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Zheng He’s Westbound Voyages and Sino-African Relationship

Chen Gongyuan

Senior research fellow of IWAAS


China and Africa are thousands of miles apart, divided by the Indian Ocean. Ever since ancient times, however, their amicable relationship has remained as dynamic as the flow of the Yangtze and Nile Rivers.

I.  Long-lasting Sino-African Relationship

Sino-African relationship started with China’s earliest interactions with north and east Africa. It is reported that in 1993 Austrian scientists discovered silk fiber in the hair of a female mummy belonging to the 21st Egyptian dynasty (1070 – 945 BC). At the time only China could produce silk, which means Chinese silk was already used in Egypt as far back as 3,000 years ago.[1] This shows that this ancient civilization was by then long engaged in indirect contact and maritime trade with China, thus pointing to a 3,000-year-long history of Sino-African relationship.

It is recorded in Han Shu·Xi Yu Zhuan (A History of the Han Dynasty: The Western Territories) that in 112 B.C., the Arsacid (Persian) dynast sent Egyptian acrobats and magicians (Rehem) to Chang’an, the capital of the Han Dynasty. This is the earliest record of indirect cultural exchange between China and Africa. One also reads in Hou Han Shu·Xi Yu Zhuan (A History of Later Han: The Western Territories) that in Yanxi year 9 under the reign of Hanheng Emperor (166 AD), Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (on the throne from 161 to 180 AD), who was then ruling over north Africa, sent envoys to China by sea via Yuet Naam (Vietnam), presenting to the Han Court from Africa such valuable gifts as ivories, rhino horns, and hawksbills. This is the earliest record of African natural products entering China, providing a historical evidence for early Sino-African trade and exchange. In 1995 when I was attending the 6th annual conference of China Institute on African Studies held in Jiawang, Xuzhou, Jiangsu, a trip to a local museum showed me a few kylins (Chinese unicorns) which, carved out of rock in the Eastern-Han dynasty, resembled the African giraffe in their main features, revealing that during the Han dynasties, there was already in China considerable understanding of African species and products.[2]

After the Tang Dynasty, China and Africa began their direct contact. The first Chinese ever to arrive in Africa as evidenced by historic references is Du Huan, a paternal cousin of the Tang’s renowned scholar Du You. From 751 to 762 AD, Du Huan followed Tazi (Arabian) troops on their westward march, spending 11 years in west Asia and north Africa. On his return to China, he wrote a book entitled Jing Xing Ji (The Journey), detailing his findings in Syria, Morocco (the State of “Moling” as transliterated in Chinese) and other places. It is China’s earliest travelogue on west Asia and Africa and invaluable historical reference to the history, geography, species and products, religions, customs, cultures, and other anthropological aspects of ancient North Africa.[3]

In 801 AD, Jia Dan (730 805 AD), China’s prime minister during the Tang Dezong period distinguished for his geographical studies, compiled Huang Hua Si Da Ji (Routes to Bordering Countries), a volume in which he depicted the routes to countries adjoining China – one of which described in great detail is the sea route starting from Guangzhou and reaching the Horn of Africa via the Persian Gulf. [4] Jia Dan offered a very specific and accurate description of the route despite the fact that he had never ventured to these areas but only learned about them from merchants and seafarers. This shows that Chinese merchants and navigators in the Tang Dynasty did reach the Persian Gulf and east African coast. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for Jia Dan to come up with such accurate details.

In their turn, Africans also arrived in China during the Tang Dynasty. Xin Tang Shu·Nan Man Zhuan (A New History of the Tang Dynasty: Southern Tributaries) and Fan Chuo’s Man Shu (A History of Southern Tributaries) both keep an account in many places throughout the books of the events in which the then Persian and Arab countries in north Africa sent envoys and “Sengzhi” off to China, the latter referring to black people living along the east African coast – transliterated from Zangi, an ancient Arab and Persian word for East Africans.

