The many mysteries behind the Cheng Ho Voyages

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Much is written about the voyages of Cheng Ho. In fact there is even a voluminous book just listing bibliography of published works detailing Cheng Ho’s life and time. But how much of all that is conjecture, myth, lore and legend and how much of it is fact? That seems to be the biggest problem, because the scribes of the Ming period rewrote history and fudged fact with fiction with impunity, so much so that filtering truth from them is an art in itself. The importance of the voyages, the treasure ships themselves which awed and terrified onlookers from any shore, the expenses in making them, the reasons for these voyages and the reasons which ended the voyages are still steeped in mystery. The man behind it all, the seven foot tall Muslim eunuch, is who they say brought Islam to Melacca, defeated pirates, established relations and leaders, fought a war with a Lankan Monarch and took away Buddha’s tooth to Nanking. But Zheng He or Cheng Ho, who suddenly found himself adrift when his patron Chu Ti (Zhu Di - the Yong Le, Yung Lo monarch) passed away mysteriously, also met a mysterious end.

Those 35 or so years in history are testament to the heights reached by the Ming dynasty and the depths they sunk to, as events took its toll on the uncle who usurped the throne from his nephew. They are all connected in a way and it is always interesting to see just how fate intervened and upset a merrily trundling apple cart. And for that, we have to start at the very beginning with an ill-fated child king named Chien Wen, for it is, as Julie Andrews put it , ‘a very good place, to start’.

The Chien Wen period 1398-1402 was a turbulent phase in Ming history. It is closely tied to the succession issues which cropped up after Chu Yuan-Chan, the Hung Wu (1368-1398) Ming emperor died. Even though he had a number of powerful sons well placed in positions of governance in various provinces, he chose Chu Piao, the son of his principal consort Ma as his crown prince and successor, but as destiny would have it, this bloke passed away before his father, in 1392. The Emperor for some reason then chose this Chu Piao’s second son and his grandson, the 15 year old Chu Yun-Wen, as the crown prince. Chu Yun-wen ascended the throne in Nanking on 30 June 1398, at the age of twenty-one, a few days after his grandfather's death, much to the dismay of Chu Ti, his powerful warrior uncle, the 4th son of Chu Yuan-Chan and Prince of the Yan province (Yanjing, Beiping, Peking, Beijing). The position was very important for it was the Mongol frontier and at that time, an invasion by Timur was anticipated. Thus started the apparently benevolent Chien Wen reign, a period which is still a mystery due to its erasure from all records by Chu Ti, who usurped the throne a few years later following a civil war and much intrigue.

JianWen - Chu Yun-Wen
The changes the new emperor brought about were more for centralized governmental rule and the enforcement of the rule of civil law, reduction of taxes and finally clipping the powers of the regional chieftains, i.e. his own uncles, by abolishing their princedoms. But naturally, they were furious and the person who spearheaded the rebellion was the lone remaining (of the 5 who fell, two had died) Yen prince, his uncle Chu Ti. Now one should also take note that a rule existed that no princes should head to the Emperor’s capital Nanking (Nanjing) in the South unless there was a potential threat against the emperor by wicked officials. Secondly Chu Ti’s sons were being held in Nanjing as hostages. In 1399, Chu Yen-Wen made a blunder by sending back those sons to Peiping and Chu TI seizing the opportunity, rose against his nephew resulting in a 3 year civil war. By mid-1402, Chu Ti and his eunuch supported army (Zheng He included) broke through the Chin Chuan palace gates which had been clandestinely kept open by conspirators.

During the melee that followed with the arrival of the Yen prince's armies, the palace compound within the Nanking city walls was set ablaze. When the fire subsided, several badly burned bodies were produced and declared to be those of the emperor, his wife empress Ma, and his eldest son.The emperor's second son, Chu Wen-kuei, just two years old, was captured along with other surviving members of the imperial family. He was spared but was jailed with the others and released many years later. The true fate of the deposed Chien Wen emperor however remained a mystery.

