The Treasures Ships. Ming China on the seas: history of the Fleet that could conquer the world and vanished into thin air - Stefano Cariolato - ebook

In 1400 an immense Chinese fleet of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men sailed through the seas, reaching Indonesia, India, Persia, Arabia and Africa: sent by a proud emperor to bring to the world the glory and the power of the Ming, was commanded by the most famous of the Chinese admirals, an eunuch named Zheng He.The ships carried valuable books, precious fabrics, delicate and beautiful ceramics, in addition to gold and silver destined for the princes of the visited countries, and were taking back in China exotic merchandise to show at court with the ambassadors of the Asian world who prostrated themselves in submission: for this reason they were called The Treasures Ships.The history and descriptions of the peoples met are presented based on the news collected by previous and following travelers, as well as by the chroniclers who followed the fleet leaving a testimony of the voyages that had been accomplished.Despite the fact that the surviving information is very limited, this book narrates the missions of the Fleet of the Treasures between 1405 and 1433, attempting to reconstruct the routes likely to have been followed on the basis of the sea and wind conditions, phased by the monsoon cycle and detected today with precision by the satellites.After a thirty-year long endeavour the Chinese retired from the sea, cancelled the travels reports, destroyed the ships renouncing to sail and remained helpless in face of the penetration of European Navies before and of the Japanese aggression afterward. Today, China is rebuilding a large fleet that is already carrying its weight in home and neighbouring waters, retracing the endeavour accomplished 600 years ago.

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The Ships of Treasures
The beginning of the Ming
The achievements of Hong Wu
The Confucian concept
The structure of power
The Chinese economy and the tribute system
Science, technology, culture
Chinese foreign policy
The origins
The capture and servitude
The end of the reign of Hong Wu
The civil war
The new reign of Yong Le
Ma Sanbao becomes Zheng He
Perpetual happiness
The foreign policy of Yong Le
The role of eunuchs in the Ming diplomacy
The purpose of the fleet
The investiture of Zheng He
The creation of the Fleet
The size of the Chinese ships
The Shipbuilding
The types of ships that made up the fleet
The navigation tools
The Indian Ocean
The Chinese navy
The places
The routes
The key players
The witnesses
Prologue to the journeys
Champa, Vietnam
Surabaya and Sunda, Java
Palembang, Sumatra
Melaka, Malacca
Semudera and Lambri, Sumatra
Quilon, Cochin and Calicut, India
The Voyage
The Siam
Temasek (Singapore)
The phantom voyage
The second mission
The second journey to India
Return home
The trilingual inscription
A delicate situation
The relic of the Buddha
The Chinese intervention
Return to China
The journey begins
Expedition to Maldives
The Arab navigators
The Persian Gulf
The Oman Gulf
The Arabian sea
The Indian coasts
The travel to Hormuz
The Silk Road
Return to India
Civil war in Semudera
The envoys crisscrossing
The new routes
The arab coast
Zufar, Dhofar
China and Africa
The African coast during XV century
The Swahili civilization
Toward Africa
Zeila and Berbera
Mogadishu, Barawa and Jubu
Pate, Malindi and Mombasa
Zanzibar and Kilwa
Sofala, Mapungubwe and Gran Zimbabwe
The travel to the South
A lesser trip
Transoceanic routes
The three squads are on their way
Return of the Fleet
The new Emperor
The Fleet's enemies
Zheng He in Nanjing
An unexpected event
The Xuan De Emperor
A difficult start
The last voyage
Towards the Western Ocean
The Mamluk report
Sail to the South
Hung Pao toward Bengal
Zheng He toward Hormuz
Towards the Maldives, Africa and Arabia
Expedition to Mecca
Final repatriation
Zheng He death
Xuan De death
The Child Emperor
The Fleet decommissioning
The Mongol captivity
The Fleet and the Wall
Tianfei, the Celestial Bride
Chinese Islam in Indonesia
The worship of Zheng He
The destruction of documents
A century later
The Portuguese reach China
The last Fleet
Chinese in Australia
Chinese in the Atlantic
Chinese in America
Alternative History
The Senkaku - Diaoyu Islands
The Spratly Islands
The Malacca Straits
The Indian Ocean
The New Silk Roads

The Ships of Treasures

Stefano Cariolato

Ming China on the seas: history of the Fleet that

could conquer the world and vanished into thin air

Ebook Edition

to Roberta

Routes of the Fleet of Treasures on Chinese Sea and Indian Ocean


The intent of this book is to tell the history of the Chinese Treasures Ships and their extraordinary ocean missions, integrating unfortunately scarce documentary information with widely known data on sea conditions and the prevailing winds in each season and in each sea area.

Many historians, especially in recent decades, have examined and described this fundamental story, making obvious reference to all possible and regrettably scant available sources, but rarely they have verified them, in their possible interpretation, with the actual conditions of winds and currents in various periods, so important in seas subject to strong seasonal variations caused by the monsoon cycle. This work instead, in addition to simply telling the development of carried out journeys, compare their implementation with the actual weather conditions during the corresponding period, reaching to confirm and sometimes exclude historical hypotheses unluckily remained unclear due to the complete loss of logbooks and original chronicle of the Chinese fleet.

Obviously, the end result of this search is not intended and can not be an exact historical reconstruction, but simply the attempt to re-propose a chronicle compatible with the real conditions of navigation in those seas: certainly not aiming to identify an impossible historical accuracy but at least of further limiting the range of possible hypotheses and provide a basis for a plausible narrative of the fleet's journeys.

We will see that the abandonment of ocean missions by the Chinese, with the surrender of a deep-sea fleet and the consequent dissolution of the operational experience and shipbuilding capability, later exposed the country to a centuries-long period of weakness during the European colonial expansion, followed by the Japanese aggression, so finally generating immense human costs: China learned that the experience is the hardest teacher, before you do the exam then it explains to you the lesson.

