They were greatest explorers of their era. One intrepid ambassador struck out west, across the Jade Gate, and stayed so long that he was imprisoned and married before coming home. The other sailed everywhere, in giant ships that dwarfed the little caravels that the Europeans had invented. He left a trail of sailing charts, reports, and temples all across the Indian Ocean.
At the end of the alphabet are two important Chinese explorers, ones who “discovered” the trading routes, over land and sea, which helped carve out where east and west might exchange their goods: the silk, the frankincense, the pepper, and the ideas.
The stories of these explorers seem to be the perfect bookends to wrap up 26 A to Z posts about this amazing time and geography known as the Silk Road.
Zhang Qian: Diplomat, Adventurer, First Out on the Road
Zhang Qian was an officer (and a gentleman) from the northwest Shaanxi province during the Han dynasty in roughly 140 BCE. He was dispatched by Emperor Wu as ambassador to negotiate with people in central Asia, in Tajikistan. But Zhang had to pass through the lands of the Xiong Nu, the nomadic warriors who had been the thorn in the side of the Chinese for centuries. He was imprisoned by the Xiong Nu for thirteen years, but eventually gained their trust, married a nomadic wife, and after plenty of adventures, returned home to China.
Zhang was sent out on a second mission to seek out the goods from northern India, and a third to connect with others across Bactria and the steppes. While he didn’t always find what he was looking for, he returned with detailed notes. His reports were chronicled by one of the great first historians, Sima Qian. Although Zhang hung out with the Bactrians, he was one of the first to note that there were also one-humped camels farther to the west. He also spoke of elephants, and their handlers in the swampy land to the southwest. While he never got all the way to the lands below the Caspian, he was aware of what was out there:
Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) is situated several thousand li west of Anxi (Arsacid territory) and borders the Western Sea” (which could refer to the Persian Gulf or Mediterranean). It is hot and damp, and the people live by cultivating the fields and planting rice… The people are very numerous and are ruled by many petty chiefs. The ruler of Anxi (the Arsacids) give orders to these chiefs and regards them as vassals.Adapted from Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).
His adventures on land and over rivers gave him a legendary status, so much so that artists wrote poems and created images of him, Odysseus-like in the centuries to come. The Met has a Japanese painting from the 16th century that brings to life a “Yuan-dynasty poem that tells of [Zhang] riding a log raft to the source of the Yellow River, only to find himself floating in the Milky Way.”
Zheng He: Out on the Oceans Before the Other Navigators
While Zhang Qian was the most famous Chinese explorer of their earliest history, Zheng He was a dominant explorer of their history of the late medieval era–“the greatest sailor in Chinese history” to some minds. Zheng rose to prominence during the Ming dynasty, which overthrow the Mongol Yuan empire, although Zheng himself claimed ancestry from one of the Muslim governors of Southern China during the Mongol reign. He was also a eunuch, castrated as a teenager because he was seen as related to those who had opposed the Ming uprising.
However, while he was enslaved to the Prince of Yan province, he rose in the military ranks and eventually became a trusted and favored commander as the young prince rose to become emperor. Zheng as an adult stood seven chi tall, which meant far above six feet, and he was said to have a “voice as loud as a bell.” Once Zheng had helped the Prince become the Emperor Zhu Di, he was entrusted with being Grand Director of the Directorate of Palace Servants, in 1402. Then he was let loose to go find stuff on the ocean.
The Chinese trading ships of the day were massive, with multiple masts and holding some 500 to 1000 sailors. They made the caravels of Columbus and the Portuguese seem minuscule in comparison.
Unlike some of the small European three or four-ship caravans that explored the oceans, Zheng went out with a navy in tow. There were these giant “treasure ships,” equine ships (that carried horses, naturally), warships, and supply ships that went with him. But although this was a giant show of force, Zheng was looking to trade. There were six expeditions that ventured forth between 1407 and 1433, exploring routes and dominating the oceans where they sailed. At the time, the Ming dynasty ruled their part of the seas, with Zheng at its helm.
The armada didn’t cross the Pacific, but rather focused on creating and maintaing partnerships where they already existed. Zheng He sailed all over the Eastern Pacific, Indian Ocean, and coasts of Asia Minor and Africa. These would later be the paths that the Portuguese traders took in the other direction, sailing east from the European side. It’s likely that the Ming dynasty and Henry the Navigator’s favorite sailor friends exchanged goods and ideas.
Zheng also become something of a folk hero among the Chinese who migrated out to Malaysia, Singapore, and other countries throughout the South Pacific. Indonesia commemorated his voyages with a stamp in 2005, and there are temples with his name on it in Java and Vietnam.
One of the most valuable thing he left was his sailing charts. And, like his earlier ancestor-explorer from the Han days of China, Zheng wrote lengthy notes and narratives of his travels:
We have traversed more than 100,000 li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare….Tablet erected by Zheng He in Changle, Fujian, in 1432
Thus, it seems a perfect way to set sail for home on our own journey of the last 26 days. We spent a little time on the ocean, a lot of time on the road, and day after day thinking about what it was like to sway on a camel through the dust of the Taklmakan or grip the flanks of a horse through the steppes and hills of Transoxiana. Zhang Qian helped carve the paths of where we traveled and Zheng He went out again and again, always to come home.
And so shall we. Thanks for joining me on my journey across the Silk Road. I hope you had as much fun as I did