Admiral Zheng's Fleet

zhengship.jpg (18429 bytes)Our history of oceanography would not be complete without reference to the contributions that the Chinese have made to ocean exploration. While not as well-known as some of their other scientific and technological contributions, the Chinese own the distinction of assembling the largest fleet to ever sail on the ocean.

Early Chinese maritime history is sketchy (or just not well known) but one of their first contributions was the invention of the magnetic compass. The first definitive reports that the Chinese were aware of magnetism date to 240 B.C. although some scholars have pointed out that houses built in the Shang dynasty (1766?-1123? B.C.) are aligned with magnetic north, indicating a possible earlier application of magnetism.

Here's a blurb from Time magazine's Most Important Events of the Millennium page:

IT WAS LITTLE MORE than a magnet floating in a bowl of water, but without the nautical compass the millennium's great voyages of discovery could never have occurred. First used in feng shui (the Taoist system of environmental design), compasses appeared in China in the 4th century B.C. Lodestone pointers were replaced by flat slivers of iron, and then by needles, which arrived in the 6th century A.D. But the first account of seagoing compasses doesn't come until 1117, from Zhu Yu's P'ingchow Table Talk: "In dark weather, sailors look at the south-pointing needle." The compass reached Europe around 1190, almost certainly from China. (Its powers were so little understood that captains forbade their crews to eat onions, which were thought to destroy magnetism.) For Mediterranean sailors, used to long periods when overcast skies made navigation difficult, the device meant liberation. By the 15th century, they were ready to venture be- yond familiar seas.

The most definitive reference to a compass appears to be a book by Shen Kua (A.D. 1030-94) who describes "rubbing a lodestone against a needle" and "floating it on water" which causes the needle to point south." His writings also indicate an awareness of magnetic deviation, the difference between the primary direction (south for the southern hemisphere, north for the northern hemisphere) and the true direction.

The first bona fide mention of a maritime compass used for navigation comes shortly after Kua's account in a book written near 1125 A.D. Although European writings indicate an awareness of the compass in 1190 (in a French poem), it really wasn't until the 15th century, some four hundred years later, that Europeans fully grasped all the principles of navigating by magnetic compass. These early compasses really involved nothing more than floating a magnetized needle in a bowl of water and getting a navigational fix, but it worked!

Chinese maritime activities appear to have gained their footing near the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Artifacts, particularly ceramics, and archaeological evidence, primarily shipwrecks, indicate the presence of strong maritime ties throughout Southeast Asia. A map of the Chinese coastal trade routes reveals extensive commerce up and down the eastern coast of China, extending as far north as Korean and Japan and south to Australia.

Shipbuilding in the southern Fujian province was well established by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.). The Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Wan Shengzi, created one of the greatest seaports of its time, the Gangtan seaport. Emperor Wan was noted for his open-door trade policies with foreign nations. His efforts to promote trade were considered his greatest achievement and a monument was built at the harbor to honor him.

Other great seaports, possibly established as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 A.D.), include the ports of Quanzhou, Ningbo and Fuzhou. Marco Polo described Quanzhou as:

"a great resort of ships and merchandise...for one spice ship that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere to pick up pepper for export to Christendom, Zaiton [as it was then known] is visited by a hundred. For you must know that it is one of the two ports in the world with the biggest flow of merchandise."

And the great traveler Ibn Abdullah lavishes praise for the quality of ceramics found in these ports:

"No big cities elsewhere in the world can match this one in the splendour of the markets. But the biggest of the markets is the ceramics shops. Merchants ship porcelain from the city to different provinces in China as well as to India and Yemen...The Chinese ship porcelain ware to India and other countries and to my homeland Morocco. These ceramics are indeed the best in the world." [see Chinese Maritime History at the Western Australian Maritime Museum]

But the real peak in Chinese maritime prowess is symbolized in the extraordinary tale of one man: Admiral Zheng He (pronounced jung huh).

During his 28 year naval career, Admiral Zheng visited 37 countries, traveled around the tip of Africa into the Atlantic Ocean and commanded a single fleet whose numbers surpassed the combined fleets of all Europe. Between 1405 and 1433, at least 317 ships and 37,000 men were under his command. The flagship of the fleet was a nine-masted vessel measuring 440 feet, nearly 1.5 times the length of a football fields. Traveling with him was Sanbao who created a set of 24 maps praised for their accuracy. Zheng's journeys also stimulated a number of important maritime inventions, including central rudders, watertight compartments and various new types of sails. Perhaps more importantly, his voyages demonstrated the power of the Chinese civilization and yielded many important liasons between China and other nations.

What makes Zheng's career even more remarkable is his rags-to-riches life story. Born as Ma He in 1371 to poor Muslim parents in Southwest China, he was captured as a young boy by the Chinese Army and castrated, as many prisoners of that time were so treated. Nonetheless, he dedicated himself to his studies, learning several languages and philosophy. At the age of ten, he was hired by a prince, who overthrew the emperor and rewarded Zheng He with command of the fleet.

Admiral Zheng died in 1433 at the age of 60 on a return voyage from Africa. While his achievements are little known in the West (who give perhaps undue praise to Christopher Columbus), there are at least six images of Admiral Zheng preserved in temples.

Soon after the Admiral's death, political changes in China diminished the importance of the Navy. It has not been the same since.

Modern Chinese efforts to improve their Navy and their oceanographic capability are beginning to show promise. Increasing interaction with scientists in the western world, particularly with regard to environmental issues in the South China Sea and the Yangtze River, should pave the way for a new era of maritime enthusiasm in the largest nation on Earth.

More detailed information on Chinese maritime history and the voyages of Admiral Zheng He can be found at the following web sites:

China's Gifts to the West, University of Pennsylvania

Western Australia Maritime Museum

Zheng He: The World's First Navigator