Zheng He: Leader of the Ming Dynasty’s Treasure Voyages

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The Ming Dynasty’s treasure voyages consisted of seven maritime expeditions made by Ming China’s treasure fleet between 1405 to 1433. The expedition was commanded by Admiral Zheng He(郑和), the Yongle emperor’s trusted court eunuch who served as the Grand Director (太监) of the Directorate of Palace Servants in the palace. The legend of these treasure voyages live on till today because the Ming Dynasty’s naval armada rivalled the size of modern naval fleets during World War II, with ships utilising technology that wouldn’t be invented in the West for a thousand years.


Emperor Zhu Di sends Zheng He to lead a voyage across the South China Sea

The fleet stops at Vietnam, Thailand, Java, the Straits of Malacca, Cochin and India. Consisting of 317 ships with as many as 60 treasure ships and 28,000 men, there were soldiers, sailors, builders, ship repairmen, diplomats, medical personnel, astronomers and scholars well versed in foreign culture.

Zheng Heʼs fleet arrives in Calicut, India after its first voyage

After a brief stop in Champa and Java, Zheng Heʼs fleet sails across the Indian Ocean and arrives in Calicut, India, their ultimate destination.

Zheng He begins his second voyage

Emperor Zhu Di is so pleased with the results of the first voyage that he immediately orders a second one. The voyage, which lasts until 1409, establishes friendly contact with Malacca, an important trading centre.

Zheng He leads his third voyage

In September, Zheng He led the third imperial voyage to Ceylon, where he and his fleet display a veneration for Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. They return in 1411.

Zheng He leads his fourth voyage and reaches Africa

On his fourth voyage in 1413, Zheng Heʼs fleet reaches Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf, and detachments sail south along the east coast of Africa almost as far as present-day Mozambique.

Zheng He leads his fifth voyage

On his fifth voyage, Zheng He reaches Yemen, Southern Arabia, and the Eastern Coast of Africa. He returns in 1419.

Zheng He leads his sixth voyage

On this voyage, Zheng He once again establishes friendly contact and trade routes with a number of key cities.

Zheng He is called home to become a military commander

When Emperor Zhu Di dies of natural causes, his son takes the throne and immediately calls back all military and exploratory campaigns. Zheng He is called home to become military commander of Nanjing, but the new emperor dies suddenly.

Zheng He leads his final voyage

Zheng He leads his last imperial voyage, his seventh, to the South China Sea. His journey takes his fleet down the East African coast as far as modern-day Kenya, and they trade for amber with the African people they encounter.

Zheng He dies

During his final voyage, Zheng He contracts a disease and dies at age 62. His body is buried at sea off the Malabar Coast near Calicut. His clothes and headgear are later placed in a tomb in Nanjing.

To read the rest of this article, check out our latest issue of Asian Geographic No.136 Issue 3/2019 here or download a digital copy here


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