In 1492, Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue, but compared to Zheng He, he was a Christopher-comes-lately in a tiny toy boat.
Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He’s massive ships sailed the trade routes between East Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. His flagships measured over 120 meters in length, nearly six times the size of Columbus’ Santa Maria. In effect, these were some of the largest and most heavily armed ships to sail the oceans before the great battle cruisers of the modern period. And no, he did not always come in peace.
Zheng He was born to a Muslim family in Yunnan Province in 1371. He may have been a distant grandson to a Persian official who had served the Mongolian Empire in Yunnan back in the days of the Yuan Dynasty. At age 14, Zheng He was castrated and as a eunuch, entered the service of Zhu Di, son of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. Over time, Zheng He became a trusted military confidant of Zhu Di and even assisted the Ming prince when Zhu Di usurped the throne from his nephew in 1402. From then on, he would serve as a key adviser and military official to the emperor, ultimately leading to his appointment as admiral and commander in charge of exploring the trade routes of the Indian Ocean.
While the routes he sailed were hardly unknown to the hardy merchants of Fujian and Guangdong, Zheng He packed a bang not usually associated with eunuch admirals. His voyages intimidated and impressed ports of calls as far away as the Arabian Peninsula and the east coast of Africa.
Despite what you might have read in a few sensationalist books, there is no evidence that Zheng He’s fleets ever made it to North America. It’s not that they couldn’t have done it, we just don’t have any hard evidence that they did.
Zheng He never made it to Europe either, although if he had, it might have seriously changed the course of world history.
Imagine a fleet of these behemoths appearing off of the coast of Venice in 1420, doing a sail by of the Iberian Peninsula or traveling up the Thames River. One imagines that the traders/raiders from the Age of European Exploration wouldn’t have been so eager to force their way into the ports of Asia had they figured on tangling with Zheng He’s fleet.
Unfortunately, these all will have to remain in the “what if” file. Not only did Zheng He never go to Europe (one imagines that the residents at the relatively civilized Indian Ocean ports warning him of the Dark Age barbarians on the other coast…), successive emperors gave the voyages overall mixed reviews. Eventually, they were stopped altogether. Zheng He’s last trip lasted from 1430-1433.
The arguments over ending the voyages easily relate to some of the debates held today regarding space exploration. They’re expensive and we need to focus on problems closer to home.
Still, the fleets brought home plenty of treasures and curiosities. For example, on one of Zheng He’s voyages, a giraffe was taken back to give to the emperor. At first, everybody thought it was a Qilin, a mystical beast with magic powers that’s known to appear at auspicious times. Later, when officials performing inventory at court determined it was not a magical creature, but just a weird animal, they gave it a new name which translates to “long neck deer.”
July 11 is Maritime Day in China and while the holiday is new (first established in 2005), it celebrates one of the oldest and boldest ocean-going voyages from the Age of Exploration.
Really, isn’t the Chinese language marvelous? Their conversation might have gone something like this:
“Three crates gold.”
“Three crates gold, check.”
“Forty carpets, check.”
“One…one…what do you think this is, Lao Wei?”
“Well, Xiao Hu, I’d say it looks like a long-necked deer.”
“One long-necked deer, check.”
Despite everything, the voyages came to a close and it could be argued that the cancellation of the sorties ultimately created a naval power vacuum in the Indian Ocean—then the center of global trade—which all but actively sucked in the first European explorers.
By the way, I don’t mean to say that we should only look at these voyages for what they failed to do during their time or by their termination. Truly, they were a remarkable achievement, which expanded the court’s official knowledge of the world, while consolidating trade routes that would be traveled by merchants from then-present China and beyond.
Thanks to Zheng He’s boldness, and probably a little luck, we now celebrate July 11th as China’s National Maritime Day, an invention made in 2005 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the first of Zheng He’s many voyages.