Chinese Fleet


Cheng Ho (Zheng He)

In the 1930s, a stone pillar was discovered in a town in Fujian province. It held an inscription that described the amazing voyages of a Chinese admiral named Cheng Ho. Five hundred years earlier, Cheng Ho had chosen "a lucky day" to place this pillar in the Temple of the Celestial Spouse, a Taoist goddess.

Cheng Ho described how the emperor of the Ming Dynasty had ordered him to sail to "the countries beyond the horizon, "all the way to the end of the earth. "His mission was to display the might of Chinese power and collect tribute from the "barbarians from beyond the seas."

The pillar contains the Chinese names for the countries Cheng Ho visited. Altogether, Cheng Ho visited thirty nations from Asia to Africa, traveling more than "one thousand li" about 35,000 miles. He wrote:

"We have…..beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course rapid like that of a star, transversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare."

Decades before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a water route to Asia, the Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages of the "Treasure Fleet" that solidified Chinese control over much of Asia in the 15th century.

The Treasure Fleets were commanded by a powerful eunich admiral named Cheng Ho. Cheng Ho was born around 1371 in China's southwestern Yunan Province (just north of Laos) with the name Ma Ho. Ma Ho's father was a Muslim hajji (who had made a pilgrimage to Mecca along with his grandfather) and the family name of Ma was used by Muslims in representation of the word Mohammed.

When Ma Ho was ten years old, around 1381, he was captured along with other children when the Chinese army invaded Yunan to take control over the region. At the age of 13 he was castrated, as were other young prisoners, and he was placed as a servant in the household of the Chinese Emperor's fourth son, Prince Zhu Di.

Cheng Ho, who was said to have been almost seven feet tall, was given greater power when Zhu Di became emperor in 1402. One year later, Zhu Di appointed Cheng Ho admiral and ordered him to oversee the construction of a "Treasure Fleet" to explore the seas surrounding China. Admiral Cheng Ho was the first eunich appointed to such a high military position in China. Cheng Ho is described in Chinese historical records as tall and heavy, with "clear-cut features and long ear lobes; a stride like a tiger's and voice clear and vibrant. "He was well liked and admired for his quick wit in argument. Moreover, he was a brave soldier."

(Cheng Ho is also Zheng He in the newer Pinyin transliteration of Chinese but he's still most commonly called Cheng Ho).

Cheng Ho was also known as San Bao which means "three jewels."

Today, Cheng Ho is virtually unknown in theWest, but in Asia he lives on. Six images of the admiral are preserved in temples. There is a Sanbao Harbor, a Sanbao Pagoda and a Sanbao Town. At the opposite end of the Indian Ocean, Arab storytellers tell of the fantastic seven voyages of a Muslim sailor named Sinbad. Or was it Sanbao?

Historians wonder. And so do I .................


Cheng Ho
Cheng Ho and Columbus


A detachment of one of Cheng Ho's fleets sailed to Australia during one of the seven voyages based upon the Chinese artifacts found as well as the oral history of the Aborigine.

After the seven voyages of Cheng Ho and the Treasure Fleets, Europeans began to make headway toward China. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded Africa's Cape of Good Hope, in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached China's favorite trading city of Calicut, India. And in 1521 Ferdinand Magellan finally reached Asia by sailing west. China's superiority in the Indian Ocean was unrivaled until the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived and established their colonies along the rim of the Indian Ocean. Captain Cook sailing the Pacific eventually arrived on the east coast of Australia on April 29, 1770, after being driven away from New Zealand, by angry Maori's


The largest vessels were the treasure ships, each 444ft. in length - more than all of Columbus’ ships put end to end. The fleet visited most of southern Asia in the first voyage and, by the seventh and last voyage, Cheng had been to east Africa, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). Almost 30 countries sent envoys back to China to give homage to the emperor, and all of the countries eagerly welcomed Cheng and traded for Chinese goods. He set up diplomatic relations in all the countries he visited and received tribute from most rulers that he met. When in Ceylon, Cheng helped restore the legitimate ruler to the throne. In Indonesia, the fleet defeated a powerful Chinese pirate who was later brought back to China for execution. Cheng’s voyages not only established Chinese trade routes throughout Asia and Africa, but also established China as the dominant power in the known world. China was far more technologically advanced than any other culture on the planet, even those in Europe.

It apparently had no contact with Europe, but none of the European fleets could have successfully challenged China’s authority.

In the history of world navigation, the record of Cheng Ho's navigation was 87 years earlier than that of Columbus (1492), and 116 years earlier than that of Magellan (1621). Approximately 350 years BEFORE Cook (1770).

The fleet utilized the compass, invented in China in the 11th century, for navigation. Graduated sticks of incense were burned to measure time. One day was equal to 10 "watches" of 2.4 hours each. Chinese navigators determine latitude through monitoring the North Star (Polaris) in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Cross in the Southern Hemisphere. The ships of the Treasure Fleet communicated with one another through the use of flags, lanterns, bells, carrier pigeons, gongs, and banners.

Each ship brought enough food to last the whole voyage, in case "barbarian" food was not acceptable. In addition to rice and other food that could be preserved, the ships carried huge tubs of earth on deck so that vegetables and fruit could be grown.


On the return trip in 1433 Cheng Ho is believed to have died; others state that he died in 1435 after the return to China. Nonetheless, the era of exploration for China was soon over as the following emperors prohibited trade and even the construction of ocean-going vessels. (Curious)

A new Ming emperor had come to the throne. His scholar-officials criticized Cheng's achievements, complaining about their great expense. China was now fighting another barbarian enemy on its western borders and needed to devote its resources to that struggle. When a court favorite wanted to continue Cheng Ho's voyages, he was turned down. To make sure, the court officials destroyed the logs that Cheng Ho had kept. We know about his voyages only from the pillar and some accounts that his crew members wrote.

Thus, China abandoned its overseas voyages. It was a fateful decision, for just at that time, Portugal was beginning to send its ships down the west coast of Africa. In the centuries that followed, European explorers would sail to all parts of the world. They would establish colonies in Africa, America, and finally in the nations of East Asia. China would suffer because it had turned its back on exploration. Cheng Ho had started the process that might have led the Middle Kingdom to greater glory Unfortunately the rulers of the Ming Dynasty refused to follow his lead.