In Chinese history, the treasure voyages were the seven Ming-era maritime voyages of the treasure fleet between 1405 and 1433. The Yongle Emperor initiated the construction of 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 southwestern coast, while the fourth voyage went as far as Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Afterwards, the fleet made voyages farther away 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, conquered 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.
The treasure voyages were commanded and overseen by the eunuch establishment whose political influence was heavily dependent on imperial favor. However, within Ming China's imperial state system, the civil government 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.
Over the course of the maritime voyages of 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 to this day about 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.
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|
Under the reign of the Yongle Emperor, Ming China underwent a military expansionism that also included 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 as the "Xiafan Guanjun" (lit. "foreign expeditionary armada") in Chinese sources. It would come to comprise many trading ships, warships, and support vessels. Many of the fleet's ships were built at the Longjiang shipyard. All of the treasure ships were built there, too. The shipyard was located on the Qinhuai River near Nanjing, where it 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 the construction of the fleet. The Yongle Emperor appointed Admiral Zheng He to command the treasure fleet. He placed great trust in Zheng He, even giving him blank scrolls with the imperial seal so the admiral could issue imperial orders at sea.
In the third lunar month (30 March to 28 April) of 1405, a preliminary order was issued for Zheng He and others to take command of 27,000 troops to the Western Ocean. An imperial edict, dated to 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, hoping to ensure a successful journey and a 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 11 July 1405 entry about the dispatch of the fleet, Admiral Zheng He 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 the goddess of sailors Tianfei with prayers and sacrifices. Afterwards, the fleet sailed down the Chinese coast, towards the mouth of the Min River, where they awaited the northeast monsoon at Taiping anchorage in the Changle district. More prayers and sacrifices were conducted for Tianfei by the crew during the wait for the northeast 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, Qiulon, and Calicut. From Lambri, the treasure fleet sailed straight through the Indian Ocean rather than follow the Bay of Bengal coastline to Ceylon. Three days after the departure from Lambri, a ship split off to and went to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The treasure fleet saw the mountains of Ceylon after another six days and arrived at Ceylon's western coast two days thereafter. They were met with a hostile attitude from Alagakkonara, so they left the place. Dreyer (2007) states that it is possible that Admiral Zheng He made port at Quilon—but there is no account confirming this—because the King of Quilon was with the fleet when they returned to China in 1407. Mills (1970) states that the fleet may have made a four-month stay at Calicut, from December to April 1407 probably. Around Cape Comorin at southern tip of the Indian Peninsula, the treasure fleet changed direction and began with its return journey to China. On the return, the fleet made port at Malacca again.
While returning homewards, Admiral Zheng He and his associates confronted the pirate fleet of Chen Zuyi at Palembang. Chen Zuyi was a pirate leader whose fleet had seized Palembang on Sumatra. He came to dominate the maritime route at the Malaccan strait. The Taizong Shilu recorded that Chen Zuyi tried to evade and withdraw from active engagement with the treasure fleet, although the much-later account in the Mingshi recorded that Chen Zuyi planned to intercept and ambush the treasure fleet. Dreyer (2007) characterized the latter account as a disparaging attempt to portray Chen Zuyi as an evil pirate in contrast to the submitted Chinese merchants of Palembang. The treasure fleet defeated Chen's pirate fleet. During the confrontation, 5000 pirates were killed, ten pirate ships were destroyed by fire, and seven pirate ships were captured. Chen Zuyi and his lieutenants were executed on 2 October 1407. On 29 October 1407, the Yongle Emperor issued an order to reward the officers and other crew members who went to battle against Chen Zuyi's pirate fleet at Palambeng. Ma Huan later wrote that Shi Jinqing, "a man of Guangdong" but residing in Palembang, was the person who had informed Admiral Zheng He about Chen Zuyi's depredations.
They arrived back in 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 in 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 He, Wang Jinghong, and Hou Xian. Lang Ying's Qixiuleigao (七修類稿) recorded that Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, and Hou Xian were dispatched in 1407. The Taizong Shilu recorded that Zheng He and others went as envoys to the countries of Calicut, Malacca, Semudera, Aru, Jiayile, Java, Siam, Champa, Cochin, Abobadan, Qiulon, 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, late 1407 or possibly early 1408, of the Yongle reign. The fleet traveled from Nanjing to Liujiagang to Changle. They then sailed to Champa; Siam; Java; Malacca; Semudera, Aru, and Lambri on Sumatra; Jiayile, Abobadan, Ganbali, Qiulon, 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 He and his fleet did not land on Ceylon. The fleet was tasked to carry out the formal investure of Mana Vikraan (馬那必加剌滿) as the King of Calicut. A tablet was placed in Calicut to commemorate the relationship between China and India.
In this voyage, Ming China would also forcibly settle the enmity that existed between it and Java. Java was ruled by successive Majapahit kings, who had acted defiantly towards Ming China since the Hongwu reign. During the civil war between 1401 and 1406, the King of West Java had killed 170 personnel of a Chinese embassy[b] when they came ashore on his rival's territory at East Java. The Taizong Shilu 23 October, 1407, entry recorded that the Yongle Emperor summoned the Javanese ambassadors. It stated that he accused Java of begging for forgiveness, because Ming China was mobilizing its army to punish them. It also noted that he demanded 60,000 ounces of gold and ordered them to reflect on the situation in Annam (Vietnam), which had recently been invaded by Chinese armies. This happened after the second expedition had been ordered and probably before it had left. The Chinese received and accepted their payment and their apology. They would continue to monitor their activities during subsequent voyages.