This story is now topical again because China has now changed its maritime strategy from pure protection of coastal waters to a broader presence in every ocean, witnessed by the current frictions caused by China's desire to appropriate the domain of the South China Sea and its islands, as well as by the recent manoeuvres in the Mediterranean in collaboration with the Russian Fleet. It's very likely that military directives issued to the Chinese fleet and its future areas of influence may follow what has already been done 600 years ago, and the knowledge of past history can help in anticipating of what awaits us in the coming years.

Like all of the Orient history books this too must necessarily bring dates now buried, distant places and characters sometimes with unpronounceable names, thus risking to make less fluent the account and weigh down the reading, but this should not discourage because, for reasons later clarified, these historiographical data, although interesting, lose their importance facing the global value of Zheng He's fleet adventure. The exact dates are not in fact, with few exceptions, neither known nor reconstructed beyond a certain degree of approximation, the places are sometimes known but often undetected, as for the protagonists then it is important their historical role and not the name by which the Chinese identified them. This book does not want nor can be, given the particular circumstances, a detailed history, but rather the fresco of a particular historical moment and of an exceptional daring enterprise that might also have changed the world we live in. If the reader gets tired must not repent of neglecting dates, places and characters encountered, but simply continue to grasp the overall meaning of the story of the Treasure Ships. *

The reason we do not know the historical data? Because they have been deleted. And who did it? But the Chinese, of course.

* As the author is not an English mother tongue, the text may sometime have a weird taste to you, bound to raise a few eyebrows and to think " With the greatest respect .....".

So the author begs your pardon for possible mistakes and, counting on your good will, hopes that it be at least understandable and possibly clear, what was his true target.



We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night continued their course (rapid like that) of a falling star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare. *

- Stele erected by Zheng He, Changle, Fujian, 1432

A man has left us these words, and we perceive both the immensity and power of the ocean and the pride and determination of a fleet running through it effortlessly. This man was Zheng He, the Chinese admiral who in the 15th century accomplished seven long trips in the Indian Ocean, arriving in India, Persia, Arabia and Africa. Its fleet was huge, consisting of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men, built precisely in order to communicate to the world the power of China and the will of the Ming Dynasty.

Colossal ships destined to the Chinese emperor’s delegates were part of the fleet, carrying gifts and precious merchandise to the visited countries and were therefore called the Treasures Ships.

In the first half of the fifteenth century, nearly a century before the European geographical discoveries, a large Chinese fleet crossed for thirty years the Indian Ocean, from China to Africa and Arabia, establishing a sort of Chinese naval hegemony in those seas. It's been 600 years since then, but only recently these endeavours have got out from the circle of historians of the Far East, both at home and elsewhere. Especially in China, until recently, Zheng He was forgotten, first because the Celestial Empire had exercised its great refusal to open up to the world, erasing almost all of its memory, then because the communist regime was determined to bury the past to impose his new vision of society and history.

Today things have changed, China has begun to dig into its history to recover the sense of its great past. In 2005 China celebrated the six-hundredth anniversary of the first voyage of Zheng He, carried out 87 years before Columbus's voyage to America. A colossal undertaking which stands as an isolated mountain in the Chinese history. But in 1435 China took the historic and unfortunate decision not to continue any more such naval expeditions, in fact it was forbidden to build ships capable of facing ocean voyages and even to exercise offshore fishing, and all the ships of the fleet were dismantled. Reports and log records regarding the ocean voyages undertaken were also deleted. A real "damnatio memoriae". This position of absolute rejection towards the sea voyages was then maintained by successive Chinese dynasties: it was therefore not just a temporary decision due to economic difficulties or disagreements on foreign policy, it was instead an almost philosophical stance on the attitude to be taken toward the outside world. China, therefore, locked up in its own territory going back to its traditional and proud isolationism and to a foreign policy of only terrestrial conception. Less than a century after the Europeans were exploring the rest of the world in search of new trade routes, colonizing vast territories and creating huge colonial empires.

Only to the end of the nineteenth century Chinese people had to accept the sad and shocking truth that they were no longer the centre of the world, as they had always believed, firmly, for thousands of years, but they had indeed to suffer the siege of the western European colonialism, the territorial concessions, the opium wars and finally the Japanese invasion. The historical continuity of their empire gave rise to the belief that the past was the master of both the present and the future, so the consequent blind faith in the tradition ended up betraying them.

Obviously, we can not know what would have been the chain of historical events if China had continued the overseas expeditions or at least had maintained an ocean fleet able to defend it, but surely the Westerners would have found an obstacle to their expansion and a bulwark against their aggression. For this reason both the maritime enterprises of Zheng He and their subsequent sentencing are an exceptional turning point in the history of the Celestial Empire, and that is what this book aims to tell . **

* 100,000 li equal 50,000 kilometres or 30,000 miles (1)

** The reader who wants to learn more will find in the notes to each chapter the required references. Sometimes are reported the Internet address (URL) of the reference, but please note that these can change in time. Please also note that the display of the book in digital format and its quality depend heavily either on the used device and the reading software, and that their characteristics, if unsuitable, can result in significant effects; for example, tables inserted in the text may or may not show correctly, and the same thing can be said of the images. It is therefore recommended to choose the best software, specialized for playing this digital format (EPUB).


1) Chinese medieval Units: Since there was no common standard the measurement units ranged not only in time but also between the different provinces, including money; previous conversions must therefore be interpreted as approximate.


The beginning of the Ming

In 1211 Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan, attacked the North-East China then ruled by the Jin Dynasty, conquering and plundering the capital of Yanjing (now Beijing) in 1215: perhaps this great historical upheaval was caused by the medieval warm period that ignited the expansion of the Mongolian population, followed by the successive temperature’s drop and by the resulting famine, masterfully exploited by Temujin's personality. The expansion to the South and West of the Mongol Empire continued after the death of Genghis until 1279 with the fall of the Chinese Southern Song Dynasty, when the conquerors of a China by then unified began to govern as the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongols, the temperament of which was more aggressive and pragmatic than the Chinese one, concretized their influence on the history of China through increased militarization of the country and greater social mobility, facilitated by the development of trade, of a new merchant class and culture of the popular strata.

