The Seven Voyages of Fleet Admiral Zheng He Between 1405-33

Reading an excellent collection of history articles in an edition titled ‘China Goes To Sea’ one may find a good treatment of the interesting voyages of a 15th century Chinese sailor from a Muslim family of south China for the Ming Dynasty’s third Emperor- Yongle (Zhu Di).

Zheng He was the name of the man castrated after capture during war eventually promoted to be the Emperor Yongle’s admiral of a vast fleet of as many as 250 ships. Politicians of the era castrated their subjects in some instances in order to help concentrate wealth and power for elites. Even as a third Ming political ultimate insider Emperor Yongle would want enough eunuchs as court functionaries- adequately compensated and unlikely to produce rival heirs with undesirable anti-imperial ambitions.

‘The Maritime Transformation of Ming China’ by Andrew Wilson
is an article in the book that recounts the voyages of Zheng He and his fleet to points as far as Jeddah on the Red Sea, Ceylon and Mogadishu.

The book collection ‘China Goes to Sea-Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective’ published in 2009 elaborates the contemporary decision paradigm and historical background on the crucible that China finds itself in on choosing what extent it should develop its sea power beyond the coast to dwell the seven seas.

The book’s essays provide additional data on the rise of modern Chinese shipyards of large size-more than 200, and on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (The PLAN). Presently the PLAN has at least 5 nuclear attacks subs, 55 diesel attack subs, 30 destroyers,45 frigates, 35 missile patrol craft and 55 amphibious ships. The multinational dialectical or quadralectical evolution of ship buildings arms races is interesting to consider. In some cases even the top leaders may change sides (e.g. Alcibiades) when different employment compensation packages arise to provide suitable beyond the beltway incentives.

In some periods of history such as that of China’s warring states diplomacy has not been able to prevent the people of the next valley over from acting in the logic of arms races and war. The inevitable high risk of failing to be ready to war in a primitive social environment and consequences of defeat-execution, castration, enslavement and torture incentivize readiness for high casualty lethal battle engagements. The odds for incidence and intensity of conflict increase in relation to the transformation of the geodeographic region universally to one of militarized societies.

China was quite a naval power in the 15th century, yet its military capability at sea was largely a development of the domestic conflicts on rivers and lakes as well as along the coast of China. China’s naval power largely ended during the Ming dynasty too, as the Emperor believed that any naval power-especially those of rivals and pirates- comprised a threat to state security.

Chinese history is interesting reading for the variegated complexity and quantitative substance of its internal permutations. The Zheng He story is another of the lines for historical inquiry that take one to contemplation of those early and for most of us rather hazy times.

Zheng He grew up in a late 14th century Muslim home in south China informing us a little of the spread of the Moslem religion across Southern Eurasia. Perhaps Yongle promoted Zheng He to admiral of a 250 ship expeditionary fleet to the Moslem world because of his religion.

In the early 15th century the crusaders had been forced out of the Middle East and points south were prevalently Moslem. The Osmanli tribe and horde would soon take Constantinople-last hope of the Byzantine Empire. Eventually the Ottoman Empire would rule present day Saudi Arabia and Jeddah too imposing its will upon Iran. Centuries before Moslem invaders had compelled Iranians to speak Arabic and lose their native Persian languages.

Zheng He may have moved his fleet with expendable, smaller faster scout boats in advance. Many of the voyages travelled the same course on the later missions. Perhaps several ships were lost although with so many in the flotilla modest attrition was tolerable. The voyages were expensive though. Emperor Yongle got into office by rebellion and some speculate may have used the great mission to reinforce his apparent power.

I cannot help comparing these expensive voyages over known travel routes a little like our potential American missions to Mars in the cost and scale. There must be smarter, faster ways to get Americans and others to Mars and back at less cost. Maybe Yongle might have sent horsemen to the Moslem world; for sure Genghis Khan the Mongol ruler did, and perhaps Kublai Khan had little interest in Beijing in funding missions with boats to place other than Japan.

The matter of Zheng He being the Ming Emperor’s possible way of establishing cultural contact with the west as a way to find allies against northern Mongol and Manchu dangers aside-as if he was a 15th century Byzantine looking for an Eastern Prester John ally to defend against Moslem and/or Mongol/Manchu forces, one might still wonder if the idea for a 400 foot Chinese built junk originated with Zheng He’s youthful learning about Noah’s ark through religious instruction. It is interesting that the insurrection against the Qing Manchu dynasty by the Christian neo-heretic (I say that with kindness because he didn’t have good religious instruction) Hong Xe Quan
Who believed he was the younger brother of God in a somewhat confused religious education brackets a little the Manchu Qing era rule of China until 1911 about the time Ottoman rule was ended in the Middle East; one can find parallel occurrences in history ad infinitum and interesting.

Maybe mankind should build a habitat on Mars under thick glass before sending two of every kind of animal to live there should the opportunity arise.

