Beginning in 1403, China’s Yongle Emperor issued a decree that prompted the construction of a massive new fleet. Historians are unsure just how many new ships were constructed as part of this immense undertaking, and how many were repurposed from existing vessels—the Yongle Emperor had already inherited a powerful maritime fleet when he usurped the Ming throne at the end of the Jingnan rebellion.
What we know about this growing “treasure fleet” is how it was used. Under the command of Admiral Zheng He, the fleet engaged in seven major “treasure voyages” that traveled all over the South China Sea, throughout the Indian Ocean, and beyond. Expeditions reached as far as the Persian Gulf and East Africa. While the voyages were named for the massive treasure ships, which carried riches showcasing China’s wealth and prestige, they were also heavily militarized, and their voyages, while not overtly combative, helped to establish Chinese control over an extensive maritime network that was one of the largest in the world at that time.
As with the size of the fleet itself, the precise goals of these treasure voyages are a matter of some debate among historians. The official name of the treasure fleet, which roughly translates to “foreign expeditionary armada,” gives some clue of its intended function. It's clear that these voyages were of substantial importance to the Yongle Emperor, who gave Zheng He blank scrolls stamped with the imperial seal, so that he could issue orders at sea with all the strength of the emperor behind them.
The result was the establishment of a Chinese hegemony across maritime trade throughout much of the region, with numerous nations declaring themselves tributaries of the empire and sending foreign ambassadors to the emperor’s court, which led to a massive growth in cultural exports, as well as wealth and goods.
Though modern Chinese celebrations of the Ming Treasure Voyages portray them as primarily peaceful enterprises, they succeeded in establishing China’s naval dominance over the entire region, extending throughout the Indian Ocean—a feat never before accomplished by any single nation. They did this not by seizing territory but by exerting political and economic inducements to the countries that the treasure fleets visited.
The fleets were not above using military force, however, and in the course of their seven voyages they also destroyed the pirate fleet of Chen Zuyi at the Battle of Palembang in 1407, and fought a brief war with the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom in southern Sri Lanka, which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of King Alakeshvara. Primarily, however, the function of the treasure voyages seems to have been what Robert Finlay described in the Journal of the Historical Society as “a deployment of state power to bring into line the reality of seaborne commerce with an expansive conception of Chinese hegemony.”
That is to say, the Ming Treasure Voyages expanded Chinese power and influence not, primarily, through conquest or even political maneuvering, but by impressing those countries visited with China’s wealth and power, so that their geographic neighbors would voluntarily enter into a tributary relationship with the empire.
Because the treasure fleets neither sought exclusive trade nor attempted to impose Chinese rule, they were often welcomed by the nations they visited. Furthermore, the treasure ships themselves, which were the largest vessels in the fleet, acted as “an emporium offering a wealth of products,” according to Finlay, which allowed access to commodities and valuables that many of the people at their destinations had never had the opportunity to trade for in the past. And because the presence of the treasure fleets made potential trade routes more stable, they were often welcomed by other traders.
In fact, these voyages were so successful as drivers of trade that the booming Ming economy began trading and exporting commodities that were not originally Chinese in origin. Nor did the trade flow only one way. The expeditions brought back numerous goods to China that frequently had transformative effects upon the local economy and industry. Black pepper, once a costly rarity, became commonplace, while cobalt oxide imported from Persia helped to define the porcelain industry that became synonymous with the Ming dynasty.
As these voyages solidified a Chinese hegemony throughout the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, other results began to manifest, as well. Along with commodities, cultural exports began to spread throughout the trade avenues opened by the Ming Treasure Voyages, while the Chinese control of the waterways led to the development of cosmopolitan spaces where representatives from numerous different countries mingled.
These flourishing trade partnerships and budding cultural exchanges continued long after the last of the treasure voyages ended in 1433, but an era had certainly drawn to a close when the treasure fleet returned to port from its seventh voyage. The precise reason for their cessation remains a mystery, with historians pointing to various possible causes, from cost to political infighting to a growth of private, rather than state-run, commerce.
Whatever the ultimate reasons for the cessation of the treasure voyages, their legacy would live on both within mainland China and well beyond. Today, China celebrates the Ming Treasure Voyages on National Maritime Day, which takes place every year on July 11. The voyages also loom large in modern Chinese political narratives, which posit them as blueprints for a growing China to continue to establish itself as a maritime and trading power in the contemporary global marketplace.
Nor is China the only place where the voyages left their mark. Throughout the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, the visits of the treasure fleets changed the nations where they stopped, introducing new trade goods and new ideas, and bringing together representatives from disparate countries, opening up a climate of trade that other nations would continue to build upon. When Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama arrived on the shores of East Africa more than half a century later, his men were even mistaken for Chinese, as the Chinese were the last strangers that the people of the East African coast remembered arriving in large wooden ships.