15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Traditional accounts of Zheng He’s voyages describe a great fleet of massive  wooden ships, the largest sail-powered wooden vessels in human history.

The Yongle Emperor planted vast orchards of tung trees (Vernicia fordii), to extract oil for preparing caulk to seal his huge Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ships.

Conjecture about the size of ships of Zheng He’s fleet

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A full size replica of Zheng He's treasure ship at the site of the shipyard where original ship was built in Nanjing (Alamy) (Source: telegraph.co.uk)
A full size replica of Zheng He’s treasure ship at the site of the shipyard where original ship was built in Nanjing (Alamy) (Source: telegraph.co.uk)

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According to some writers, the first expedition launched in 1405 consisted of a fleet of 317 ships including 62 treasure ships with a total strength of 27,800 men. If the accounts are factual, the fleet included:

  • Nine-masted, mammoth “Treasure ships” (Bǎo Chuán) about 417 feet (127 metres) long and 171 feet (52 metres) wide, with four decks, capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, as well as a huge amount of cargo. They were used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies;
  • Eight-masted, Equine ships (Mǎ Chuán) about 338 feet (103 metres) long and 138 feet (42 metres) wide, to carry horses, tribute goods, and repair material for the fleet;
  • Seven-masted, Supply ships (Liáng Chuán), about 256 feet (78 metres) long and 115 feet (35 metres) wide, to contain staple for the crew;
  • Five-masted, Fuchuan warships (Fú Chuán), about 160 feet (50 metres) long;
  • Eight-oared, Patrol boats (Zuò Chuán), about 121 feet (37 metres) long;
  • Water tankers (Shuǐ Chuán), with one month’s supply of fresh water.

Aboard the ships were navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, and soldiers along with the translator and diarist Gong Zhen who accompanied Zheng He on all his seven voyages to the western ocean until 1433.

Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.

The Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo and the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, have both described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their travel accounts.

Niccolò Da Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness of ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen five-masted junks weighing about 2,000 tons.

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Replica of Chinese Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ship of early 14th century vs Columbus' Santa Maria (1492).
Replica of Chinese Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ship of early 14th century vs Columbus’ Santa Maria (1492).

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Some writers claim that the treasure ships were immense, floating cities as long as 600 feet. They also claim that  a single deck of a single vessel in the fleet that set sail under Zheng He could have held  all the ships of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama combined.

Some modern scholars consider these descriptions of ships a bit exaggerated. They estimate that Zheng He’s treasure ships were 390–408 feet (118.9–124.4 metres) long and 160–166 feet (48.8–50.6 metres) wide while others place them as small as 200–250 feet (61.0–76.2 metres) in length, which would make them smaller than the equine, supply, and troop ships in the fleet.

One explanation for the apparent inefficient size of these colossal ships was that the large treasure ships were just used by the Yongle Emperor and his imperial bureaucrats to travel on the navigable calm waters of the Yangtze river.

Some detractors even claim that Zheng He, a court eunuch, would not have had the privilege in rank to command the large treasure ships, seaworthy or not.

In May 1421, the Yongle Emperor issued an order suspending Zheng He’s maritime expeditions, on account of their enormous expenditure. However, the order did not affect the sixth voyage (1421 – 1422) of Zheng He.

On August 12, 1424, the Yongle Emperor died while Zheng He was on an official mission to Palembang after his sixth voyage.

The Yongle Emperor had left China in political and economic chaos.

Zhu Gaochi , the Hongxi Emperor

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The Hongxi  Emperor (Born as Zhu Gaochi), the fourth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)
The Hongxi Emperor (Born as Zhu Gaochi), the fourth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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On September 7, 1424, the Yongle Emperor’s son Zhu Gaochi (August 16, 1378 – May 29, 1425), ascended the Ming dynasty throne as the Hongxi Emperor.

Prominent Confucian tutors taught Zhu Gaochi. He often acted as regent in Beijing or Nanjing during the Yongle Emperor’s northern military campaigns.

On ascending the throne, the Hongxi Emperor restored disgraced Confucian officials, such as Emperor Yongle’s minister of revenue Xia Yanji, imprisoned since 1421. He reorganized the administration and gave high ranks to his close advisors.

During the Hongxi Emperor’s reign shrinking funds, foreign aggressions, and above all the Confucian aversion towards trade and prosperity caused the abrupt abandonment of shipbuilding by the Chinese.

In September 1424, the Hongxi Emperor, on the advice of his close advisors, canceled Zheng He’s maritime expeditions once and for all.  The emperor left the  great ships to rot at their moorings or burned them down. He ordered the destruction of the records of the expeditions.

Now, the only concrete evidence of the seafaring expeditions we can glean from are available only in the folklore, artifacts, porcelains, and statues found at various islands and ports in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The Hongxi Emperor abolished frontier trade of tea for horses as well as missions for gold and pearls to Yunnan and Vietnam.

China plummeted into isolation.

The Hongxi Emperor appointed Zheng He as Defender of Nanjing, the empire’s southern capital. In that post, Zheng He was responsible for completing the construction of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing  begun by the Yongle Emperor..

On May 29, 1425, the Hongxi Emperor died of a heart attack.

Though Hongxi’s reign was short, he made reforms of lasting improvements in China.

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Next →  Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage

← Previous: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He

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