An Educational Resource for China's Greatest Explorer

The First Voyage

Twelve months after Zhu Di became the emperor, he suggested several voyages down the Western Ocean (now known as the Indian Ocean). He wanted Zheng He to be the commander, but was unsure as Zheng He was still relatively young. Zhu Di's advisors added onto the confusion by comparing the situation with picking dates- the older a date, the richer its flavor. Thus, Zhu Di sought advice from Yuan Zhongche, a fortune teller, who strongly believed that Zheng He was the best fit for the job. Zhu Di ultimately chose Zheng He and the latter agreed to be the Commander-in-Chief for these voyages. Zheng He had aways been interested in geography. The exact, official reason for these voyages are still unknown, as several important documents regarding the voyages were burnt in the 16th century. The majority claim trading to be the primary motive behind these voyages, but there are a few who believe that the emperor was trying to find Zhu Yunwen, seeking revenge. (see "Battle for Royalty" on "Zhu Di") Some also believe that it was for religious reasons.
On July 10, the night before the voyage, the crew had a huge banquet, led by Zhu Di. He wished them luck and made several sacrifices to the goddess of heaven, Mazu. According to legends, many sailors saw visions of Mazu when they encountered rough seas, then managed to return to safety. She was well respected throughout China and Zhu Di had built many temples under her name. These temples were called Tianfei temples. The largest and oldest of these temples is the Sunji Palace in Quanzhou.
On what was recorded as a beautiful day, July 11, 1405, Admiral Zheng He donned his formal long red robe and tall black hat, as he listened to the speech Emperor Zhu Di made to prepare the sailors for their first voyage. Thousands of spectators gathered at the Liujia Harbor in Taicang. The crew consisted of 27, 800 men, an armada of 62 treasure ships, which were for living, and 190 supporting ships. There were horse ships for trading goods, supply ships for staples, as well as water tankers for water. As soon as they were on board, they said prayers praising the invention of the compass. Each captain spoke of their admiration for the wonderful invention. Priests also burnt incense to scare away ghosts. They were determined and already certain to reach places such as Calicut, a major trading port back then, Taiwan, and several Arab countries in the Western Ocean. First, they sailed out of Liujia. Then, they reached Qui Nhon, a town in Champa. They traded aloe wood, rhino horns, and elephant trunks. The place where the fleet docked had a lot of poppies. It interested many doctors onboard who were intrigued by its usage as a painkiller. Reaching for Malacca, they visited Cambodia and Java six weeks later.
At the time the fleet arrived at Java, a civil war was being waged between East and West Java. Crew members were attacked by soldiers from the West Javanese army- 170 members of the fleet were killed. The Javanese had mistaken the Chinese crew members as reinforcements from the East Javanese army. Zheng He instantly sorted out the affair and received 60 000 taels of gold from the Javanese King as a compensation for their killings. Soon after, Zheng He even settled the conflict between the two opposing sides and returned peace to Java. Copper coins and spices were traded as well in the area.
Malacca was the next destination for the armada. Prince Parameswara warmy welcomed Zheng He, who shared with the locals skills in construction and handicrafts. Afterwards, they sailed southwest to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Calicut. The Ceylon king was said to have been disrespectful, resulting in Zheng He's instant departure. They stayed in Calicut from December 1406-April 1407. In Calicut, they heard of the story of Moses. At the time that they were touring Palembang, it was ruled by the Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi from Guangdong. Chen would order attacks on merchant ships. He planned an attack on Zheng He's fleet, but previous to that, was approached by a diplomatic messenger from the fleet. Chen falsely claimed that his gang of pirates would give into Zheng He and lay their hands off the armada. Once Zheng He let his guard down, Chen's pirates immediately attacked the ships. Zheng He ordered the pirates to be exterminated and the 27 800 men strong crew easily outnumbered the pirates. Over 5000 of Chen's men were killed in the battle. Chen himself was apprehended and taken back to China for trial where he received the death sentence. Peace was restored in Palembang.
During this voyage, a huge rare storm hit the ocean and the fleet. This was a significant challenge for Zheng He. Thankfully, a sudden light shined on them and the storm was over before any major damages were caused. It was recorded to have been a miracle.
The ships each had a room dedicated to Ma Tsu, a Chinese-Muslim goddess of the sea. As all of the crew members were religious, they prayed to her every night before dinner. A huge bronze mirror was used to reflect evil spirits when they arrived new lands.
For meals, they would eat brown rice, soya beans, wheat, millet, green beans, limes, lemons, oranges, pomelos, (a grapefruit-like fruit) coconuts, pears, vegetables, frogs, dogs, pigs, and dates. They would drink wine and sometimes tea. (red or green oolong) The crew ate healthy foods to maintain a good lifestyle.
Living on the ships was difficult. As it would be extremely cold at times, the crew would hug dogs and pigs for warmth. They sprayed arsenic to prevent insects and had ferocious dogs to scare rats. Many concubines were employed in Canton. They belonged to the Tanka and were mostly Buddhists. They spoke a different dialect of Chinese and did not have their feet bound. In Calicut, Ma Huan (a chronicler) recalled that the Chinese envoys ate, drunk, and slept with native women. Their husbands did not care, and instead complimented their wives.
Items of trade include silk, porcelain, tea, pepper, women, wood, silver, Ming goods, ginger, cinnamon, textiles, and many other foods and goods.

