Zheng He's Treasure Ships

The Ming Dynasty's Largest Armadda

Zheng He's ship compared with Columbus's flagship from the Dubai Mall.
Model comparing Zheng He's treasure ships with Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria. Lars Plougmann on Flickr.com

Between 1405 and 1433, Ming China under the rule of Zhu Di, sent out enormous armadas of ships into the Indian Ocean commanded by the eunuch admiral Zheng He. The flagship and other largest treasure junks dwarfed European ships of that century — even Christopher Columbus's flagship, the "Santa Maria," was between 1/4 and 1/5 the size of Zheng He's.

Drastically changing the face of Indian Ocean trade and power, these fleets embarked on seven epic voyages under Zheng He's guidance, resulting in a rapid expansion of Ming China's control in the region, but also of their struggle to maintain it in years to come due to the financial burden of such endeavors.

Sizes According to Ming Chinese Measurements

All of the measurements in the remaining Ming Chinese records of the Treasure Fleet are in a unit called "zhang," which is made up of ten "chi" or "Chinese feet." Although the exact length of a zhang and a chi has varied over time, the Ming chi was probably about 12.2 inches (31.1 centimeters) according to Edward Dreyer. For ease of comparison, the measurements below are given in English feet. One English foot is equivalent to 30.48 centimeters.

Incredibly, the largest ships in the fleet — called "baoshan," or "treasure ships" — were likely between 440 and 538 feet long by 210 feet wide. The 4-decked baoshan had an estimated displacement of 20-30,000 tons, roughly 1/3 to 1/2 the displacement of modern American aircraft carriers. Each had nine masts on its deck, rigged with square sails that could be adjusted in series to maximize efficiency in different wind conditions.

The Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of an amazing 62 or 63 such ships for Zheng He's first voyage, in 1405. Extant records show that another 48 were ordered in 1408, plus 41 more in 1419, along with 185 smaller ships throughout that time.

Zheng He's Smaller Ships

Along with dozens of baoshan, each armada included hundreds of smaller ships.

The eight-masted ships, called "machuan" or "horse ships," were about 2/3 the size of the baoshan measuring approximately 340 feet by 138 feet. As indicated by the name, the machuan carried horses along with timber for repairs and tribute goods.

Seven-masted "liangchuan" or grain ships carried rice and other food for the crew and soldiers in the fleet. Liangchuan were about 257 feet by 115 feet in size. The next ships in descending order of size were the "zuochuan," or troop ships, at 220 by 84 feet with each transport ship having six masts.

Finally, the small, five-masted warships or "zhanchuan," each about 165 feet long, were designed to be maneuverable in battle. Though tiny compared with the baochuan, the zhanchuan were more than twice as long as Christopher Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria.

The Treasure Fleet's Crew

Why did Zheng He need so many huge ships? One reason, of course, was "shock and awe." The sight of these enormous ships appearing on the horizon one by one must have been truly incredible for the people all along the Indian Ocean's rim and would have enhanced Ming China's prestige immeasurably.

The other reason was that Zheng He traveled with an estimated 27,000 to 28,000 sailors, marines, translators and other crew members.

Along with their horses, rice, drinking water and trade goods, that number of people required a staggering amount of room aboard ship. In addition, they had to make space for the emissaries, tribute goods and wild animals that went back to China.