Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433

By Armstrong, Benjamin | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433


Armstrong, Benjamin, Naval War College Review


Dreyer, Edward L. Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433. Old Tappan, N.J.: Pearson Longman, 2006. 238pp. $20.67

The military history of China has become a common element in the professional reading of many American military officers. Journals like this one have included an important focus on the Chinese past and present, and Edward Dreyer's book contributes important new history and analysis to that understanding. Studying the Chinese foreign expeditionary armada of the early fifteenth century, Dreyer outlines a Chinese strategy and set of naval tactics that are familiar to today's naval officer.

Starting in 1405 the eunuch Admiral Zheng He led a series of seven voyages from the shores of the Ming empire into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. These voyages were made by fleets larger than any the world had ever seen; armadas of over two hundred vessels, the largest wooden vessels ever constructed, carrying roughly thirty thousand sailors and marine infantry. Scholars and Chinese government historians have characterized these expeditions, which reached as far west as the coast of Africa, as peaceful voyages of discovery. Dreyer, however, disagrees. He writes instead, "After thoroughly reviewing the primary Chinese sources, I concluded that the purpose of the voyages was actually 'power projection'. .. rather than mere exploration. Zheng He's voyages were undertaken to force the states of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to acknowledge the power and majesty of Ming China and its emperor."

The book is structured in a straightforward manner, chronologically moving from Zheng He's personal biography and the background history of the voyages to the voyages themselves. While not a professional naval architect, Dreyer has obviously done his research.

He provides documentary and archaeological evidence, as well as explanation of basic principles of naval architecture, to support his conclusion that the largest of the ships, the baochuan, or "treasure ships," were at least three times larger than Nelson's flagship HMS Victory. …

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