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Voyages of

Zheng He

​Voyage of Zheng He


Who was Zheng He? When most people think about the great explorers in history, the usual suspects are often Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, and Marco Polo. Very rarely, if ever, does the name Zheng He ever come up unless you’re in China. But this guy was very important in the world of discovery – and he predates many of the more famous explorers.


Zheng He, who lived from 1371 to 1433, set out on explorations in which his mission was to display the power of China while also creating better relations with other nations and setting up trade agreements in different parts of the world.

The Voyages


One of the things that Zheng He’s voyages are known for is the size of the fleets that he commanded. Ming China would send out massive fleets and Zheng He was in charge those armadas. In all, there were seven voyages headed up by Zheng He, including voyages to East Africa, India, and Arabia.  


The first voyage in which Zheng He set out on was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor. In addition to being in charge of the fleet, Zheng He was also in charge of constructing the ships which were going to sail around the Indian Ocean. He was commissioned to begin the project in 1403 and the fleet of ships, named the Treasure Fleet, set sail for India in July of 1405.

The first voyage’s first stop was in Vijaya, which is near modern-day Vietnam. The next stop was modern-day Indonesia, followed by Malacca and the Nicobar Islands. The Treasure Fleet made a stop in modern-day Sri Lanka, but quickly had to leave because the ruler in the area was fairly hostile towards He’s crew. Finally, the Treasure Fleet landed at its destination – Calcutta. This was one of the largest trading ports in the world at the time and the Chinese spent much time there trading with the locals and flattering the rulers in the area for better trade relations.


The Treasure Fleet, however, was hardcore when it came to fighting off attackers. Don’t let the retreat fool you from the stop in Sri Lanka. On the way back to China during the first voyage, Chen Zuyi, an Indonesian pirate, stopped the fleet. At first, he acted like he was surrendering, but his plan was for him and his men to commandeer the Treasure Fleet. Zheng He was having none of that. His forces went into attack mode and killed more than 5,000 of Chen Zuyi’s pirates. But they did not stop there. They also sunk ten of his ships and overtook seven others. Zuyi and a couple of his top men were taken back to China on the Treasure Fleet and then beheaded shortly thereafter. This voyage and the word of Zheng He’s heroism helped China earn a more prestigious place in the eastern region of the Indian Ocean.


Zheng He’s Other VoyagesIn all, Zheng He and his crew went on seven voyages to various places and with various purposes. In 1407, he and his crew set sail on a voyage with the purpose of taking the foreign dignitaries back to their homes. This voyage included stops in Champa, Java, and modern-day Thailand. After returning in 1409, he turned around and set sail on his third voyage, which also took him to Calcutta. His crews returned to China in 1411 where Zheng He stayed for a couple years.


In 1413, Zheng He set out on his fourth adventure, which turned out to be his most ambitious up to this point. From China, he guided his Treasure Fleet all the way to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. During this journey, he made stops in places like Muscat, Mogadishu and Malindi, among other places. When he returned to China, he came back with giraffes, which was believed to be a mythical creature where He was from. He followed a similar path when he took his fleets on their fifth and sixth voyages.

The Final Voyage


In 1429, Zheng He set out on his final voyage. A few years earlier in 1424, the person sponsoring these expensive voyages – the Yongle Emperor – was killed in a battle against the Mongols. The person who took his place – the Hongxi Emperor - felt that these voyages were a waste of money and resources. Fortunately for Zheng He, this emperor only lived for nine months before his son, the Xuande Emperor, took over. This latest emperor sent Zheng He on one final voyage.


At the age of 59, Zheng He began preparing for a seventh voyage under the orders of the Xuande Emperor. Zheng He was not in the best of health at the time, but he starting putting together a crew, a plan and supplies right away. This final voyage lasted for three years and the Treasure Fleet stopped at more than 15 different ports along the journey to Kenya. Zheng He, however, died on the return trip, probably while the ships and crew was in Indonesian waters. He’s men buried him at sea, but they brought back a pair of his shoes and a braid of Zheng He’s hair for a proper burial in China.


The Significance of Zheng He’s Voyages


The main reason for Zheng He to travel to the various places in the world was to increase the prominence of Chinese trade and the reputation of his nation. There are many monuments that were set up in the places where Zheng He visited give evidence of his visit. Many theories exist as to the reason for these journeys  .However, those who study the Ming Dynasty say that the emperors of the time wanted to wipe away any evidence of Zheng He’s expeditions. The records were incomplete and many records were even destroyed.

During a stop over in the Indian state of Bengal, Zheng He encountered a giraffe-- which the ancient Chinese believed was a type of unicorn. Zheng managed to pursuade the sultan of Bengal to part with his pet, and the giraffe was loaded up on the ship and sent to the Chinese capital of Peking.
Did the Chinese beat Columbus to America. In 2005, Chinese lawyer and armchair historian Liu Gang claimed that he had bought the map in a bookstore for $500. The 1763 map is said to be based on a 1418 original that is now lost to history. If this turns out to be true then the Chinese beat Columbus to America by 74 years!!! 
Click on the book to dig deeper into the mystery

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