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Cheng Ho (Zheng He) Ming Treasure Fleets

Historically, the Chinese people have considered themselves to be the "Middle Kingdom", surrounded by peoples less ethically and morally pure. As a result foreign trade has always been viewed as a favor afforded to foreigners in order to help them become more Chinese. This benevolent approach to trade reached its peak during the Ming Dynasty.

Upon taking the throne, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Yung-lo emperor (reigned 1402-24) began a project unique in all of Chinese history: he set the nation building hundreds of enormous oceangoing ships. The vast armada would bring China's prized silks, porcelains, lacquerware, and other products to rulers almost halfway around the world. To command this treasure fleet, he chose Cheng Ho, a man who in another era might have been forbidden even to leave the inner palace courtyards - a eunuch.

Zheng He was born in 1371, in Yunnan, China, to poor Muslim parents. At 10 he was captured by the army of Zhu Yuanzhang and castrated, as most prisoners of that time were treated. However, he distinguished himself by helping Zhu Yuanzhang defeat the Yuan Dynasty, and was rewarded with an official post in the government.

Cheng Ho was no ordinary eunuch. A tall man, he stood head and shoulders above others. His voice boomed like a bell, according to contemporaries, and he had glaring eyes. The Yung-lo emperor, after taking Cheng into his service as a boy, had come to trust him entirely. Cheng had proved himself worthy in his success on the battlefield in the struggle for power after Yung-lo's father, the Ming founder, died: the decisive victories gave Yung-lo the throne.

While Yung-lo's father had laid down strict bans on contact with foreigners, China was ready for openness to the outside world when the Yung-lo emperor ascended the dragon throne. Ming rule was consolidated and merchants were eager to win back the South China Sea trade routes from the pirates.

But there was resistance to be overcome at court. To the Confucian advisers, traders were the lowest class of society, and the goods that they brought in from overseas were corrupting extravagances. The voyages were officially justified as missions to collect the emperor's rightful tribute from what were seen as the subsidiary states that lay on the Middle Kingdom's borders.

On the first voyage, which left from the mouth of the Yangtze River in the fall of 1405, there were 317 ships manned by a crew of over 27,000. The fleet included 62 ships that were over 100 m long. These carried a huge cargo for the exchange of gifts with other empires: silk, porcelain, gold, silverware, copper, various utensils, iron implements and cotton goods. Aside from the treasure ships, Zheng He's fleet also contained a variety of other, specialized vessels: "equine ships" (for carrying horses), warships, supply ships, and water tankers.

The largest vessels had a total length of 400-440 feet [130 meters], a beam variously estimated at 100 to 166 feet [30 to 50 meters], and a draft of about 25 feet [8 meters]. Columbus's flagship the St. Maria, in contrast, was but 85 feet in length. The nine masts, carrying a dozen sails, towered 100 feet [60 meters] above water level. The crew of 500-1000 men worked in a superstructure that included a 3-Tower Ming pagoda. These four Baochaun treasure ships brought back to China such things a giraffes from Africa. Zheng He's treasure ships had an aspect ratio (width:length) of 0.254; in other words, they were wide and bulky.

It is still not known how it was possible for Chinese shipwrights to build a framework, without any iron, that could sustain a 440-foot long vessel. A wooden ship has great stresses as a structure, and and is liable to "hogging" and "sagging". The absolute limit to the length of the hull is about 300 feet. This is the major reason why the naval industry turned to iron and steel in the 1850s. The longest wooden ship constructed in the West was the 115 m [377 ft 4 in] Rochambeau, formerly the Dunderberg, an iron-clad ram built in New York (1867-72). She had a iron double bottom and collision bulkheads. Another claim for the largest wooden ships ever built were the nine six-masted schooners launched between 1900 and 1909. These 329 foot long ships were so long that they required diagonal iron strapping for support. They were only used on short coastal hauls because they were unsafe in deep water. The 71m (234 ft.) "Fregatten Jylland" also claims to be the longest wooden ship in the world. She was build in 1860, and have in the last part of the 20th century been restored to its prime and is now a wonderful testimony of long gone times at the sea in Denmark. By comparison, the biblical length of Noah's Ark was 300 cubits or, at 45.7 cm 18 in to a cubit, 137 m [450 ft].

Cheng Ho's destination was Calicut (not to be confused with Calcutta), a self-ruling free port on the west coast of India. The journey of two years took them first to southern Vietnam, where Cheng traded for rare woods and ivory, and then on to Indonesia. The main port there was held by a notorious Chinese pirate, who Cheng attacked and captured on the return trip. Passing by Sri Lanka, where Cheng received a cold reception, they sailed around the southern tip of India to Calicut. The political aspect of the mission was clear in that representatives of Calicut, as well as Indonesian and Malay states, returned with the fleet to the Chinese capital, Nanking. Further, the emperor, on meeting the Calicut envoys, directed that the fleet set sail a second time to bring them home and show support for the ruler's government. The Yung-lo emperor's navy was allowing him to influence events according to China's interests far beyond its borders.

