Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, and the Great Voyages of China

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: TURNING POINTS IN MODERN HISTORY

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

With the start of the 15th century, China had overthrown its earlier Mongol regime and a new dynasty had begun, the Ming dynasty. From the capital in Beijing, the Ming emperors ruled over what they considered as the ‘central kingdom’ of the world, backed by the authority of four thousand years of continuous Chinese culture. But what was the key concept that supported that authority exercised in China?

Pictorial map shows various tombs of the Ming dynasty.
The Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongols. They were supported by a key concept, ‘mandate of heaven’. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Ming Dynasty and the Mandate of Heaven

A key concept that underpinned the authority exercised in China was the idea of the ‘mandate of heaven’, a concept introduced by Confucian scholars, meaning that when a ruler, or a dynasty, ruled in accordance with the laws of harmony, the virtue of the ruler would produce prosperity, well-being, order, and a government that was good for the people. The rulers whose misrule violated the mandate of heaven, brought down social disorder and natural disasters and did not rule for long.

After time under the previous Mongol rule, the Ming dynasty prized stability and order—deeply Confucian values. The name of the Emperor Yongle, meant ‘perpetual happiness’, which they hoped for. At that time, China had the most wealth and largest population of any economy in the world, and the prospects looked good. China, in a way, was the superpower of its times.     

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Advanced Civilization of China

Chinese leaders thought of their realm as complete, self-sufficient, not needing anything from outside, while rest of the world was the periphery. China presented a dramatic contrast with Europe. It was an advanced Asian civilization, while European civilization remained in many ways relatively rough-hewn and primitive.       

A document explaining the way to make astronomical instruments during the Qing dynasty.
A document explains the way to make astronomical instruments. China was way ahead in advancement of various inventions, technology, and science. (Image: Mainly based on 徐光啟’s 《崇禎曆書》(late Ming Dynasty)/Public domain)

The conviction of the centrality of China was expressed in many ways. Among them was the way in which commerce with other neighboring countries was presented in China not as trade with foreigners, a mutually beneficial exchange, but instead as a form of tribute that was being sent to China, answered by generous gifts in turn but not in exchange. Merchants and commerce were not highly valued in Confucian tradition.    

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Yongle and the Yongle Encyclopedia

The Ming dynasty, was not isolated and intellectually incurious. The printing of books and especially of a famous huge encyclopedia, the Yongle Encyclopedia, attested to that fact. Emperor Yongle had commissioned that encyclopedic work as a summation of all knowledge as known in his realm. He fought against the Mongols and invaded Vietnam to bring it back into the Chinese orbit and ordered his great admiral, Zheng He, to launch a series of great voyages across and around the Indian Ocean. From 1405 to 1433, Zheng, later called by some, the ‘Chinese Columbus’, traveled far and wide.           

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Story of Zheng He

Zheng He was born in 1371, in troubled times. At that point, his name was Ma, from the Muslim minority in Yunnan, southwestern China. His father and his grandfather had both carried the title hājjī, which in Muslim civilization honors someone who had made the Haj, the pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca.

A hanging scroll, in ink and color on silk shows Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty sitting on his throne.
Emperor Yongle was the son of the first Ming emperor. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

As a ten-year-old boy, Zheng He was captured by the armies of the first Ming Emperor, who were fighting against the Mongols to overthrow their rule. He was taken into the imperial court where his talents were recognized. There, he was castrated to serve as a eunuch official, part of the ruling elite of the imperial household. Those eunuchs were the advisors to the emperor, trusted because it was assumed that after castration, their loyalties would remain with the emperor with no attachments to distract them.

Zheng He became a close adviser to the son of the first Ming emperor, and that son went on to become Emperor Yongle.

Great Voyages by Zheng He

By the orders of his emperor, Zheng He sailed on seven great voyages throughout Asia. The first of those voyages took place in 1405, and the last in 1433. The fleets sailed to Malacca, Java, Sumatra in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Siam, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and East Africa, down to Somalia, Zanzibar, and Kenya. They covered and retraced a distance of 9,000 miles, visiting more than 30 countries. Those fleets had many smaller boats, but the main features were the great treasure ships, some 400 feet long, with up to nine masts, watertight bulkheads, multiple cabins, decks, and huge crews.

Treasure Ships

By contrast, Europeans at that point had nothing that could compare. Those treasure ships were the largest ships on the seas until the days of the Industrial Revolution. The largest of those Chinese treasure ships was estimated to have weighed 7,800 tons, making it three times bigger than contemporary European ships. All of those famous ships of Columbus could have easily fit inside the storage areas of just one of the great treasure ships.

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Treasure in the Treasure Ships

Each trip involved some 300 ships sailing in a fleet, with about 30,000 participants. The Chinese crew of the treasure fleets included doctors, translators (especially for Arabic, a language of commerce in the area), astrologers, astronomers, and even pharmacists. The ships employed a compass to navigate and were accompanied by many others that were in a supply function; junks with water and rice, combat ships, and troop transports. The ships had floating gardens that were maintained to provision the vast force as it sailed.            

Purpose of the Voyages

The voyages had many different purposes, but common to all was the projection of an image of power through the region, to vindicate and impress on everyone, the claim to China’s centrality and Emperor Yongle’s authority. Zheng He suppressed piracy in the strategic Malacca Strait area, the seaway between Malaysia and Sumatra in Indonesia, between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, which was and is one of the key geopolitical points and shipping routes in the world.

Common Questions About the Chinese Civilization

Q: What is the mandate of heaven and why is it important?

Mandate of heaven is a concept introduced by Confucian scholars in the 4th century B.C., meaning that when a ruler, or a dynasty, ruled in accordance with the laws of harmony, the virtue of the ruler would produce prosperity, well-being, order and a government that was good for the people. It is important because rulers whose misrule violated the mandate of heaven, brought down social disorder and natural disasters like floods, famines, and plagues and did not rule for long.

Q: What were the voyages of Zheng He?

By the orders of his Emperor, Yongle, Zheng He sailed on seven great voyages throughout Asia. The first of those voyages took place in 1405 and the last in 1433.

Q: How did China benefit from the voyages of Zheng He?

China benefitted from the voyages of Zheng He, as its image was projected as powerful through the region, vindicated and impressed on everyone the claim to its centrality and Emperor Yongle’s authority.

Q: What did the Chinese treasure ships of Zheng He carry?

Zheng He’s treasure ships carried about 30,000 participants. The Chinese crew of the treasure fleets included doctors, translators, astrologers, astronomers, and even pharmacists. The ships employed a compass to navigate and were accompanied by many others that were in a supply function; junks with water and rice, combat ships, and troop transports. The ships had floating gardens that were maintained to provision the vast force as it sailed.    

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