China’s growing maritime trade with east African coastal countries led her to an increased understanding of African countries. This is reflected in some of the Tang writings. Very detailed descriptions were brought about around a period from 850 through 860 AD in Duan Chengshi’s You Yang Za Zu (The Sketch Book), Li Shi’s Xu Bo Wu Zhi (A Sequel to the Encyclopedia of Natural and Social Sciences), and other books of African countries and places such as “Babali” or Barbary in the Somaliland region, “Wusili” or Misr the ancient name of Egypt, “Rengjian” or Utica in Tunisia, “Xida” or Sudan, and “Dagan” or Sahara’s Dakhla Oasis.  These all left behind invaluable historical references.

During the Xining period (1068 – 1077 AD) of the Song Dynasty, China established official relationship with “Cengtan”, namely Zangi-bar, a city-state on the east African coast. Twice in Xining Year 4 (1071) and Yuanfeng Year 6 (1083) “Cengtan” emissaries sailed more than 160 days to Guangzhou. The Song emperor Shenzong, upon hearing the news in the imperial capital, ordered ships dispatched to fetch a “Cengtan” emissary by the name of Cengkani. In addition to his credentials, Cengkani also presented to the Song Court a large number of gifts such as frankincense, ambergris, pearls, medicinal materials, and glass utensils. The Song emperor showed great hospitality to this rare visitor by endowing him with 2,000 liang[5] of “Baijin” [6]and a noble title of “Bao Shun Lang Jiang” (Assistant Commander).

With the development of maritime trade and friendly exchange, China came to know more about Africa. In addition to official historic records such as Song Shi (History of the Song Dynasty) and Song Hui Yao (Collected Statutes of The Song Dynasty), quite a few other books in the Song Dynasty also touched on Africa, including Zhu Fan Zhi (or Chu-fan-chî, Chau Ju-kua’s work on the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), Ling Wai Dai Da (Reference Book on the South), Wen Chang Za Lu (Miscellanea of Decrees and Regulations in the Song Dynasty), Qing Bo Bie Zhi (Descriptions of the Song Society), and Shi Lin Guang Ji (Encyclopedic Record of the Song Dynasty). These books, Zhu Fan Zhi in particular, have a very high value for reference in research on the ancient history of north and east Africa as well as on the ancient Sino-African relationship.

In the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Dayuan, a Chinese traveler, made important contributions to the development of Sino-African relationship. Twice over the periods from 1330 to 1334 and from 1337 to 1339 for tours around southeast Asia and coastal areas of the Indian Ocean, he took departure from China’s then largest international trade port Quanzhou to sail in Chinese ocean-going ships and later in Arabian merchant ships, setting foot on dozens of countries and regions in Asia and Africa. He visited 12 countries and regions in north and east Africa, going as far as Kilwa on an island off the coast of what is now southern Tanzania – at nine degrees of the south latitude. There are scholars who claim that he went to Quelimane (then called “Jialumenli” in Chinese) on the east Mozambican coast as well. On his return to China, Wang Dayuan spent 10 years writing Dao Yi Zhi Lue (Description of the Barbarians of the Isles) on his two voyages over the Indian Ocean. His work initially appeared as a supplement to Wu Jian’s Quanzhou Lu Qing Yuan Zhi (Record of the County of Quanzhou, Fujian in the Yuan Dynasty), and later as an individual pamphlet printed in Nanchang. The most valuable guidebook in the 14th century for the sailing over the Indian Ocean, it is of great value to the studies in the economic, social, and navigational aspects of coastal countries around the Indian Ocean as well as to an insight into east and north African countries of the ancient times.[7]

Around the same time during the Yuan Dynasty, just as Wang Dayuan was venturing out to Africa, Ibn Battuta, the great African traveler from Morocco was making his memorable trip to China.

As one of the four renowned travelers in the Middle Ages, Ibn Battuta found his way to China in the Islamic year of 748 (1347 AD, equivalent to Zhizheng year 7 in the Yuan Dynasty of China), where he spent nearly two years visiting Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Beijing and other places. He returned to his native land Morocco in 1349 and traveled later in 1352 to faraway countries like Mali and Niger in west Africa, carrying his first-hand experiences with China as a way to contribute to its indirect contact with these countries. In 1354, he returned to the Moroccan capital. One year later he dictated to Ibn Juzayy, secretary to Moroccan Sultan, his travel experiences in China and other countries, resulting in the Rihla, or the Voyage, of Ibn Battuta.

