Yongle Emperor Sponsorship of Chinese Worldwide Exploration

As part of his desire to expand Chinese influence, the Yongle Emperor sponsored at least seven epic sea-going expeditions between 1405 and 1433, led by the great admiral, the Muslim eunuch Zheng He (Cheng Ho; 鄭和). Each was larger and more expensive than the last; some of the boats used were apparently the largest sail-powered boats in human history. In 1403, Yongle emperor sent out three fleets to proclaim his accession throughout Southeast Asia as far as Java and southern India. Throughout his reign, “tributary” missions regularly traveled to China from nations overseas, including Malacca and Brunei. Zheng He visited at least 37 countries, some as far away as the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa almost as far south as Zanzibar; and from all of them, he brought back envoys bearing tribute to acknowledge the Yongle emperor's authority. Chinese emissaries acted as arbitrators in Ceylon and Sumatra. Over 60 embassies visited China within a short space of time, many bearing gifts of strange animals, plants and jewels.

Although the Chinese had been sailing to Arabia, Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), these were China's only major sea-going explorations of the world. The first expedition launched in 1405 (eighteen years before Henry the Navigator began Portugal's voyages of discovery. It is possible that one of these expeditions reached America in 1421. According to British Admiral Gavin Menzies, the Chinese fleet was burned upon returning to China, since Zhu Di had already passed away. Even if the American discovery isn't correct, the Zheng He expeditions were a remarkable technical and logistical achievement. It is very likely that the last expedition reached as far as Madagascar, thousands of miles from where it started. Zhu Di's successors, the Hongxi Emperor(洪熙帝) and the Xuande Emperor(宣徳帝), felt the expeditions were harmful to the Chinese state. The Hongxi Emperor ended further expeditions and the Xuande Emperor suppressed much of the information about the Zheng He voyages.

Yongle also sent a eunuch emissary on repeated tribute-seeking missions to Tibet and Nepal, and a civil servant across Central Asia to Afghanistan and Russian Turkistan.

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. The Yongle emperor designed them to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin. He also might have wanted to extend the tributary system.

Zheng He was placed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions. Wang Jinghong was appointed his second in command. Zheng He's first voyage consisted of a fleet of 317 treasure ships (other sources say 200 ships) holding almost 28,000 crewmen (each ship housing up to 500 men).

Zheng He's fleets visited Arabia, Brunei, East Africa, India, Malay Archipelago and Thailand (at the time called Siam), dispensing and receiving goods along the way. Zheng He presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain and silk; in return, China received such novelties as ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory and giraffes.

Zheng He generally sought to attain his goals through diplomacy, and his large army awed most would-be enemies into submission.[citation needed] But a contemporary reported that Zheng He "walked like a tiger" and did not shrink from violence when he considered it necessary to impress foreign peoples with China's military might. He ruthlessly suppressed pirates who had long plagued Chinese and southeast Asian waters. He also waged a land war against the Kingdom of Kotte in Ceylon, and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and East Africa. From his fourth voyage, he brought envoys from thirty states who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.

In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to stop the voyages during his short reign. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), but after that the voyages of the Chinese treasure ship fleets were ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet's last voyage. Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was, like many great admirals, buried at sea.