As legends go, Chu Yun-Wen knew what was coming. He had been provided a lacquer box some time ago by a monk. He opened this, as Chu Ti broke through the gates. The sealed box contained a tonsuring knife, 10 pieces of silver and monk’s garb, enabling him and nine followers to escape from the palace through a secret passage. Some 13 more followers joined them later in exile. So stated the lore.

Yongle - Chu Ti
Chu Ti took over as a new emperor after ensuring that his nephews reign was expunged from all records and proclaimed the following year, as the first in the reign of Yung-lo (Lasting joy). Nevertheless, there was as it seems, popular sympathy for the previous emperor’s suffering and legends about his mysterious fate spread. Whether Chu Yun-wen died in a palace fire (as was officially announced) or escaped in disguise to live many more years as a recluse is perhaps a puzzle that troubled Chu Ti until his own death and has been a subject of conjecture by Chinese historians ever since. Some believe that Chu Ti did little to kill the rumors because he wanted people to believe that he had not killed his nephew, and had taken over the throne at a time of unrest in the country’s best interests. Whatever said, he would have desired to know where Chu Yen-Wen was and keep an eye on him.

The first Zhu Di confidante who was sent out to track down the Chien Wen emperor in the land areas around Nanjing and afar was one Hu Jung. He set out and came back twice with no information but assured the emperor that Chu Yun-Wen had no populist support and was no more a challenge. Many years later, in 1440 a monk named Yang Hising Hisiang appeared with 12 followers and claimed to be the Chien Wen emperor but this was quickly debunked as he was over 90 years old and the real emperor would have only been 64.

Zheng He’s (Ma he, San bao or Cheng Ho) association with Chu Ti had started in the 1380’s after he was captured from the Mongol armies and was castrated to become a eunuch. A huge, commanding man (his family records claim that he was seven feet tall, with a waist five feet in circumference, glaring eyes, and a stentorian voice), he was considered to be a fierce warrior and was very much involved in campaigns against the Mongols from 1393 to 1397. He is also believed to have played a key role in Chu Ti's move to Nanjing and the usurpation of the throne. Chu Ti was now in place, the eunuchs had replaced the scheming monks and the king was building up his image and power base while planning a move of the nation’s capital to Beijing. Getting back to the Chien Wen story, it was believed by some that Zhu Di requested Zheng to check all sea ports and countries he visited, if the Chien Wen emperor was hiding in any of those nations.

Meanwhile, Chu Ti was perturbed with the relations with Timur the Mongol whom he feared the most, for his envoys had not returned, not did those his father had sent some years earlier and it was becoming clear that Timur wanted to annex China next. Timur deputed his armies to build forts and farm the land at the borders well ahead of his attack so that when his large armies arrived, they had no supply issues. In Dec 1404, he commenced his march to China with some 200,000 troops. But as luck would have it, he died enroute in Feb 1405 and his son Shahrukh decided that war with China was not a good idea.

This was the background to the Ming voyages touching ports at South East Asia and South India. Many reasons were provided by subsequent historians as to why these apparently expensive voyages were planned and carried out under the captainship of Cheng Ho. While it could have very much been for the new monarch (who had secured the throne by force) to cement his position and obtain a tacit approval and formal recognition from the rest of the neighboring countries, especially those they traded with, it could have been a number of other reasons.

The reasons usually discussed are a) to search for and weed out the deposed Chien Wen emperor Chu Yun-wen, who was rumored to be wandering around the SE Asian countries in the guise of a monk b) to obtain support from Muslim countries and ward off a potential invasion by Timur c) encourage tributes and endorsement by the various foreign states of the fragile legitimacy of the new emperor d) to display China’s military prowess and extend the new emperor’s political influence e) to bolster and improve trade relations e) Southern expansion policy f) to fight off piracy in the South China seas.

