In 1430 the young emperor empowered Admirals Zheng He and Wang Jinghong to act on his behalf, issuing them a specially minted brass medallion, in a mix of zhuanshu1 and kaishu2 scripts, inscribed AUTHORISED AND AWARDED BY XUAN DE OF THE GREAT MING.
The emperor appointed Zheng He as his ambassador. Here is the edict from the Xuanzong Shi-lu, dated June 29, 1430: “Everything was prosperous and renewed but the Foreign countries, distantly located beyond the sea, still had not heard and did not know. For this reason Grand Directors Zheng He, Wang Jinghong and others were specially sent, bearing the word, to go and instruct them into deference and submission.”3
This voyage to “instruct” the foreigners was the zenith of Admiral Zheng He’s great career. Before departing, he had two inscriptions carved in stone to document his achievements. The first inscription, dated March 14, 1431, was placed near the temple of the sea goddess at Taicang, downriver from Nanjing near the estuary of the Yangtze.
From the time when we, Cheng Ho [Zheng He] and his companions at the beginning of the Yung Lo period  received the Imperial commission as envoy to the barbarians, up until now, seven voyages have taken place and each time we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels. Starting from Tai Ts’ang and taking the sea, we have by way of the countries of Chan-Ch’eng, Hsienlo, Quawa, K’ochih, and Kuli [Calicut] reached Hulu mossu [Cairo] and other countries of the western regions, more than 3,000 countries in all.4
The other inscribed stone was placed farther down the Chinese coast at the mouth of the Min River in Fujian. It is dated the second winter month of the sixth year of Xuan De, which makes it between December 5, 1431, and January 7, 1432. It is called the Chang Le epigraphy.
The Imperial Ming dynasty in unifying seas and continents surpassing the three dynasties even goes beyond the Han and Tang dynasties. The countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects and the most western of the western or the most northern of the northern countries however far they may be, the distance and the routes may be calculated.5
Liu Gang, who owns a Chinese map of the world from 1418, a critical document that we will revisit later, has translated the Chang Le epigraphy as it would have been understood in the early Ming dynasty. His translation differs in some key respects from the modern translation produced above.
The Imperial Ming dynasty has unified seas and the universe, surpassing the first three generations [of Ming emperors] as well as of the Han and Tang dynasties. None of these countries had not become subjects, even those at the remotest corners in the west of the western region of the Imperial Ming and the north of the northward extension from the Imperial Ming are so far away, however, that the distance to them can be calculated by mileage.6
The full import of the distinctions become apparent once we understand what the terms “western region of the Imperial Ming” and “northward extension from the Imperial Ming” meant at the time the stones were carved. “The term ‘western region’ originated during the Han dynasty and at that time referred to the region between Zhong Ling (now in the northern Xian Jiang autonomous region) and Dun Huang (at the edge of the Takla Makan Desert),” Liu Gang explains.
By the Tang dynasty, the extent of the “western region” had been extended to North Africa. The books written in the Ming dynasty describing travel to the western region adopt an even broader definition: Records of Journeys to the Western Region and Notes on the Barbarians, both books published during Zheng He’s era, extended the western region much further westwards. This is reflected in the Taicang stele, which refers to reaching “Hu lu mo Ssu (Cairo) and other countries of the western regions.” The second stele in Fujian mentions reaching “the remotest corners in the west of the western region,” i.e., far west of Cairo.”7
The phrase “the north of the northward extension from the Imperial Ming” is even more pregnant with meaning. As Liu Gang has explained, in Zheng He’s era the Chinese had no concept of the North Pole as the highest point of the earthly sphere. Accordingly, when they traveled north from China to the North American continent, traversing the North Pole (great circle route), they believed the journey was always northward. The modern geographic understanding is that the great circle route from China to North America runs north to the North Pole, then south to North America. This concept was unknown to the Chinese.
To the Ming Chinese, “in the north of the northward extension from the Imperial Ming” means a place beyond the North Pole. This understanding is reflected in the 1418 world map, which shows a passage through the polar ice across the North Pole leading to America. (According to the Dutch meteorological office, there were three exceptionally warm winters in the 1420s, which could have melted the Arctic sea ice.)8
Thus, if we take the two steles at their word, it appears that Zheng He’s fleets had already reached three thousand countries as well as the North Pole and North America beyond the Pole.
