Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The seven Ming Dynasty diplomatic expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He mark the high point of Chinese naval power, involving the greatest naval armadas in history up to that time.

Summary of Event

In his twenty-two-year reign as the Yonglo Yonglo emperor, Zhu Di (Chu Ti) reversed many of his father’s policies. He relocated the national capital from Nanjing to Beijing in the north, rebuilt both the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, began diplomacy and trade with China’s nearer neighbors such as Japan and Korea, and sent armies to control both Vietnam in the south and his northern neighbors, the Mongols and Jurchens. His reign both at home and abroad was one of the most dynamic and expansive in all Chinese history. [kw]Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions (1405-1433) [kw]Naval Expeditions, Zheng He’s (1405-1433) Zheng He Exploration;Chinese China;exploration Arabia;1405-1433: Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions[3090] China;1405-1433: Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions[3090] Southeast Asia;1405-1433: Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions[3090] Africa;1405-1433: Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions[3090] Diplomacy and international relations;1405-1433: Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions[3090] Trade and commerce;1405-1433: Zheng He’s Naval Expeditions[3090] Zheng He Hongwu Yonglo Hongxi Xuande Xia Yuanji

Yonglo’s principal aim behind the expeditions of Zheng He Zheng He was to establish the greatness and power of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by having foreign rulers recognize Chinese suzerainty. Most of the places visited by Zheng He’s ships were known in China through earlier reports from Chinese and Arab merchants and travelers. The fleets featured hundreds of ships, dominated by nine masted treasure ships of three thousand tons burden, as well as specialized troop and supply ships, all accompanied by well-armed warships. These armadas awed everyone they encountered.

Zheng He’s ships returned to China with exotic treasures and foreign envoys that added luster to the Yonglo emperor’s rule. African giraffes drew great wonder at the Chinese court while two well-known food delicacies—shark’s fin and bird’s nests—were said to have been introduced through Zheng He’s missions. Commercial transactions were a secondary purpose at best. The first three voyages visited areas known to Chinese seamen, but not previously visited by official Ming envoys. Later voyages ventured into lesser-known waters in the India Ocean, along the Arabian Peninsula and the East African coast. The intent, however, was not exploration in the sense of opening areas to Chinese commerce, religion, or residence, but rather to have the rulers they encountered recognize the great power of the Ming Dynasty.

Yonglo placed a trusted member of his own household, the eunuch Zheng He, in charge of the first expedition in 1405. Based on the considerable achievements of Song (Sung; 960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) Dynasty seamanship, Zheng He built special treasure ships in Chinese shipyards. These vessels carried large sails and boasted rudders of advanced design, superior navigational equipment, and stabilization gear for rough seas. Zheng He’s largest ships were 400 feet (120 meters) long while Columbus’s caravel, the Santa Maria, for example, was only 85 feet (26 meters) long. Each expedition required at least a year’s preparation and most lasted for about two years.

Zheng He led the first expedition with more than thirty great treasure ships and hundreds of other vessels. He established diplomatic relations especially at Malacca on the Malay Peninsula and Calicut, a famous pepper trading port, on the southwest coast of India before returning to China with cargos of exotic goods as well as envoys to the Ming court. Zheng He and many of his subordinate eunuch commanders, as well as unknown numbers of his crews, were Muslims. In their journeys through the waters of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, they dealt with many Muslim rulers, merchants, and seafarers. The five remaining naval expeditions Zheng He undertook during Yonglo’s reign followed the pattern of the first, but each sought new treasures and new evidence of China’s dominance.

Zheng He’s fleets sailed as far west as the west coast of India in early voyages. The fourth expedition of 1411 reached the Persian Gulf and the fifth the coast of East Africa. Zheng He often dispatched smaller squadrons of ships commanded by eunuch subordinates to undertake special exploratory cruises. The sixth and final effort of Yonglo’s reign came in 1421. These missions testify to the skill of the Ming Chinese in shipbuilding, navigation, and naval command, which far exceeded the abilities of the Arabs, their only real rivals at the time.

Several factors mark major differences between Zheng He’s voyages and those of Europeans in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Most important was that Zheng He’s goal was not exploration or discovery but to establish diplomatic relations. Also, at the time of Zheng He’s voyages in the early fifteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese explorers had just begun their first assays into the Atlantic and along the coast of Africa. In the early fifteenth century, Europeans lacked the skills to undertake voyages comparable to Zheng He’s in terms of duration and distance. Further, the scale of Zheng He’s expeditions, the size of the ships, and the numbers of people were far greater than those of fifteenth and sixteenth century Europeans. For example, with only three small ships and about one hundred men, Vasco de Gama reached Calicut on India’s coast about a century later than Zheng He’s ships. Travel by sea;Zheng He Zheng He had led dozens of huge ships, along with a supporting fleet of hundreds and a crew of twenty-five thousand.

The emperor Hongxi Hongxi (Ming emperor) , also known as Zhu Gaozhi (Chu Kao-chih), halted the expeditions in 1426. In 1431, his successor, the emperor Xuande Xuande (Ming emperor) , also known as Zhu Zhanji (Chu Chan-chi), authorized a seventh expedition in order to reestablish diplomatic linkages. Zheng He again led the fleet but died on the return to China and was buried at sea. His death marked the end of great Chinese naval projects.


Zheng He’s voyages reflect the boundless ambition of the emperor Yonglo but were only one of that great ruler’s many bold undertakings. After Zheng He’s death, Ming rulers ended naval diplomatic missions. It is only in retrospect that Zheng He’s expeditions have attracted historians’s attention. The Chinese superiority in shipbuilding, navigation, and seamanship withered quickly. The Ming Dynasty’s abandonment in 1433 of efforts to project its power via the ocean contrasts with increasing European interest and success in seaborne exploration, commerce, and colonization beginning about fifty years later at the end of the fifteenth century. Thus, the termination of Zheng He’s expeditions are considered a precursor of the great shift in power from China to Europe that was finalized only in the nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairbank, John King, and Denis Twichett, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644. Vols. 7-8 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Contains discussions of Zheng He’s voyages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodrich, L. Carrington, and Chaoying Fang, eds. Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Contains biographies of Zheng He and other important people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levathes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. An engagingly written popular account of Zheng He and his voyages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Menzies, Gavin. 1421: The Year China Discovered America. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Menzies claims ships from Zheng He’s fleets explored the Atlantic and most of the Pacific. The record, however, does not support his speculations. His book is a fanciful tale that masks the true accomplishments of Zheng He and his fleets, which were the greatest and most accomplished navies the world had yet seen. Menzies’s fertile nautical imagination, along with his misuse of historical maps and archeological evidence, have led him far astray. There is no reason to believe that Zheng He’s missions ever sailed beyond East African or Southeast Asian waters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, F. W. Imperial China, 800-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Chapter 24 is a brilliant account of the Yongle period and Zheng He’s place in it.

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