Treasure ship

Treasure ship

A Treasure ship is the name for a type of large wooden vessel commanded by the Chinese admiral Zheng He on seven voyages in the early fifteenth century. Scholars dispute about the factual accuracy and correct interpretation of accounts of the treasure ships.

The purported dimensions of these ships at 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide) are at least twice as long as the largest European ships at the end of the sixteenth century and 40 per cent longer and 65 per cent wider than the largest wooden ships known to have been built at any time anywhere else

Accounts of treasure ships

The modern understanding of the ships derive from empirical and theoretical knowledge of the technical limitations of wooden sailing ships, historical Chinese records and accounts from European travelers who visited China around this time. However, there is debate amongst scholars about how these records should be interpreted. Some accounts suggest that treasure ships may have first appeared as early as the Song dynasty (宋朝) (960-1279). The modern analysis of the shape and structure of these ships are based on the contemporary Tian Fei Jing (The Worship of the Celestial Spouse) and the Wu Bei Zhi (The Records of Armanents and Military Provisions)

If the accounts can be taken as factual, Zheng He's treasure ships were mammoth ships with nine masts, four decks, and were capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, as well as a massive amount of cargo. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1000 passengers in their translated accounts. Niccolò Da Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness of ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen 5 masted junks weighing about 2000 tons Zheng He's fleet included 300 ships, including 62 treasure ships, with some which were said to have been 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft) wide. There are even some sources that claim some of the treasure ships might have been as long as . On the ships, there were over 28,000 people, including navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, and soldiers.

Chinese records assert that Zheng He's fleet sailed as far as East Africa. However, the amateur historian Gavin Menzies has controversially argued that the fleet went on to reach the New World, landing on islands off the Florida coast more than half a century before Christopher Columbus.


Some scholars argue that it is highly unlikely that Zheng He's ship was in length, some estimating that it was 390-408 feet long and 160-166 feet wide instead while others put them as 200-250 feet in length . , since in later historical periods ships approaching the extreme sizes claimed for the treasure ships (such as HMS Orlando and the schooner Wyoming) were unwieldy and visibly undulated with the waves, even with steel braces. According to many advocates, the actual length of the ships has been estimated to as short as 59 m (~200 feet), about half the length of previous claims One explanation for the seemingly inefficient size of these colossal ships was that the largest 44 Zhang Treasure Ships were merely used by the Emperor and imperial bureaucrats to travel along the Yangtze for court business, including reviewing Zheng He's expedition fleet. The Yangtze river, with its calmer waters, may be sailable for these Treasure Ships. Zheng He, a court eunuch, would not have the privilege in rank to command the largest of these ships, seaworthy or not. The main ships of Zheng He's fleet were instead 6 masted 2000-liao ships. This would give it a a burthen of 500 tons and a displacement tonnage of about 800 tons


One of the few other references to Zheng He's fleet, besides written sources, was an actual rudder post found in the site of a Ming shipyard near Nanking during 1962. It was long and in diameter, and a rudder attachment length of . Two more of similar length were found in 2004 . Assuming the usual Chinese 7/6 length-breadth proportions for the rudder blade, this means an area of at least . Based on the size of the rudder, Chou Shih Teh estimates the size of the real ship to be 480 to . . Other scholars estimate the size to be 200-250 feet, also based on the size of the rudder , while still others claim that the excavated rudders only belonged to 2000-liao "small sized" Treasure Ships .

Fate of the treasure ships

Zheng He returned from his voyages to find a change of dynasty. The new culture turned inwards.

After Zheng He's voyages, the treasure ships were decommissioned, and sat in harbours until they rotted away. Some suggest that Confucian scholars ordered that many of the treasure ships be burned. Chinese craftsmen subsequently lost the technology of building such large vessels.

Popular culture

The story of the treasure ships has captured popular imagination, both in China and in the West. In fact, a replica of a treasure ship is being built in Nanjing and is planned to be completed in time for the 2008 Olympic Games.

WizKids' Pirates of the Spanish Main constructible strategy game contains three Treasure Ship game pieces: the Baochuan, a convention-exclusive game piece available in 2005 as a tie-in to the Pirates of the South China Seas expansion; and the "Guichuan", a promotional game piece available in late 2005 as an incentive to buy the Pirates of Davy Jones' Curse expansion. The third is the "Zeus", again an incentive to buy the Pirates at Ocean's Edge expansion.


External links

Further reading

  • Traditions and Encounters - A Global Perspective on the Past by Bentley and Ziegler.

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