The pattern of mixing trade and politics held for the following voyages, in which the fleets were smaller. The navy anchored at Thailand, Singapore, Malacca (where a garrison was established), Sri Lanka, and the trading cities of the Indian coast. With ties established by Cheng, the Ming court was soon hosting tribute-bearing ambassadors from throughout South and Southeast Asia.

In 1407-1409 the second expedition, with 249 ships and commanded by subordinates, visited Thailand, Java, Aru, Lambri, Coimbatore, Cochin and Calicut, where it was present for the installation of a new king. A commemorative stone tablet was erected in Calicut. During this voyage, the sultan of Brunei visited the emperor, died in Nanjing, and was buried with imperial honours.

In 1409-1411 the third Zheng He expedition involved 48 ships and 30,000 men. It visited Champa, Java, Melaka, Semudera, Sri Lanka, Quilon, Cochin and Calicut. A trilingual stone tablet was erected in Galle. The Sinhalese ruler Alakeswara was captured and taken with his entourage to China, where the emperor ordered their release.

With the fourth voyage, begun in late 1413, the emperor ordered Cheng to travel further than previously to the Arab port of Hormuz. Perhaps Yung-lo intended to edge in on the profitable trade that the Arabs were conducting in the Indian Ocean. Ending in 1415, the fourth Zheng He expedition reached the Persian Gulf. With 63 ships and 28,560 men, it visited Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang, Melaka, Aru, Semudera, Lambri, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Cochin, Calicut and Hormuz. A splinter group under Yang Min went to Bengal, and returned to China with the new king of Bengal, who presented to the emperor a giraffe which he had received from the ruler of Malindi (in Kenya). The giraffe was thought to be a mythical qilin, and auspicious. On imperial orders to restore the rightful king of Semudera, Zheng He routed the usurper Sekandar, who was taken to China and executed. This was the first of three voyages in which chronicler Ma Huan participated.

Cheng reached even further on his next voyage [1417-1419], arriving at the port of Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea. The fifth expedition carried envoys returning home from China, and visited Champa, Pahang, Java, Palembang, Melaka, Semudera, Lambri, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, Mogadishu (in Somalia), and Malindi. The Chinese bartered for precious stones, while exotic animals, including a giraffe, were given in tribute by the sultan there. The fleet then sailed on to the African coast, where it delivered ambassadors from Mogadishu, Somolia, and Kenya to their homelands.

The sixth voyage set sail in 1421 to return other African envoys home. In 1421-1422 the sixth expedition, with 41 ships, returned envoys from Hormuz and elsewhere. It probably visited Melaka, Aru, Semudera, Lambri, Coimbatore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Dhofar, Aden, Mogadishu, Brava and Thailand.

The Yung-lo emperor died in 1424, and with him his vision of active diplomacy. The son who became emperor was influenced by the traditional Confucian perspective and immediately issued an edict banning any further voyages by the navy. This emperor died within a few years, however.

The Yung-lo emperor's grandson came to the throne inspired to order one last voyage, again putting Cheng Ho, now in his sixties, in charge. The ships, leaving in 1431, followed their now-familiar path to India and beyond to the African coast. With over 100 ships and 27,550 men, it went to Champa, Surabaya, Palembang, Melaka, Semudera, Sri Lanka, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, and Jeddah; some participants visited Mecca. Zheng He died on the return voyage. The aging explorer was weakening, though, and on the return trip in 1433 off the west coast of India, he died a sailor's death, at sea.

Cheng Ho served three emperors; he had been sent as envoy seven times, and had visited Champa, Java, Camboja, Kukang, Siam, Calicut, Malakka, Brunei, Sumatra, Aru, Cochin, Great Coilan, Little Coilan, Soli and Western Soli, Cail, A-po-patan, Comari, Ceylon, Lambri, Pahang, Kalantan, Hormus, Pila, the Maldive islands, Sun-la (Sunda?), Magadoxu, Ma-lin-lasah, Dsaffar, Sa-li-van-ni, Jubo (Jeba), Bengal, Arabia, Li-tai and Nakur, altogether more than thirty different countries. He brought back numberless valuable things, but what China had spent on them was not little either. When he came back from his last voyage in the period Hsiiante (14261435), the people from those remote countries still came continually, but not in such numbers as in the time of the period Yung-lo (14031412).

In the following years, official support for the shipyards on the Yangtze River slowly dried up. No more expeditions were ordered, mirroring the way that Chinese society was turning in on itself in a conservative mode. Confucianists in the imperial court saw to it that Zheng's ships were burned after his last voyage and made every effort to systematically destroy all official records of the voyages. The days when a Chinese fleet exploring distant lands under the command of the eunuch Cheng Ho were to fade into an almost forgotten memory.

The Ming navy had 3,500 ships in the early 1400s, but within decades it was a capital offense to build boats with more than two masts. In 1525, the emperor ordered the destruction of all seafaring ships, and the arrest of the merchants who sailed them. By 1551, it was a crime to sail the seas in a ship with more than one mast.

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