Ibn Battuta was an African emissary for friendship who made important contributions to the development of Sino-African relationship. A well-compiled, pioneering introduction to Africa of knowledge about China and the Orient, his Rihla offers valuable historical references to the study of history, geography, economics, culture, customs and practices in China, Africa, and the Orient in the Middle Ages – particularly to the study of social production, science and technology, and navigation undertakings in China’s Yuan Dynasty.[8]

The most critical time for the Sino-African exchange, however, was the Ming Dynasty when Zheng He (1371 – 1435 AD), a great Chinese navigator and diplomat, commanded in his capacity as an official envoy a huge fleet out of Liuhe in Taicang, Jiangsu, and for 28 years from Yongle year 3 (1405 AD) to Xuande year 8 (1433 AD) made seven voyages to more than 30 countries and regions in southeast Asia and along the coast of the Indian Ocean. On his last four westbound voyages he reached 16 countries and regions in Africa, raising the long-lasting Sino-African relationship to a new level.

II.  Where Had Zheng He Been on His Westbound Journey to Africa?

Of Zheng He’s seven voyages, the last four all reached the east African coast.

Of these four journeys to Africa, the first was embarked in the Yongle years of 11 through 13 (1413 – 1415); the second in Yongle 15 through 17 (1417 – 1419); the third in Yongle 19 through 20 (1421 – 1422); and the last one in Xuande 6 through 8 (1431 to 1433).

Zheng He’s voyages to Africa followed two routes: one reached the east African coast across the Indian Ocean after passing Indochina and Indonesia first and then India, Sri Lanka, and Maldives through the Strait of Malacca; and the other across the Arabian Sea after going through the Strait of Malacca by way of Indochina and Indonesia, passing Sri Lanka and India, and then sailing over the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden, and Bab el Mandeb Strait all the way northeastward to get past Socotra Island, Cape Guardafui, and Ras Hafun along the north Somali coast.

According to Ming Shi (The History of the Ming Dynasty), Huang Ming Da Zheng Ji (Political Affairs in the Imperial Ming), Huang Ming Shi Fa Lu (A Collections of the Geographical Records in the Ming Dynasty), Shi Lu (The Imperial Annals of Ming Dynasty Emperors), Mao Yuanyi’s Wu Bei Zhi (The Art of Tactics), and other historical sources, Zheng He’s four voyages to Africa took him mainly to such places on the east African coast of what were then called in Chinese Mugudushu, Bulawa, Malin, Jubb, and Manbasa. Studies have verified that Mugudushu lies in today’s Mogadishu, Somalia; Bulawa in Barawa, Somalia; Malin in Malindi, Kenya[9]; Jubb near the mouth of the Zubba River in Somalia; and Manbasa in Mombasa, Kenya.

Zheng He visited Mugudushu four times. It is recorded in Wai Guo Lie Zhuan 7 (The Foreign Countries vol. 7) of Ming Shi vol. 326 that “it takes twenty days and nights to sail from ‘Little Gelan’ (Quilon on the southwest Indian coast) to Mugudushu. In the year of Yongle 14, the envoy was dispatched to pay tributes to Bulawa and Malin.  For hard evidence of his journey, Zheng He was ordered to return with local envoys after the presentation of gift coins and the imperial edict to the states.”  On his first trip to Africa in the year of Yongle 13, Zheng He visited Mugudushu from where, one year later, envoys came to China on board Zheng He’s fleet. When Zheng He embarked on his second trip to Africa, one of his objectives was to make a return visit to Mugudushu. It is also recorded in Ming Shi that Mugudushu “later paid tributes again. Zheng He was once more ordered to escort the envoys. Colored coins were presented to the king and queen”. This time, Zheng He once more accompanied Mugudushu envoys on a return voyage, which is believed to be an event around the time he began his third journey to Africa. In the year of Xuande 6, Zheng He paid his fourth visit to Mugudushu. It is recorded in Ming Shi that “in the year of Xuande 5 (actually, the voyage took place in Xuande Year 6), Zheng He again paid a visit to the country.” That is to say, Zheng He visited Mugudushu again on his fourth trip to Africa in 1431.

