Treasure ship is the name of a type of vessel that the Chinese admiral Zheng He sailed in. His fleet included 62 treasure ships, with some said to have reached 600 feet (146 meters) long. The fleet was manned by over 27,000 crew members, including navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, Muslim teachers, and soldiers.

According to ancient Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions. The 1405 expedition consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships supported by approximately 190 smaller ships.1112 The fleet included:

Ships of the world in 1460, according to the Fra Mauro map. Chinese junks are described as very large, three or four-masted ships.

The dimensions of the Zheng He's ships according to ancient Chinese chronicles and disputed by modern scholars (see below):

  • "Treasure ships", used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (nine-masted, said to be about 126.73 meters (416 ft) long and 51.84 meters (170 ft) wide), according to later writers. The great size of these ships was probably exaggerated by later writers. The treasure ships purportedly weighed as much as 1,500 tons.126.73m by 51.84 m (415.780ft by 170.078ft)13 14 By way of comparison, a modern ship of about 1,200 tons is 60 meters (200 ft) long 3, and the ships Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492 were about 70-100 tons and 17 meters (55 ft) long.15
  • "Horse ships", carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet (eight-masted, about 103 m (339 ft) long and 42 m (138 ft) wide).16
  • "Supply ships", containing staple for the crew (seven-masted, about 78 m (257 ft) long and 35 m (115 ft) wide).17
  • "Troop transports", six-masted, about 67 m (220 ft) long and 25 m (83 ft) wide).18
  • "Fuchuan warships", five-masted, about 50 m (165 ft) long).19
  • "Patrol boats", eight-oared, about 37 m (120 feet) long).20
  • "Water tankers", with 1 month supply of fresh water. 126.73 m by 51.84 m (415.780ft by 170.078ft)21

Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.22

Modern scholarship

The dimensions of the treasure ships, as recorded in later historical chronicles, are disputed by scholars. It is probable that the actual size of the ships was smaller, since in later historical periods wooden ships approaching this size (such as HMS Orlando) were unwieldy and visibly undulated with the waves, even with steel braces in the hull. The problem of "hogging," the tendency of the largest wooden ships to sag (like a pig's body) because of buoyancy in the middle, would have been impossible to solve. The length-to-width ratio of 2.47 is not well suited for fast navigation on the oceans. Hydrodynamic models have proved that ships with such dimension are unsailable in open seas.

Recent research suggests that the actual length of the biggest treasure ships may have lain between 59 m and 84 m.23 If the treasure ships actually had the dimensions attributed to them, they would have been several times larger than any wooden ship ever recorded, including the largest l'Orient (65 m long). The length of the treasure ships would have been equivalent to that of the first generation aircraft carriers in the early twentieth century. Research on the original source of these dimensions indicates that they came from a novel written in the sixteenth century. 24

Accounts of Medieval Travelers

The characteristics of the Chinese ships of the period are described by Western travelers to the East, such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. According to Ibn Battuta, who visited China in 1347:

… We stopped in the port of Calicut, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. China Sea traveling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called chunks (junks), middle sized ones called zaws (dhows) and the small ones kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited into mats. They are never lowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind.

Three smaller ones, the "half," the "third" and the "quarter," accompany each large vessel. These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun and Sin-Kalan. The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants.

This is the manner after which they are made; two (parallel) walls of very thick wooden (planking) are raised and across the space between them are placed very thick planks (the bulkheads) secured longitudinally and transversely by means of large nails, each three ells in length. When these walls have thus been built the lower deck is fitted in and the ship is launched before the upper works are finished." (Ibn Battuta).

Zheng He and Islam in Southeast Asia

Template:Islam and China Indonesian religious leader and Islamic scholar Hamka (1908-1981) wrote in 1961: "The development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaya is intimately related to a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He."25 In Malacca, Zheng He built granaries, warehouses and a stockade, and it is likely that he left behind many of his Muslim crews. Much of the information on Zheng He's voyages was compiled by Ma Huan, also Muslim, who accompanied Zheng He on several of his inspection tours and served as his chronicler and interpreter. In his book The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores (Chinese: 瀛涯勝覽) written in 1416, Ma Huan gave very detailed accounts of his observations of the peoples' customs and lives in ports they visited. Zheng He had many Muslim eunuchs as his companions. At the time when his fleet first arrived in Malacca, there were already Chinese of the 'Muslim' faith living there. Ma Huan talks about them as tangren (Chinese: 唐人) who were Muslim. According to Ma Huan, Zheng He's entourage frequented mosques, actively propagated the Islamic faith, established Chinese Muslim communities and built mosques.