The ancient world probably has numerous untold maritime voyages perhaps at best hinted at by reason, logic and archaeological finds. Crete had human settlers by sea as early as 20,000 years ago. I have wondered about the linguistic similarity of Chukotka to the 12th century Missouri town of Cahokia with its 300 foot high Earth mound pyramids. One must wonder if ancient Irish or Vikings crossing the Atlantic to New Foundland via Greenland the St. Lawrence Seaway and Wisconsin eventually made it to the near St. Louis site of indigenous American civilization at Cahokia that lasted less than 200 years. Further west one of the only known pre-Columbian instances of mass murder and city defense wall storming occurred in an excavated Amer-Indian site in North Dakota. Where such banzai storming tactics learned from Vikings moving on after stimulating the Cahokian civilization to rise? Did they eventually make it to Wrangell Alaska via the Stikine River of Canada and leave spiral carvings and beehive huts at 54 degrees north latitude-about the same latitude as Newgrange Ireland’s oldest in Europe remaining Neolithic building? Did the voyagers portage skin boats from Skagway Alaska and find the Yukon River to float down to Bering Strait and across to Chakotka?

These speculative histories are fun to consider, yet the voyages of Zheng He are historically available for research. One can still imagine the progress of a 27,000 man floating city slowly through the Strait of Malacca, over the Indian Ocean and to the scorching Red Sea as a site to behold. Sailing a boat without a motor near Santa Cruz island one night with the wind dropping to about dead calm I saw a marvelous lighted structure moving through the night-unfortunately it eventually moved toward me and turned out to be a large ocean tug and tow. I had thought watching its lights move through the dark that it might be a gambling ship taking patrons offshore for a night of extra-territorial dice throwing.

Zheng He presented a formidable appearance to the pirates and potentates of the day and night I would think-yet finally the expense was too high for later Ming Emperors engaged in military conflicts closer to home to continue the encounters with the Muslim world and perhaps Buddhists too of the Theravada of Ceylon and elsewhere south of the far east.

Maritime activity may be many things from private shipping for trade, dumping toxic waste in African coastal sites with a small bribe to corrupt local officials, a way to access and plunder fisheries from underdeveloped nations as well as the even worse problem of private or government pirates preying upon commercial shipping and hapless boaters seeking refuge from tough economic times. Naval power may be developed for several reasons including coastal defense against foreign invasion and piracy, assertion of global hegemony and so forth. Naval forces may build up in order to get jobs for special interests or as excuses for overcharging taxpayers for unneeded vessels at two or three times the off the shelf price at Ships Are Us.

In the article by Wilson the history of the Ming rise to power in a series of large naval battles on Chinese rivers and lakes (The Poyang Campaign) is described as a turning point. The Ming navy defeated a rival Chinese navy.
One might compare the rise of American space power to the rise of Ming naval power and wonder if the shying away from a previously impressive government manned sea or space program coinciding with the decline of select economic prospects was related.

Space power may be used for peaceful or military purposes, yet like the Ming era pirates may plunder global interests and aspire to become national or planetary rulers. One might anticipate that space pirates will also aspire to plink the earth with hyper-kinetic rocks/asteroids from outside the inner solar system if their demands are not met in some future crisis. A competent yet not break the bank scale coast guard is requisite for many coastal nations historically.

Zheng He’s fleet only sailed downwind during monsoon season at 4.5 miles per hour top speed. Yet it might have had the largest wooden ships ever built (beside that of Noah) of a little more than 400 feet. Dr. Wilson mentions that there may have been as many as 27,000 men on each mission. The vast armada may have been trade missions to advertise that the Ming dynasty was ready to do business.

The articles in the book regard the rise of several nations navies produced by largely land powers; Persia, Sparta, Rome-Ottoman Empire sea power of ancient times as well. The political factors that brought the investment in a fleet and the historical result of those investments are considered along with more recent examples such as imperial Germany.

I would like to mention something here a little off topic. Germany after the First World War was forbidden to have much of a navy-so it built many submarines and had that one excellent battleship trapped and sank in Paraguay by several British destroyers. The French agreed to have their fleet kept in ports under their control yet with Nazi supervision so they would be neutral during the second world war after the Germans invaded France, while the British had to decide (Churchill largely) if they would send their fleet to the United States if Britain lost to an invading Germany or if a Prime Minister more like Chamberlain replaced Churchill who would order the fleet Vichified (made neutral in order to comply with Nazi demands) and remain in port or be given over eventually to the Nazi navy.

These calculations about the value of a navy and its use have many political elements to them not uncommonly in history. By the 17th century China’s navy was atrophied and unable to compete much with that of the west. Rather than the lack of a navy though, China’s imperial power was largely responsible for its comparative decline as a world power.

One finds the Qing dynasty and the Manchu taking over China. The Mongol land power had extended over much of Eurasia making the question of global naval power somewhat problematic. When the Qing dynasty ended, I believe, in 1911, the process of a discovery of a new identity for China began transformatively unto the present when China has risen to be a world trading power much as during the Ming dynasty.

The United State’s space program and moon landings were important and even impressive national symbols comparable n some ways to the vast Ming fleets of Zheng He sailing around the south littoral of Eurasia seven times as the high point of the ancient Chinese navy. National leaderships goals and abilities may conserve a nation’s role in world political economy. While the United States seems to be setting aside active progress in a too taxing for the political intellect affordable manned space exploration program, China and other nations are taking it up. Russia has continued the Soviet era manned space infrastructure, yet the U.S.A. has no present manned space flight capability besides hitching a ride on a Soyuz rocket from Siberia.

One reads in Andrew Wilson’s article as well of the use of the Ming navy in defeating Hideoshi’s Japanese army that had invaded Korea.