Zheng He's Inscription

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Zheng He's Inscription

This inscription was carved on a stele erected at a temple to the goddess the Celestial Spouse at Changle in Fujian province in 1431. Message written before his last voyage.

The Imperial Ming Dynasty unifying seas and continents, surpassing the three dynasties even goes beyond the Han and Tang dynasties. The countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects and to the most western of the western or the most northern of the northern countries, however far they may be, the distance and the routes may be calculated. Thus the barbarians from beyond the seas, though their countries are truly distant, "have come to audience bearing precious objects and presents.

The Emperor, approving of their loyalty and sincerity, has ordered us (Zheng) He and others at the head of several tens of thousands of officers and flag-troops to ascend (use) more than one hundred large ships to go and confer presents on them in order to make manifest (make it happen) the transforming power of the (imperial) virtue and to treat distant people with kindness. From the third year of Yongle (1405) till now we have seven times received the commission (official permission) of ambassadors to countries of the western ocean. The barbarian countries which we have visited are: by way of Zhancheng (Champa Cambodia), Zhaowa (Java), Sanfoqi (Palembang- Indonesia) and Xianlo (Siam/Thailand) crossing straight over to Xilanshan (Ceylon- Sri Lanka) in South India, Guli (Calicut) [India], and Kezhi (Cochin India), we have gone to the western regions Hulumosi (Hormuz Between Oman and Iran), Adan (Aden), Mugudushu (Mogadishu- Somalia), altogether more than thirty countries large and small. We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li (distance of 500 meters) 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 star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare. Truly this was due to the majesty and the good fortune of the Court and moreover we owe it to the protecting virtue of the divine Celestial Spouse.

The power of the goddess having indeed been manifested in previous times has been abundantly revealed in the present generation. When we arrived in the distant countries we captured alive those of the native kings who were not respectful and exterminated those barbarian robbers who were engaged in piracy, so that consequently the sea route was cleansed and pacified (to make someone or something peaceful) and the natives put their trust in it. All this is due to the favours of the goddess.

We have respectfully received an Imperial commemorative composition (essay/piece of writing) exalting the miraculous favours, which is the highest recompense and praise indeed. However, the miraculous power of the goddess resides wherever one goes. As for the temporary palace on the southern mountain at Changle, I have, at the head of the fleet, frequently resided there awaiting the (favorable) wind to set sail for the ocean.
 We, Zheng He and others, on the one hand have received the high favour of a gracious commission of our Sacred Lord, and on the other hand carry to the distant barbarians the benefits of respect and good faith (on their part). Commanding the multitudes on the fleet and (being responsible for) a quantity of money and valuables in the face of the violence of the winds and the nights our one fear is not to be able to succeed; how should we then dare not to serve our dynasty with exertion of all our loyalty and the gods with the utmost sincerity? How would it be possible not to realize what is the source of the tranquility of the fleet and the troops and the salvation on the voyage both going and returning? Therefore we have made manifest the virtue of the goddess on stone and have moreover recorded the years and months of the voyages to the barbarian countries and the return in order to leave (the memory) for ever.

I. In the third year of Yongle (1405) commanding the fleet we went to Guli (Calicut- India) and other countries. At that time the pirate Chen Zuyi had gathered his followers in the country of Sanfoqi (Palembang- Indonesia), where he plundered the native merchants. When he also advanced to resist our fleet, supernatural soldiers secretly came to the rescue so that after one beating of the drum he was annihilated. In the fifth year (1407) we returned.

II. In the fifth year of Yongle (1407) commanding the fleet we went to Zhaowa (Java), Guli (Calicut), Kezhi (Cochin India) and Xianle (Siam- Thailand). The kings of these countries all sent as tribute precious objects, precious birds and rare animals. In the seventh year (1409) we returned.

III. In the seventh year of Yongle (1409) commanding the fleet we went to the countries (visited) before and took our route by the country of Xilanshan (Ceylon Sri Lanka). Its king Yaliekunaier (Alagakkonara) was guilty of a gross lack of respect and plotted against the fleet. Owing to the manifest answer to prayer of the goddess (the plot) was discovered and thereupon that king was captured alive. In the ninth year (1411) on our return the king was presented (to the throne) (as a prisoner); subsequently he received the Imperial favour of returning to his own country.