The Second Voyage

Not much information can be found regarding the second voyage which lasted from the winter of 1407 to the summer of 1409. As wondrous goods were brought back to China from the first voyage, Zhu Di instantaneously demanded another voyage. Zheng He and his crew took off again, but this time with only 249 ships, as many ships were said to be unnecessary on the first voyage.

During the voyage, the Brunei ruler stayed in Nanjing to pay tributes to the king. At the age of thirty eight, he died in Nanjing where a tomb was built for him. The mausoleum can still be found in Nanjing today at Turtle Hill. Brunei had been seperated from Java three years earlier thanks to the efforts of Zheng He and other generals.

The fleet returned to many places they had visited in the first voyage. This time around, more trading occurred in Siam. The Siamese offered goods such as peacocks, elephants, parrots, woods, and tin, in exchange for Chinese fine writing materials and precious silk clothing. In Cochin, the locals offered their natural resources- pepper, pearls, gemstones, etc. for Chinese silk and embroidery.

The fleet visited Calicut once again. This time, a tablet was erected to chronicle the deep, historic relationship between the Middle Kingdom and Calicut. In Ceylon, a monument was erected as well called the "Donation to the Ceylon Hill Temple". The inscriptions were in Chinese, Persian, and Tamil. It can still be found in the Colombo Museum today.

The Third Voyage

Zheng He and his crew set sail once again in the fall of 1409. They made a stop in Taiping and then to Champa ten days later. They reached Malaysia, Singapore, and Malacca. In Malacca, Zheng He traded ebony, aloe trees, and dammar, a native tree. At the time, Malacca was constantly threatened by Siam. The Ming government offered protection to Malacca and thus the latter remained safe for the next 117 years. In Cambodia, Zheng He was so impressed by the architectural style of the Angkor Wat ruins that he modeled his future projects, the Dabaoen Temple and Glazed Pagoda, after it.

The fleet also traded in Quilon, Cochin, and Calicut. On the night of their arrival in Ceylon, they met Alakeswara (Alagonakkara), a chief who refused to pay tributes to the Chinese emperor. Zheng He had brought 3000 soldiers with him to the palace to see Alakeswara, who had planned for Zheng He's fleet to be robbed while the soldiers were at the palace. Alakeswara ordered 50000 soldiers to attack the fleet. Strategically, Zheng He and the soldiers remained at the palace, which was unprotected as most of the soldiers were busy attacking the fleet. Zheng He captured the palace and Alakeswara, who was taken to China where his kingship was abolished by the emperor.

Zheng He returned from the voyage on June 16, 1411, again bringing back fine goods.

The Fourth Voyage

On December 18, 1412, Zhu Di ordered a fourth expedition. It was the largest and most ambitious voyage yet with 28, 560 men. Although the order had been issued earlier, the fleet took off in January 1414. Hormuz, the fleet's first Islamic destination, was the primary destination of the voyage. Ma Huan, a Muslim, was hired by Zheng He to become the chief chronicler of the voyages. Zheng He sailed to many kingdoms including the Maldives. Another fleet led by Yang Min, under Zheng He's command, went to Bengal.

Sekander, an outlaw in Semudera, was captured by Zheng He after a battle. There, they traded coconut trees, shells, rubies, diamonds, amber, pearls, and carpets. When Zheng He was in Tanzania, Yang Min brought back an extraordinary gift to the emperor- a giraffe. It was believed to be the qilin, a mystical creature as they were physically similar. Furthermore, the African name for the animal was "giri", which sounded to the Chinese to be somewhat like qilin. September 20, 1414 was the recorded date of the giraffe presentation in the Chinese emperor's palace.

In Pelambang, Zheng He helped resolve violent tensions between two opposing powers. A while ago, Pelambang had constantly been attacked by a neighboring country nicknamed the Flower Face country. The king in Pelambang was killed and his wife, the queen, announced that she would marry any man who could defeat the enemy. An old fisherman was able to do so and thus he ascended to the throne. He would be called the "Old King". In 1412, the former king's son killed the Old King and regained the throne. Followers of the Old King's son carried out countless attacks in the region, creating many tensions in the country. When Zheng He arrived, he sided with the new king and helped defeat all opposing forces. 