Indonesian scholar Slamet Muljana writes:

"Zheng He built Chinese Muslim communities first in Palembang, then in San Fa (West Kalimantan), subsequently he founded similar communities along the shores of Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. They propagated the Islamic faith according to the Hanafi school of thought and in Chinese language." When the Chinese naval expeditions were suspended after Zheng He's death, the Hanafi Islam that Zheng He and his followers propagated lost almost all contact with Islam in China, and gradually was totally absorbed by the local Shafi'i sect.

In Malacca

When Melaka was successively colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and later the British, Chinese were discouraged from converting to Islam. Many of the Chinese Muslim mosques became San Bao Chinese temples commemorating Zheng He. After a lapse of six hundred years, the influence of Chinese Muslims in Malacca had almost disappeared. 26

According to the Malaysian history, Sultan Mansur Shah (ruled 1459-1477) dispatched Tun Perpatih Putih as his envoy to China and carried a letter from the Sultan to the Ming Emperor. Tun Perpatih succeeded in impressing the Emperor of Ming with the fame and grandeur of Sultan Mansur Shah. In the year 1459, a princess Hang Li Po (or Hang Liu), was sent by the emperor of Ming to marry Malacca Sultan Mansur Shah (ruled 1459-1477). The princess came with her entourage of five hundred male servants and a few hundred handmaidens. They eventually settled in Bukit Cina, Malacca. The descendants of these people, from mixed marriages with the local natives, are known today as Peranakan: Baba (the male title) and Nyonya (the female title).

In Malaysia today, many people believe that it was Admiral Zheng He (died 1433) who sent princess Hang Li Po to Malacca in year 1459. However there is no record of Hang Li Po (or Hang Liu) in Ming documents, she is known only from Malacca folklore. The so-called Peranakan in Malacca were probably Tang-Ren or Hui Chinese Muslims who came with Parameswara, the founder of Malacca, from Palembang, Java and other places as refugees of the declining Srivijaya kingdom. Some of the Chinese Muslims were soldiers and served as warriors and bodyguards to protect the Sultanate of Malacca.

In 1411, Admiral Zheng He brought Parameswara, his wife and 540 officials to China to pay homage to Emperor Yongle. Upon their arrival, a grand welcoming party was held. Animals were sacrificed, Parameswara was granted a two-piece gold-embroidered suit of clothing with dragon motifs, Kylin robe, gold and silverware, silk lace bed quilt, and gifts for all officials and followers. Upon returning home, Parameswara was granted a jade belt, brace, saddle, and coroneted suit for his wife. Upon reaching the heaven's gate (China), Parameswara was again granted a jade belt, brace, saddle, a hundred gold & platinum pieces, 400,000 banknotes, 2600 cash, 300 pieces of silk brocade voile, 1,000 pieces of silk, two pieces of whole gold plait, two pieces of knee-length gown with gold threads woven through sleeves… . On his return trip from China, Parameswara was so impressed by Zheng He that he adopted the name Sultan Iskandar Shah. Malacca prospered under his leadership and became a half-way port for trade between India and China.

Popular Theories

Former British submarine commander Gavin Menzies in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World claims that several parts of Zheng's fleet explored virtually the entire globe, discovering West Africa, North and South America, Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica and Australia before the voyages of Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus. Menzies also claims that Zheng's wooden fleet passed through the Arctic Ocean. Menzies proposes that Zheng He's voyages, records, and maps are the sources for some of the other Ancient world maps, which he claims depicted the Americas, Antarctica, and the tip of Africa before the official European discovery of these areas, and the drawings of the Fra Mauro map or the De Virga world map. However none of the citations in1421 are from Chinese sources and scholars in China do not share Menzies' assertions.

A related book, The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America by Paul Chiasson maintains that a nation of native peoples known as the Mi'kmaq on the east coast of Canada are descendants of Chinese explorers, offering evidence in the form of archaeological remains, customs, costume, and artwork. Several advocates of these theories believe that Zheng He also discovered modern day New Zealand on either his sixth or seventh expedition.

It has been suggested by some historians and mentioned in a recent"National Geographic"article on Zheng He that Sindbad the Sailor (also spelled "Sinbad," from Arabic السندباد-As-Sindibad) and the collection of travel-romances that make up the "Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor" found in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were influenced heavily by the cumulative tales of many seafarers that had followed, traded and worked in various support ships as part of the armada of Chinese Ming Imperial Treasure Fleets. This belief is supported in part by the similarities in Sindbad's name and the various iterations of Zheng in Arabic and Mandarin (pinyin: Mǎ Sānbǎo; Cantonese: Máh Sāambóu; Arabic name: Mahmud Shams) along with the similarities in the number (seven) and general locations of voyages between Sindbad and Zheng. This idea has no credibility within the scholarly community.