The Mongols ruled China substantially not as their homeland but as a country occupied by a colonial power: in fact, not only all military and government positions were the preserve of the Mongols, but the Chinese were even banned from any public office, so as to make them discriminated in their own country even compared to foreigners. As a matter of fact the Mongols had divided the population into four distinct hierarchical categories, obviously placing themselves to the top of the pyramid of power and opportunities, regardless of the specific personal characteristics such as wealth or talent; then followed the foreigners like the Muslims or the Nestorian Christians, then the Chinese of the Northern Jin Dynasty who had surrendered, and finally the Southern Han of the Song Dynasty that for more than sixty years had resisted the invasion gaining a pariah position at home.

When in the fourteenth century the Mongol power began to weaken, partly because of the terrible plague that claimed millions of lives in Asia, Africa and Europe, the militaristic culture that they had injected in the Chinese society turned against them, leading to the creation of regional militias by dissident leaders, blandly fronted by a central power now corrupt and undermined by internal rivalries. In 1351 in fact an immense and disastrous flood reduced to despair hundreds of thousands of peasants already affected by the plague, the same pandemic that killed over the same period a third of Europeans, leading them to open rebellion against the central government and giving dissidents the manoeuvring mass and the popular support that could tip the scales in their favour. Then followed almost twenty years of riots and secessions that shattered the country and its economy, often captained by lower classes leaders, one of whom was finally able to gain the upper hand and decreed the end of the Mongol power in China: his name was Zhu Yuanzhang.

The extraordinary story of this man took him from abject poverty to the glories of the empire and the founding of a new dynasty: born to a peasant family in the Northwest of China, at seventeen he was orphaned of parents and found refuge in the Buddhist monastery of Hoangkiosé as a novice, where he grew up and studied. A period of three years during which he wandered as a beggar monk made him know the real situation of misery of the population, something that he did not forget later when he was at the head of the Empire. As a young adult, he abandoned the religious life to join the Hongjin (Red Turbans) militias of one of the dissident leaders who were fighting the Mongol army, distinguishing himself for the military ability and gathering under his command ever greater forces, of which eventually became the absolute leader.

In 1368, after having unified the various provinces, on September 14 the forces of Zhu invested the capital of the Mongol Dynasty Dadu (today's Beijing), the last Yuan Emperor fled and the winner proclaimed himself Emperor in turn, taking the name of Hong Wu (Big and Valiant). *

Thus the dynasty of Mongol origin collapsed, replaced by the Ming dynasty, which means Splendour: the consolidation of the new Chinese Empire occupied Hong Wu for another thirty years, bringing the Chinese armies to fight in the north to Mongolia, East to Manchuria, to the West in Central Asia almost to the Baikal lake, and South to the borders of Burma and Vietnam. The rebellion led by Hong Wu was the beginning of the heyday of Chinese civilisation, regarded by historians as one of the greatest eras of sensible government, vigorous economic development and greater social stability. The Ming Dynasty re-established also the influence and prestige of China abroad, both to the immediately bordering satellite states that recognised its authority, and to the more distant powers that exchanged with the Ming Emperors gifts and ambassadors.

* About the names of the emperors we must specify that ordinarily they are three: the personal name of birth, the Imperial name and the name by which they were honoured posthumously after their death. The following table lists the respective names of the first six Ming emperors, which are mentioned below. (From

The achievements of Hong Wu

Hong Wu was definitely one of the greatest players in the history of China, as his work of foundation before and then reorganization laid the basis on which would have developed the Ming Dynasty for the next three centuries and 16 emperors. The period of monasticism spent by the young Hong Wu as a beggar monk and his upbringing made him one of the few people in government who have demonstrated through their work adherence to Buddhist and Confucian precepts and have worked in favour of greater social justice: in 1387 he said that the imperial mandate from Heaven does not end with the observance of ritual rules, but must be concretized with the work of the government addressed to the good of the people, because this is the ultimate aim of the power granted to the emperor. (1)

It was a strict despot with those who betrayed his trust, but he avoided vendettas on opponents not to trigger a chain of conflicts that would have prevented the stabilization and reconstruction of the country.

Hong Wu reformed agriculture by distributing fallow land to the poor and creating a rigid rural communities self-sufficient system (similar to the communes of the Mao era); also built thousands of canals, dikes and dams, thus producing food surpluses that enabled the significant growth of cities and their manufacturing activities. The contemporary effort to improve the terrestrial communications increased trafficking by opening new markets. Beginning in 1364 he ordered the drafting of a new code of laws, extremely clear and detailed, called Ta-Ming Lu, which is considered one of the greatest achievements of his reign. In 1370, 1381 and 1391 Hong Wu ordered population censuses and draw up detailed maps of the entire territory, with the registration of property and the due taxes (2)

He reformed the government structure by reorganizing the six ministries and establishing five Military Regions, organized competitive exams to equip the empire of the best civil servants, solicited the collaboration of eminent intellectuals of the time, gathered information on administration deficiencies, recreated the Office of Grievances of the Song time to stifle the abuses. He lowered taxes in many regions which had suffered from the civil war and commanded that all over the territory of the Empire schools and school canteens were opened to the public. He established the social pension for the elderly (3) , freed the slaves, helped the poor and punished those who abused their power by sending them in agricultural colonies of re-education.

It was the beginning of an "economic miracle" the fruits of which would then be accrued in the first half of the following century, the era of Zheng He. There was also another minor decision made by Hong Wu, illuminating on Chinese conception of State power and on subsequent events: the Emperor forbade any private traffic with overseas countries. In practice, only the boats of the State could be used to maintain commercial relations and maritime communications. With the motivation, perhaps as a pretext, of protecting the coasts and merchants from pirate raids (in part Chinese, part Japanese) the State took to itself the monopoly of the sea. Many merchants were ruined by this decision, while others fled into South-East Asia by moving there their commercial activities and continuing businesses as smugglers. Later the emperor ordered the construction of 480 ocean-going vessels to provide the necessities of overseas communication: this was the beginning of a new political presence on the sea of the Chinese Empire, which was continued with much greater momentum in the following century. (4)

Probably the true motivation of these measures was to strictly control exports of Chinese products such as gold, silver, bronze, currency, silk and weapons, all products that Southeast Asia was lacking, but at the same time they caused contraband phenomena that at a later time were fought sternly.