On the way back, the fleet visited the Maldives, which was then a matriarchal society. The fleet nicknamed it the "Country of Women". In the summer of 1415, they returned from the fourth voyage. Sekander was ordered by Zhu Di to be executed.

The Fifth Voyage

The voyage, which began in 1417, was delayed due to the construction of the Forbidden City by Zhu Di. This time, they headed for Africa, extending their trade relations beyond the Western Ocean and the Arab Peninsula. First, they arrived at Quanzhou to stock up on more goods including some paintings.

In Aden, they traded gemstones, bracelets, jewels, and rings. Zheng He was well respected in Aden. Zebras and leopards were also paid to the Yongle emperor (Zhu Di) in tribute. After Aden, the fleet arrived their first African country, Mogadishu. They also arrived Brawa (Somalia) as well as what we now know as Kenya. They traded perfumes, glasses, and carpets.

The people of Mogadishu were hostile towards Zheng He at first and they battled. The former soon surrendered and ended up obeying the admiral's orders.

When Zheng He came back on July 15, 1419, Zhu Di was delighted and gave each captain rewards. On another note, the three kings of Sulu visited China with 340 men on August 8, 1417. One of the kings fell ill and died during the stay. His wife and children remained in China. Their bloodline can still be traced in modern day China with those with the surnames Wen and An.

The Sixth Voyage

In February 2, 1421, officers gathered in the newly created Forbidden City. Qilins were brought to celebrate. Everything was going seemingly well for the Yongle emperor, but his good fortune would not last for long.

Madame Wang of Suzhou was Zhu Di's favorite concubine. She died after the ceremony at the Forbidden City. In the springtime, an accident occured while the emperor was hunting- a result of the emperor's ill horse. Soon, lightning struck the Forbidden City. Many halls were burnt and ruined by fires. Zhu Di receieved criticism for his handling of the repair-work after the accident. He started to become ill. On August 12, 1424, Zhu Di, the much loved Yongle emperor, passed away.

Zheng He, who was 50 years old at the time, was unable to attend the funeral as he and his crew were sailing. The primary objective of the voyage was to return 16 ambassadors back to their home countries. The fleet traded spices, mastic, dragon's blood, and aloe vera in Zufar. In Aden, the fleet received exotic gems, cat's eyes, corals, giraffes, lions, and leopards.

Few records can be found regarding this voyage; most records focused on the death of Zhu Di. The only piece of information known is that in November of 1421, Zheng He cut his journey short and returned to China after learning of the emperor's death. This had led to speculation that the rest of the fleet visited far away lands such as America, the Cape of Good Hope, and even circumnavigated the world. (for more info, please visit www.1421.tv)

The Seventh Voyage

Zhu Di's grandson, Zhu Zhanji, was the emperor of China during the time of the seventh voyage. Zhu Di had always admired his grandson's intelligence. In 1426, Zhanji, at the age of 26, became the fifth emperor of the Ming dynasty. (Note: Previous to Zhu Zhanji's reign, Zhu Gaozhi was the selected heir. His reign, and his life, did not last long. Months after he was crowned emperor, he passed away.) Zhanji did not seem to have much of an interest for the voyages, but finally on June 29, 1430, the emperor ordered a seventh and final voyage. The voyages were only for trade purposes between Siam and several other appointed kingdoms. It was relatively smaller-scaled as the previous expeditions were heavily criticized for utilizing enormous funds from the government. Previous to the voyages, Zheng He was sent to Nanjing where he built the aforementioned Dabaoen Temple and Glazed Pagoda.

On January 19, 1431, the fleet departed for the final time. They set off to their usual destinations- Vietnam, Malacca, Malaysia, and Siam. In Siam, Zheng He restored peaceful relations between Malacca and Siam. The fleet also arrived Calicut on December 10, 1432. As per usual, the fleet split up. Hong Bao lead the voyage to Hormuz. Hong Bao's fleet even reached Mecca, the Islamic holy land. The king of Mecca sent giraffes and lions back to China.

On the return voyage, Zheng He became very ill. He died at the age of 62. He and his family believed that "A life at sea should die at sea". According to religious customs, he was buried at sea. Wrapped in white cloth, his body was thrown into the ocean, with the backdrop of sailors chanting "Allah is great". Even Zheng He's burial ground is often disputed. Some believe that he died and was buried in Calicut. The voyages came to an end after 28 years.