Zheng He also visited Bulawa four times. In the year of Yongle 13, he came to Bulawa during his first journey to Africa. It is recorded in Ming Shi that “The state of Bulawa borders on Mugudushu. It takes 21 days and nights to sail southward from ‘Bieluoli’ (Bellegam, to the southeast of Colombo), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Bulawa. From Yongle 14 to 21,… Zheng He went there twice.” That is to say, Zheng He visited Bulawa two more times during his second and third trips to Africa. It is also recorded that “In the year of Xuande 5, Zheng He was sent again as an envoy.” This indicates that Zheng He also visited Bulawa during his fourth trip to Africa.

Zheng He visited Malin thrice, in the year of Yongle 13, 15 and 19 respectively. It is recorded in Huang Ming Da Zheng Ji and other history books that in the year of Yongle 13, Malin’s envoys came to China with a “Kylin” (giraffe) as a present, boarding Zheng He’s “treasure ship”, the one he used for his first voyage. In the year of Yongle 15, when the envoys were about to return, Zheng He embarked on his second voyage, one of his objectives being to see them off home. In the year of Yongle 18, Malin’s envoys came to China again. In the following year, Zheng He again headed to Africa to escort the envoys back to Malin.

On his last two westbound journeys, that is, on his third and fourth voyages to Africa, Zheng He came to Mugudushu, Bulawa, Jubb and other places. It is recorded in Ming Shi that “Bordering on Mugudushu, Jubb paid tributes during the Yongle period. The local population is sparse and leads a simple life. Zheng He had been there. There is little vegetation on the ground. Houses are build with stones. Drought is as common as in Mugudushu. In its natural production there are lions, leopards, ostriches, ambergris, frankincense, gold and platinum, and pepper.”

Similar depictions can be found under the entry of “Jubb” in Xing Cha Sheng Lan (Description of the Starry Raft). There is, however, no clear indication in any of these history books of exactly when Zheng He visited Manbasa, or Mombasa, on which of his trips to Africa. On the other hand, a legend goes in Kenya to this day of ancient houses found in deserted forests around Mombasa and believed to have been inhabited by the Chinese back in those days.

Mao Yuanyi, who lived in the Ming Dynasty, included a drawing in Wu Bei Zhi vol. 240, which depicted the whole length of Zheng He’s voyages and later came to be generally referred to as “the nautical chart of Zheng He’s voyages”. In addition to the above-mentioned Cape Guardafui, Ras Hafun, Socotra Island, Mugudushu (Mogadishu), Bulawa (Barawa), Jubb (mouth of Zubba River), Malin (Malindi) and Manbasa (Mombasa), the drawing also shows quite a number of ports in northeast Africa (including some of the city-states then existing on the east African coast), some of which have yet to be identified or verified. For instance, between Ras Hafun and Barawa, there lies “Heier” and “Morganti” other than Mugudushu, maybe standing for El Hur and Merka along the Somali coast. To the south of Barawa, there is a place called “Zhejilahazela”, which is possibly today’s Diogiri on the Somali coast. Farther away to the southwest of Barawa are two places called “Qinor” and “Gedagan”, probably standing for Ciula and Takaungu, both on the Kenyan coast. Then, “Menfeichi” and “Manbasa” may have referred to the one and same place, one for the mainland part while the other for the island. In the same way, “Muluwang” and “Polawa” may respectively refer to the island and the mainland part of one place. Furthermore, a place called “Murlihabier” lies between Hafun and Heier while another place called “Lanah” is seen between Heier and Morganti, both yet to be identified for their possible locations along the Somali coast near today’s Mogadishu. Such uncertainty, nevertheless, does not add mystery to one fact that Zheng He’s fleet reached all these ports and islands. Otherwise, they would not have been marked in the drawing in such great detail. Naturally, it may have been that Zheng He just passed by or spent a short while in some of these ports without giving them a tour, hence the lack of detailed descriptions.

