Zheng He’s sailing to West Ocean

Sep 2007 | Comments Off on Zheng He’s sailing to West Ocean

3.6 Provisions

Provisions were fundamental and critical for sustaining the long voyages at sea. The staple foods – Soya beans, wheat, millet and rice – were carried in separate grain ships, enabling a fleet to stay at sea for several months without replenishing supplies. Soya beans, grown in tubs all year round, were used in several ways. Soaked in water, they sprouted yellow curls from the green bean. The sprouting process increased the content of ascorbic acid, riboflavin and nicotinic acid, the basis of vitamin C, and protected the crew from the deficiency disease scurvy. The Chinese know well the dangers of scurvy and the remedies to prevent it. Enough citrus fruits – limes, lemons, oranges, pomelos and coconuts – were taken aboard to give every man protection against the disease.

Some of the rice was brown, not polished, and the husks contained vitamin B1. As a result, beriberi – a disease causing degeneration of the nervous system – was rare among the crew. Fresh vegetables mainly comprised cabbages, turnips and bamboo shoots. When they ran out, the sprouting soya beans were particularly valuable. Soya beans also produced “mike”. When boiled, it became curd, or tofu, rich in vitamin D, while fermentation of soya produced soy sauce. Tofu and vegetables were flavoured with a sauce made from fermented fish, soy, dried herbs and spices, or glutamate made by chewing wheat flour. The grains were chewed, spat out into a container and left to ferment. The method is still used in South America today. Noodles, pasta, and dumplings were also made from wheat flour. Sugar cane was used to sweeten dried fruit and was also chewed raw by the crew.

Fruit and vegetables were preserved in ingenious ways. Fruit was dried or caramelized, pears, bamboo shoots and grapes were buried in sand, and vegetable was salted, pickled and marinated in vinegar and sugar. Meat was limited, for the most part comprising Chinese pigs, dogs bred for purpose and frogs kept in tubs. Chickens were kept for divination and were never eaten on board, but fresh, salted, dried and fermented fish were plentiful. They were caught by the trained otters, working in pairs to herd shoals into nets, and by an array of hooks and nets. They crew drank green oolong and red tea, carried in both leaf and cake form, and rice wine was hugely popular.

Wine was also distilled into liqueurs, brandy and vinegar. The junks required huge quantities of fresh water for crew and horse and replenished their tanks whenever an opportunity arose, but they also knew how to distil it from seawater, using paraffin wax or seal blubber for fuel. Their capacity to desalinate seawater and the fresh vegetable they carried gave them the ability to cross the broad oceans.


Zheng He’s expedition scores perpetual contribution to the politics, economy, and culture, external contacts of the ancient China, as well as the world civilizations and other expeditions followed. It helped China know the world in ancient time (Fig 8). It has turned to be a spiritual wealth and an excelling cultural legacy of China and even of the world.


Figure 8. 1763 Chinese map of the world, claiming to incorporate information from a 1418 map. Discovered in Shanghai by Liu Gang in 2001

According to Menzies (2003), Magellan never claimed to be the first man to have circumnavigated the world; never the less, he was still in an amazing feat. Magellan, Dias, da Gama and Cabral were very skilful navigators and seamen; they were also brave and resolute men with awesome qualities of leadership, but not one of them actually discovered “New Lands”. When they set sail, each one of them had a chart showing where he was going. All their “discoveries” had been made nearly a century earlier by the Chinese. Nor did Christopher Columbus ‘discover’ the Americas. Far from setting sail full of fear that his fleet might fall off the edge of the world, he knew where he was going, as can be seen in excerpts from his logs when he was still in mid-Atlantic. Since that Vasco da Gama was not the first to sail to India round the Cape of Good Hope, that Christopher Columbus did not discover America, that Magellan was not the first to circumnavigate the world, why they deserve these glories? Because they were on the shoulders of giants! All the charts they used contain information that can only have come from cartographers aboard the pioneering Chinese fleets.

Unlike conquering other nation, collecting treasure or expanding territory, peace and amicability are Zheng He’s spirit. In undertaking the ocean-going voyages, Zheng He pursued a policy of peace as laid down in the imperial edict, which said: “you may go the way of the heavenly kingdom, strictly abide by words, keep in bounds, and refrain from bullying the weak and share peace and happiness in the world”  (Information Office of Fujian Province 2005). Through the voyages, Zheng He safeguarded peace, sowed the seeds of amicability/friendship and deepened the understanding of the people of other countries.

As a friendly envoy of the Chinese people, Zheng He got on quite well with the local people. During his voyages, group after group of foreign envoys and business people came to China and more and more Chinese went down the seas to seek a living outside China and they got melt into the local communities.

Zheng He treated countries with a relatively backward economy and culture equally and spread the civilization of the Chinese nation, thus contributing to the cultural exchange and mutual understanding between China and foreign countries. Many neighbouring countries sent their envoys to China. In some countries, even the kings went in person to China to conduct exchanges. The kings of the kingdoms of Sulu and Borneo all headed their ministers and other official to China to learn. When the King of Sulu died in China, the Ming government buried him with a ceremony.

According to statistics, there were 90 diplomatic missions coming to visit China during the period of Emperor Zhu Di alone. During the more than 30 years, 292 Asian and African countries sent 400 diplomatic missions to China, with each mission making up of 60-70 people or even as many as 500-600 people. Historical records show that in the 21st year of the reign of Emperor Zhu Di, a diplomatic mission of more than 12000 people came to visit China (Information Office of Fujian Province 2005).


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