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July 2005

Chinese chart of the Indian Ocean, early 15th century

Chinese chart of the Indian Ocean, early 15th century

Nearly 600 years ago in China, from 1405 to 1433, during the early Ming Dynasty, Emperors Yongluo and Xuande dispatched Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) on seven international voyages into the Indian Ocean in order to showcase military might and to advance trade. These voyages traveled mainly to ports and lands between China and Zanzibar on the East African coast, and, perhaps, as far south as Kerguelen Island in the Indian Ocean. The size of the Chinese fleets varied, with the largest reported at well over 200 ships and a crew of 28,000. Filled with silk, porcelain, and lacquerware, the Chinese visited ports around the Indian Ocean to trade with Arab and African merchants who had spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods, and pearls eagerly sought by the Chinese imperial court. A number of travel books by participants in the voyages have survived, including Gong Zhen's Xiyang fanguo zhi (Record of Foreign Countries of the Western Ocean), 1434; Ma Huan's Yingya shenglan (Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores), 1435; and Fei Xin's Xing cha shenglan (The Overall Survey on the Star Raft), 1436.

A chart in 40 sheets and 4 navigational aids contemporaneous with Zheng He's voyages have been preserved in the Wu bei zhi (Treatise on military preparations) compiled about 1621 by Mao Yuanyi (1594-ca 1641). Mao's chart depicts a voyage from Nanjing to the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and to the East African coast. In his preface to the map in Section 240 of the Wu bei zhi, Mao Yuanyi made it clear that the chart depicted Zheng He’s voyage. It has been suggested that the chart and the aids date to Mao Yuanyi's grandfather, Mao Kun (1512-1601), who was a member of an admiral's staff. It is believed that the chart is the work of a cartographer and his assistants who compiled it from an earlier manuscript, closer to the period of the early 15th century voyages. Although the chart provides no scale indication, notes give compass directions and sailing times for routes between various locations. Orientation changes as one moves across the map.

The Geography and Map Division scanned the chart from the original copy of the Wu bei Zhi, located in the collection of the Asian Division, Library of Congress.

A number of countries have planned programs in the summer of 2005 in honor of the 600th anniversary of Zheng He=s voyages. Singapore has a variety of celebrations from June to August 2005 including the "Maritime Asia and the Chinese Overseas (1405-2005)", conference, August 18-20, and Hong Kong (along with China Mainland and Macau Post) will issue on June 28 a set of special stamps commemorating the voyages.

Library of Congress, 2005