  1. ↑ 三保太監下西洋. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  2. ↑ The Hui ethnic minority - People's Daily, People's Daily Online. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  3. ↑ 1 Zheng He Exhibitions at Singapore National Library. National Library Board, Singapore. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  4. ↑ The Seventh and Final Grand Voyage of the Treasure Fleet, The Mariners' Museum. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  5. ↑ Richard Gunde, Zheng He's Voyages of Discovery, Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  6. ↑ Jack A. Goldstone, The Rise of the West-or Not?. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  7. ↑ Alex Perry A Testament to an Odyssey, A Monument to a Failure Set in stone: Sri Lanka. TIME Asia, August 2001, 158 (781). Retrieved January 15, 2008.
  8. ↑ Ancient Chinese Explorers, NOVA Online. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  9. ↑ Zheng He's Inscription, the Regents of the University of Minnesota. excerpt from the book, Teobaldo Filesi, David Morison (trans.) China and Africa in the Middle Ages. (London: Frank Cass, 1972), 57-61. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  10. ↑ Maritime Silk Road 五洲传播出版社. ISBN 7508509323
  11. ↑ Edward L. Dreyer. Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming, 1405-1433.(London: Longman, 2006), 122-124
  12. ↑ Briton charts Zheng He's course across globe, Ministry of Culture, P.R. China. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  13. ↑ Zhang. "History of the Ming dynasty" ("明史"), Zhang Tingyu chief editor, (originally published 1737), (“四十四丈一十八丈”)
  14. ↑ "Eunuch Sanbao's Journey to the Western Seas" ("三宝太监西洋通俗演义记"),Luo Maodeng, (originally published 1597), (“宝船长四十四丈四,阔一十八丈,每只船上有九道桅。”)
  15. ↑ Keith A. Pickering.Columbus's Ships. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  16. ↑ Zhang, 1737
  17. ↑ Zhang, 1737
  18. ↑ Zhang, 1737
  19. ↑ Zhang, 1737
  20. ↑ Zhang, 1737
  21. ↑ Zhang, 1737
  22. ↑ Dreyer, 2006
  23. ↑ Sally K. Church, "The Colossal Ships of Zheng He: Image or Reality?" (155-176);and "Zheng He; Images & Perceptions," in South China and Maritime Asia Volume 15, Hrsg: Roderich Ptak, Thomas O. Höllmann, (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, 2005)
  24. ↑ For debates of these dimensions, see Chinese articles in National Cheng Kung University at National Cheng Kung University of Taiwan. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  25. ↑ Rosey Wang Ma,Chinese Muslims in Malaysia History and Development, Chinese Muslims in Malaysia. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  26. ↑ Leo Suryadinata, (ed.) Admiral Zheng He & Southeast Asia. (Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), note 2. Retrieved January 15, 2008.


  • Dreyer, Edward L. 2006. Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming, 1405-1433. (Library of World Biography Series). London: Longman. ISBN 0321084438.
  • Filesi, Teobaldo. David Morison (trans.) China and Africa in the Middle Ages. (London: Frank Cass, 1972.
  • Finlay, Robert. How (not) to rewrite World History. Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America, Journal of World History 15 (2) (2004): S.229-242. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  • Kahn, Joseph. China Has an Ancient Mariner to Tell You About. July 20, 2005, the New York Times. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  • Levathes, Louise. 1997. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195112075.
  • Ma, Huan. 1970. Ying-yai Sheng-lan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores (1433), translated from the Chinese text edited by Feng Ch'eng Chun with introduction, notes and appendices by J.V.G. Mills. White Lotus Press. Reprinted 1970, 1997. ISBN 9748496783.
  • Menzies, Gavin 2003. 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered the World. Morrow/Avon. ISBN 0060537639. (Scholars consider this book, insofar as it relates to the Chinese discovery of America, to lack factual foundation:
  • 黃振翔: Newsletter on Cheng-Ho. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  • Suryadinata, Leo (ed.) Admiral Zheng He & Southeast Asia. Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005. ISBN 9812303294. Collection of essays written from Chinese points of view.
  • Viviano, Frank. 2005. "China's Great Armada," National Geographic 208(1)(July 2005):28-53.
  • Wilford, John Noble. Pacific Overtures, a book review of 1421 by a science editor at the New York Times. February 2, 2003. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  • Zhang Yen-Yu and Zhong Hua Shu Ju (Editor). History of the Ming Dynasty, Complete 28 Volume Set (Ming Shu) (Official Dynastic Histories of China) Beijing: Zhong Hua Shu Ju, 1st edition, 1995. (in Chinese) ISBN 7101003273

There are other books, publications and papers available (especially in Chinese), but they have not yet been translated into English.

External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2019.

  • BBC radio program "Swimming Dragons". BBC Radio.
  • Economist China beat Columbus to it, perhaps. "Chinese cartography: A map that revises history."
  • BBC News China map lays claim to Americas. January 13, 2006.
  • Laputan Logic: China's Own Vinland Map Liu Gang's map, Chinese cartography and the Island of California myth.