Lost Leviathans: The Technology of Zheng He’s Voyages

Lost Leviathans: The Technology of Zheng He’s Voyages

By Mark Dwinnells

The Undergraduate Review, Vol. 4 (2008)

Introduction: It has been said that the control of the oceans is the control of the trading world. This has been true from ancient times, with the far-reaching Phoenicians, Egyptians and Qin Chinese trading with primitive sailing vessels, to the mixed oar-and-sail driven water-borne merchants of 0 CE – 1000 CE, through the dawn of the age of square and triangular sails of the latter half of the second millennium CE; now in modern times ocean-going vessels with steam or gas-turbine powered vessels haul more tonnage than entire fleets of past eras, and their military counterparts bear enough firepower to level small countries or irradiate whole continents. Various ships and fleets in many eras have gained acclaim for their crews’ skill, builders’ capabilities and commanders’ prowess; the Athenians in the Battle of Salamis, Sir Francis Drake and the Golden Hind, Admiral Nimitz and the Battle of Midway, for example. Sadly, one of the most overlooked of these is Zheng He, a fleet commander in the Ming Dynasty from 1405-1433, who nearly had the ocean-going world under his bow. His fleet’s seven voyages relied upon vessels which had levels of technology and skill of both builder and crew not seen in the west until the age of colonialism was fully underway. It is thus appropriate to contrast such vessels to contemporary and later western designs of one or two centuries afterwards in terms of hull composition, design, and capacity.

Little can be said about taking evidences and examples in a bubble; thus, one needs to look at Zheng He’s background before his voyages first to understand the reasons for leading the expeditions, determining his ports of call, and why they were of importance. The most trusted servant of the Ming emperor Yongle (also known as Zhu Di ), Zheng He was a Muslim by upbringing from and this hints at possible reasons for either his or the emperor’s intentions to bring China westward by sea. It was possible their knowledge of trade routes west of China that flowed through the Middle East but did not directly connect to China would be of significant value to the empire, and thus could be incorporated into the tributary system.

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