IV. In the eleventh year of Yongle (1413) commanding the fleet we went to Hulumosi (Ormuz between Oman and Iran) and other countries. In the country of Sumendala, Indonesia) there was a false king who was marauding and invading his country. Its king had sent an envoy to the Palace Gates in order to lodge a complaint. We went thither with the official troups under our command and exterminated some and arrested (other rebels), and owing to the silent aid of the goddess we captured the false king alive. In the thirteenth year (1415) on our return he was presented (to the Emperor as a prisoner). In that year the king of the country of Manlajia (Malacca) came in person with his wife and son to present tribute.

V. In the fifteenth year of Yongle (1417) commanding the fleet we visited the western regions. The country of Hulumosi (Ormuz) presented lions, leopards with gold spots and large western horses. The country of Adan (Aden) presented qilin (giraffe) as well as the long-horned. The country of Mugudushu (Mogadishu) presented huafu lu ("striped" zebras) as well as lions. The country of Bulawa (Brava) (near Kenya) presented camels which run one thousand li as well as camel-birds (ostriches). They all vied in presenting the marvellous objects preserved in the mountains or hidden in the seas and the beautiful treasures buried in the sand or deposited on the shores. Some sent a maternal uncle of the king, others a paternal uncle or a younger brother of the king in order to present a letter of homage written on gold leaf as well as tribute.

VI. In the nineteenth year of Yongle (1421) commanding the fleet we conducted the ambassadors from Hulumosi (Ormuz) and the other countries who had been in attendance at the capital for a long time back to their countries. The kings of all these countries prepared even more tribute than previously.

VII. In the sixth year of Xuande (1431) once more commanding the fleet we have left for the barbarian countries in order to read to them (an Imperial edict) and to confer (give) presents.

We have anchored in this port awaiting a north wind to take the sea, and recalling how previously we have on several occasions received the benefits of the protection of the divine intelligence we have thus recorded an inscription in stone.

Sources: Teobaldo Filesi. David Morison trans. China and Africa in the Middle Ages. (London: Frank Cass, 1972). 57-61.

Zheng He


born c. 1371, Kunyang [in present-day Jinning county], Yunnan province, China
died 1433, Calicut [now Kozhikode India]

Zheng He was the son of a hajji, a Muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. His family claimed descent from an early Mongol governor of Yunnan as well as from King Muhammad of Bukhara. The family name Ma was which came from the Chinese rendition of Muhammad. In 1381, when he was about 10 years old, Yunnan, the last Mongol hold in China, was reconquered by Chinese forces. By 1390, when these troops were placed under the command of the prince of Yan, Ma He had distinguished himself as a junior officer, skilled in war and diplomacy; he also made influential friends at court.

In 1400 the prince of Yan revolted and took the throne in 1402 as the Yongle emperor. Under the Yongle administration (1402–24), the war-devastated economy of China was soon restored. The Ming court then sought to display its naval power to bring the maritime states of South and Southeast Asia in line.

For 300 years the Chinese had been extending their power out to sea. An extensive seaborne commerce had developed to meet the taste of the Chinese for spices and aromatics (items that smell pleasant) and the need for raw industrial materials. Chinese travelers abroad, as well as Indian and Muslim visitors, widened the geographic horizon of the Chinese. Technological developments in shipbuilding and in the arts of seafaring reached new heights by the beginning of the Ming.

Selected by the emperor to be commander in chief of the missions to the “Western Oceans,” he first set sail in 1405, commanding 62 ships and 27,800 men. The fleet visited Champa (now in southern Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Malacca (Melaka), and Java; then through the Indian Ocean to Calicut (Kozhikode- India), Cochin (Kochi India), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Zheng He returned to China in 1407.

On his second voyage, in 1409, Zheng He encountered treachery (betryal) from the of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Zheng defeated his forces and took the king back to Nanjing as a captive.

