Tag Archives: Ming Dynasty

China’s Maritime History and Admiral Zheng He’s Treasure Ships

In the last fifteen years, China has made an impressive entrance to the international maritime scene. From chartering and trading to vessel ownership and shipbuilding, China has captured a substantial worldwide market share. As an example, in the following graph, in the newbuilding industry, its worldwide market share by deadweight of newbuilding deliveries went from negligible at the turn of the century to appr. 20% a decade ago and now stands at 40%.

Historical newbuilding deliveries, China (PRC) and world, market share. Graph credit: Karatzas Marine Advisors

To the casual observer, it would seem that the maritime industry is just another industry where China has started dominating the market given some competitive advantage; that China saw a business opportunity in this industry and they just moved in. If clothing and manufacturing for everyday articles can now take place in China, why not for ships?

However, for shipping, one can say that China has had a time-honored relation with the seas and the waters, inland and its two huge rivers, coastal and also ocean navigation. As a short proof for that, one can be reminded that Chinese invented the compass approximately around 200 BC during the Han Dynasty, allowing for the first time ships to navigate away from the coast. Chinese first invented the dry-dock in the tenth century AD, while dry-docks were introduced to European shipbuilding in the late fifteen-century in Portsmouth, England[i]. Similarly, the concept of building ships with watertight compartments (bulkheads) is attributed to shipbuilders of the Ming Dynasty based on their observations that bamboo trees are light and hollow inside and are made of the isolated chambers in the trunk. Only if the shipbuilders of the RMS Titanic had paid closer attention to such seemingly irrelevant observation! 

The Treasure Ships

The Chinese historic navigational achievements that is known in the West are the Treasure Ships of the eunuch Admiral Zheng He who in 1418, in the early Ming Dynasty, reached the east coast of Africa (at Malindi, in today’s Kenya) with an estimated fleet of three hundred boats consisting of vessels as large as four-hundred-foot long with nine-masts (bao chuan or treasure ships) and manned with 28,000 sailors.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama landed on the east African coast in 1498, seventy years after Zheng He’s landing, the first European to reach these parts of the world; de Gama, upon his arrival in east Africa, was regaled by village elders with tales of white “ghosts” of ships with silk sails that had reached their shores several decades earlier.

The treasure ships had watertight bulwark compartments, a Chinese innovation, a stern post and a “balanced” rudder position forward of the stern post, both Chinese naval innovations that were not introduced in the west until many centuries later. The vessels had nine masts and were square-rigged and brightly painted hulls. They had “dragon eyes” on the prow and phoenix patterns on the hull for auspiciousness, the underwater part of the hull was whitewashed and the waterline was painted red with a sun-and-moon frieze. Although treasure ships were equipped with canons, they were primarily intended for luxurious accommodations, literally and figuratively, acting as the flagships of the fleet. The treasure ships were a handful in the fleet, which was dominated by the presence of “horse ships” (eight-masted, some 339 ft long) to carry horses for trading, “supply ships” (seven-masted, some 257 ft long) for food and provisions for the 28,000 crews of the fleet, and “troop transport” ships (six-masted, some 220 ft long) carrying soldiers. In addition, there were escort ships, warships, patrol boats, even tanker boats for the provision of fresh water. Communications at sea among the fleet vessels was via an elaborate system of sight and sound signals, while “teachers who know foreign books” – translators – (tong yi fan shu jiao yu guan) were onboard to facilitate communications with other peoples.

Between 1403 and 1407 under the instruction of the Yongle emperor, 1,681 ocean-going vessels were built at the Suzhou shipyards and Longjiang. Vessels were also built at shipyards in the provinces of Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Hunan and Guangdong. It is estimated that between twenty and thirty thousand people were living and working in the shipyards at the time as carpenters, ironsmiths, caulkers, sail and rope makers.

The treasure ships (bao chuan) or dragon boats (long chuan) of Admiral Zheng He were a combination of previous ship designs of shachuan (sandboats with flattened hull bottom) and fuchuan vessels (dragon ships with a deep keel, partially resembling that of a sailboat); and these treasure ships were grandiose in scale: “44 zhang 4 chi long and 18 zhang wide.” There is a historical discrepancy in terms of the exact size of the vessels, but present estimates place the vessels at approx. 390-408 ft. long and 160-166 ft. wide. In modern terms, such a vessel would have been too big to pass through the old Panama Canal locks, which until a couple of years ago was an industry standard. The dimensions of the treasure ships “444” were symbolic and lucky, four being the symbol of the Earth and its four “corners.” There were four “seas,” four cardinal directions, four seasons, and according to Confucianism, four bonds or virtues (si wei): propriety, integrity, righteousness and modesty.

The scale of the treasure ships was monumental but not unheard of: the ke zhou (guest ships) of the Song Emperor Huizong were 10 zhang long and the shen zhou (spirit ships) for emissarial missions were 30 zhang long; Tang Dynasty ships were 20 zhang long. Ships that Khubilai Khan built had ten sails and could accommodate 1,000 people. For riverboats, during the Song Dynasty, Xihu zhou chuan (West Lake Ships) were longer than 50 zhang.

