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China's Great Armada
JULY 2005
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In Learn More the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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Did You Know?Did You Know?

Zheng He was only one among hundreds of eunuchs in powerful positions at the Ming court.  Since at least the Zhou dynasty (circa 1045-256 B.C.), official records document eunuchs in the service of the Chinese emperor.  By the fall of the Ming dynasty in A.D. 1644 there were more than 100,000 eunuchs living in Beijing, reports Dorothy Perkins in the Encyclopedia of China.
Why so many?  At first eunuchs were in large supply because captured enemies—boys and men—were often castrated, probably to ensure the end of their bloodline.  The procedure was high-risk, involving excision of both penis and testicles.  Many died from the operation or complications afterward, but those who lived often became workers in the imperial harem or the harems of high officials.  Later, castration was used specifically as a way to gain employment at the palace, and courtiers were even required to furnish the Manchu palace with sons to be castrated.  For this elective surgery, more care was taken with the health of the patient—it is claimed that only about two in a hundred cases were fatal.
Since the eunuchs were often the only males in close daily contact with the emperor and top government officials, they gained vast political power and were able to sway the policies of the day.  The Confucian bureaucrats who ran the government were in constant struggle with the eunuchs for supremacy.  Over time, the eunuchs took part in imperial power plays at the highest levels, sometimes even effecting a change of emperor or running the show from behind the throne.  Their power waxed and waned throughout the different dynasties, running strong in the Tang, weaker in the Song, and again quite strong in the Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties.
The last eunuch to serve a Chinese emperor was Sun Yaoting, who served Henry Puyi, the last emperor.  Sun Yaoting passed away in 1996.
For more information on the Chinese imperial eunuchs, click on
—Elizabeth Snodgrass

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Michael Yamashita Photography
Visit this site to view more of photographer Michael Yamashita's work and to find out about upcoming workshops, lectures, and exhibits.

Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu (Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty)
The Ming Shi-lu is "the collective name for the successive Reign annals of the emperors of Ming China (1368-1644). Each of the shi-lu comprises an account of one emperor's reign and was compiled after that emperor's death on the basis of a number of sources created during the reign." The Ming Shi-lu is now available on this website in English translation and is indexed and searchable by Western date, reign date, or specific term.

1492: The Prequel
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times also followed in Zheng He's wake, and wrote an article focusing more heavily on the Kenyan coast.  Interviews with locals from Lamu and Pate enliven tales of their believed ties with China.

Zheng He's Inscription
The University of Minnesota provides here the entire translated text of the stela erected at a temple to the Goddess of the Celestial Spouse at Changle in Fujian province in 1431 as Zheng He's fleet was heading out on its seventh voyage.

The Trilingual Inscription of Admiral Zheng He
Maritime Lanka provides the full translated text of the Dondra Head stela erected in 1411 to commemorate the fleet's visits to Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  The trilingual inscription is now in the National Museum in Colombo; a copy may be found in the Maritime Museum in Galle.

Admiral Zheng He and Pre-colonial Coastal Urban Development in Southeast Asia
This paper, by Indonesian scholar Johannes Widodo, was presented at the inaugural lecture meeting of the Friends of Admiral Zheng He in January 2003.  The paper is an interesting look at existing patterns of settlement and religion in Southeast Asia at the time of Zheng He's voyages, and how the Chinese voyages and following intensification of settlement affected the region.


Goodrich, L. Carrington, and Chaoying Fang, eds. Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644. 2 vols. Columbia University Press, 1976.

Levathes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ma, Huan, and J. V. G. Mills, trans. Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. IV, part 3: Civil Engineering and Nautics. Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Sleeswyk, Andre Wegener. "The Overall Dimensions of Cheng Ho's Largest Ships." Mariner's Mirror (May 2004), 308-10.

Sleeswyk, Andre Wegener. "The Liao and the Displacement of Ships in the Ming Navy." Mariner's Mirror (February 1996), 3-13.

Wade, Geoff. "The Zheng He Voyages: A Reassessment." ARI Working Paper, No. 31. Asia Research Institute, October 2004. (

Wilson, Samuel M. "The Emperor's Giraffe." Natural History (December 1992).

Xi, Longfei, and D. W. Chalmers. "The Rise and Decline of Chinese Shipbuilding in the Middle Ages." International Journal of Maritime Engineering. The Royal Institution of Naval Architects, 2004.


NGS Resources

Stewart, Robert. Mysteries of History. National Geographic Books, 2003.

Hessler, Peter. "
The New Story of China's Ancient Past." National Geographic (July 2003), 56-81.

Hessler, Peter. "
Chasing the Wall." National Geographic (January 2003), 2-33.

Topping, Audrey. "China's Incredible Find: The First Emperor's Army." National Geographic (April 1978), 440-459.

Cardwell, Robert. "Pirate-Fighters of the South China Sea." National Geographic (June 1946), 787-96.

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