III.  Historical Significance and Impact of Zheng He’s Visits to Africa

i.  Zheng He’s visits to Africa deepened the Sino-African friendship and raised the long-lasting Sino-African relationship to a new level

President Hu Jintao highly praised Zheng He’s seven westbound voyages when he said, “China’s historic and cultural heritage has inevitably led to her insistence on seeking peaceful development. The Chinese as a people of ancient civilization always believes in sincerity, harmony and peace. Its culture always emphasizes these values. Throughout a long history extending over more than 5,000 years, Chinese people have always persisted in building benign and neighborly relations with foreign countries and agreeing to disagree. More than 600 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty, China’s famous navigator Zheng He led the world’s then strongest fleet on its seven westbound voyages to reach more than 30 countries and regions in Asia and Africa. The aim was not to conquer or plunder, but to befriend and to advocate peace.” [10] Hu went on to say, “The Chinese people truly appreciate the value of peace. ‘Benignity and harmony with neighbors constituting our national treasure’ is deep-rooted in the Chinese culture. The world-renowned Silk Road and Zheng He’s seven westbound voyages professed to other countries and nations our sincerity for more exchange and cooperation, conveying our heart-felt desire to promote friendship with them.”[11]

Zheng He’s voyages to Africa were after peace and friendship. His four visits there promoted China’s friendly interactions with African countries. Impelled by his initiatives, African delegations came to visit China one after another and were received by the Ming Court with courtesy and sincerity.

Envoys from Mugudushu and Bulawa paid four visits to China (1416, 1417, 1419, and 1423 AD), while envoys from Malin made three trips to China (1415, 1416 and 1420 AD). In 1415 AD (Yongle 13), while in China, Malin envoys presented a “Kylin” (giraffe) to the Ming Court, which was received with great enthusiasm. Zhu Di, the then ruling Ming emperor of Chengzu, personally presided over a gala reception ceremony at the Fengtian Gate, with all the civilian and military officials contributing congratulatory messages to mark the big occasion. In 1416, Mugudushu, Bulawa, Malin and other African city-states paid a joint visit to China and brought over large quantities of African products. Historical books in the Ming Dynasty deemed this visit as the starting point for China’s official relationship with these city-states. In the following year, the Ming Court dispatched Zheng He in command of his fleet to escort these envoys back home, loaded with an abundance of brocade, silk, floret, and porcelain in exchange. When Zheng He sailed back in 1419, Mugudushu, Bulawa and other city-states again sent envoys to China on board the fleet, carrying zebras, lions, camels, and ostriches in exchange for Chinese commodities. In 1421, Zheng He was again ordered to escort the envoys back to their home countries and to revisit these African city-states. The fleet once again returned carrying a good many African products. In 1423, 16 city-states including Mugudushu and Bulawa sent a large delegation of more than 1,200 people to China with large quantities of trading goods, for which the Ming emperor of Chengzu held a grand welcome ceremony.

Furthermore, as a result of Zheng He’s visits to Africa, Egypt also augmented its friendly exchange with China. During the Yongle period, envoys from the Egyptian Mamluk Dynasty (1250 – 1517 AD) were dispatched to visit China. In the year of Zhengtong 5 under the reign of the Ming emperor Yingzong (1441 AD), Egypt again sent envoys to China, where they were received with great hospitality. Both Ming emperors of Chengzu and Yingzong hosted a banquet in their honor and ordered that the envoys “be wined and dined once every five days”. Everywhere they traveled, the envoys were treated to banquets. On their second visit in the year of Zhengtong 6, the Ming emperor of Yingzong presented to the Egyptian king “ten colored coins, three bolts of silk for outerwear and three bolts for underwear, five bolts of woolen cloth and cotton cloth each, and twenty bolts of white cloth”, and “the same gifts in reduced quantities to the queen and the envoys”. Ancient Egypt was addressed in Ming Shi by its historic name “Misr.” [12]. In addition, even some of the east African countries that Zheng He did not visit, such as the state of Somalier along today’s Somali coast, also sent a 16-strong delegation to visit China during the Yongle period, conveying the friendship of African people.[13]

ii.  Zheng He’s visits to Africa strengthened Sino-African economic and trade ties and stimulated the trade over the Indian Ocean.

During his voyages, Zheng He traded with African city-states in various ways based on equality, mutual benefit and mutual exchange, transporting to Africa an abundance of porcelain, cloth, silk, floret, brocade, damask, clothing, lacquer, tea, metal utensils, and Chinese coins in exchange for large quantities of African ivories, rhino horns, frankincense, gold, amber, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, white dodos, and other rare animals. These trade activities not only strengthened Sino-African economic and trade ties, but also stimulated the commercial development over the entire Indian Ocean area.

Ma Huan, Fei Xin, and Gong Zhen, among others, who accompanied Zheng He on his voyages, described in every entry of their travelogues such as Ying Ya Sheng Lan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores), Xing Cha Sheng Lan, and Xi Yang Fan Guo Zhi (Records of Foreign Countries in the Western Ocean), how trade was done along the route they traveled, as it goes like this: “Upon the arrival of Chinese treasure ships, the king, after being presented with the imperial edict and gifts, sent the chieftains to spread the news to all the people, who then brought frankincense, dragon’s blood (resin), aloe, myrrh, benison, rose maloes, cochinchina momordica seeds, etc. to trade for silk and porcelain, among other things.”[14] It is also recorded that there was Chitti, a group of local merchants “specialized in collecting gems, pearls, and spices in anticipation of the arrival of Chinese treasure ships” to trade for Chinese porcelain, silk and other handicrafts.[15] This shows that it was one of the main objectives of Zheng He’s voyages to engage in overseas trade.

iii.  Zheng He’s visits to Africa propelled China into cultural exchange with Africa and hence contributed to a quantum leap in the way the Chinese came to know and understand Africa.

The Chinese boast a very long history and a splendid ancient civilization. Zheng He’s seven voyages passed on to foreign countries, including those in east Africa, many aspects of the Chinese culture as in its scientific learning, political institution , civic etiquette, religious art, as well as its excellent techniques in architecture, painting, sculpture, costume, and medicine. The local peoples were taught how to dig wells, build roads, catch fish, apply acupuncture, and grow crops. Spread in such efforts was the use of money, calendar, and measurement. At the same time, the accomplishments of other Asian and African civilizations were brought back to China. These voyages represent a brilliant chapter in the history of Sino-foreign cultural exchange. Today, there still live in Africa people who have inherited ancient Chinese medicine and are very well versed in other skills originating from China such as acupuncture and fishing.

The three books mentioned above, Ying Ya Sheng Lan, Xing Cha Sheng Lan, and Xi Yang Fan Guo Zhi, elaborated on what some of the east African city-states were like in terms of the society, economy, culture, civil institution, production, and trade at that time as well as on their geographic locations, climates, species and products, customs and practices, and costumes, greatly enriching the knowledge among Chinese people about African societies. These writings constitute invaluable historical references for our research on ancient Africa, proving to be of great value in further enhancing Sino-African cooperation and cultural exchange.

IV  Marked as pioneering in the Age of Exploration, Zheng He’s voyages to Africa raised China’s ship-building and navigational undertakings to the world’s historical high in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Zheng He’s voyages were carried out on a massive scale. The fleet usually consisted of more than 100 “treasure ships” of various sizes, fifty to sixty of which were large-sized vessels; the largest fleet of as many as 200 vessels. The biggest “treasure ship” had 12 sails and a carrying capacity on the order of 1,000 tons.

According to Xing Cha Sheng Lan, one of Zheng He’s voyages was on such an amazingly large scale: “Of the 63 treasure ships, the large ones are 44 zhang and 4 chi long and 18 zhang wide. The medium-sized ones measure 37 by 15 zhang.”

“Zheng He’s entourage consists of officers, army men, warriors, messengers, sailors, compradors, scribes and so on, totaling 27,670 and including 868 officers, 26,800 army men, 93 supervisors, 2 commanders, 140 qian-hu (battalion commanders), 403 bai-hu (company commander), 1 hu-bu-lang-zhong (director of the Ministry of Revenue), 1 diviner, 1 trainer, 2 retainers, 180 doctors, 2 yu-ding (supplementary men), 7 ambassadorial eunuchs, 5 senior eunuchs, 10 junior eunuchs, and 53 butlers and servants.” Professionals working on board included “huo-zhang” (pilots) in charge of the compass, “fan-huo-zhang”(foreign pilots), “ding-shou”(helmsmen), “jun-jiang”, who repaired bows and arrows and other weapons, “min-jiang”, who made and repaired wood and iron tools, “xing-ren” (liaison officers), and “guan-dai” in charge of seamen. The treasure ships were loaded, in addition to large quantities of gifts and commodities, with sufficient food supply, fresh water, salt, soy sauce, tea, wine, oil, candles, firewood, charcoal, and many other daily articles. In short, a voyage well-equipped like this was rare in history.