During the journey, the fleet visited the Pulau Sembilan in the Strait of Malacca in the seventh year of the Yongle reign (1409), according to Fei Xin. He stated that the troops were sent there to cut wood. Dreyer (2007) concluded that the stop was during the return journey as the treasure fleet did not leave the Chinese coast for the third voyage until early 1410. Fei Xin's written words were: "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 arrived back in Nanjing in the summer of 1409.
The possible confusion of whether Zheng He undertook the second voyage stemmed from the fact that a Chinese envoy was dispatched before Zheng He had departed with the main body of the fleet. The imperial edict for the third voyage was issued during the period of the second voyage whilst the treasure fleet was still in the Indian Ocean. So either Zheng He was 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. J.J.L. Duyvendak thinks that Zheng He could not have been on the second voyage, because this ceremony was so important that it required Zheng He's attendance. Mills (1970), citing Duyvendak, also states that Zheng He did not accompany the fleet for this voyage. However, Fei Xin explicitly mentions Zheng He when describing the 1409 stop at Pulau Sembilan, which strongly suggests that Zheng He had been on the second voyage according to Dreyer (2007).
The imperial order for the third voyage was issued on the first month of the seventh year of the Yongle reign (16 January to 14 February 1409). It was addressed to Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, and Hou Xian.
Admiral Zheng He embarked for this voyage in 1409. The fleet departed from Liujiagang in the ninth month (9 October to 6 November 1409) and arrived at Changle in the following month (7 November to 6 December). They left Changle in the twelfth month (5 January to 3 February 1410) for the seas. They proceeded through 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 Jinghong and Hou Xian made short stops at Siam, Malacca, Semudera, and Ceylon during detours. Arriving in Ceylon in 1410, the treasure fleet landed at Galle.
During the homeward journey in 1411, the treasure fleet would engage into a military confrontation with King Alakeshvara (Alagakkonara) of Ceylon.[d] Alakeshvara posed a threat to the neighboring countries and local waters of Ceylon and southern India. On arrival at Ceylon, the Chinese were overbearing and contemptuous of the Sinhalese, whom they considered rude, disrespectful, and hostile. They also resented that the Sinhalese were committing attacks and piracy towards neighboring countries who had diplomatic relations with Ming China. Admiral Zheng He and a few of his troops traveled overland into Kotte, because Alakeshvara had lured them into his territory. Alakeshvara cut off Admiral Zheng He and his 2000 accompanying troops from the treasure fleet, anchored at Colombo. He also planned to launch an attack on the fleet. In response, Admiral Zheng He and his troops invaded Kotte, conquering its capital. They took captive Alakeshvara, his family, and principal officials. The Sinhalese army hastily returned and surrounded the capital, but they were repeatedly defeated in battle against the invading Chinese troops. The opposing Sinhalese army was said to have over 50,000 troops. The king and his family were taken captive to Nanjing, China. Chinese sources make no mention when the confrontation exactly happened during the course of the third voyage.
Admiral Zheng He returned to Nanjing on 6 July 1411. Thereafter, he presented the Sinhalese captives to the Yongle Emperor. Eventually, the emperor decided to free and return them to their country. He also requested the Ministry of Rites to recommend someone to serve as the new king. However, the previous legitimate dynasty had already re-established themselves in Kotte by the time the Chinese embassy arrived. From then on, the treasure fleet would experience no 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). All the Chinese officials and "barbarian" envoys were invited to attend this event. Duyvendak (1938) states that these envoys were so numerous that they most-likely comprised many of those whom Admiral Zheng He would escort back to their countries during the fourth voyage rather than those from close neighbors. This expedition would lead the treasure fleet into Muslim countries, thus it must have been important for the Chinese to seek out reliable interpreters, such as Ma Huan (who would join the treasure voyages for the first time). A 1523 inscription at a Muslim mosque in Xi'an recorded that, on the 4th month of the 11th year, Admiral Zheng He was there to seek reliable interpreters and found a man named Hasan.
Admiral Zheng He's fleet left Nanjing in 1413, probably in the autumn. They set sail from Fujian in the 12th month of the 11th year in the Yongle reign (23 December 1413 to 21 January 1414). Calicut had been the most-western destination during the previous voyages, but now the fleet sailed to lands further away. The Taizong Shilu recorded Malacca, Java, Champa, Semudera, Aru, Cochin, Calicut, Lambri, Pahang, Kelantan, Jiayile, Ormuz, Bila, Maldives, and Sunla 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, presenting 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. They would engage Sekandar at this point of the voyage. Sekandar had earlier 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 in his own right, he was not recognized by the Chinese. Admiral Zheng He had orders to launch a punitive attack against the usurper and restore Zain al-'Abidin as the rightful king. In retaliation to the situation, Sekandar led his forces to attack the Ming forces, but Admiral Zheng He and his troops disembarked from their ships and captured Sekandar. They had pursued Sekandar's forces to Lambri where they caught 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 Huan stated that Sekandar was publicly executed in the capital after the fleet returned.
On 12 August 1415, Admiral Zheng He's fleet returned to Nanjing from his voyage. The day after their return, a eunuch was sent to Bengal. The Yongle Emperor had been absent since 16 March 1413 for his second Mongol campaign and hadn't returned when the fleet arrived. After the fleet's return, rulers of 18 countries sent envoys bearing tribute 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 take their leave and were bestowed robes before their departure. That day, the Yongle Emperor ordered the undertaking of fifth voyage, which had the avowed objective to return the 18 ambassadors and to reward their kings. On 12 April 1417, he left Nanjing to tour the north.