While the sheer dimensions of the treasure ships draw our awe today, one has to wonder about the ability of the Ming Dynasty to logistically support such tremendous and elaborate expeditions. As Admiral Zheng He’s last expeditions required close to 30,000 crew, one has to wonder about the planning and ability to support so many people living in the open seas for months at a time, properly provisioned for, managed and led. Several centuries later, building just a ship of war with eight hundred (800) crew was known to be a major undertaking for any king when Britain ruled the waves.

The admiral and captain aboard the treasure fleet were appointed individually by the emperor and were empowered with the right to “kill or let alive.” Unlike the expeditions of Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus that involved a handful of small caravels, the treasure ship expedition resembled an autonomous, magnificent force with the intent to explore and trade, but also to impress and convey the power of the emperor in the early Ming Dynasty.

Ships in China prior to the Ming Dynasty

Starting from the Yin people in China, and the Han Empire later, Chinese built lou chuan (castle or deck ships), navy ships with oarsmen believed to resemble ancient Greek triremes; there were also qiao chuan (bridge ships), navy ships that were used as fighting platforms for men and horses. As early as in the early centuries A.D., the Chinese were aware of basic principles of winds and currents in the Pacific Ocean, and there is historical evidence of shipbuilding in the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang since the Han Dynasty. In the Tang Empire, Chang’an was established as a mighty metropolis by the Yellow River in north China. However, with active trade with regions in the Indian Ocean such as sandalwood from India and Java, frankincense from Somalia, dates and pistachio nuts from Persia, black pepper from Burma, and the spice ports of Malaya and Sumatra; the Indian Ocean, in general, was an active link for trading China’s porcelain just as overland routes were critical for the silk trading. The Chinese, via the spice ports in the Indian Ocean in the Tang Dynasty, were indirectly exposed to the Persian cultures since the latter was reaching these same ports in the Indian Ocean with their Ceylonese ships (triangular lateen ships). Hence, active trade was during that time that the Bureau of Merchant Shipping was established in the eighth century in Guangzhou to ensure for proper taxation and avoidance of contraband. Around the same time, the Grand Canal was completed linking the north and south and facilitating international trade via the Central Asian Silk Route. River navigation was so active then that during storms in 721 and 751, it was reported that more than 1,000 boats were destroyed on each instance.

In the Song Dynasty, so-called “sea falcon vessels” were developed, mostly for inland and river navigation; these vessels had a flat bottom and floating leeboards in the shape of a bird’s wings that offered stability and could also be used to navigate the vessel. Improved versions of these vessels had paddle-wheels (probably another Chinese invention.) Navy ships (“flying tiger warships”) had eight wheels that were powered by forty men on treadmills allowing for the vessels to navigate smoothly on the water “like a dragon” and instilling fear in the enemy with their appearance and maneuverability. When gunpowder was invented, these naval ships in the Song Dynasty were the first to utilize gun powder onboard when fighting the enemy.

Ships that were first built at Longjiang to travel from China to Korea in the shallow Yellow Sea during this period were known as shachuan (sandboats) that had flat bottoms to prevent them from sticking in the sand (fang sha ping di chuan, or “flat-bottom-boat-that-prevents-running-into-the sand). However, such vessels were not suitable sailing in the open seas. Shipwrights from the Fujian developed a new technique for a V-shaped hull with a deep keel “sharp like a knife” that could cut through big waves. These fuchuan vessels had four decks, four masts, nine sails, a crew of 250 to 300 sailors, and the prow and the stern were positioned high above the waves. While the deep keel of a fuchuan vessel was referred to as the “dragon bone,” the prow brought the anthropomorphic feature of eyes (“dragon eyes”) so that the vessels could “see” where they were heading.

When the Dragon Throne Met the West

The treasure fleet of Admiral Zheng He and the small fleet of the explorer Vasco de Gama never met in Africa, outside China, although Vasco de Gama got to see for himself China’s fading maritime prowess when he eventually reached mainland China. From a philosophical point of view, however, these are several interesting questions to ponder that could had affected the course of history. Had Vasco de Gama’s and Zheng He’s fleets met in Africa in the early 15th century, would Vasco de Gama and the Europeans simply be intimidated by the strength of the Chinese fleet (hundreds of vessels for a Chinese vs. three battered caravels for the Europeans)? Would the size of the Chinese vessels (approximately five times longer and with nine masts) forced the Europeans to never attempt sail eastwards out of sheer fear of the unknown empire east threaten the Europeans? Would He had been tempted to destroy de Gama’s fleet, and possibly delay at the very least for decades or centuries, Europe’s reach to China? Irrespective of what may had happened if the two fleets had met, Chinese naval superiority at that time was unquestionable, the result of constant progress in trade and engineering in Ming China.

[ii] Ebrey, Patricia Bukley, China Cambridge Illustrated History, 2nd Edition, 2010; p120

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