Hong Wu official portrait, Wikimedia Commons

The economic well-being also had repercussions in the arts, letters and sciences, with a return to the conservative Confucian spirit on the one hand and the emergence of an intellectual class which favoured a more dynamic and innovative conception of the State and its politics: a premise for future conflicts between the noble classes and new emerging merchant classes. To understand this phenomenon a reference to the Confucian State philosophy and society is mandatory.

The Confucian concept

In an extremely vast country and with a huge population the problem had always been to ensure cohesion and social stability, and this was especially true at the time of the Warring States, during which the great philosopher lived. Confucius (Kung Fu-Zi) was born five centuries before Christ in an era of political and social anarchy, chaos, and he therefore had the basic purpose of indicating the principles to be followed to ensure morality in government and order in social life: he found the solution in the universal acceptance of a rigid hierarchical system whereby every man was born with an already assigned role, from the emperor who inherited it from the past and the will of Heaven, till the last farmer who struggled in the fields. It was essential that everybody would recognise and accept its role in the world, his duties and responsibilities, his place in the social hierarchy. Any deviation from this policy would inevitably lead to disorder and anarchy.

The basic cell of the Chinese society has always been the family, albeit conceived in the typically enlarged form of peasant societies, subject to the domination of the elders on the young and the males on women, regulated by an inflexible system of reciprocal rights and duties. Just as in a family the father commands and his children obey, so the society must configure like a huge family in which at every level rights and duties have to be respected, disobedience punished and virtue rewarded. Confucian ideas were thereafter applied to a society composed of three layers:

- A huge mass of mostly illiterate peasants who lived on the edge of subsistence conditions in small villages of huts, obliged to forced labour as well as the cultivation of fields for their survival;

-the "gentry" formed both by landowners who administered the county, by the military, and civilian bureaucrats and scholars selected by a state examination system; it was concentrated mainly in cities and served as a link and transmission belt between the central government and rural life; (5)

- The small group of the imperial court, government leaders and military commanders.

Social mobility between these layers, even though theoretically possible, was in fact reduced both by differences in wealth that translated into lack of opportunities for the lowest layer, and by the extensive nepotism of the highest layer; it was only in part realized by enriched merchants who bought public office for family members or young peasants made eunuchs for advancing to the service of the gentry. In practice China was blocked by a pseudo-feudal system without a significant social mobility between these three layers, frozen in an immutable order, in which the majority of the population born in a social context there belonged for all the existence.

The emperor ruled under the "Mandate of Heaven", something like the divine mandate of the rulers of Christian Europe, which undertook him to pursue the well-being of the population: if not proved up to the task he was in danger of losing this investiture justifying the revolt of the people. Who could dethrone him proved with facts to have in turn received the supernal mandate to govern China, what justified the action. In reality nothing different from what happened in the West, except that this conception also seemed to categorise the power struggles as part of a predetermined governance system, alternating phases of stability and stages of revolt. Another difference from the West was that, while in medieval Europe and Islam still today the ethics of state and public morality arose from religious principles, in China they stemmed from philosophical concepts and functional social rules aimed to the government of a huge and highly populated empire.

Although the Confucian ethic recommended the study and reflection on the world and on themselves, the abstention from evil, the extension of family morality to the whole society, the value and respect of the person, nevertheless the Chinese ruling class adopted these principles in order to perpetuate itself and guarantee itself the power, making the "conservation" a fundamental creed. For Confucius the teaching of correct behaviour had to proceed from the example offered by the superiors and be imitated by inferiors: this resulted in a public morality of the rulers separate from their true feeling, as well as hypocritical attitudes when concrete decisions were far removed from official ethics. For example, when members of the upper classes as nobles, eunuchs and bureaucrats were investing their money secretly in the despised commerce or in real estate property through nominees, or when military aggression were justified by saying "I make war against you because you forced me and in any case it is for the benefit of your people". The "benevolence" towards others preached by Confucianism became a mask ritually worn, as well as the recognition of the superior role of the Emperor, on the part of not directly subjugated populations, often by concrete became symbolic. For this reason, the Chinese emperors, unlike the Mongol leaders, in international relations with countries further afield claimed, but were content, of a little more than formal tributes. In fact, they already considered themselves Lords of all nations under heaven by divine right, free from thirst for conquering what already belonged to them, and mere administrators of rewards and punishments.

Essentially a philosophy of government suited to a closed and static world, without decisive competitions with other advanced civilizations, all aimed at pure preservation; this world concept, which some consider being the inspiration behind the most stable of all conservative systems, fed by the respect and attachment of the Chinese to the past, worked for many centuries but eventually failed when there was close contact with the West. Only a small window of opportunity for innovation exists in the Confucian belief, and it is when a decision which breaks the traditional rules of the social fabric and the political behaviour is justified by an ethically much greater good: this justification was invoked during the coups and the suppression of uprisings by the power, but in the normal government activity there is not a trace of it until the fall of Pu Yi, the last Chinese Emperor.

The structure of power

The hierarchical pyramid of the Chinese system of government has always had two specific characteristics, namely the breadth due to the enormous territorial extension and its depth due to the immense administrative burden generated by a population of tens of millions of people. At the top of the pyramid there was obviously the Emperor, who ruled as an absolute monarch and the personification of the state, surrounded by the family clan and his closest collaborators. He personally made all decisions relating to the issues, more or less important, that the ministers and government officials could not or would not take on their own responsibility; he was also supreme commander of the Armed Forces who garrisoned the borders and controlled the territory, divided into military districts. Under the Emperor there was a layer of power, only partially formal, but always substantial, consisting of the imperial clan, of wives, concubines, eunuchs, and finally the landed gentry, owner of extremely extensive estates.

Inevitably there was an administrative delegation mechanism, regulated by specific laws and regulations, entrusted to a huge bureaucratic network of tens of thousands of officials and hundreds of thousands of clerks, historically famous for formal accuracy and meticulousness of the work done. The ideology of this bureaucratic layer was Confucianism, and in this sense these scholar-bureaucrats considered themselves as an "aristocracy" of the country, although the right to be part of it was not heritable but had to be gained with the study. Membership in the bureaucracy, later called mandarinate, opened the doors to social prestige and good living and allowed a real influence through relationships and community of interests with the other members of this caste. In fact, and as always, those born in this social stratum had many chances to remain there regardless of their talents, and enter it from the outside was actually almost impossible for farmers and difficult for the sons of merchants. There was also an inspection system by which the actions of bureaucrats were checked, and it was common practice to divide the responsibilities of an office among several officials, according to the principle of shared responsibility, and make a job rotation every three years; in this way all controlled all and no one could grow the roots of his own power, but on the other hand no one was entirely responsible, and everyone was trying to adapt rather than expose himself. It was probably the biggest bureaucracy ever existed, with all its known flaws, extremely conservative in defending its interests and anchored in forms and almost religious rituals, therefore suitable to administer only a world that does not change. Therein you can find the reason of the disagreement that arose later with an Emperor who instead wanted to change something, projecting China over the sea with a large fleet and bring the voice of the Empire to the peoples across the ocean.

The last section of the population with some real power but absolutely not institutional consisted of merchants and servicemen, the first thanks to the money the latter thanks to the sword: both of these social components were in fact little appreciated by the upper classes but unfortunately considered necessary. The merchants were the object of popular envy while the military, often recruited from the dregs, were rather feared and hated. Underneath there was an ocean of people that endured, ducking out when possible, and showed his power only with periodic gigantic revolts, generated by the weight of an exploitation become intolerable or by major natural disasters. When this happened the whole pyramid trembled and sometimes collapsed, marking the succession of dynasties.

The Chinese economy and the tribute system

Another feature of the secular creed of Confucius was contempt for merchants, considered social profiteers, whose wealth was regulated and limited by taxation, which then was not intended to redistribute wealth, but to control and almost to punish economic success (6). This may seem like a proto-Marxist conception, but it is not, as Marx intended to defend the value of work as a factor of production in front of the preponderance of capital, while Confucius not only had no concept of "capital" but intended to defend the moral value of culture and good administration by the middle class, not the fate of the peasants. This aspect of Chinese conceptions was particularly dominant during the first part of the Ming Dynasty, which was noted for heavy discrimination against merchants and restrictions to trade. Not only the farmers were considered serfs tied to the territory of the village from which they could not get out, but free trade was prohibited and to make the commercial travel was necessary to obtain an official permit; the government restricted the commercial activities and supervised both the prices, which in large part were controlled, and the quality of goods, and transgressions were punished with the whip. The ruling class of the time feared that a society based on the liberalisation of consumption would have generated a destructive competition between social groups, which would have destabilized a poor society with limited resources, based on a mosaic of self-sufficient communities (7). Only the State had the power to make significant transfers of resources from one region to another for essential needs, resulting from famine or war. The social-economic ideology of the time was not very different in its concrete effects from that prevailing in Mao's China, although their doctrinal sources could not be further away: in both cases were poverty and size of the country to determine similar policies.

Another typical feature of Chinese culture was the contempt for work and manual tasks, exactly as in the Greek-Roman world, whereby the enriched merchants wished for their children only access to the upper social layer of the literati-bureaucrats, and not the enterprise development. Then investments were substantially limited to the financing of nepotism and acquisition of real estate. The attitude of the power towards the domestic trade varied over the centuries according to the economic needs, alternating liberalisation and compression stages, while the foreign trade more than an economic exchange phenomenon was perceived as a system of tributes and gratuities. Commercial development grew during the Mongol domination, and after the war that overthrew it began anew to grow at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, under his first Emperor Hong Wu, when appeared the first signs of a proto capitalism, only to be smothered again by a power that obviously did not look favourably at a possible competition in the management of the country. On the contrary the State channelled in his favour the economic growth, by establishing monopolies and taxation on economic exchanges in a country with a surplus of manpower, as well as the traditional obligation to forced labour of tens of thousands of farmers for the execution of public works. This aspect of Confucianism did not negatively influence during many centuries of peasant economy, but then turned fatal when in China arose the first signs of a nascent capitalism that could, as it did in the West, finance State and industry as well as promoting the technological development that could free the peasant masses from their secular and endemic poverty. The strong conservative content of the Confucian philosophy eventually prevented the country from introducing decisive innovations, both technological and institutional, and instead favoured the use of the accumulated wealth for the acquisition of power in the state hierarchy positions, or its gradual dispersion within family clans. In a China where the centuries-old tradition of human relations turned all relationships in pairs bountiful-benefactor, client-master, master-slave, emancipation of individuals and social groups was impossible: the Chinese world was structurally immobile, frozen in overlapping tiers having the base on an ocean of poor peasants who became protagonists only during bloody riots triggered by the pangs of poverty and natural disasters.

The Chinese economy so developed with a bipolar approach, relying on one hand on a relatively free commodity system at the level of rural economy, and an economic system controlled by the state as regards both imports and domestic trade, particularly of certain raw materials considered strategic, as grain, salt, iron and silver. As an example we can cite the fact that while in China the accumulation of capital did not return to the economy in the form of productive loans or investments, in 1397 in Florence it was founded the Medici Bank, the first example of modern bank, then followed in the next century by the flourishing of banking institutions in the Renaissance' Italy. The absence of such institutions in the reality of the Celestial Empire, beyond the activities of loan sharks, may help explain its subsequent economic decline in the following centuries. It has already been noted that the big public works were executed by endless masses of peasants obliged to forced and free labour, while private entrepreneurs could have an extremely plentiful and poor workforce that was content with minimum fees for any requested activity: in this way the available funds did not circulate and remained frozen in large estates, without triggering those cash flows that could have raised a part of the peasants from poverty creating the conditions for a broad development of the economy, which instead continued to operate at very low pace. In practice, the State and the wealthy classes which represented a minimum fraction of the population held almost all of the wealth, but there was no mechanism to put it into circulation creating a large market demand and the consequent production of consumer goods. Only in the towns the tiny population had relatively better living conditions, just as it worked as servants or as workers, clerks or artisans for the wealthy and noble classes. Conversely in mercantile Europe during the fifteenth century the notion and the economic value of the money invested in new activities had already clearly emerged, so much to even have San Bernardino of Feltre, founder of the first Monte di Pietà (Mount of Piety, institutional pawnbroker run as a charity), saying: " la moneta potest esse considerata vel rei vel, si movimentata est, capitale " (the money can be considered a thing or, if invested, capital). It was probably the lack of a completely free market economy and the lack of investment capital to paralyze China's development in the centuries following the time of Zheng He, causing economic stagnation first and then real famine, resulted in bloody riots. While in the West the mentality of the Greek-Roman world was profoundly transformed by the Germanic cultures during the Middle Ages, enhancing the individual and his concrete achievements, in China this phenomenon did not occur, and its decline began just when Europe was living the dawn of the Renaissance.

Foreign trade instead enjoyed a very special management, called by historians "of the tribute system". It had two main purposes:

- Monitor and regulate trade with foreign countries.

- Maintain and regulate the sphere of Chinese influence on neighbouring states.

It was applied primarily to the neighbouring satellite states, but in principle and within the Imperial view was however legitimately applicable to all foreign states, inasmuch considered inferior to China rank. Foreign States periodically organized diplomatic and commercial visits with the dual purpose of honouring the Chinese Emperor, recognizing his authority, and carry goods inside China; to each tributary country was assigned a frequency for the missions, the number of ships, allowed goods and personnel, and they had only numbered passports, ordinarily 200, extracted from validation books that contained the counterfoil, thus allowing accurate controls when the mission arrived in port or at the border. At customs the cargo, arrived by land or sea, was examined by imperial officials (usually eunuchs) that divided it into two parts. The first was subjected to a mild taxation and then made available for internal trade; the second, of course the one judged the most valuable, was destined to the Emperor who returned the goods, considered a fitting tribute, with as many gifts consisting of Chinese products; the latter, once arrived in the vassal State, were traded by the local ruler thus contributing to its finances. Obviously, the Chinese showed off the difference between a due tribute and gifts liberally granted, but with no explicit connotation of exchange or barter.

It was therefore an ingenious system by which China strictly controlled trade with foreign countries and at the same time guaranteed the condition of vassalage. The foreign delegations were instructed in detail on the elaborated ceremonial that they were to follow during the reception at Court and the tribute ritual: when foreign envoys were presented to the Emperor to offer tributes and expressions of obedience they had to submit to Kowtow, that is kneeling in ground themselves by touching the floor with their forehead three times; this custom was respected by all foreign diplomats until 1793, when Macartney, first British ambassador to China, refused to follow it to affirm the equality of status between the two empires and their rulers. China also sent legations and goods to the satellite states, but the Chinese diplomats instead of tributes brought gifts and "good advices" or political investitures that, to avoid dangerous misunderstandings, peripheral potentates accepted or even sought as a form of protection.

So worked the Pax Sinica towards all neighbouring peoples, as long as, of course, the balance of power was in favour of the Empire: otherwise China established softer and balanced relationships where possible or conflicted if attacked. This system was already part of the Chinese tradition from a long time, and during the Mongol dynasty was supported by a flourishing private trade; with the beginning of the Ming Dynasty on the contrary trade with foreign countries was fully nationalized and the tribute system, made sophisticated and bureaucratized, was imposed on all the states bordering with China. But with the more distant powers (such as Japan), less susceptible to intimidation (like the Mongols) or simply when the will of contact came from China itself, as in the case of maritime expeditions of Zheng He, this system emptied of concrete content to become merely symbolic, and, to put it in modern terms, used as a diplomatic and promotional tool.

Science, technology, culture

For centuries China, favoured by geography and climate, was a very advanced country in respect of the neighbouring areas; already in prehistoric times the central plains had favoured the settlement of sedentary communities dedicated to agriculture, productive enough to allow a significant increase in population and the development of society's segments not engaged in it and dedicated to the crafts, the militia and the study. This was not possible in the arid and windy steppes of Mongolia and Central Asia, remained anchored to pastoralism and nomadism, as well as in the jungle of Southeast Asia tormented by monsoons or in the cold plateaus of Tibet.

The Chinese, all through the ages, were surrounded by more backward populations, so accustomed to being an isolated centre of civilization, made unaware of any other historical development by vast distances and lack of direct contacts. This feeling of superiority over time turned into indifference to the outside world in the educated classes and contempt for the stranger in the working classes, remaining as an unchanged historical constant even when merchant trades gradually developed through routes by land and sea. Moreover, until the 15th century, for thousands of years the Chinese society had always been >more advanced and rich than in the West, with the only possible exception of the Roman Empire period. The population size, although did not reach today's levels, as always was a feature of the country, which obviously favoured the labour-intensive productive solutions rather than the adoption of machinery as it after happened in Europe. In the seventh century, the only city of Guangzhou had already grown to 200,000 foreigner residents (Arabs, Persians, Indians) and in the 12th century the Chinese capital had more than one million inhabitants. In the same period the most populous cities of Europe were probably Paris with just over 100,000 residents and Venice with 200,000. China, overcome at the end of the 14th century the population's massive abatement due to the Mongol invasion before and then to the Black Death, in 1398 had recovered considerable human dimensions, measured in at least 65 million inhabitants (8) ; this fact must always accompany us when examining Chinese history, because we will always be confronted with incredible numbers when compared with European ones of the time. Both the number of the men involved in the historical events and the amount of equipment and materials used reflect the productive capacity of a nation with a huge population. Well known examples of this "gigantism" are the Great Wall of China (8852 km long) and the Grand Canal (1776 km long), which witness in a concrete way the Chinese method to address great problems: "great solutions".

At the time of Zheng He China and India together added up over half of the gross world product, and still in 1820, according to the economic's historian Angus Madison, China alone counted for 30% of world production. Also the quality and technological advancement of Chinese production were higher than any other in the world, which made Chinese products appealing to other countries, but not vice versa: China, except for some natural products imported in small quantities such as ambergris, ivory and rhino horns, spices, tea, rare minerals, hardwood and metals, had no need to trade with them. Traditional products such as pottery, silk and cotton fabrics were extremely advanced and occupied millions of artisans and workers, and were exported from centuries and appreciated all over the ancient world.

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty culture was widespread in the upper classes and facilitated by the use of printing with movable blocks, known and used since at least 600 years: there is an assessment that the Chinese publishing production until 1750 was higher than the total one of the rest of the world.

In this cultural advancement, as even in the same process of unification of the country, the writing system played an important role, insofar as based on semantic ideograms instead of characters of a phonetic alphabet: the latter realizes the script through a sequence of symbols representing phonemes that make up the words of the "spoken language", while the former uses graphic symbols that represent "the meaning" of the words regardless of the local pronunciation. In this way the Chinese were able to unify culturally and administratively a vast territory inhabited by different ethnic groups with many dialects; in Europe instead writing, depending on spoken languages, was forced to follow them in their diversity and historical evolution, without becoming a unifying factor but rather acting as a barrier to the sharing of ideas, that even today forces the European Union to publish his documents in 24 different tongues. Moreover, the Chinese does not use punctuation or spaces, it is not clear from the text where a sentence begins and where it ends, and this has led to problems of translation into Western languages and sometimes to misleading and incorrect interpretations of the original text. Another important consequence of the Chinese writing system is that it, having been aligned in the third century BC, remained largely unchanged for centuries, thus constituting an element of cultural uniformity during many successive generations that determined the high value that the Chinese assigned to the tradition and the literary profession. In Europe, on the contrary, the evolution of the spoken language made progressively incomprehensible the ancient texts, creating both the need to renew them by reviewing each theme with the new mentality of the moment and greater attention to the texts of current time: the writing system so involved a lower rate of renovation of Chinese culture compared to that of Europe.

However the sciences in China were advanced, especially astronomy, mathematics and medicine, and there was also considerable empirical knowledge regarding the handling and processing of materials; Europe instead had suffered a cultural retreat in the Middle Ages, accumulating a delay that would have begun to recover in the second millennium. The Chinese were the first nation in the world to use paper money (banknotes were printed for the first time under the Song Dynasty, 960-1279), which was particularly used in the Ming era, and was accepted as an international currency in many neighbouring Asian countries: as a matter of fact emissaries from these countries visiting the Empire were given precious gifts but also payments in Chinese currency. The monetary unit was the banknote of 1 guan, in turn divided into thousandths, each represented by a copper coin.

Armaments were also the most advanced of the time, thanks to the use of gunpowder: guns, bombs, mines, rockets were a normal complement of the armed forces. In the wreck of a Chinese warship used in the 13th century for the attempted invasion of Japan numerous ceramic bombs have been found, filled with gunpowder and iron fragments: the equivalent of modern shrapnels.

As for the religion issue, in China the majority of the population was animist or agnostic, but in the country existed religious freedom and the various creeds were fully respected by power: Taoist, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian religious communities were so active, each with its own temples >and rituals, whose existence depicted a tolerant country and a substantial independence between confessional sphere and secular world. Even the "mandate of heaven" claimed by the imperial power as its endorsement was conceived not as a religious endowment but rather as the realization of an impersonal fate that guided the destiny of China.

In conclusion it was a more advanced country, and more tolerant than the Europe of the time, but it had not lived that profound renewal of thought that took place during the European Middle Ages, from which arose as a result our scientific thought with its technological fallout and the entrepreneurial spirit with the consequent development of capitalism. From this point of view, in fact, the Chinese thought was somewhat similar to that of the Old Western World, characterised by the lack of consideration for the manual tasks and practical applications of knowledge with respect to literary and artistic activities and philosophical speculations. A possible innovation perhaps happened in the twelfth century with the works of Zhu Xi and his claim that the development of knowledge was based on the investigation of reality (as also Leonardo said three centuries later), but it was totally inoperative in its possible scientific interpretation; the situation began to change in China only in the seventeenth century as a result of contacts with the Jesuits, even though they initially were not believed, but did not change until after the defeats suffered in the nineteenth century. On top of the thought of the Chinese educated classes it has always been the Confucian moral philosophy, which reigned uncontested on the cultural and political system of China without producing those stimuli that could have led to applied science and technological inventions. Those who wanted to count for something in the society dedicated themselves to philosophy and literature, or tried to climb the pyramid of bureaucratic power, surely they did not spend time and money, within a conservative world, to invent new tools or improve those already known: this task if anything was left to craftsmen and workers who proceeded only empirically.

The link between the traditional ideology and power, both of the Empire and of the wealthy educated classes, acted as a brake on every possible innovation of thought, perceived as a threat to the status quo, similarly to what happened in Europe with the Catholic Inquisition, who opposed the Copernican and Galilean revolution for very similar reasons. But while in Europe the Anglo-Germanic lineage States overcame the problem generating and feeding Protestantism, which redeemed them by the authority of Rome, in China instead the unity of the empire and the power of tradition managed to avoid the development of any " heretic thought " or at least to put it down by force of arms if it was manifested: the "right thinking" was always the one proceeding top-down, never the other way, as is true even today that the "heretics" are called "dissidents".

In China there was no concept of applied science, which could transform the theoretical knowledge into technological innovations and consequent increases in productivity. Basically it did not manifest the virtuous cycle that starts with the research, produces innovation and subsequently refuel the research with the economic development. Maybe the Chinese were not stimulated toward this aim because their problem has always been to provide jobs for huge masses rather than saving labour using machines, thus favouring production methods with low technological intensity. In addition they could always count on the traditional habit of forced labour imposed on the peasant masses for the execution of public works, which saved financial resources but at the same time prevented the injection of liquidity into the economy. This situation is not in contrast with the alleged advantage of technological development in China compared to European one at the time of Zheng He, because the difference lies in the slow development times that it had in the first, with a more ancient culture, compared to the accelerated rate it then experienced in the second, characterised by a renewed culture after the Middle Ages fall. The Chinese lived a continued History from ancient times onwards, while Europe had the fracture of the Middle Ages which generated a cultural setback but, deleting both the Ancient World legacy and the previous knowledge, forced us to renew our thought planting the seed of a new future: the Chinese started before then progressed slowly, while we fell, then rose again and finally ran faster.