Admiral Zheng He and other unnamed people had received orders to escort the ambassadors back home. They carried imperial letters and many 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.
Admiral Zheng He may have left the Chinese coast in the autumn of 1417. Admiral Zheng He first made port at Quanzhou to load up the fleet's cargoholds with porcelain and other goods. Archaeological finds of contemporary Chinese porcelain have been excavated at the East African places visited by Zheng He's fleet. A Ming tablet at Quanzhou commemorates that Admiral Zheng He burned incense for divine protection for this voyage on 31 May 1417. The fleet visited the following places: 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. Duyvendak suggested that Zheng He made a show of military force at Mogadishu and Lasa due to the unwelcome reception by the locals.
On 8 August 1419, the fleet had returned to China. The Yongle Emperor was still in Beijing at the time, but he ordered the Ministry of Rites to give monetary rewards to the fleet's personnel. The accompanied ambassadors were received at the Ming court on the eight 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, causing a great sensation among those at the Ming court.
The Taizaong Shilu 3 March 1421 entry noted that the envoys of sixteen countries (Hormuz and other countries) were given gifts of paper and coin money, and ceremonial robes and linings before returning to their respective countries under escort of the treasure fleet. The imperial order for the sixth voyage was dated 3 March 1421. Admiral Zheng He was dispatched with imperial letters, silk brocade, silk floss, silk gauze, and other gifts for the rulers of these countries.
The Taizong Shilu 14 May 1421 entry recorded that the treasure voyages were temporary suspended. Gong Zhen's Xiyang Fanguo Zhi recorded a 10 November 1421 imperial edict instructing Zheng He, Kong He (孔和), Zhu Buhua (朱卜花), and Tang Guanbao (唐觀保) 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's likely that the first few destinations were Malacca and the three Sumatran states of Lambri, Aru, and Semudera. The fleet was divided in 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 the detached squadron to Aden. Ma Huan 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, Admiral Zheng He personally visited Ganbali[f] as an envoy in 1421. This was the only one of the twelve nations west of Sumatra noted to have been visited by Admiral Zheng He. Even though Qiulon was not visited, the squadron for Mogadishu probably separated near Qiulon as a navigation point while the main fleet continued to Calicut. A large squadron proceeded further from Calicut to Hormuz. They may have traveled via the Laccadives.
On the 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 had ordered the temporary suspension of the voyages, but the suspension ultimately came to last to the end of his reign. The imperial attention and funding came to be diverted for the third, fourth, and fifth Mongol campaigns at the expense of the treasure fleet's voyages. Between 1422 and 1431, the treasure fleet remained in Nanjing to serve in the city's garrison.
In 1424, Admiral Zheng He departed on a diplomatic mission to Palembang.[g] 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 He found that the Yongle Emperor had died during his absence after he returned from Palembang.
On 7 September 1424, the Hongxi Emperor terminated the undertaking of further treasure voyages. He was hostile to the undertaking of the voyages. Nevertheless, he kept the treasure fleet as a part of Nanjing's garrison. The fleet also continued to retain its original designation of "Xiafan Guanjun" (lit. "foreign expeditionary armada"). He wished to revert the relocation of the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing, which had happened during the Yongle reign. Thus, on 24 February 1425, he appointed Admiral Zheng He as the defender of Nanjing and ordered him to continue his command over the treasure fleet for the city's defense. Zheng He governed the city with three eunuchs for internal matters and two military noblemen for external matters. There, he awaited the Hongxi Emperor's return along with the military establishment from the north. However, the emperor died on 29 May 1425 before this could have taken place. Therefore, Beijing remained the de facto capital and Nanjing remained the secondary capital. He was succeeded by the Xuande Emperor. In contrast to the Hongxi Emperor, who relied on civil officials during his reign, the Xuande Emperor would rely on eunuchs during his reign. The Xuande Emperor remained in Beijing, which ultimately led to the aforementioned Nanjing government to become a permanent institution.
On 25 March 1428, the Xuande Emperor ordered Zheng He and others to takeover the supervision for the rebuilding and repair of the Great Baoen Temple at Nanjing. He completed the construction of the temple in 1431. Some authorities have speculated that the funds that would have been spent on the treasure voyages were diverted to the construction of the Great Bao'en Temple.
Gong Zhen recorded that an imperial order was issued on 25 May 1430 for the arrangement of necessary provisions for the dispatch of Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, 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 Ch'ing, Lo Chih, T'ang Kuan-po, and Yüan Ch'eng. On 29 June 1430, the Xuande Emperor issued his orders for the seventh voyage. It was addressed to Zheng He and others. The Xuanzong Shilu reported that Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, and others were sent to far-lying foreign lands to bring them into deference and submission. The emperor wished to reinvigorate the tributary relations that had been promoted during the Yongle reign. Before departing for the seventh voyage, Admiral Zheng He and his associates had the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions inscribed.