It is quite clear that there was no need for a huge armada to go hunting for the Chien Wen emperor who was actually rumored to be lurking in the North Vietnam (Annam) area (South Vietnam was Champa) . Also by that time private shipping was virtually banned and only state sponsored ships piled the seas. But then again, Zhu Di could always have asked Zheng He to keep an eye out and the ears open for news about the absconding emperor. So that was not a reason, nor was the Timur invasion a reason for the attack was aborted and Chu Ti would definitely have heard of Timur’s demise, in time.

A treasure ship 
Starting in 1405, six expeditions were launched and continued through the reign of Chu Ti. With Chu Ti’s mysterious demise, the expeditions stopped, though a final 7th voyage captained by Cheng Ho traversed SE Asia, circumvented South India and touched African shores, one last time. When the ships came back, they were without their admiral, for he had met his end, as they say, at Calicut in 1433. The voyages, their composition and the routes are covered in so many sources, so I will not get into them. But let us for a moment check again some of the remaining reasons. Why were they launched with much fanfare and expense, when the very same Chinese had already been trading with the very same countries for many centuries before the Mings? They had a tributary system in place with Maabar and Quilon, as well as many other countries since the Sung period (I had covered some of this in the Sha-mi-Ti mystery article

During the Sung period, foreign trade flourished under private management, and half of the government's revenue came in the form of returns from monopolies and excise taxes. As much as twenty per cent of the cash income of the state came from maritime trade. The Emperor even stated: The profits from maritime commerce are very great. If properly man- aged they can be millions (of strings of cash). Is it not better than taxing the people? Before the fall of K'ai-feng in 1127, thirty-five per cent of the tribute with trade missions came to China by land and sixty-five per cent by sea. After this date, all tributes came by sea. So you can imagine how important sea trade was to China in those times and this continued through the Yuan period.

Even before Kublai Khan’s regime, Maabar was considered a Chinese tributary. During the Yuan period, Yang Tingbi had been deputed in 1280 to secure Qulion’s participation, perhaps also some other kingdoms with ports such as Xincun matou (Punnaikayal). Later, several delegations were sent from China either to Maabar and Quilon and, in fact, tribute trade between South India and Yuan-China flourished – particularly between Quilon and China as attested, for example, by Ibn Battuta.

During the early Ming period, even though maritime commerce was an exclusive monopoly of the state, and they believed in a larger Chinese world, the state readily accepted the contributions of the Arabs and Hindus in the fields of astronomy, geography and navigation. Places like Calicut and Berawala were of "strategic" importance within the larger networks of fifteenth century emporia trading, whereas older locales such as Kayal only had a minor significance (Perhaps due to the silting up of coastal waters in the Tambraparni delta and a subsequent deterioration of harbor facilities). So one reason would have been to cement ties with the Calicut Zamorin after the rise of Calicut and its establishment as a port. That the Chinese were close by and observing all this, is clear with the Chaliyum activities, as previously discussed when I mentioned the Sha-mi-ti story. 

And so the trips continued, tributes were made, Zheng he and party came and went a few times, they meddled around with some local affairs, placed steles and promoted trade, got some ‘ponnadas’ now and then for Zhu di. Large numbers of people came and went with the treasure voyages, ambassadors went and came back presumably with stories of the magnificence of China, especially the Forbidden City. Many who studied these made mentions of immense expenses incurred in these voyages, with good returns due to the opening up and promotion of trade with China. The treasure ships came back laden with what the Chinese needed. Glue, Gum, Cobalt blue, pepper, spices, hides, wood and so on arrived, while silk, clothes, umbrellas (palm leaf type), paper currency left its shores to pay for the goods.

