Accompanied by 27,000 men on 62 large and 255 small ships, the Chinese eunuch Zheng He, led 7 naval expeditions to Southeast Asia, Middle East and east coast of Africa in the span of 28 years during the Ming Dynasty. The scale of Zheng He’s fleet was unprecedented in world history. The large treasure ships used during the expeditions were purported to be 440 feet long and 180 feet wide (Dreyer, p. 102). Throughout his travels, Zheng He brought Chinese tea, porcelain and silk products to foreign countries and also brought back exotic goods to the Ming court such as spices, plants and leather. Although his voyages fostered commercial trades and cultural exchange between China and foreign countries, the goal of his expeditions stemmed from the political motivation to maintain the tributary system and his voyages had important political implication of causing Neo-Confucian opposition and suspension of the expedition.
During the early Ming Dynasty, China was one of the most economically and technologically advanced countries in the world. As Ebrey pointed out, “Europe was not yet a force in Asia and China continued to look on the outer world in traditional terms.” China was regarded as the center of Asia at the beginning of 15th century and the idea of “Middle Kingdom” (Zhong guo) began to take off at that time. The early Ming Emperors were not interested in promoting commercial trade at all. Emperor Hongwu, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, implemented the Hai jin policy which forbade maritime shipping and private foreign trade outside of the tributary system (Ebrey, p. 209). Emperor Yongle, the son of Emperor Hongwu, lifted this policy to a certain extent when he ordered his eunuch Zheng He’s voyages. However, he was only interested in further establishing the tributary system and strengthening the nation’s position as a central power in Asia. Therefore, the original and main purpose of Zheng He’s expeditions to foreign countries was political and diplomatic.
Emperor Yongle intended to awe the rulers of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean into sending tribute to China (Dreyer, p. 27). Zheng He and his fleets needed to establish Chinese presence and influences in those countries in order to enforce the tributary system. Although China had no interest in imperial expansion through oceanic exploration like the Europeans did, navy power was traditionally associated with the strength of a nation. Therefore, the gigantic treasure ships, the significant scale of Zheng He’s crew as well as the Chinese goods he brought to the foreign countries all served the political needs to display wealth and power of the Middle Kingdom.
In order to understand the political motives behind Zheng He’s expedition, it is important to look into the historical background of Emperor Yongle’s reign. Yongle did not inherit the throne from his father Emperor Hongwu. Soon after his father’s death, Yongle, the Prince of Yan at that time, initiated a military rebellion and...