China’s emperors believed that Heaven bestowed upon them a divine mandate to rule. This mandate was granted to individuals who demonstrated superior moral virtue and who were able to prove their control of “all under Heaven”— and was withdrawn from those who could not. Proving that he had been given the mandate was of particular importance to the Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–1424), who usurped the throne from his nephew, killing many Ming retainers in the process.
Among the Yongle emperor’s many efforts to demonstrate his right to the throne, none has gained more attention in recent years than the journeys of the emperor’s principal admiral, the eunuch Zheng He (1371–1433). Embarking from the port of Nanjing, where the ships had been built, Zheng’s fleet reached Southeast Asia, India, Persia, and the east coast of Africa. The purpose of these enormous enterprises was to gather symbols of submission to Ming authority in the form of tribute and treaties. When necessary the fleet resorted to military might to establish its dominance. In exchange, Zheng presented gifts on behalf of the emperor.
On his first voyage (1405) Zheng He commanded a gigantic flagship and sixty-two small ships with a crew estimated to number nearly 28,000. The ships were heavily loaded with porcelain, silk, and other Chinese luxury goods. They returned with tribute in the form of gemstones, lions and other animals, spices, and other unique and exotic things. Zheng also brought back envoys from more than thirty foreign states, who personally presented their tribute to the Ming court. The maritime expeditions came to an end after Zheng’s death during the seventh voyage, made under the Xuande emperor (reigned 1426–1435).
Beginning in 1980 archaeologists initiated a series of excavations at the Ming shipyard in Nanjing. From one site more than 1,500 remnants made either of wood or of iron have been uncovered.