The ships themselves were not that much of a drain to the state as is widely believed. Of the 2342 ships ordered during 1403-12, some 62-94 were large treasure ships. Also, 249 older transport ships were converted to handle Ocean voyages in 1408. An ocean going ship in 1408 cost aproximately 1000 piculs of rice (375 taels). Considering the state revenue which was 30 million piculs of rice or approximately 200,000 taels of silver, this shipbuilding was not really a huge drain on the coffers (in 1408) as some scholars felt. But by 1410 floods arrived, accompanied by famines and plague and the decade which followed was a disaster period (some felt that the plague came with Zheng he’s ships return voyages). Deaths were numerous and Chu Ti responded with subsidies to farmers and reduction of taxes. From 30 million piculs of rice, the state revenue dropped to 20 million. But Chinese reputation suffered and the paper currency depreciated terribly. A thousand strings of 1000 paper cash which fetched 1000 taels of silver or 250 taels of gold during the Hung-wu (pre Chien Wen) era was now worth only 12 taels of silver or 2.5 teals of gold!

As the Chinese economy suffered, the Mongols in the north invaded and troubles in southern Annam (Vietnam) areas surfaced. Chu Ti moved the capital to Peking in 1421 and further away from the sea ports at a huge expense. Perhaps many of these voyages were also meant to bring in material and equipment for the new capital, but that is a topic we will revisit another day. The entire expense in creating this new capital, feting of other nations ambassadors and so on was frowned upon by Chu Ti’s bureaucrats while he was busy trying to shore up the country against the marauding Mongols in the North leaving his son Shan Chi in command at Peking. All government expense was slashed, travel was curtailed and the treasure ship voyages temporarily stopped. But the 6th voyage of Cheng Ho was already planned and there were embassies of 19 states waiting to go back home. As the Mongols attacked from the north, Hsia Yuan Chi, Chu Ti’s commerce minister protested, was jailed and his war minister killed. Chu Ti then set out on his 5th campaign to take charge of the battles personally.

On August 12, 1424, the 64-year-old Yongle Emperor Chu Ti died on the march back to Beijing, at Yumachuan, after a fruitless search for the fleeing Oirats. Some say he was frustrated at his inability to catch up with his swift opponents, and that he fell into a deep depression and illness, possibly owing to a series of minor strokes or as one mention states, elixir poisoning. Some accounts mention that the emperor was partially paralyzed and took potions laced with arsenic as a stimulant and may have been slowly dying of arsenic poisoning. The king who was famous for his one finger Ch’an (whenever Chu-Ti was asked anything, he would just raise one finger) was gone.

Shan Chi took over, reinstated Hsia Yuan Chi as finance minister, reduced taxes and brought about a series of austerity measures. All sea voyages were banned. All imports were stopped, so also purchase of horses and teak. But there was a problem with the large numbers of crews (some 200,000 of them) in Cheng Ho’s fleet. Shan Chi ordered Zheng He’s deputies to round up all those sailors and proceed to Nanjing and garrison the palace.

Cheng Ho had at this point of time been deputed on a special mission to Palembang, in order to confer a seal of office on the Ming appointed Chinese chief of that Sumatran city. He knew of his master’s death only after he returned. He was then placed in command of the Nanjing palace forces in 1425. The new king now decided to move the capital back to Nanjing but he died in the same year. The sailors were next put to work on repairing the palaces at Nanjing and the great tomb of Chu Ti. Later as the insurgence in Annam grew, many of these sailors were sent south to fight that battle, but as fate would have it, they were trapped and many were decimated. Some were deputed to the grain transportation barge service.

Cheng Ho continued to work on palace repairs with the remaining men, even requesting the new monarch that they be rewarded for their hard work, but got his wrists slapped for making frivolous requests. They were then commanded to complete the mausoleum for the empress Ma. Presumably many were frustrated about all this and a number of them dispersed, many retrained themselves for other jobs and thus the huge number of sailors of the great treasure voyages were soon mostly gone.

No more ships were built, for those shipwrights were no longer available, and the stores had no supplies of wood or other building material, by 1426. The techniques of constructing these massive ships had also been lost. In fact much of that wood was given to the people of Nanking in 1424, when there were fuel shortages, for a pittance. Many of the remaining 118,000 shipbuilders were moved in 1426 to Peking in order to build the mausoleum for the Hung-hsi emperor.

