Zheng He’s 15th Century Chinese Armada

When the Yongle Emperor died in 1424, China’s Hongxi Emperor stopped the voyages of China’s largest fleet. Source: BBC

A century later, about 1529, another Ming Emperor burned all records of the fleet. This decision to withdraw from the world may have resulted in China not being ready to confront the Western Imperial powers that would arrive in the 19th century starting the Opium Wars, which would devastate China.

The voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s armada were rediscovered in Fujian province in the 1930s. The story was etched in a pillar. By the final, seventh voyage, the fleet had covered over 50,000 kilometers or 30,000 miles and was comprised of three hundred ships and 28,000 men.

By comparison, Christopher Columbus set sale in 1492 with 3 small ships and 88 men. Erik the Red, a Viking explorer, also crossed the Atlantic in even smaller ships to build a settlement in Greenland around 1,000 AD. Some archeologists suggest that the Phoenicians may have reached the Americas before the Vikings and Columbus around 500 BC. Some even say as early as 1500 to 1200 BC.

A joint Chinese-Kenyan expedition of archaeologists continues to search for a ship from Zheng He’s fleet, which may have sunk during a storm near the Lamu islands. ( Old Salt Blog )

Many layers of myth surround China’s ancient mariner. According to Kenyan lore, some of his shipwrecked sailors survived and married local women.

DNA tests have reportedly shown evidence of Chinese ancestry and a young Kenyan woman, Mwamaka Shirafu, was given a scholarship to study Chinese medicine in China, where she now lives.

In addition, National Geographic.com reports on the discovery of an ancient burial site found in Kenya’s Lamu archipelago: “These burial places, with their half-moon domes and terraced entries, were virtually identical to the classic Ming tombs that dot hillsides above Chinese ports from which shipwrecked Treasure Fleet sailors might have hailed.”

Another invention from ancient China still used in modern ships today.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.


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9 Responses to Zheng He’s 15th Century Chinese Armada

  1. They have found SO many wrecks off the China coast. I belong to a collector’s group … and many people are dedicated to identifying wrecks by the porcelain found on board. It turns out that porcelain — especially good, glazed Chinese porcelain — resists salt water very well.

    Much “shipwreck pottery” is retrieved in superb condition even after centuries in seawater. So there’s hope. Where there’s a wreck, there will be pottery because … hey, they needed bowls from which to eat and pots to store the rice.There will be something by which a date can be established. Sooner or later, they will find remnants. What a great day that will be!!

    • I read that the Chinese grew sprouts in special pots too, and those sprouts explain why Chinese sailors never got scurvy. Maybe by carbon dating the wrecks, they might discover when the Chinese learned that eating fresh sprouts would keep the sailors healthier and when the Chinese started to build ships with the water tight compartments to make them harder to sink—two things that took us in the West a lot longer to learn.

      • The Chinese were WAY ahead for a long time. They are already carbon dating the pots they bring up from wrecks. Have been for decades. Not everyone can afford it, but there are some very rich collectors.

      • I think the Chinese were way ahead up to the end of the Southern Sung Dynasty and then the decline started under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. For a time under the Ming Dynasty, the decline reversed for about a century, and then it went into a dive again. The Manchu that ruled the Qing Dynasty continued the decline. Too much war and not enough focus in continuing progress adn innovation that marked the Han, Tang and Sung Dynasties.

      • You can follow all of that through the porcelain. It’s history you can hold in your hands. Which is why I love it. They did continue to perfect their art, even though other innovation did not always progress.

        The near perfection of much of the creations of the Tang, though … I don’t think it ever got better after that. Different, not better.

      • And I wonder how much of the Tang success goes to Wu Zetian (624 – 705), the only female emperor in the history of China. She was married to two emperors, Tai Zong and Gao Zong, advised them, and she dismissed two emperors after her second husband, the son of the first, died. Regardless of what her critics say, from history, it seems the decline of the Tang Dynasty can be traced back to the end of her influence, which may have lasted some time after her death.

      • Maybe. Probably. Art seems to thrive with patronage and Tang was as good as it got … in my opinion, as good as it got anywhere any time in history.

      • Wu Zetain has been accused of being ruthless but that could be said of any highly successful male emperor too, but Zetain opened up the arts—and more—to women, and that by itself would tend to double the number of talented people active in the arts.

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