The emperor’s order to Zheng He to instruct distant lands beyond the seas to follow the way of heaven now seems awesome. Zheng He is being ordered to return to all three thousand countries he had visited in his life at sea. The task would require a huge number of ships—several great fleets readied for voyages across the world. This explains the lengthy delay between the imperial edict and the fleets’ actual departure from Chinese waters some two years later.
Each month, a wealth of evidence comes to our website from sources in about 120 different countries. Taken together, the evidence, which includes the wrecks of Chinese junks in distant waters, has convinced me that my original estimate of the size of Zheng He’s fleet—some one hundred ships—was far too low.
Over the past three years, two researchers, Professor Xi Longfei and Dr. Sally Church, have found references in the Ming Shi-lu to the number of junks built in the years 1403 to 1419. The figures are subject to interpretation, particularly with regard to the number that can be assigned specifically to Zheng He’s fleets. But it seems the low estimate of the size of Zheng He’s fleets is as follows: 249 ships completed in 1407 “in preparation for sending embassies to the Western Oceans”; plus five oceangoing ships built in 1404, which the Ming Shi-lu explicitly states were ordered because envoys would soon be sent abroad; plus 48 “Treasure ships” built in 1408 and another 41 built in 1419. That makes a total of 343 ships constructed for Zheng He’s voyages.9
A middle estimate would include “converted” ships, the purpose of which is unspecified in the Ming Shi-lu. Of these, there were 188 in 1403; 80 in early November 1405; 13 in late November 1407; 33 in 1408; and 61 in 1413. Adding these converted ships to the 343 ships described above would give Zheng He a total of 718 ships.
The high estimate includes 1,180 haizhou, ordered in 1405, whose purpose is unspecified, and two orders of haifeng chuan (ocean wind ships)—61 in 1412 and the same number again in 1413. All together, that would mean a fleet of 2,020 ships out of a total construction program of 2,726. Even at this high estimate, Zheng He’s fleet would still have been smaller than Kublai Khan’s, though of better quality.
Based on Camões’s account of the Chinese fleet that reached Calicut eighty years before Vasco da Gama, my guess is that Zheng He had at his disposal more than 1,000 ships. “More than eight hundred sail of large and small ships came to India from the ports of Malacca and China and the Lequeos (Ryuku) Islands with people of many nations and all laden with merchandise of great value which they brought for sale…they were so numerous that they filled the country and settled as dwellers in all of the towns of the sea coast.”10
The emperor’s massive ship-building program was accompanied by major improvements in the junks’ construction. Professor Pan Biao of the College of Wood Science and Technology of Nanjing Forestry University has carried out groundbreaking work into the types of timber found in the Nanjing shipyards where the treasure ships were built. About 80 percent of the material was pine, 11 percent hardwoods other than teak, and 5.5 percent teak.
The pine—soft, humidity-and decay-resistant, and long used for building both houses and ships—was largely from south China. Teak, which is hard, heavy, and resistant to insect attack, is ideal for main frames. However, it was foreign to China and a new material for Chinese shipbuilders.
What astonished Professor Pan Biao was the volume of hardwood and teak that was imported. “Before Zheng He, hardwood had never left its countries of origin in a single step,” he said. “But during Zheng He’s voyages, and in the one or two hundred years following his voyages, hardwood was not only massively used in shipbuilding but was also brought into Southeast Asia and transplanted there for the first time.” Professor Pan Biao argues that Zheng He’s voyages contributed greatly to large-scale international trade in hardwood and to the remarkable progress in Southeast Asia’s shipbuilding industry.11
In each of the years 1406, 1408, 1418, and 1432, fleets of a hundred or more Chinese vessels spent lengthy periods refitting in the ports of East Java. The Chinese who settled in Java played a major part in the development of Javanese shipbuilding. Professor Anthony Reid suggests that the flowering of Javanese shipbuilding in the fifteenth century was due to “creative melding of Chinese and Javanese marine technology in the wake of Zheng He’s expeditions.”12
The new building program in China, aided by better timber and the huge refitting endeavor in Java, would gradually have improved the quality of Zheng He’s fleets. We know from detailed research initiated by Kenzo Hayashida that Kublai Khan’s fleets, wrecked in Tokushima Bay in Japan in 1281, were doomed as much by the poor quality of their construction as by the fury of the kamikaze winds.
