialism. As such, the Ming treasure voyages play an important narrative role in China's desire to change its strategic paradigm to that of a maritime power.