Zhu Di, an emperor in the Ming Dynasty, commanded Zheng He to be the admiral in chief in several voyages down the Western Ocean. (Indian Ocean) These voyages were meant for trade and improving foreign relations.
The treasure ships (bao chuan) that were used in the voyages are noted to have been the most technologically advanced and developed ships at the time. They were enormous in size, with the largest ships measuring 147 meters in length and 60 meters in width. This is significantly larger than the ship Christopher Columbus had sailed to America on.
To see more of "what" happened, please refer to the section entitled "Voyages".
Zheng He (Cheng Ho in some spellings), nicknamed "San Bao" when he became a Grand Eunuch, was the commander in chief of these voyages. According to the "Gu jin shi jian", (a historical document) Zheng He was seven feet tall and his waist size was about five feet in girth. He had high cheekbones and a small nose. His eyes were glaring, and his teeth were "well-shaped like shells". His voice was described to be "like a loud bell", and he walked "like a tiger". Although it was Zhu Di who ordered the voyages, Zheng He and several other captains (Zhou Wen, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Yang Qing) were the main admirals in charge. There were a total of 27 800 crew members on the first voyage. Note that this was the number given in the "Biography of Zheng He" from the "Annals of the Ming Dynasty". Other sources have claimed the number to be different for other voyages. For example, Fei Xin's "Triumphant Tour of the Star Raft" claimed that there were around 27 000 + men on the third voyage, whereas Lu Rong's "Miscellaneous Notes at the Beans Garden" claims there to have been around 30 000 + men.
There were many different roles onboard, including eunuchs, directorates, doctors, trainers, priests, translators, clerks, soldiers, guards, etc. Here is a list of some of the main crew members:
Chen Yicheng, (Doctor) Ha San, (Arabic Translator) Liu Xing, (Admiral) Zhou Wen, (General) Wang Jinghong, (Vice Commander) Sheng Hui, (Buddhist Monk) Wu Yan (Translator)
The base of Emperor Zhu Di was the Forbidden City in Beijing. The base for the ships as well as the location that they were built in was the Longjiang Shipyard in Nanjing. The Longjiang Shipyard is now a park dedicated to the construction of the ships as well as the voyages themselves. Other bases include the Liujia Harbor in Taicang, Jiangsu and the Taiping Harbor in Changle, Fujian. The Liujia Harbor was chosen to be the point of departure for all seven journeys as it was located at the mouth of the Yangtze river and had a long history of being an open port. The ships sailed to:
First Voyage: Champa, Java, Palembang, Aru, Malacca, Sumatra, Lambri, Ceylon, Kollam, Calicut, Cochin
Second Voyage: Champa, Java, Siam, Sumatra, Lambri, Calicut, Cochin, Ceylon
Third Voyage: Champa, Java, Malacca, Quilon, Sumatra, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Kaya, Coimbatore, Puttanpur
Fourth Voyage: Champa, Java, Malacca, Palembang, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Kayal, Pahang, Kelantan, Aru, Lambri, Maldives, Hormuz, Mogadishu, Malindi, Brawa, Aden
Fifth Voyage: Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Lambri, Sharwayn, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Brawa, Malindi, Aden
Sixth Voyage: Hormuz, East Africa, Arab Peninsula (There is speculation that the fleet reached America, Australia, and Antartica- see the 1421 theory by Dr Gavin Menzies for more.)
Seven Voyage: Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Sumatra, Malacca, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz
There are various reasons for why the voyages were ordered by Emperor Zhu Di: