What do Admiral Zheng He’s voyages tell us about China’s relationship to the outside world? Three different activities pursued by the Chinese expedition members were: trading, establishing diplomatic relations, and popularizing the Chinese authority and prestige in the region.
First and foremost, the aim of Zheng He’s voyages was to establish trade relationships with different parts of Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and Arabia. For example, during the First Voyage, which took place between 1405 and 1407, the Treasure Fleet arrived in Calcium (India), where the Chinese purchased lots of spices including cardamom, ginger, pepper, turmeric, and cinnamon. During the Third Voyage, which took place between 1409 and 1411, the Chinese traded their silk and porcelain in exchange for aloewood, ebony, and lakawood in Sumatra and Champs, Southern Vietnam. Likewise, the greatest Treasure Fleet expedition, the Fourth one (1413-1415), when the Chinese reached Hormuz, resulted in their purchase of rubies, sapphires, coral beads, topaz, amber, woolens, and magnificent carpets.

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Next, the Chinese sought to establish diplomatic relationships with the countries of what was China’s known world. For example, several of his voyages resulted in bringing envoys from multiple kingdoms as a tribute to the Chinese emperor. The primary aim of the Sixth Voyage, which took place between 1421 and 1422, was to bring those ambassadors back to their countries (Levathes 145).

Finally, China aimed to popularize its authority and influence in the region of Southeast Asia. As Martin Jacques explains, “They were influence-maximizing missions designed to carry out the very traditional aim of spreading China’s authority and prestige (…). The Chinese had no interest in exploring unknown places, but in making peoples in its known world aware of the presence and greatness” (370). The activities that the Chinese undertook while on their voyages evidence this: during their Fourth Voyage, the Chinese fought in support of a deposed sultan in Sumatra; during their First Voyage, they captured the leader of the pirates and brought him to China for execution.

  • Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World. 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
  • Levathes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas. Simon & Schuster, 1994. Print.