In 1411 Zheng He set out on his third voyage. This time, going beyond the seaports of India, he sailed to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. On his return he touched at Samudra, on the northern tip of Sumatra.

On his fourth voyage Zheng He left China in 1413. After stopping at the principal ports of Asia, he proceeded westward from India to Hormuz. A detachment of the fleet cruised southward down the Arabian coast, visiting Djofar and Aden. A Chinese mission visited Mecca and continued to Egypt. The fleet visited Brava and Malindi and almost reached the Mozambique Channel. On his return to China in 1415, Zheng He brought the envoys of more than 30 states of South and Southeast Asia to pay homage (honor and respect) to the Chinese emperor.

During Zheng He's fifth voyage (1417–19), the Ming fleet revisited the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa.

A sixth voyage was launched in 1421 to take home the foreign emissaries from China. Again he visited Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and Africa. In 1424 the Yongle emperor died. In the shift of policy his successor, the Hongxi emperor, stopped naval expeditions abroad. Zheng He was appointed garrison (fort) commander in Nanjing, with the task of disbanding (break apart an organization) his troops.

Zheng He's seventh and final voyage left China in the winter of 1431, visiting the states of Southeast Asia, the coast of India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa. He died in Calicut in the spring of 1433, and the fleet returned to China that summer.

Zheng He was the best known of the Yongle emperor's diplomatic agents. Although some historians see no achievement in the naval expeditions other than flattering (make someone feel good) the emperor's vanity, these missions did have the effect of extending China's political sway over maritime Asia for half a century. Admittedly, they did not, like similar voyages of European merchant-adventurers, lead to the establishment of trading empires. Yet, in their wake, Chinese emigration increased, resulting in Chinese colonization in Southeast Asia and the accompanying tributary trade, which lasted to the 19th century.


Historical Background

Professor Wu began by briefly retracing the history of Zheng He's voyages. Upon the orders of the emperor Yongle and his successor, Xuande, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions, the first in the year 1405 and the last in 1430, which sailed from China to the west, reaching as far as the Cape of Good Hope. The object of the voyages was to display the glory and might of the Chinese Ming dynasty and to collect tribute from the "barbarians from beyond the seas." Merchants also accompanied Zheng's voyages, Wu explained, bringing with them silks and porcelain to trade for foreign luxuries such as spices and jewels and tropical woods.

These voyages, Professor Wu noted, came a few decades before most of the famous European voyages of discovery known to all Western school children: Christopher Columbus, in 1492; Vasco da Gama, in 1498; and Ferdinand Magellan, in 1521. However, Zheng He's fleets were incomparable larger. According to figures presented by Professor Wu:


Number of Ships

Number of Crew

Zheng He (1405 - 1433)

48 to 317


Columbus (1492)



Da Gama (1498)


ca. 160

Magellan (1521)



Moreover, Zheng He's ships, Professor Wu explained, were impressive examples of naval engineering. His so-called treasure ships (which brought back to China such things a giraffes from Africa) were 400 feet long. Columbus's flagship the St. Maria, in contrast, was but 85 feet in length. Zheng He's treasure ships, Professor Wu mentioned, displaced no less than 10,000 tons and had an aspect ratio (width:length) of 0.254; in other words, they were wide and bulky—"the supertankers of their day." Aside from the treasure ships, Zheng He's fleet also contained a variety of other, specialized vessels: "equine ships" (for carrying horses), warships, supply ships, and water tankers.

If an object of the voyages was to display the glory and might of China, then there can be no question but that this magnificent fleet would have awed all who witnessed it. It is ironic, then, that today little is known of Zheng He's voyages. This is, Wu pointed out, mainly the doing of the Confucianists (new government that took over) in the imperial court, who saw to it that Zheng's ships were burned after his last voyage and who made every effort to "systematically destroy all official records of the voyages." Their motives were purely political. During much of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), the Zheng He’s political group exercised great power in the imperial court, at the expense of the Confucian civil bureaucracy. The expeditions of Zheng He were strongly supported by political friends in the court and bitterly opposed by the Confucian scholar bureaucrats (government officials.)

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