With their superior wood and construction, Zheng He’s ships would be capable of crossing the stormiest oceans. However, the scale of these vast fleets would have created enormous command and control problems, as I can attest from personal experience.
In late 1968, before taking command of HMS Rorqual, I was appointed operations officer to the staff of Admiral Griffin, who then commanded the Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet. My duties were the day-to-day operation of the fleet—an aircraft carrier, fuel tanker, supply ships, destroyers, frigates, and submarines.13 I quickly learned just how difficult it is to control a fleet of twenty ships, not least in the sudden squalls of the South China Sea, which can reduce visibility to a few yards. Changes in visibility constitute a threat, which requires that the fleet be continuously repositioned.
This experience was repeated when I was in command of HMS Rorqual. By tradition, the first Royal Navy vessel on the scene of a sunken submarine takes charge of the recovery operation, irrespective of the seniority of her captain. When HMS Onslaught was simulating a sunken submarine on the seabed, the Rorqual was the first ship there.14 So, for a brief period, I exercised operational control of the British Far East Fleet, a task that led me to greatly appreciate the value of wireless and satellite communications.
Zheng He’s admirals had no such technology. Instead, they would have relied on bells, gongs, drums, carrier pigeons, and fireworks to coordinate their movements. Consequently, they would have been unable effectively to control more than perhaps twenty junks of various types and capabilities, such as treasure ships supplied by water carriers and grain ships protected by fighting ships. For a short period, in calm seas with unchanging good visibility, they might have been able to control as many as fifty ships. But these conditions do not last long at sea. As the weather changes, so does the threat. Capital ships, such as Zheng He’s treasure ships, are protected more closely inshore than in the open ocean. Likewise, the threat of pirates requires a different disposition than that required for landing troops on an exposed beach.
With approximately one thousand ships under his overall command, Zheng He probably would have appointed at least twenty, and quite possibly fifty, rear admirals. On his final voyage, I believe there were four full admirals (Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and Zhou Man), eight vice admirals (Wang Heng, Hou Xian, Li Xing, Wu Zhong, Yang Zhen, Zhang Da, Zhu Liang, Zhu Zhen), and another twelve rear admirals15 in command of a total of twenty-four fleets, which is the minimum number of fleets I would expect given the number of ships.
In my opinion, the case for broad-based leadership of the fleets is reflected in the Taicang stele, which uses the first-person plural to describe the command of men and ships. (“Each time we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels.”) The implication is that Zheng He is acting in concert with his team of admirals.
The scope of the shipbuilding program—more than 2,700 ships—undermines the notion that Zheng He commanded just one fleet of a hundred oceangoing vessels. However, a single fleet of a thousand junks would have been impossible to control. Chinese records listing dates for outbound and returning voyages make it clear that different fleets departed and returned under different commanders often years apart.
In sum, the scale of Zheng He’s voyages would have required many independent fleets to be simultaneously at sea. Some fleets were no doubt carried off by storms to unexpected destinations. Others, as evidence I’ll present in chapter 22 suggests, were surely wrecked, sometimes in the most spectacular fashion. In any case, it should come as no surprise that many, perhaps even a majority, of destinations reached by the fleets were never recorded in official Chinese records. Seafaring in the fifteenth century was an even more hazardous profession than it is today. Many ships never returned home to tell their tales. The loss of life was terrible, as was the economic and intellectual devastation of the wreckage around the world.
This voyage, from which few junks returned, was the most ambitious of them all. Zheng He’s fleets were sent to every country in the known world. Consequently the preparations would have been awesome, as I can vouch from my experience in 1969 on the staff of Admiral Griffin’s Far East Fleet.