Zheng He’s seven voyages fully reflected China’s advanced ship-building and navigational technologies in the 15th century. The pilots and engineers made very skillful use of natural forces such as tides, monsoons and ocean currents, applied astronomy for direction and distance measurements, used plumbs to gauge ocean depth and sea-bottom conditions, navigated the ship with the compass, and came up with sound solutions to problems concerning fresh water storage and enhanced stability for the ship. In this way, the huge fleet managed to “sail in full force day and night over stormy seas”. Through unpredictable weathers it overcame the tough Indian Ocean “where waves touched the sky and billows ran miles like mountains”, thus opening a new sea route to east Africa. Also recorded and marked on maps were directions, distances, ports, reefs, shoals, and all the other details along the route, resulting in the Nautical Chart of Zheng He’s Voyages and its supplementary drawing Navigational Astronomy on Foreign Waters. This is the first complete nautical chart in Chinese history, providing invaluable reference to China’s ancient marine geography.

Zheng He’s voyages preceded Bartholmeu Dias of Portugal reaching the Cape of Good Hope (1487 AD) by more than 80 years; Vasco da Gama reaching India via the Cape of Good Hope (1498 AD) by more than 90 years; Columbus of Italy discovering America (1492 AD) by more than 90 years; and Magellan of Portugal sailing round the world (1519 – 1522 AD) by more than 100 years. Zheng He’s fleet was at the world’s cutting edge in terms of its massive scale, tight organization, far-flung route, highly developed ship-building and navigational techniques available in China then, as well as the seamen’s intelligence and bravery, knowledge in astronomy and geography, understanding of the monsoon and weather forecasting, and navigating skills. Zheng He’s voyages not only marked the zenith of China’s ancient navigational technology, but also stood out as a milestone in the global development of navigation.

IV.  Tracking down Historic Relics to Bring up Sino-African Friendship

By the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century, the Sino-African relationship had arrived at a new peak. To this day, among many relics left in Southeast Asia by Zheng He, a large village exists on the outskirts of Barawa in Somalia which is called “Chinese Village” or “Zheng He Town” and is believed to have been visited by Zheng He’s fleet. There is another “Chinese Village” with a “Chinese Stone Pagoda” along the coast dozens of miles south of Chisimaio, where Zheng He and his entourage allegedly sojourned for a while. Further to the southwest lies a small island named Koyama on which stands another “Chinese Pagoda” – about seven or eight meters tall with a few vaguely discernible Chinese characters. An ancient Chinese shipwreck occurred in the waters between Chisimaio and Koyama. According to some of the local seniors, their forefathers told a story about a Chinese ship sinking hundreds of years earlier with a full load of porcelain, silk and other treasures. The survivors of that shipwreck may have lived in nearby villages and had this “Chinese Pagoda” built as their tombstone on their death.

About 5 kilometers south of Malindi, Kenya, lies the mysterious Ruins of Gedi – an ancient city site that covers an area of 45 acres (roughly 273 Chinese mu), with what is left of erstwhile palaces, grand mosques, city walls, and graveyards. Many ancient Chinese porcelain pieces and coins have been unearthed here. According to Alaushin, curator of the Malindi Museum, Zheng He and his men, on their arrival, spent some time here resting and praying. Since then, the ancient city-state had served as a resting place for Zheng He’s fleet on its voyages. It was from here that Zheng He took a giraffe (called Kylin in Chinese) back to China.