Chinese foreign policy

China was, in fact, the only superpower of the time, proudly isolated and contemptuous of its surroundings: a world of arrears barbarians (called Yi and Fan), sometimes peaceful as the nations of the South sometimes aggressive as the Mongols and the Japanese. Even the most educated people did not care and knew little of other peoples, accustomed as they were to live on another planet called China; but the same Ma Huan, a chronicler and translator who participated in the missions of the fleet, says in his memoirs that he did not believe that the world could be so varied and so different from his country until he saw it with his eyes.

Foreigners were so despised as to be sometimes considered literally subhuman, belonging to an inferior species. The sense of superiority of the entire Chinese population towards the outside world and its people was so ingrained that at times there was the need to moderate its effects during the passage of foreigners in the provincial roads and in the villages, in order to prevent them to be beaten , insulted and targeted with tiles and vases. The attitude of imperial power against the Yi was substantially the same even if expressed in more subtle forms. In 1397 San-fo-qi (Palembang in Sumatra), a small protectorate of the Majapahit kingdom of Java, rebelled against the Chinese tribute system and worked to prevent also to other Southeast Asian governments to send tributes to the Emperor and to let transit Chinese envoys: Hong Wu decided to send both in Java and their vassal a strong message with words of offended and refused kindness, explicitly threatening an invasion, which indeed materialized 10 years later.

In 1402 Yi inhabitants of Southeast, along with Chinese, both civilian and military, fled together along from the coast to the islands, driven by poor living conditions, to rebuild their lives in a more welcoming place: they received a proposal you can not refuse, repentance and return or extermination. In 1406 the Annam (North Vietnam) invasion was justified by arguing that China intervened to punish the bandits in that nation's government and assist the suffering population, when in fact since at least ten years was ongoing a territorial dispute due, according to the Chinese, to the aggression and occupation of imperial territories by the Vietnamese, occurred during the confused period of the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. (9)

Common hypocritical statements even in today's world, were it not for the suspicion that most of the Chinese were really convinced of their veracity and moral merits. There was in fact a sphere of influence of China beyond its borders, politically managed and inspired by the form but not the substance of Confucian principles; therefore, the foreign rulers had to:

- Respecting Heaven and serve the higher (the emperor who ruled by supernal mandate)

- Doing one's duty with respect (of the Chinese will)

- Absolve respectfully tribute obligations

- Excelling in comforting their people

- Maintain good relations with their neighbours

If it is historically true that the Chinese state has never been basically aggressive, but rather inclined to the care of his immense internal affairs, nevertheless it has never hesitated to intervene beyond the borders when its interests seemed to be threatened; in normal times the Empire limited itself to carry out a policy of power over its weaker neighbours, satellite states that cautiously played along the game or in turn tried to seek the powerful Chinese protection. It was therefore a real "Pax Sinica", enforced in a determined manner by military interventions when needed (Annam was invaded with 800,000 men, Yunnan equally by 250,000 men), but usually disguised as "Celestial Benevolence"; the sugary rhetoric spread in the official Chinese history covers a very far reality from moral ideals exalted in words and proved wrong in deeds. Nothing new under the sun then, the hypocrisy of power is always the same, from the time of the Ming up to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, nothing has changed, except that the Chinese had made it a liturgy of State with precise standards, betraying the intentions of Confucius. (10).


1) Basic Annals of Ming T'ai-tsu, Chapter 3, pg 100, 585

2) Ping-ti Ho, Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press (Harvard Asian Series), 1959

3) Basic Annals of Ming T'ai-tsu, Chapter 3, pg 99, 573

4) Ming Shi-lu (Annals of Ming dynasty, drafted and published in the 18th century based on previous documents)

- Hong-wu: Year 4, Month 12, Day 7 (13 Jan 1372)

- Hong-wu: Year 14, Month 10, Day 18 (4 Nov 1381)

- Hong-wu: Year 17, Month 8, Day 5 (21 Aug 1384)

- Hong-wu: Year 20, Month Intercalary 6, Day 12 (27 Jul 1387)

- Hong-wu: Year 23, Month 10, Day 27 (3 Dec 1390)

5) Cina 3000 anni, Franz Schurmann - Orville Schell, Casini Editore 1968, pg. 53 and ff.

6) Ming Shilu, Yong-le: Year 1, Month 10, Day 30 (14 Nov 1403)

7) The Ming Maritime Trade Policy in Transition, 1368 to 1567, Li Kangying, East Asian Economic and Socio-cultural Studies, East Asian Maritime History 8, Harrassowitz Verlag 2010, pg 32-38

8) Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953, Ping-ti Ho, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1959, pg 22

9) - Ming Shi-lu, Hong-wu: Year 29, Month 12, Day 1 (31 Dec 1396)

- Ming Shi-lu, Hong-wu: Year 30, Month 8, Day 27 (18 Sep 1397)

- Ming Shi-lu, Hong-wu: Year 35, Month 9, Day 8 (4 Oct 1402)

- A/N: Identical wording were Chinese statements in 1979, when they invaded reunified Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of men to punish the guilty government's intervention in Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge were under Chinese protection) and to defend the Vietnamese of Chinese origin from persecution.

10) The Ming Shi-Lu as a Source for Southeast Asian History, Geoff Wade, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore 2005, pg 28-35


The origins

The news about Zheng He and his personal life are few and sketchy, probably not without gaps and inaccuracies, often resulting from reports fol owing his time and therefore unreliable: anyway we know that he was born in Yunnan, the "clouds country in the south", a vast plateau with high mountains, pink at sunset as the Dolomites, in the far South-West of China, bordering today with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. That territory was conquered in 1253 by Kublai Khan, who introduced populations in the region of the Mongolian ethnic group, Turkish and Persian alongside the former population Bai, thus giving rise to the Hui Muslim group. (1)