Zheng He’s fleet was multinational and multifaith, as was the British fleet in 1969. Our ships had Ethiopian, Iranian, Indian and Pakistani officers, Maltese stewards, Goanese engine-room stokers, Chinese laundrymen, Tamil engineers, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Jews. The British Admiralty took great pains to ensure that captains would know of the religion, history, culture, background, and customs of all the crew as well as of the countries the fleet would visit. In the same way the Xuan De emperor and his predecessor, Zhu Di, would also have briefed Zheng He in great detail. They had the ideal tool with which to do so—the Yongle Dadian.16 This massive encyclopedia was completed in 1421 and housed in the newly built Forbidden City. Three thousand scholars had worked for years compiling all Chinese knowledge from the previous two thousand years, in 22,937 passages extracted from more than 7,000 titles, a work of 50 million characters. The encyclopedia was of a scale and scope unparalleled in history and to my mind Zhu Di’s monumental legacy to humankind. It was contained in 11,095 books, each 16 inches high and 10 inches wide, requiring 600 yards of shelf space, 5 rows high or one third of one deck of his flagship. The encyclopedia covered every subject on the planet: geography and cartography, agriculture, civil and military engineering, warfare, health and medical care, building and town planning, steel and steel production, ceramics firing and painting, biochemistry including cross-fertilization, alcohol production, silk making and weaving, gunpowder making, ship construction, even codes, cyphers, and cryptography. We know this from the contents pages, of which there are copies in the National Libraries in Beijing and Taipei, the British Library in London, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the Asian Libraries of Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
Fortunately, one part of the Yongle Dadian remains more or less whole at Cambridge University, where it has escaped the ravages of the Boxer uprising and more recently the lunacy of Mao’s Red Guards, who burned any intellectual book they could lay their hands on. The Cambridge book is about mathematics. Joseph Needham describes the truly amazing depth of Chinese mathematical knowledge shown in this book, which contains knowledge from the year A.D. 263 onward.17
There are chapters giving practical advice on using trigonometry to determine heights of buildings, hills, trees, and towns on cliffs, and the circumference of walled cities, the depth of ravines, and the breadth of river estuaries.
No fewer than ninety-five mathematical treatises of the Song dynasty are mentioned, some on such specialized subjects as the Chinese remainder theorum and cryptoanalysis—the use of mathematics to break codes. There are mathematical methods for calculating the area and volume of circles, spheres, cones, pyramids, cubes, and cylinders and for determining magic numbers and constructing magic squares, and the principles of square-root extraction and negative numbers. It was lucky Zheng He had a prodigious memory—he could recite the entire Koran by heart in Arabic at the age of eleven.
As Needham points out, the discoveries made on the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet were incorporated into the Yongle Dadian. One can go further and say that one of Zhu Di’s leading objectives was to acquire knowledge gained from the barbarians. This is epitomized in the instructions given to the three previous eunuchs, Zheng He, Jang Min, and Li Qi in 1403—to be described in the next chapter.18
The best way to acquire knowledge, Zhu Di knew, would be to share it—to show the barbarians how immensely deep, wide, and old was Chinese knowledge and Chinese civilization. Zheng He and his captains were thus key players in compiling the knowledge contained in the Yongle Dadian. For this of course they needed to have copies of the encyclopedia aboard their junks, and they needed also to brief interpreters about the contents so the message could be propagated. Zhu Di made enormous strides in improving Chinese printing methods, which enabled parts of the Yongle Dadian to be reproduced.19
Even “Pascal’s” triangle was included in the Yongle Dadian—centuries before Pascal. The Chinese have always been practical. Mathematics was applied to surveying and cartography. By the Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25–A.D. 220), Chinese surveyors were using compass and squares, plumb lines and water levels. By the third century they were using the trigonometry of right-angle triangles, by the fourteenth century the Jacob’s staff to measure heights and distances.
Ch’in Chiu-shao in his book Shu-Shu Chiu-Chang of 124720 (included in the Yongle Dadian) used knowledge of Chinese mathematics and Chinese surveying instruments to calculate the areas of rice fields, the volume of water required to flood those fields, and hence the size and flow rate of dykes that would be required. He gave different methods of building canals and the strength of lock gates that would be needed.
One could carry out a similar exercise for military machines available to Zheng He and how these had been developed over the centuries. The Yongle Dadian included details on how to build mortars, bazookas, cannons, rocket-propelled missiles, flamethrowers, and all manner of gunpowder bombs. This vast encyclopedia was a massive collective endeavor to bring together in one place Chinese knowledge gained in every field over thousands of years. Zheng He had the immense good fortune to set sail with priceless intellectual knowledge in every sphere of human activity. He commanded a magnificent fleet—magnificent not only in military and naval capabilities but in its cargo—intellectual goods of great value and sophistication. The fleet was the repository of half the world’s knowledge.
He also had well-educated officers who through interpreters could speak to the leaders of foreign countries in seventeen different languages including Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Tamil, Swahili, and Latin.21 Zheng He’s fleet resembled a floating university and probably had more intellectual knowledge in its library than any university in the world at that time.