The Xia Xiyang provides valuable information about the itinerary for this voyage. The following dates are derived from that account. The fleet embarked from Longwan (lit. "dragon bay") in Nanjing on 19 January 1431. On 23 January, the fleet made a stop at Xushan, a currently-unknown island in the Yangtze, where the crew hunted animals. On 2 February 1431, the fleet sailed through the Fuzi Passage (present-day Baimaosha Channel) to the estuary Yangtze River before arriving at Liujiagang the following day (3 February). On 14 March 1431, the Liujiagang inscription was erected there. On 8 April 1431, the fleet arrived at Changle, where they remained until 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 there. On 16 December, they traveled to the Fu Tou Shan, possibly near Fuzhou. The treasure fleet sailed through the Wuhumen on 12 January 1431. On 27 January 1432, the fleet made a call at the capital city Vijaya (near present-day Qui Nhon) of Champa before departing on 12 February. On 7 March 1432, the fleet arrived at Java, where they made port at Surabaya. The fleet remained in the region before departing on 13 July. On 24 July 1432, the fleet arrived at Palembang before departing on 27 July. From Palembang, the fleet sailed down the Musi River, through the Banka Strait, passing the Lingga and Riau archipelagos. The Lingga and Riau archipelagos had a considerable pirate population that posed a threat to passing ships, but these pirates posed no threat to the treasure fleet. On 3 August 1432, the treasure fleet arrived at Malacca. The fleet departed from Malacca on 2 September 1432. They traveled to Semudera and arrived there on 12 September. On 2 November 1432, the fleet departed from Semudera. On 28 November 1432, the fleet arrived at Beruwala on Ceylon. The fleet departed from Beruwala on 2 December. They arrived at Calicut on 10 December. The fleet departed from Calicut to Hormuz on 14 December 1432. They arrived at Hormuz on 17 January 1433. The treasure fleet remained in Hormuz for almost two months before traveling homeward on 9 March 1433.
In the Xia Xiyang, Hormuz was the western-most destination of the seventh voyage that has been noted. However, the Mingshi and other sources continue describing the voyage with at least a total of 17 visited countries from the eight already noted in the Xia Xiyang. The additional destinations that were recorded in the Mingshi are: Coimbator (Ganbali), Bengal, Laccadive and Maldive island chains, Djofar, Lasa, Aden, Mecca, Mogadishu, and Brava. Gong Zhen even recorded a total of 20 visited countries. During the voyage, as Fei Xin mentioned, the fleet made a stop at the Andaman and Nicobar island chains. He wrote that, on 14 November 1432, the fleet arrived at Cuilanxu (probably the Great Nicobar Island) where they anchored for three days due to the unfavorable winds and waves. He further wrote 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.
Admiral Zheng He is explicitly mentioned in the Mingshi in connection to the visits of Ganbali (possibly Coimatore), Lasa, Djorfar, Magadishu, and Brava. Ganbali is in southern India, Lasa and Djorfar is on the southern coast of Arabia, and Magadishu and Brava is in Somalia (Africa). Dreyer (2007) states that the account is unclear on whether he did go to those places in person. The wording in the Mingshi could indicate that he did as the account stated that he proclaimed imperial instructions to the kings of these countries. Although, this may as well not be the case, because the fleet only made short stops at Calicut (4 days outward and 9 days homeward) that could 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 He himself. The Mingshi account about Lasa states that ambassadors from Lasa, Aden, and Brava traveled with Zheng He to China. This meant that the ships carrying them had possibly reassembled with the main fleet in Calicut according to Dreyer (2007), depending on whether Zheng He visited these countries in person or remained with the main portion of the fleet. Dreyer (2007) thinks that the detached squadrons had probably already assembled at Calicut for its homeward journey, because the main fleet didn't stay there for long.
Hong Bao commanded a squadron for the journey to Bengal. Ma Huan traveled with Hong Bao in this squadron. It is not known when they exactly detached from the treasure fleet for Bengal.[h] They sailed from Semudera straight to Bengal. At Bengal, they traveled to Chittagong, then to Sonargaon, and finally to the capital Gaur. They then proceeded to sail from Bengal straight to Calicut. Admiral Zheng He's fleet had departed from Calicut for Hormuz by the time Hong Bao's squadron arrived in Calicut.
Once in Calicut, noticing that local ships were being prepared for Mecca, Hong Bao sent seven Chinese men to accompany a ship bound for Mecca. It is likely[i] that one of the seven men was Ma Huan. Ma Huan wrote about Mecca in the chapter Tianfang ("Heavenly Cube"), a reference to the Qa'aba. After a year, the seven men returned with commodities and valuables that they had purchased, which included giraffes, lions, and ostriches.
Dreyer (2007) suggest that Hong Bao may also have been involved with several other destinations, such as Djofar, Lasa, Aden, Mogadishu, and Brava. However, P. Pelliot suggested that the fleet squadrons detached at Hormuz to travel to Aden, the East African ports and perhaps Lasa.
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), Qiulon and Cochin (when sailing to Calicut). Mills (1970) concluded that Zheng He's associates and not Admiral Zheng He himself had visited Siam, Aru, Nagur, Lide, Lambri, Nicobar Islands, Bengal, Qiulon, Cochi, Coimbatore, Maldive Islands, Dhufar, Lasa, Aden, Mecca, Mogadishu, and Brava.
