Chinese Fleets Explore the Seas

Early Ming rulers sent Chinese fleets into distant waters. The most extraordinary of these ventures were the voyages of the Chinese admiral and diplomat Zheng He (jeng he).

The Great Fleets of Zheng He

Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He made seven expeditions at the head of large fleets. His goal was to promote trade and collect tribute from lesser powers across the “western seas.” He departed at the head of a fleet of 62 huge ships and over 200 smaller ones, carrying a crew of about 28,000 sailors. The largest ships measured 400 feet long.

Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He explored the coasts of Southeast Asia and India and the entrances to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. He also visited many ports in East Africa.

In the wake of these expeditions, Chinese merchants settled in Southeast Asia and India and became a permanent presence in their trading centers. Exotic animals, such as giraffes, were imported from foreign lands as well. The voyages also showed local rulers the power and strength of the Chinese empire.

Zheng He set up an engraved stone tablet listing the dates, places, and achievements of his voyages. The tablet proudly proclaimed that the Ming had unified the “seas and continents” even more than the Han and Tang had done.

”The countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects. … We have traversed immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away … while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night continued their course, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading on a public throughfare.”

—Zeng He, quoted in The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century (Duyvendak)

Infographic titled the 7 voyages of Zheng He.
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Zheng He's epic voyages were multipurpose expeditions of exploration, diplomacy, and trade to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa.

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Which voyage had the largest number of ships?

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments