15 thoughts on “History of Geography Blog Assignment #1 – 2017 -Zheng He

  1. Zheng He, called the “Vasco da Gama of China” and “the Chinese Columbus, was one of the important medieval geographers. Zheng He commanded several treasure fleets between 1405 and 1433, and his expeditions, which greatly expanded Chinese trade across Asia and Africa_ different parts of Southeast Asia, India, and Arabia, considered the largest and long distance enterprises before the modern age. Zheng He was able to leadership a large fleet and vessels. The square-rigged ships approximately ranged from 70 to 300 tons and 58 feet long. It had three masts and carried around 70 men. Treasure-ships (baochuan) was the largest Zheng He’s ships _400 feet in length, nine masts, 3,000 tons in capacity, and carried at least 600 men. Moreover, Zheng He’s Treasure-fleets not only had a large number of ships but also a large number of men. It is approximated that one of Zheng He’s Treasure-fleets had a number of men was two-thirds more than the total Eurasian and European population of Asia Portuguesa in the sixteenth century. It can be seen that the Ming missions were backed by wealth and logistical resources which were far beyond the ability of European countries. In addition, the Treasure fleet of 300 ships was constituent of Chinese maritime power, the Ming Empire of 400 ships near Nanjing, for coastal defense squadrons around 2,800 ships, and a transport fleet of 3,000 ships a total of 6,500 ships.
    Zheng He’s great Treasure ships were gone from the seas of Asia when the Portuguese came two generations later. There was an epochal turning-point in geographical exploration of the Chinese navy from the Indian Ocean by the trying for world dominion. It is believed that the voyages of the Treasure ships were essentially political where Zheng He imposed Chinese power from Vietnam to Madagascar, and that required acceptance of vassalage from more than thirty states. Also another purpose of the voyages was commercial policy, and that was by the ambition of civil bureaucrats and traders to get the benefit from the import of foreign goods and the export of Chinese handicrafts and products such as porcelain, silk, and lacquerware in addition to Chinese culture itself which was China’s greatest commodity. The expedition of the voyages bought “treasures” for the Ming court such as pearls, precious stones, ivory, and giraffes. Another important goods were gums, resins, and spices. Also, there was comprehended within the scope of the tribute system _ foreign rulers were giving gifts to the Chinese emperor.
    Then, the Treasure-fleet of Zheng He was all most military in composition. the Chinese fleets had a clear political trip that called for a power military force, which was well trained, to gather the countries of maritime Asia with the tribute system of the empire. The Treasure-ships were seeking to dazzle foreign states with their wealth and to overawe potential opposition with their force and firepower. However, Zheng He did not aspire to conquer or colonize but to make allies and friends. After his great explorations, Zheng He probably died in Calicut, and on the last Treasure fleet he was taken back to China (Finlay, 1991).

    Robert Finlay (1991) The Treasure-Ships of Zheng He: Chinese Maritime Imperialism in the Age of Discovery, Terrae Incognitae, 23:1, 1-12, DOI: 10.1179/tin.1991.23.1.1 http://0-www.tandfonline.com.library.uark.edu/doi/pdf/10.1179/tin.1991.23.1.1

  2. Zheng He personifies the resources – material and intellectual – that created the fleet he led. It set sail early in the 15th century and consisted of hundreds of vessels, the largest of which were massive junks, a design of sailing ship that had emerged in the region long before. Regional transoceanic trade was extensive long before the Yongle Emperor sent Zheng He and his first fleet out to sea. Star charts and magnetic compasses appeared in Imperial China approximately three hundred and two hundred years before they did in Europe, respectively. Zheng He’s fleet included cultural experts and return journeys carried individuals from around the “Old World” to the Ming Empire via acts of both war and diplomacy. The known extents and successes of the seven Ming voyages are far more impressive than contemporaneous attempts by Europeans, and yet students of history in the United States are far more likely to know of Christopher Columbus and his dozens of crewmen than they are to know of Zheng He and his thousands of soldiers and hundreds of experts.

    The obvious reason for the truth of that educated assumption is that the history of the United States traces back not to Imperial China, but to the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria…but there are many more reasons in the present moment why we should teach as complete a global history as we can muster, rather than the – at best narrow, at worst dishonest – nationalist, Western narrative that has taken over history classrooms in this country…to say (almost) nothing of the lack of geography classrooms. A narrow, shallow history is a dangerous one. Geography is just one of the many academic disciplines that would be incomplete, potentially deceptively so, without “nonwestern” experiences and ideas. Even if there were no connections across Eurasia and North Africa before the European Renaissance, this would still be true…and there obviously were. In a damaged world divided under nationalistic pretenses that distract us from important truths, today’s academics bear much of the responsibility to constantly seek truth and share it. Classes can and should be taught, books can and should be written, that focus on smaller scale histories than that of the entire world. Each must be introduced not only in the context of time, but in the context of space. Geographers recognize that time and space are both powerful determinates in human experience and attempt to identify spatial patterns in order to predict and potentially change the future in a beneficial way. Geographers should know the basic history, particularly theoretical, of their subject – the context of their discipline in time as well as space. A balanced global history of geographic exploration should be part of any instruction that claims to cover the history of human exploration, and in-depth study of exploration by “westerners” should still include a basic global context. Zheng He and the Ming fleet are significant in their own right but the story offers an additional opportunity to consider the power of in-action, or non-behavior. What if the Ming had managed resources better and prioritized the fleet’s journeys beyond 1433? Where might they have gone? How might their presence have influenced contemporaneous historical events?

    Geographers do not narrate as historians do, instead they create visual representations. Of course often there is accompanying narration, just as you will see maps in history textbooks. Those maps support the narration while for geographers it is the maps that are supported by the text. Strengthening the discipline of Geography at the all academic levels will enable students to better understand the world they live in and how it came to be the way that it is, but like History, Geography can be defined narrowly and shallowly…without the rich international history, without the competing theories over time and space. There is enormous power and potential in the Geographic Information Systems that are pervasive now within the discipline in post-secondary institutions, but we must not let the technology define the discipline. If we do, we run the risk of creating skilled but sense-less graduates who do not see the capitalist context in which they work. Even as the job market demands GIS fluency, the integrity of the discipline relies on the geographer’s determination to figuratively step outside of and observe place, while constantly remaining aware of the literal impossibility of the task.


  3. Joseph Needham, a British scientist and historian of Chinese science, speculates that ancient Chinese oceangoing explorers traveled as far as the Americas but were unable to return (Temple). If Needham’s conjectures are correct, then even ancient American civilizations would have been affected by one of history’s most expansive maritime explorations. Such an undertaking took place during the early Ming dynasty in the 15th century and was evident in an immense armada of ships led by a naval admiral, Zheng He (Hadingham 2001).
    Maritime trade had been an established practice in Chinese imperialism as early as 10th-13th centuries during the Song dynasty (Hadingham 2001). Trade over sea was made possible by technology such as the rudder, compass, watertight compartments, and multiple masts, which had been invented in the 1st and 2nd centuries in China, far before similar technologies were adopted from the Chinese into Western vessels (Temple 2007). The precision of Chinese technologies during the 15th century propelled Zheng He’s explorations beyond what previous dynasties aimed to accomplish. Zheng He was an admiral to a navy that was part of a new movement of leadership in China, which put forth an enterprising spirit and valued the expansion of commerce and trade (Hadingham 2001). The largest of Zheng He’s “treasure ships” were believed to have been 400 feet long and 150 feet wide, greatly outsizing Columbus’s ships, the largest of which was 90 feet by 30 feet (Hadingham 2001). The magnitude of Zhen He’s fleet was described by sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod, “The impressive show of force that paraded around the Indian Ocean during the first three decades of the 15th century was intended to signal the ‘barbarian nations’ that China had reassumed her rightful place in the firmament of nations – had once again become the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of the world” (Hadingham 2001).
    The expeditions of Zheng He yielded great “treasures” with trading destinations including the entire South-East Asia, India, Ceylon, and Philippines “supplying the Chinese with exotic products like spices, plants, and other raw materials (Temple 2007). Evidence also exists of standard destinations to East Africa by the large number of Chinese pottery found on the East African coast as well as evidence from a painting that a giraffe was taken back to China for the Emperor’s private zoo (Temple 2007). The goal of these expeditions was not only to return with “treasures” but to establish Chinese Imperial rule on those other civilizations visited and to “collect tribute” for the emperor (Hadingham 2001).
    Zheng He died in 1433 after contributing much to expand the power over foreign realms. However, around the time of his death, the desire for foreign expansion had begun to be seen by the more conservative Confucian group as improper, citing tradition to not partake in foreign travel while one’s parents were still living (Hadingham 2001). The conservative rising power did not see value in what other nations could offer and were more focused on investing in military to manage civil threats. With refurbished canals, trade shifted away from oceangoing expeditions and in 1525 an order was sent that mandated all large vessels be destroyed (Hadingham 2001). It can only be speculated what history or the modern world would look like if this shift from exploration to isolation in regards to Chinese foreign imperialism had not occurred.
    Works Cited:
    Hadingham, Evan. 2001 “Ancient Chinese Explorers — NOVA | PBS.” http://www.pbs.org, last modified 16 January, accessed Mar 11, 2017, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/ancient-chinese-explorers.html.
    Temple, Robert. 2007. The Genius of China: 3.000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention Inner Traditions.

  4. It is important, as we come to understand the History of Geography, to review the lives of those that have made great contributions to the field. The History of Geography did not start with the Europeans — a fact that seems to be forgotten more often than not.

    Western tradition always focused on the great explorers that originated from Europe and the Mediterranean and their achievements. At times almost forsaking to mention those that sailed from the East to establish trade routes, communication links between east and west or reached lands beyond their known world. One of these great seafarers was Ma Sanbao, a Chinese muslim born in 1371 in the Yunnan province, China. Later on he came to be known as Zheng He, Commander in Chief of the Chinese fleet.

    Long before the Portuguese seat out to reach the Indian Ocean, the Chinese had built large naval vessels, over 400 feet long, to transport raw materials, animals, people and weapons that had no rivals even during the great era of Exploration by the Europeans. They had mastered navigation charts, knowledge of currents and trade winds long before their westerner counterparts. So it is truly quite outstanding that seafarers like him are not mentioned more. He, along others like himself, helped to begin to map the ancient world and some of the cultures that inhabited it.

    Zheng He was influential in expanding the maritime trade between all across the Indian Ocean from China. He reached land as far as African having traversed the coasts of modern day South East Asia, Oman, Yemen, and the mouth of the Red Sea. He also reached the Philippines. The interesting thing about Zheng is that his focus was not exploration but enterprise and diplomacy.

    With so many nautical advancement and knowledge one would think the next step for the Chinese was to reach the Americas. Strangely enough, or at least to our knowledge, the Chinese never made across the Pacific.

    Cynthia Stoke Brown wrote:

    “ The voyages of Zheng He are a favorite topic of world historians today. They show that Chinese ships could have ruled the Indian Ocean for many more years and possibly been able to sail to the Americas. Why didn’t they? What if they had? How different would the world be?

    After the final voyage, the Chinese emperor suddenly ordered that these expensive expeditions be halted. The ships were left to rot in the harbors, and craftsmen forgot how to build such large ships, letting the knowledge slip away. The Confucian ministers who advised the emperor distrusted the eunuchs, who supported the voyages. New military threats came from the Mongols in the north and the ministers argued that resources needed to focus on land defenses there instead.

    Three firsthand accounts survive, written by men who sailed with Zheng He — two from officers and one from a translator. Eventually, Chinese interest in these accounts revived in the 20th century. Prior to that, Zheng He’s exploits were passed on by storytellers who used them as a source of wonder, blending them with other fantastic tales.” (1)


    Cynthia Stoke Brown. Zheng He: Chinese Admiral in the Indian Ocean.

  5. Zheng He also know as Ma He before the emperor changed it to Zheng He was a Chinese soldier and was thought to be very well versed in war and diplomacy. when a new emperor came into power the age of Chinese isolationism was coming to an end and Zheng was then ordered to command the treasure fleet which was a bunch of trade ships, warships and support vessels. this voyage was only the first of seven that he would be ordered to go on during his life. on this voyage he set out to Calicut for spices. but stopped by several countries through southern Asia and the Indian ocean. Of those countries he stopped at he was ordered to go back to Calicut, Kochi, and Thailand. the third voyage was a tad bit different than the first two because this time he was asked to trade for ebony and woods in exchange for porcelain and silks. when was unheard of for the Chinese at this time because historically they had been against outside resources. By the fourth voyage Zheng had begun to bring envoys and rare earth gems back from the different countries that he visited for the emperor. Zheng He was then ordered to return the envoys back which began his fifth voyage through southern Asia and the Indian ocean. On this voyage he traded in Aden for gems, pearls, and a giraffe in exchange porcelain, gold, silver, pepper, and woods. He also visited Africa to return more envoys. The shortest of all of his voyages was his sixth which his only plan was to return the remaining envoys to their respective countries. This voyage was his last voyage that which he would return. The emperor died and the new emperor suspended all exploration. Which before this Zheng he had traveled for 2 year on then one year off from travel. Then 10 years later Zheng He was ordered to set sail for land beyond what they had already traveled. It was on the seventh and final voyage that Zheng He died. No one knows if Zheng He was buried at sea or if he stayed in Calicut and died there. If it was for Zheng He china may not of been able to establish trade relations with southeast Asia, Arabia, Africa, and India. His ability to command probably one of the largest if not the largest fleet of ships in that time allowed him to be so successful. Zheng He and the treasure fleet he commanded did more than just establish trade relations it also set a standard for other nations for what a navy or fleet of ships should look like.

    the mariners’ museum and park: the Ages of Exploration – Zheng He – explorer age of discovery http://exploration.marinersmuseum.org/subject/zheng-he/

  6. Zheng He was a Muslim explorer and admiral in 15th century China. He was born Ma He in 1371 in the Yunnan province, an area then under Mongol rule. His father was killed and He taken captive in 1382 during the Ming dynasty invasion to reclaim the area. He became a eunuch and served in the court of the Ming Dynasty, particularly as a servant of one of the emperor’s sons, Zhu Di. He “grew unusually tall and strong and became a skilled fighter and brave leader,” helping Zhu Di claim the throne in 1402 as emperor Yongle (Brown). Ma He was rechristened Zheng He by emperor Yongle for his battle prowess and “awarded supreme command of the Imperial Household Agency” (Zaimeche).

    Yongle was an active emperor, moving the capital city to Beijing and building the Forbidden City, invading neighboring countries, and building new swaths of the Great Wall. Compared to the isolationist, inward-focused emperors that preceded and followed him, Yongle was also unusually interested in exploration and expanding Chinese trade. Thus he “commissioned the construction of 3,500 ships, with Zheng He supervising the construction and commanding the fleet” (Brown). These included the treasure ships, shown in the blog image massively outsizing the more widely known Santa Maria, Pinta, and Nina. The treasure ships measured “over 300-feet long and 150-feet wide, the biggest being 440-feet long and 186-across” (Zaimeche).

    Leaving on his first voyage in 1405, Zheng He was admiral of a fleet composed of “27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists” (Zaimeche). They were tasked with exploring the Indian Ocean, forging new trade connections, and shuttling tribute givers (or their gifts at least) back to China. Altogether, Zheng He made 7 voyages from 1405 until his death in 1433—not yet returned from his 7th voyage—with the last of these taking place well after the death of emperor Yongle and the return of Chinese isolationism under his successors, complete with the destruction of the ships of He’s fleet.

    Along the way, He visited over 40 countries spanning from Southeast Asia in the east to the eastern coast of Africa in the west, carrying with him “Chinese silk, ceramics, and copper coinage… to be exchanged for tropical spices, fragrant woods, precious gems, animals, textiles, and minerals” – all of which he brought back (including exotic animals, such as the pictured giraffe) along with envoys and the occasional pirate or criminal to be beheaded (Viviano, 2005). In total, he traveled “a total of 300,000 km, roughly equivalent to 7 ½ circumnavigations of the world” (Ignatius, 2001).

    Zheng He’s expeditions were important for a number of reasons. He developed new trade opportunities for China, and brought back new knowledge of the lands he visited. His fleet also powerfully asserted Chinese power, helping to “transform China into the region’s, and perhaps the world’s, 15th century superpower” (Ignatius, 2001). Given the grandeur of his expeditions, even when compared to those of explorers like Columbus and Vasco da Gama over 50 years later, China’s power might have been maintained and extended, radically changing the course of history had not internal concerns again come to the fore.

    Brown, C. S. (n.d.). Chinese Admiral in the Indian Ocean. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/big-history-project/expansion-interconnection/exploration-interconnection/a/zheng-he

    Ignatius, A. (2001, August 20). The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2054421,00.html

    Viviano, F. (2005, July). China’s Great Armada, Admiral Zheng He. Retrieved from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/features/world/asia/china/zheng-he-text

    Zaimeche, S. (n.d.). Zheng He – the Chinese Muslim Admiral. Retrieved from http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/zheng-he-chinese-muslim-admiral

  7. Over the course of Zheng He’s seven voyages as commander of Zhu Di’s Treasure Fleet from 1405 to 1433, he connected the previously isolated China to much of the known world as well as expanding the influence and standards of non-western exploration in the field of geography. As an official under the Ming dynasty, Zheng’s voyages were directly linked to the economic advancement of the empire and his objective was to establish trading connections for China. He established trade relationships across parts of Southeast Asia, Africa, Arabia, and India. While economic connections were the core of his voyages, Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet also served as a display of the incredible wealth and maritime strength of the Chinese empire. At the peak of his success, he commanded a massive fleet of ships and had hundreds of sailors under his command. From the first image in the top left corner of Zheng He’s fourth voyage, we can see on the map how extensive his two-year expedition was and the vast reach he retained with his primary and secondary treasure fleets. During the fourth voyage from 1413 to 1415, the emperor expanded the Treasure Fleet to the largest it had ever been: 63 vessels carrying over 25,000 men. This expedition ended with Zheng He bringing back tributes to the emperor from over nineteen countries including India, Sumatra, and near the Straight of Hormuz. As we can see from the diagram comparing Zheng He’s Treasure Ship to the three ships of Columbus’ voyage, Chinese maritime technology adapted to allow the Treasure Fleet to maximize on the collection of treasures from around the world. Zheng He’s Treasure Ship measures over 400 feet long and over 150 feet wide. Zheng He collected many riches over the course of his voyages beyond just jewels, textiles, and spices as we can see from the Chinese image of a man and a giraffe. Zheng He encountered the giraffe in the Indian state of Bengal and convinced the sultan of Bengal to part with it. The giraffe was loaded up and sent to Peking. One of the most important contributions Zheng He indirectly made to the expansion of non-western geographic thought during the Age of Exploration were the navigation charts based upon his voyages; compiled as the Mao Kun map. The map is arranged based on the coastal regions of the locations that Zheng He visited with marked sailing routes and instructions. The Mao Kun map, although not consistent to actual geographic scale and size of the landmasses Zheng He traveled to, is a powerful early representation of maritime Asia with strong cartographic quality for the era. While the Age of Exploration is dominated by the feats of the European world, Zheng He is a prime example of a non-western explorer making remarkable and unprecedented leaps towards a more thorough understanding of the world in this era and the development of cultural flow which would lead to a more fleshed-out and significant comprehension of world geography.

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