In 1430, the finance minister Hsia Yuan chi died and the new king finally sanctioned the last or 7th voyage. It took a year for Cheng Ho to get everything ready, and it was made up of reconditioned ships from earlier voyages and a few sailors Cheng Ho could find, plus a few new recruits. The voyage which set out in 1431 returned after two years, this time also touching new shores in Africa and the Middle East and Mecca. That Cheng Ho died in this voyage is clear, for in 1434, Wang Cheng was appointed to his post as chief supervisor of the department of ceremonials.

Cheng Ho as is reported, died at Calicut and was apparently buried at Niu-erh-shan outside Nanking. The ships were in Calicut in the last days of March and Mid-April 1433, so that was the time when he passed away. And with his demise, the death knell was sounded on the Ming voyages. The economy continued to deteriorate, the troubles in Annam became worse and the new emperor had to sue with them for peace. Up North, the Chinese lost to the Mongols and the Ming king was taken prisoner. And with all that, Ming China shuttered its gates, ports, and shores, effectively walling itself off from the outside world.

A dynamic era had come to a close….

People ask, what would have happened if Cheng Ho had to contend with the new entrants, the Portuguese, at the shores of Malabar? It is difficult to say, but with the information above, it is apparent that the contest would not have been one sided or fully in favor of the Chinese, but at the same time, the Portuguese would not have acted with impunity as they did, after 1498. 

The Cambridge History of China- Volume 7, the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644
Yuan and Early Ming Notices on the Kayal Area in South India – Roderich Ptak
The Emergence of China as a Sea Power during the Late Sung and Early Yuan Periods: Jung-Pang Lo
The termination of the early Ming naval expeditions (papers in honor of Prof Woodbridge Bingham) – Jung-Pang Lo
The Formation of Chinese Maritime Networks to Southern Asia, 1200-1450 - Tansen Sen
Cheng Ho and Timur – Any relation – Morris Rosabi
On the ships of Cheng Ho – Pao Tsen PAng

The Chien-wen reign name was belatedly restored by the Wan-li emperor in October 1595 as part of an abortive project to compile a history of the Ming dynasty. However, it was not until July 1644, 242 years later, that the Southern Ming ruler the Prince of Fu (Chu Yu-sung, d. 1646) assigned to the emperor the temple name Hui-tsung (Magnanimous Ancestor) and the posthumous name Jang Huang-ti (Abdicated Emperor). The latter honorific title was chosen in response to the popular belief that the emperor did not die in the palace fire, but willingly abdicated the throne in favor of his uncle in order to mitigate the general disaster of the civil war.

The Zheng He ships are a subject of much discussion, and their sizes vary greatly in different accounts. They were supposedly 44 chang long, 18 chang wide (1 chang=3.3mts) and built at Lungkiang near Nanking. Woodcuts of these ships show 4 masts, while some showed 3, but they were not complete records. General design notes stated that for every 10 chang length, two masts were required. Further studies by Pao Tsen Pang and others establish that the big ships should have had 9 masts and that the armada comprised many types of treasure ships. The pictures of the largest with more than 4 masts are not available.


  1. Nothin

    Excellent article sir. I had read about recovery of tons of chinede coins while dredging of Tangaserry harbour as well as recovery of chinese Buddhist vessel from Shasthamkotta lake.

    Could these be linked to the treasure fleet

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Soorya Narayan..

    That is an interesting question. I will be writing about the Chinese and Quilon shortly, and a book has been published by Beena Sarasan about the coin finds.

    CHF had an article on the subject as well.

    By the time the treasure fleets started out, I believe it was more paper currency.

  1. jayan

    Nice , nobody knows this history , you can write in vernacular dailies also , so that it reaches all our malayalee population