The following dates for the return journey are derived from the Xia Xiyang. The fleet at Hormuz departed on 9 March 1433 and arrived at Calicut on 31 March. On 9 April, the fleet departed from Calicut. They sailed straight through the open ocean. On 25 April, the fleet arrived at Semudera. On 1 May, the fleet departed from Semudera. On 9 May, the fleet arrived at Malacca. The fleet arrived at the Kunlun Ocean[j] on 28 May 1433.[k] On 13 June, the fleet arrived at Vijaya (present-day Qiu Nhon). The fleet departed from Vijaya on 17 June. The Xia Xiyang notes several geographical sightings[l] from now until the fleet entered Taicang. The fleet arrived at Taicang on 7 July 1433. The Xia Xiyang explicitly mention that it didn't record the journey from Taicang to the capital. On 22 July, they arrived in the capital 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 make port at Ceylon or southern India, because they were sailing under favorable sailing conditions and were running before the southwest monsoon. Ma Huan recorded that the various detached ships reassembled in Malacca to wait for favorable winds before continuing their return.
Admiral Zheng He came back 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 and others, King Bilima of Calicut sent his ambassador Gebumanduluya and others, King Keyili of Cochin sent his ambassador Jiabubilima and others, King Parakramabahu VI of Ceylon sent his ambassador Mennidenai and others, King Ali of Djofar sent his ambassador Hajji Hussein and others, King Al-Malik az-Zahir Yahya b. Isma'il of Aden sent his ambassador Puba and others, King Devaraja of Coimbatore sent his ambassador Duansilijian and others, King Sa'if-ud-Din of Hormuz sent the foreigner Malazu, the King of "Old Kayal" (Jiayile) sent his ambassador Abd-ur-Rahman and others, and the King of Mecca sent the headman (toumu) Shaxian and others.
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. It is not exactly known why the voyages completely ended in 1433. Duyvendak suggested that the complete cessation of the expeditions was partly due to the considerable expenses. Whatever it may be, the costs for undertaking the voyages had not overburdened the Ming treasury. The trade was still flourishing long after the voyages had ceased. Chinese ships continued to control the Eastern Asian maritime trade. They also continued trading around India and East Africa.
The political power gradually shifted to the civil officials, while that of the nobility and military establishment waned, even though they had been important members of the ruling elite during the Hongwu and Yongle reigns. The consequence was that eunuchs were unable to gather enough support to initiate projects opposed by the civil government. Civil officials would remain wary of the eunuchs' attempts to re-initiate the treasure voyages, because the latter continued to put forth suggestions for Ming emperors to emulate the achievements of the Yongle reign. However, no later emperor would seriously consider re-initiating the expeditions. The withdrawal of Ming China's treasure fleet left an enormous void in the foreign imperial dominance over the Indian Ocean.
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 into compliance within 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 providing safe passage to foreign envoys who came bearing tribute.
There was an intention to civilize the so-called barbarian peoples by bringing them into formal submission within Ming China's greater world order. Foreign rulers were forced to acknowledge the inherent moral and cultural superiority of China, an obligation that could be achieved by paying homage and presenting tribute before the Ming court. During the course of the voyages, the Yongle Emperor reasserted the political and cultural hegemony of Ming China over all others.
During the Hongwu Emperor's reign, it became prohibited to undertake military actions overseas. Therefore, as Wang (1998) states, the Yongle Emperor's announcement to search for the Jianwen Emperor—his deposed predecessor and a nephew—may have served as a public justification to undertake the treasure voyages. The Yongle Emperor sought to legitimize his reign by forcing the foreign countries to recognize their tributary status within Ming China's greater world order, which came to entail a diplomatic relationship based on a visible presence of a militaristic naval force in foreign waters.
The treasure fleet was, as Mills (1970) characterized, "an instrument of aggression and political dominance." The Yongle Emperor brought forth the manifestation of China's power and wealth to awe foreign lands under Chinese hegemony. He wished to show the Ming flag and establish a military presence along the maritime trade routes to overawe the foreign countries along these routes.
There is an unlikely theory that the voyages were initiated to search for the dethroned Jianwen Emperor. Another unlikely theory explained that the voyages were triggered in response to another power across Asia, namely the Timurid state of Tamerlane, an enemy of Ming China. However, upon Tamerlane's death in 1405, Ming China was left unchallenged by the Timurid, because Shahrukh (r. 1405–1447) normalized diplomatic relations with China and was preoccupied with holding his state together. The Jianwen or Tamerlane factors are absent from contemporary historical sources, thus 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 it. The treasure fleet's construction was not different in that eunuchs were assigned to supervise it, while the military were assigned to carry it out. Civil officials criticized the state expenses brought forth by the fleet's construction. Despite the criticism, the Yongle Emperor was keen on continuing his grand plans.
The Hongwu Emperor was wary of the political and social consequences that the 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. However, the Yongle Emperor himself aimed at consolidating imperial control over the 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 of regulating the private maritime commerce by establishing an imperial monopoly over it and incorporate it into the tributary system. There was seemingly some sort of an idea about a foreign policy comprising an extended foreign trade, which came to be supported by a heavy military naval presence and a cultivation of shared interests with local allies.
The Yongle Emperor lived in Nanjing from 1402 to shortly after ordering the third voyage in 1409, when he left to supervise the building of a new capital at Beijing. He was in Nanjing during the departure of the fleet for the first and third voyages, and during the return of the fleet from the first three voyages. According to Dreyer (2007), the emperor's interest in the voyages was the highest during this time, but he became more occupied with his offensive military campaigns against the Mongols after establishing the capital at Beijing. The south and the seas were given less and less attention from emperors and officials alike after the transfer of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Dreyer (2007) states that the voyages would have had better prospects if the Hongxi Emperor had succeeded in reverting the relocation of the capital from Nanjing[m] to Beijing, because the court would have been near the Longjiang shipyards where most of the ships were built and the places where the voyages commenced.
