A statue of Admiral Zheng He in Indonesia.
On this day in 1433, Admiral Zheng He finished his 28 year-long ocean voyage and returned to China. It was the most expensive voyage in Chinese history, involving 27,000 sailors and 200 ships. Zheng He even set his foot on the Western Pacific and the Red Sea and had traveled to more than 30 countries, which was unimaginable during a time when sailing and navigation technologies weren’t advanced enough to support such an undertaking.
Zheng He was a eunuch of the Yongle Emperor, the third Ming Dynasty sovereign. During his reign, Ming China reached its golden age, called Yongle’s Flourishing Age in historical records. It was during this period of time that Emperor Yongle sent Zheng He overseas.
Loading his ship with treasures such as silk and porcelains, Zheng He set out from Taicang in Jiangsu province in 1405. He presented them as gifts to some of the countries he arrived or traded them in return for spices, jewels, dyestuff and other goods. Many historians say this was done to impress foreigners the Emperor’s power and prosperity, and, as was the imperial custom at the time, building tributary relationships between China and foreign kingdoms.
However, some historians hold different opinions. They think Emperor Yongle’s main objective was to find Emperor Jianwen, his predecessor. Yongle was a mere head of a fief when Jianwen was the Emperor. Although a successful as a chief, Yongle rebelled against Emperor Jianwen, tempted by power and a chance at governance. After a fierce war, Yongle became the winner and was enthroned as the Son of Heaven.
At the end of the war, Yongle set fire and burned the Palace. However, no remains of his predecessor was found; Jianwen simply disappeared. Out of fear that Jianwen will return with troops, Yongle had to capture him alive or ensure he was dead. Having searched all over his empire to no avail, Emperor Yongle assumed that Jianwen had fled abroad and decided to go beyond China’s borders. This is why some historians think Zheng He’s voyage may have been the world’s biggest manhunt.