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Exhibition follows the footsteps of Zheng He

More than 60 artefacts and 100 photographs will be displayed at the Hong Kong Museum of History from tomorrow (February 22) to May 15, taking visitors on a voyage with the great Chinese explorer Zheng He.

Jointly presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the National Museum of China, and organised by the Hong Kong Museum of History, the "Sailing West: Admiral Zheng He's Voyages" exhibition provides a unique opportunity to learn more about a remarkable chapter in China's maritime history through Zheng's achievements of 600 years ago.

Given that there are few historical relics left from Zheng's voyages, the artefacts on display in the exhibition are extremely precious. Class-one relics include an 11-metre wooden rudder, remains of the Ming dynasty ship-building yard in Nanjiang, a bronze bell inscribed with Zheng He's name and the famous Buddhist text, "Lotus Sutra". Others are a model of Zheng He's flagship and several books documenting his voyages to the Western Sea.

Zheng He (1371-1433), known as the "Sanbao" Eunuch ("Sanbao" means "three treasures", referring to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), was born Ma He in Kunming, Yunnan Province, to a Hui family. In the 14th year of the Hongwu reign (1382), Zheng was made to serve as a palace eunuch and given the new surname "Zheng". He was promoted to Director of the Directorate of Palace Eunuchs.

Raised in a devout Muslim family, Zheng was also a Buddhist. His dual faiths made him a perfect candidate to visit Buddhist and Islamic countries in Southeast Asia and the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean. Zheng was an intelligent man, proficient in military affairs. But most importantly he had the full confidence of the Emperor, Chengzu (1360-1424) and so was seen as the ideal commander to sail to the West.

The purpose of Zheng's voyages has been a subject of debate among scholars. According to "Ming Shi" (History of the Ming Dynasty), Chengzu sent Zheng to the West to search for the emperor's missing predecessor Huidi (Emperor Jianwen). The emperor also wanted to use the voyages to show off China's military power to foreign countries. Zheng's voyages were also attempts by the Ming Court to boost China's economy, build friendships between the Chinese and foreigners, eradicate the naval remnants of the other uprising leaders of the Yuan dynasty, develop international trade and to establish maritime alliances with foreign countries.

From the third year of the Yongle reign (1405) to the eighth year of the Xuande reign (1433), Zheng led enormous ships on seven voyages to the Western Sea (a term used during the Ming dynasty for the seas and lands west of Kalimantan). Zheng journeyed to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and Africa, travelling as far as the Red Sea and the east African coast and visiting more than 30 places.

Zheng's epic voyages were unparalleled in the history of navigation. They demonstrated the exceptional organisational skills of the Chinese people and the cutting-edge navigational and shipbuilding technologies of the Ming dynasty.

Historical records show that Zheng's biggest treasure ships were 44.4 zhang (ancient Chinese measurement) long and 18 zhang wide, which would mean 125.7 metres long and 51 metres wide. Such a vessel would have been bigger than a football field, with a displacement of 14,800 tons and a capacity of 7,000 tons. Each had nine masts and 12 sails, and could accommodate 1,000 people. The main vessels of Zheng's voyages were the 60 or so large or medium-sized treasure ships. Others included machuan (horse ships) for the quick delivery of supplies, liangchuan (food ships) for carrying victuals, water ships for carrying water and general escort ships. A Zheng He fleet was made up of about 200 ships, which always sailed in a preset order. On each voyage Zheng commanded at least 28,000 men, including the emissary eunuchs, the accounting officers, the medical officers, interpreters, buyers, technicians, civil servants and military officers. The huge entourage was testament to the organisational skills of Zheng and his crewmen.

The admiral was also a skilled navigator. When crossing the Indian Ocean, for example, he identified directions using compasses. He also relied on celestial objects, measuring the angles between the stars and the horizon to determine the positions of his vessels.

Zheng He aside, numerous Muslims participated in the voyages. One was Pu Rihe, a highly knowledgeable navigator. A descendant of Quanzhou Maritime Trade Commissioner Pu Shougeng of the Song dynasty, Pu took part in Zheng's fifth voyage. Other Muslim participants were interpreters Ma Huan and Fei Xin, who joined Zheng on several voyages. When the two returned home, they wrote the books "Yingya Shenglan" (The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores) and "Xingcha Shenglan" (The Overall Survey of the Star Raft) respectively. Both are valuable records of Zheng's voyages.

In 1433, Zheng died during his fleet's seventh voyage and it also meant the end of all voyages to the West. Nevertheless, Zheng's seven voyages significantly consolidated China's international status and prompted many important liaisons between China and other Asian and African nations. Cultural exchanges became more frequent, leading to flourishing trade between Asia and Africa.

As a result of Zheng's voyages, Chinese silks and ceramics were exported to foreign countries in large quantities. East African nations became some of the biggest importers of China's ceramics. Widely used in daily life, the ceramics were also essential for decorating religious buildings and mausoleums. On the other hand, China imported vast amounts of speciality goods and valuable products from Asian and African nations.

Zheng is revered by many people in Southeast Asia. Religious buildings related to the Chinese explorer and his crewmen, including mosques and Buddhist temples, can be found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Cambodia. Commemorative events are regularly held in these religious complexes. To honour the great explorer, China named July 11, the day Zheng set sail to the West, Navigation Day.

The Museum of History is located at 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Monday to Saturday and from 10am to 7pm on Sundays and public holidays. It is closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

For details of the exhibition, please visit the Museum of History's website at or call 2724 9042.

Ends/Tuesday, February 21, 2006

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