In the Ming court, the civil officials were the faction who were against 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. Traditionally, they were political opponents of the eunuch establishment, but also to the military establishments who crewed the fleet. This political and institutional disadvantage within the state system contributed to the inherent opposition of the civil officials against the voyages. On cultural grounds, the hostility came forth due to the trade and acquisition of strange foreign goods which stood in contrast to their Confucian ideologies. The undertaking of these expeditions only remained possible as long as the eunuchs maintained imperial favor. The Yongle Emperor had little consideration for the long-range costs when it came to his determination to undertake the treasure voyages. In any case, the maritime voyages did not overburden the Ming treasury.
Minister of Finance Xia Yuanji was a vocal opponent to the treasure voyages. In 1421, he was imprisoned for voicing his opposition against the Yongle Emperor's decision to undertake the third Mongol military campaign, which would add another expenditure to the existing ones. The Hongxi Emperor was fiercely against the treasure voyages throughout his reign. After the advice of Xia Yuanji, he ordered the cessation of the treasure voyages on 7 September 1424, the day of his accession to the throne. On 8 September 1424, he released Xia Yuanji from his imprisonment. However, the succeeding Xuande Emperor ordered Admiral Zheng He to command the fleet for the seventh voyage. This was after the death of Xia Yuanji on 19 Februari 1430, thus it can be argued that an important obstacle disappeared after his death. The Xuande Emperor went against the general court opinion when he ordered the seventh voyage.
After 1433, the civil officials succeeded in halting subsequent maritime expeditions. The ships were left to rot, while 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 fleet comprised more men than the whole male population of any port city from Guangzhou to Mombasa at the time. Each treasure ship was crewed by about 500 men (according to Mills) or at least 600 men (according to Finlay). The high-ranking officers—Admiral Zheng He and his associates—were from the eunuch establishment. The majority of the crew came from the Ming military. They were mostly recruited from Fujian.
There were seven Grand Directors (taijian)—who served as the ambassadors and commanders of the fleet—followed by 10 Junior Directors (shaojian). Admiral Zheng He was one of the Grand Directors. Including these personnel who were all eunuchs, there was a total of 70 eunuchs in command of the treasure fleet. This was followed by 2 brigadiers (du zhihuishi), 93 captains (zhihuishi), 104 lieutenants (qianhu), and 103 sub-lieutenants (bohu).[n] There were 180 medical personnel, a bureau director[o] from the Ministry of Finance, two secretaries, two protocol officers[p] from the Court of State Ceremonial, 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[q] (lishi), 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 records 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 the recorded envoys are noted to have carried the rank of Grand Director in both inscriptions, except Zhang Da who was noted 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. The two inscriptions explicitly state that Admiral Zheng He had commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and over one hundred oceangoing ships for all their voyages.
Over the course of 1403, Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, and Huguang's provincial governments and Nanjing, Suzhou, and other cities' military garrisons were ordered to begin construction of ships. The Taizong Shilu contains 24 short entries for the imperial orders for ship building from 1403 to 1419. The given figures point to at least 2868 ships being build under imperials orders throughout these years in Ming China.
For the first voyage, the fleet had a personnel of 27,800 or 27,870 men. The treasure fleet comprised a total of 317 ships for this voyage. It included 62 treasure ships. It may also be 63 treasure ships. The Mingshi states that the fleet had 62 treasure ships and a crew of 27,800 for the first voyage. 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 Shilu records an imperial order for the construction of 250 ships specifically for the voyages to the Western Ocean. This actually refers to two separate imperial orders—as recorded in the Taizong Shilu—both to the Nanjing's capital guards for 200 ships (haiyunchchuan, 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 for which these 250 ships were constructed. It also records a 2 March 1404 imperial order for Fujian to construct 5 ships (haichuan) and states that these five ships were for the voyages to the Western Ocean. These 255 ships plus the 62 treasure ships adds up to the total of 317 ships. The figure of 317 ships[r] for the first voyage is the general consensus of most scholars.
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 recorded that the fleet had 48 haibo (lit. "ocean traders") and a crew of over 27,000. Dreyer (2007) states that Fei Xin was probably referring to the treasure ships with haibo. Yan Congjian's Shuyu Zhouzilu and Lu Rong's Shuyuan Zaji used the term "treasure ship" instead when they mentioned the 48 ships for this voyage. Coincidently, the Taizong Shilu recorded the 14 February 1408 imperial order 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 Huan's Yingya Shenglan recorded 63 treasure ships for the fourth voyage. These were probably accompanied by support ships. The fleet was crewed by 28,560 men or 27670 men. Fei Xin recorded a personnel of 27,670 for this voyage, but another source recorded 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 Admiral Zheng He made use of these ships for the sixth voyage. Most scholars have concluded 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's 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 which was accompanied by half a dozen support vessels each.
For the seventh voyage, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions speak of over a hundred large ships (jubo, lit. "great trading vessels"). This probably included most of the remaining treasure ships according to Dreyer (2007). The treasure ships were likely accompanied by support ships. The treasure fleet had 27,550 men as personnel for the voyage.
