I’d quite forgotten a bit of history when I made my plans for Nanjing, but bits of it came back to me as I looked at the boats cruising the Qinhuai river in front of the Great Spirit Screen (photo above). After the Ming Yongle emperor consolidated his power, his attention turned to the west. The northern Silk Route through Gansu again became active as he began trading with Herat and Samarkand, where Timur’s successor Shahrukh reigned. Although the emperor moved his capital to Beijing, this place became the nucleus of a forgotten but grand era in Chinese history. The admiral Zheng He was ordered to build a fleet and sail down the Yangtze river into the Indian Ocean. The seven voyages took place between 1405 and 1431 CE. This was the first and last time before the 20th century that a Chinese navy ventured so far.
By day and night the lofty sails, unfurled like clouds, continued their star-like course, traversing the savage waves as if they were a public thoroughfare.
— Zheng He’s diaries, quoted by John Keay
What I began to remember in fragments was that the Qinhuai river became the site of one of the greatest shipyards of the 15th century. The shipyard was situated upstream, at the place where the Qinhuai river meets the Yangtze, not far from the present day Yangtzijiang tunnel. I had to look up the details later in the writings of Edward Dreyer. He estimates that the Ming treasure ships were over 130 meters long and with a beam of about 50 meters. Zheng He’s fleets contained between 100 and 300 of these ships, each with a displacement of about 20,000 to 30,000 tons. In comparison, Vasco da Gama’s flag ship, Sao Gabriel, had a length of 27 meters and width of 8.5 meters. His fleet consisted of 4 ships. Ibn Battuta reports seeing treasure ships during his travels. Even troop ships travelling with the fleet were as large as Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, launched in 1765. The engineering achievement of the shipyard of Nanjing was clearly ahead of its time. I wish there was something to see of this great shipyard, but apparently there is nothing.
We stopped at the usual civilizations: Champa, Java, Palembang, Semudera, Atjeh, Pahang, Malacca, the Maldives, Ceylon, Cochin, and Calicut.
— Zheng He’s diaries, about the voyage of 1417-19 CE
Zheng He’s ships visited Qui Nhon in central Vietnam, passed through the Straits of Malacca, anchored in Calicut, and sailed on to Hormuz, Aden, and, once, all the way to Mailindi. The Indian Ocean trade was at its height at this time, and Zheng He’s voyages managed to bring a lot of merchandise back to China. However, many at the court saw the shipyards and voyages as needless expense, and after the Yongle emperor was buried, the shipyards were closed and the voyages were forgotten. A large part of this is ascribed to Chinese factional politics, Confucian scholars and bureaucrats resented the power of the eunuchs, which included Zheng He. It was interesting to spend a few idle moments on the banks of Qinhuai thinking about the path not taken by China. What if there had been an active Chinese navy in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean during the age of Ottoman and European expansion? How different could history have been?