Who has not heard of Christopher Columbus? Ferdinand Magellan? Bartholomew Diaz? Vasco da Gama?
The names of these European Explorers proceed them; they have been immortalized in countless ways. Children from all over the world learn about them, and there is almost no one who doesn't know their name, even if they don’t necessarily remember what each of them discovered (except for Columbus).
Vasco De Gama
Who has heard of Zheng He?
Probably not many.
The story of Zheng He begins with the rise of the Ming Dynasty to power in China in 1368 (ruled until 1644).
Zheng He was born in 1372 in the Yunnan province, which is located in south-central China (bordering Burma, Laos and Vietnam).
He was descended from a family of Arab merchants who emigrated to China. His father and grandfather went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Emperor Hongwu, who founded the Ming dynasty, extended the domain of the dynasty and conquered other areas, including the Yunnan Province.
When he was only eleven years old, the Ming Dynasty conquered his area of residence, and Zheng He was taken prisoner, surnamed, and sent to serve in the imperial court, where he managed to climb up to become the confidant of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle.
Yongle emperor, Ming Dynasty
In those years (long before and many years later), China occupied itself as the center of the world, and so it has called itself: Zhong Guo (中国) meaning China is the middle country, located in the middle of the world, and the rest of the world around China.
And this is how China perceived its relations with the neighboring countries, China in the center and they had to come to China.
This is how it worked, the neighboring countries sent delegations with gifts to the emperor, that with all his goodness and grace, accepted the delegations and gifts, and in the same way replied with gifts to the delegations.
In this relationship, China was supreme and the other countries were inferior to it.
According to this view, Emperor Yongle wanted to show his wealth and greatness, and therefore sent large expeditions to South China Sea and the Indian Ocean to make connections with those countries, and to introduce them into the same circle of countries that offered expeditions.
In 1405, Zheng He was appointed to lead the naval expeditions and received from the Emperor the authority to use the naval fleet of the Chinese Empire.
In order to get the correct perspective on Zheng He's travels, you have to jump forward a bit in time. In 1492, Christopher Columbus left Spain on a journey to discover India, and instead he discovered the American continent (although until his last day he was certain, or at least claimed, that he had discovered India).
In 1494, the Pope divided the world between the two naval empires of those days, Spain and Portugal (Treaty of Tordesias). Spain received the western part of the world and Portugal the eastern part, and each sent naval delegations in the direction assigned to it.
Most of the land routes between Europe and India and China were controlled by the Muslims, and the Europeans sought a maritime route that would enable them to trade with the East without paying the customs on land roads.
In 1488, Bartholomew Diaz discovers the maritime passage around the South African continent, a passage leading to India and all other eastern countries. Later it would be called the "Cape of Good Hope."
To his great sorrow, because of a rebellion by sailors who wanted to return home, he could not complete the journey to India. Vasco de Gama, who was sent in 1497 by the king of Portugal, completed the discovery of the road to East Asian countries.
In other words, Europe was almost a hundred years behind the technological progress required to build ships capable of leading large-scale naval expeditions.
In 1405, Zheng He began leading marine voyages (total led seven trips). The naval fleet that included hundreds of ships (over 300 ships on some of the voyages) and close to 30,000 people at the same time.
Zheng He ship Vs. Columbus
Zheng He's travels were called finance trips, and some of the great ships were called treasure ships (Between 50 and 70 ships). These were ships with huge dimensions that allowed the transport of giraffes in the belly of the ship.
An impressive illustration of the size of the ship is on Sentosa Island, one of the three islands of Singapore.
The island has a large complex that includes a huge underwater aquarium, and inside the complex, sits a model of a huge treasure ship, cut across it in a way that reveals the belly of the ship and the typical cargo carried with it.
Zheng He's sea voyages passed through the islands of today's Indonesia, Java, and Sumatra, via Malaka (today's South Malaysia - a very important strategic strait between Malaysia and Indonesia connecting the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean) and reached the Strait of Hormuz (against Iran), the Arabian Peninsula, and East
Another version claims that Zheng He even managed to reach far more distant destinations, such as West Africa, North and South America, Antarctica, and Australia but there is no factual historical confirmation, and most historians do not accept this version.
So, what actually happened?
How did China lose the big gap it had over Europe? Or did she give up without realizing she had it? I'll cover that in a separate post.