Zheng He and Ming China’s Voyages in the Early 15th Century
- Geoff WadeGeoff WadeIndependent Scholar
Over the first three decades of the 15th century, Ming China dispatched a succession of naval fleets through the Southeast Asian seas and across the Indian Ocean, reaching South Asia, the Middle East, and even the east coast of Africa. These were the largest and best-armed naval fleets in the world at that time, comprising more than 100 ships and tens of thousands of troops. Like similar overland military missions sent to Đại Việt and Yunnan in the same period; these missions were initially intended to awe foreign powers and create legitimacy for the usurping emperor, Yongle. The maritime missions were generally led by eunuch officials, the most famous of whom was Zheng He. In the 21st century the Chinese state depicts these missions as “voyages of peace and friendship” and utilizes this trope in its contemporary diplomacy. However, the Ming sources reveal that military violence was an integral aspect of the successive voyages, whilst the fact that many rulers from Southeast Asian polities were taken to China by the eunuch-led missions also suggests that some degree of coercion was employed. The missions were ended by the court in the mid-1430s over concerns about the costs and the need for such missions.