Before the voyages, there was turmoil around the seas near China. Palembang had become the center of illicit trade under the control of renegades from Guangzhou, the southern Vietnamese coast was under control of bandit slave traders, the city-states in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula were plunged into chaos as their principal income from the Chinese commerce had halted during the Hongwu reign, and the Chinese coast was frequently disturbed by raids from the Japanese wokou (lit. "dwarf pirates"). The treasure fleet had a large number of warships to protect their precious cargo and to secure the maritime routes. The voyages established a substantial Chinese military presence around the South China Sea and trading cities in southern India. Even though Admiral Zheng He 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—rather than through exploration and promotion of trade—in the regions of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, Dreyer (2007) states that it must have been a "terrifying apparition" when the large Chinese fleet came within visible reach before the coastline of a foreign country, 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 battles served as a reminder of the tremendous power of Ming China to the countries along the maritime routes. Chen Zuyi (of Palembang), Alakeshvara (of Ceylon), and Sekandar (of Semudera) were viewed as hostile threats in their regions. On 29 October 1407, the Yongle Emperor ordered rewards for the personnel who had fought at Palembang. On 13 September 1411, the emperor granted both rewards and promotion for the Sinhalese confrontation after the joint recommendation of the Ministry of War and the Ministry of Rites. On 8 August 1419, the emperor ordered the Ministry of Rites to grant monetary rewards to the fleet's personnel, because it was considered appropriate to reward them for sailing long distances and traveling to many foreign countries over many years.
The treasure ships had an enormous cargo of various products. Admiral 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). They even brought back exotic animals, such as ostriches, elephants, and giraffes. There was so much cobalt oxide from Persia that the porcelain center Jingdezhen had a plentiful supply for decades after the voyages. The fleet also returned with such a large amount of black pepper that the once-costly luxury became a common commodity in Chinese society. It has been said that there was sometimes so many Chinese goods unloaded into a single foreign port that it could take about three months to price everything. The treasure voyages resulted in a flourishing Ming economy, while boosting the lucrative maritime commerce to an all-time high.
Imperial proclamations were issued to the foreign kings, which meant 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. 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. Those rulers who submitted received political protection and material rewards.
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, Admiral Zheng He would organize his fleet and make sacrifices to Tianfei. Over the course of the following four to eight weeks, the fleet would gradually proceed to Taiping anchorage in Changle, Fujian. There, the fleet would wait for the favorable northeast monsoon of winter[s] before leaving the Fujian coast. They would reach the sea through the Wuhumen. For the voyages, the fleet always visited the port Qui Nhon (in Champa) first.
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. It had not yet ventured further than Calicut on India's southwestern coast during these voyages. During the fourth voyage, the route was extended to Hormuz. During the fifth voyage, the fleet proceeded further to other destinations at the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. During 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. During 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. During all the voyages, the fleet would sail westward across the Indian Ocean after departing from Sumatra. Semudera and its neighbor (on Sumatra) were important for its location to the fleet rather than for its wealth or products. Ma Huan stated that Semudera was the main route to the Western Ocean. He characterized it as the most important port of assembly for the Western Ocean. Northern Sumatra was an important region for the fleet's anchorage and assembly before the long journey through the Indian Ocean to Ceylon and southern India. The journey from northern Sumatra to Ceylon involved sailing for about two to four weeks without laying sight on land.
The first part of Ceylon that would visible after departing from Sumatra was Namanakuli (or Parrot's Beak Mountain), the eastern-most mountain (6680 ft in elevation and 45 miles away from the coast). Two or three days after sighting this geographical feature, the treasure fleet would adjust their course to sail south of Dondra Head at Ceylon. The fleet would have been at sea for a considerable long time by then since departing from Sumatra, thus they would make a call at a port in Ceylon, usually at Beruwala and sometimes at Galle. Even though the fleet would make a port call at Galle at times, it was clear that the fleet's preference laid at Beruwala as port-of-call. Ma Huan 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 Huan described Calicut as the "great country of the Western Ocean". He was very positive about the Calicut authorities' regulation of trade and attention to weights or measurements. Fei Xin described Calicut as the "great harbor" of the Western Ocean countries.
Fei Xin wrote that the people of Mogadishu were bigoted and insincere (wangyin, both words can also mean "stupid"). This was the most-pejorative description of any foreign nation that they had visited during the ocean voyages. It was further mentioned that they often drilled their soldiers and practiced archery. However, Fei Xin characterized the people of Brava as pure and honest.
The return journey was set during the late summer and early autumn, because favorable monsoon winds would be present during this period.
Admiral Zheng He followed for the most parts established trade routes during his voyages rather than unknown territory. During the treasure voyages, the crew acquired and collected a large amount of navigational data. The astrological officer and his four astrologers specifically recorded the astronomical data. The general mass of navigational data were processed into different kind of charts by a cartographic office. The office included an astrological officer, four astrologers, and their clerks. This 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 true faith of the crew of the treasure fleet centered around Tianfei, the "Heavenly Princess", who was the goddess of sailors and seafarers. The Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He's life was mostly defined by the treasure voyages. Consequently, they also suggest that his devotion to Tianfei was the dominant faith that he adhered to. The two inscriptions honored and commemorated the Goddess Tianfei. Admiral Zheng He and his associates had 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 treasure voyages.
In Galle at Ceylon, Admiral Zheng He set up a trilingual inscription dated 15 February 1409. The Galle Trilingual Inscription is in three languages: Chinese, Tamil, and Persian. For protecting the treasure fleet during the voyages, the Chinese section praised the Buddha, the Tamil section praised a local god who was an incarnation of Vishnu, and the Persian section praised Allah. The three sections each contained the same lists of offerings: 1000 pieces of gold, 5000 pieces of silver, 100 rolls of silk, 2500 catties of perfumed oil, and a variety of bronze ornaments. Thus, the inscription paid respect to the three religions that were dominant in Ceylon. The noted date could refer to when it was erected in Galle, which would indicate that it was put up during the homeward journey of the second voyage. The inscription could also have been prepared beforehand in China and erected at Galle between 1410 to 1411 during the third voyage.
