Zeng He’s Ships

Zheng He's first trip across the Indian Ocean was with a fleet of 60 massive galleons, or "junks." They were 10 times the size of Columbus's Santa Maria and were far more technologically advanced (public domain).

The Chinese description of Zheng He's greatest ships boggle the imagination: "The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses. When their sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky." If the estimates of the size of these great ships are accurate, they would qualify as the greatest wooden ships ever built.

Because the Chinese destroyed all records of the great treasure ships, the descriptions are hard to verify. However, in 1962 archaeologists found the rudderpost of a treasure ship in the ruins of a shipyard in Nanjing. This timber was 10 metres long, from which we can estimate that it was meant for a ship with a hull of 150 metres.

In 1973, archaeologists found a smaller vessel at Quanzhou. This double-masted ship probably sank sometime in the 1270s. It had 13 compartments and an exotic cargo of spices and fragrant woods, much of it originating in East Africa. The Quanzhou wreck suggests that over a century before Zheng He's fabled voyages, the Chinese were already involved in ambitious trading exploits across the Indian Ocean.

If the estimates of the size of Zheng He's largest junks are accurate, they would easily dwarf the largest ships of the European "Age of Exploration." Chinese ships were also technologically advanced, with watertight compartments, efficient "lugsails" that enabled them to steer close to the wind, and balanced rudders that did not appear on European vessels for hundreds of years.

Learn more: Zheng He's Voyages of Discovery