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Exploration 2: Zheng He

Essential Questions

  • Who is Zheng He and what is his historical significance?
  • Why did China make the momentous decision to turn away from the outside world?
  • Why did tiny Portugal, in contrast, led Europe into an age of exploration?
Painting of Zheng He's ship

What differences do you notice about these two ships?

Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria: 85-90 feet long

Zheng He's ship: 400 feet long

Several decades before Columbus sailed to the New World, a Chinese admiral named Zheng He made even more ambitious voyages. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led seven major expeditions, commanding the largest armada the world would see for the next five centuries. Not until World War I did the West mount anything comparable.

Zheng He's fleet included 28,000 sailors on 300 ships, the longest of which were 400 feet and 160 feet wide. By comparison, Columbus in 1492 had 90 sailors on three ships, the biggest of which was 85 feet long. Zheng He’s armada included supply ships to carry horses and as many as 20 tankers to carry fresh water. His crew included interpreters for Arabic and other languages, astrologers to forecast the weather, astronomers to study the stars, pharmacologists to collect medicinal plants, ship-repair specialists, doctors and even two protocol officers to help organize official receptions.

Zheng He’s fleet reached Africa and could easily have continued around the Cape of Good Hope and established direct trade with Europe. But the Chinese regarded Europe as a backward region and had little interest in the wool, beads and wine Europe had to trade. China preferred the goods that Africa traded -- ivory, medicines, spices, and exotic woods.

In Zheng He's time, China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product. Indeed, as recently as 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the global economy and India another 16 percent.

But during the 1400s, China retreated into relative isolation. By 1500 the Chinese government had made it a capital offense to build a boat with more than two masts, and in 1525 the Government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships. A century earlier, China had a fleet of 3,500 ships.

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