On 20 September 1414, Bengali envoys presented a tribute giraffe 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 this association was met with a dismissive attitude from the Yongle Emperor who rejected the laudatory memorials of his officials.
There are several extant contemporary accounts, including Ma Huan's Yingya Shenglan [瀛涯勝覽], Fei Xin's Xingcha Shenglan [星槎勝覽], and Gong Zhen's Xiyang Fanguo Zhi [西洋番國志]. Ma Huan served as an interpreter on the fourth, sixth, and seventh voyage. Guo Chongli was Ma Huan's collaborator on the Yingya Shenglan and participated in three of the expeditions. Fei Xin served as a soldier on the third, fifth, and seventh expedition. Gong Zhen served as Zheng He's private secretary on the seventh voyage.
The Ming Shilu, Ming veritable records containing sections about reigns of individual emperors, also provided much of the information relating to the treasure voyages. Zheng He lived through the reigns of five Ming emperors, but he directly served three emperors in his life. 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 had combined the second and third voyages into one expedition. This was followed by the Mingshi. It led to the confusion of Zheng He's Palembang journey of 1424–25[t] as being wrongly construed as the sixth voyage to make up for the seven voyages. However, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions made 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.
A number of later works have also been preserved. The accounts in the Mingshi (1739) and Huang Xingzeng's Xiyang Chaogong Dianlu [西洋朝貢典錄] (1520) rely on Ma Huan's original Yingyai Shenglan. However, Zheng Xiao's Wuxuebian [吾學編] (ca. 1522) relies on Zhang Sheng's "rifacimento" of Ma Huan's Yingya Shenglan.[u] Zhu Yunming's Qianwen Ji [A Record of Things Once Heard] (ca. 1526) contains his Xia Xiyang [Down the Western Ocean], which provides a detailed itinerary of the seventh voyage. There are also Lu Rong's Shuyan Zaji [Bean Garden Miscellany] (1475), Yan Gongjian's Shuyu Zhouzilu [Record of Despatches Concerning the Different Countries] (1520), Gu Qiyuan's Kezuo Zhuiyu [Boring Talks for My Guests] (ca. 1628). Mao Yuanyi's Wubei Zhi (1628) preserved the Mao Kun map, which is largely based on material from the treasure voyages.
Luo Maodeng's Sanbao Taijian Xia Xiyang Ji Tongsu Yanyi [三寶太監西洋記通俗演義] (1597) is a fiction novel about the exploits of Admiral Zheng He and his fleet. In the preface, Luo states that Chinese maritime power was essential to maintaining the world order. In Luo's work, Admiral Zheng He sailed the oceans in search for a sacred imperial seal to restore harmony in the Middle Kingdom. However, he never finds the seal in the story, suggesting that it showed that the world order cannot be restored by other means than military force according to Finlay (1992). Luo Maodeng'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. However, Duyvendak thinks that there may be some truth to it.
The Kezuo Zhuiyu and the Shuyu Zhouzilu describes 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 Daxia dismissed the accounts as "deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people's ears and eyes."
The Shuyu Zhouzilu then adds the following to the story. The Minister of War, Xiang Zhong, (in office 1474–1477) had sent a clerk to retrieve the documents, but could not find them after several days of searching. Liu Daxia eventually confessed and justified his actions to Xiang Zhong 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 Xianzong Shilu, and the Mingshi Jishi Benmo attributes the reason for the suppression and destruction of the archived records to preventing that the powerful eunuch Wang Zhi could consult it for his invasion of Vietnam. Dreyer (2007) notes that Liu Daxia couldn't have had access to the records in his capacity at the time, thus raising doubt about his actual involvement. Duyvendak (1938) stated that the Ministry of War officials weren't influential enough to stop the retrieval of the documents and therefore speculates that Liu Daxia may have destroyed them with the approval of the Minister of War. Wheatly (1961) stated that all official record of the voyages were destroyed in the rivalry between the eunuchs and civil officials, so much so that knowledge gathered were lost, and subsequent accounts in official documents such as Ming Shi contains errors.
In September 1499, Vasco da Gama returned to Lisbon, Portugal, from his voyage to India. Before da Gama's return, Girolamo Sernigi wrote about Portuguese accounts that "certain vessels of white Christians" had made port at Calicut on the Malabar coast generations before their arrival. The Portuguese speculated that these unknown mariners could have been the Germans or the Russians, but Sernigi concluded that "on the arrival of the captain [da Gama] we may learn who these people are." After his arrival at Calicut, Vasco da Gama began hearing tales of pale bearded men who sailed with their giant ships along the local coastal waters of Calicut generations before. At the time, the Portuguese had not yet discovered that these stories were actually about Zheng He's 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 had been the last-seen pale-skinned strangers arriving with large wooden ships in the memories of the East African people.
In Calicut, da Gama had received permission to build a factory at Chinacota, where a Chinese storehouse first stood eighty years before. In the 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 Admiral Zheng He for spreading Chinese culture abroad. This may give an indication on how the present-day Chinese people perceive these historical events, namely that the voyages were conducted in accordance to Confucian ideals. In 2005, China commemorated the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's maiden voyage, characterizing it as the start of a series of peaceful seafaring explorations.