On the Pate Island in Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago, there is a small village called “Shanga”, which is inhabited by a small clan called Famao. The Famao claim that they are the posterity of those Chinese seamen who came with Zheng He but stayed here and married the locals after they were shipwrecked. According to Schwoley, deputy curator of the Lamu Museum in Kenya, people used to say that a fully loaded Chinese treasure ship sank near the Pate Island a few hundred years ago. In December 2002, fishermen from the island, while catching lobsters, brought up from the sea two Chinese jars with a design of “two dragons playing with a ball” and some other ancient porcelain pieces. The jars are engraved with two Chinese characters of “Sheng Qiao”. Now everyone believes that the shipwreck most likely happened because the jars serve as the best evidence.

There lives in the Shanga Village a woman by the name of Barak Badi Shee, who declares her whole family “Chinese” offspring of Zheng He’s seamen. She has a daughter by the name of Mwamaka Shariff, who was in secondary school and generally known as the “Chinese girl”. Time and again she expressed her desire to go and trace her “ancestral roots” in China. Sheng Lei, then deputy mayor of Taicang, Jiangsu, encouraged the “Chinese daughter to return home” while visiting there and promised her that, to carry on the spirit of friendship advocated by Zheng He 600 years ago, Taicang would take care of all her living expenses and tuitions after she arrived in China. In 2004, Mwamaka wrote to the Chinese embassy in Kenya expressing her desire to pursue the studies of traditional Chinese medicine in China so as to contribute to Sino-Kenyan friendship in future. In March 2005, the embassy informed her that China’s ministry of education had especially granted her a quota for pursuing university education in China. All she had to do was finish high school with a diploma. In June 2005, Mwamaka graduated from the Lamu Women’s High School. One month later, she was invited to take part in commemorative activities in China for the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s westbound voyages. In August that year, she was enrolled into Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine to major in Chinese medicine, thus fulfilling her long-cherished dream. Now as a foreign student in the International Exchange College of the university, she has adopted a Chinese name Xia Ruifu and will spend seven years there, the first two years to be spent learning Chinese and the other five years specializing in Chinese medicine. With her tuition and accommodation fees deducted in full, she is granted state scholarships and subsidized health care, plus a monthly allowance of 800 yuan paid by the university. In return, she resolves to work hard so that, upon her graduation, she will be able to open her own clinic in Lamu and use Chinese medicine to help people in need. Let’s not just give her our best wishes for her academic accomplishment but that of her noble vision – a vision with which to turn a splendid new page in the long-lasting Sino-African friendship!

[1]  Chinese Silk Used in Egypt Three Thousand Years Ago, People’s Daily, April 2, 1993, P. 7

[2]  Xuzhou Museum: Han Dynasty Stone Carving in Xuzhou in Cultural Relics issue No. 2, 1980, P. 550.

[3]  My book: Sino-African Friendly Exchanges in Ancient Times, Commercial Press, October 1985, PP. 5 – 10.

[4]  My writing: Jia Dan’s Overseas Sea Route and Sino-African Relationship in the Tang Dynasty in West Asia and Africa, issue No. 3, 1983.

[5] One liang equals about 40 grams in ancient times in China.

[6] “Baijin” at Song Dynasty could be silver or silver alloy.


[7]  Dao Yi Zhi Lue Jiao Shi (Collation and Interpretation of the Description of the Barbarians of the Isles), Zhonghua Book Company, May 1981.

[8]  Yi Ben·Bai Tu Tai You Ji (Rihla of Ibn Battuta), Ningxia People’s Press, 1985.

[9]  Some scholars believe that “Malin” was where Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, is located today.

[10]  President Hu Jintao’s speech at the banquet held in his honor by Savory, mayor of London, on November 11, 2005, carried in the People’s Daily on November 15, 2005.

[11]  President Hu Jintao’s speech to Mexican Senate on September 12, 2005, carried in the People’s Daily on September 20, 2005.

[12] Ming Shi vol. 332: Xi Yu Zhuan 4 (The History of the Ming Dynasty vol. 332: The Western Territories vol. IV)

[13] Huang Ming Shi Fa Lu, vol. 81.

[14] Ying Ya Sheng Lan Jiao Zhu (Collation and Interpretation of the Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores), Zhonghua Book Company, PP. 53 – 54.

[15] Gong Zhen: Xi Yang Fan Guo Zhi, Zhonghua Book Company, P. 27.

Copyright: Institute of West-Asian and African Studies, CASS

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