A Chinese treasure ship (Chinese: 宝船; pinyin: bǎochuán) was a type of large wooden ship in the fleet of admiral Zheng He, who led seven voyages during the early 15th-century Ming Dynasty. Scholars disagree about the factual accuracy and correct interpretation of accounts of the treasure ships. The modern view of Zheng He treasure ships is that they are of 2 classes of different size: One class measuring 2000 liao with a length of 52.62 m and a width of 11.32 m, and the other measuring 5000 liao with a length of 70.75 m and a width of 15.24 m. Christopher Wake argued that the 5,000 liao ships were not used until after the 3rd voyage, when the voyages were extended beyond India.
The modern understanding of the ships derives from empirical and theoretical knowledge of the technical limitations of wooden sailing ships, historical Chinese records and accounts from European travelers who visited China around this time. However, there is debate amongst scholars about how these records should be interpreted. Some accounts suggest that treasure ships may have first appeared as early as the Song dynasty (960–1279). The modern analysis of the shape and structure of these ships is based on the contemporary Tian Fei Jing (The Worship of the Celestial Spouse) and the Wubei Zhi (The Records of Armaments and Military Provisions).
If the accounts can be taken as factual, Zheng He's treasure ships were mammoth ships with nine masts and four decks, capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, as well as a massive amount of cargo. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta in their translated accounts described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1000 passengers. Niccolò Da Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness of ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen 5 masted junks weighing about 2000 tons. Zheng He's fleet included 300 ships, including 62 treasure ships, some of which were said to have been 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft) wide. There are even some sources that claim some of the treasure ships might have been as long as 180 m (600 ft). On the ships, there were more than 28,000 people, including navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, and soldiers. Chinese records assert that Zheng He's fleet travelled extensively, sailing as far as East Africa.
The Treasure Ships were recorded to have a size of 44 zhang, 4 chi, i.e. 444 chi. This was no coincidence. There are four cardinal directions, four seasons, and four virtues. The number four was an auspicious association for treasure ships Some of the drydocks at Longjiang were 27 to 36 m (90 to 120 feet) wide, but two were 64 m (210 feet) wide, which is big enough to build a 50 m (166-foot) wide ship. Compared with other ships, treasure ships were wide in ratio to their length as typical with fuchuan. As a result, they achieved stability created by the V-shaped hull, the long keel, and the heavy ballast. The keel consisted of wooden beams bound together with iron hoops. In stormy weather, holes in the prow would partially fill with water when the ship pitched forward, thus lessening the violent turbulence caused by waves. Treasure ships also used floating anchors cast off the sides of the ship in order to increase stability. The stern had two 2.5 m (8 foot) iron anchors weighing over a thousand pounds each, used for mooring offshore. Like many Chinese anchors, these had four flukes set at a sharp angle against the main shaft. Watertight compartments were also used to add strength to the treasure ships. The ships also had a balanced rudder which could be raised and lowered, creating additional stability like an extra keel. The balanced rudder placed as much of the rudder forward of the stern post as behind it, making such large boats easier to steer. Unlike typical fuchuan, the treasure ships had nine staggered masts and twelve square sails, increasing its speed. Treasure ships also had 24 cast-bronze cannons with a maximum range of 240 to 275 m (800–900 feet). However, treasure ships were considered luxury ships rather than warships. As such, they lacked the fuchuan's raised platforms or extended planks used for battle.
Some scholars argue that it is highly unlikely that Zheng He's ship was 140 metres (460 ft) in length, some estimating that it was 110–124 m (390–408 feet) long and 160–166 feet wide instead  while others put them as 61–76 m (200–250 feet) in length, since in later historical periods ships approaching the extreme sizes claimed for the treasure ships (such as HMS Orlando and the schooner Wyoming) were unwieldy and visibly undulated with the waves, even with steel braces.
From a shipbuilding and engineering point of view, the claimed size is very odd, as this size exceeds that of wooden ships built after 1800, after the industrial revolution. The European wooden ship approaching this size, HMS Warrior (1860), has a total length of 128 m, it required iron reinforcement and bracings in its construction. Wood, with much weaker mechanical properties than metal, would not be able to withstand the stresses and torsion caused by the waves of the ocean, and large wooden ships would break. Beyond a certain size (about 300 ft or 91.44 m long) a wooden ship is structurally unsafe.
The largest wooden ship ever verified, Wyoming (1909), was a 6-masted schooner, having an LOA of 137 meters and a LOD of 107 m. It was designed in an age where naval architecture has evolved into a science, not just a craft. Due to its extreme length and wooden construction, Wyoming tends to flex in high waves, which will cause the long boards to twist and bend, allowing seawater to enter the hold. Wyoming had to use pumps to keep its cargo space relatively free of water. In March 1924, she ran aground on the high seas and sank, losing all crew.
The claimed dimensions come from Ming Shi (1739), which itself was taken from the fantasy novel Sanbao Taijian Xia Xiyang Ji Tongsu Yanyi (1597). The two records are not contemporaneous to the voyage of Zheng He, reducing the credibility of the stated dimensions. Ming Shi, which is the official historical record of the Ming Dynasty, has been questioned for taking the dimensions of a fantasy novel, which is not suitable as a historical source.
In addition, from other Ming Dynasty records, the European galleon/east Indiaman (Jia Ban Chuan (夾板船/甲板船)) was recorded at 30, 40, 50, and 60 zhang (90, 120, 150, and 180 m) in length. In fact, galleons have an average length of 40-50 m. This shows that the Chinese records at that time tended to overestimate.
From the Chinese records, large ships are relatively unfavorable. The ship's large size made it too difficult to operate and was often criticized by envoys. The Ming Dynasty Navy preferred to use smaller and relatively flexible battleships, which were only 8 and 9 zhang (24-27 m) long. According to the "Zhejiang Full Military System" at that time people considered that 400 ships with a length of 8-9 zhang were "big ships", they are said to be "as tall as a building, could accommodate a hundred people... Arrows and stone artillery all attacked, and small enemy ships are approaching." It would be easy to sink pirates, and the enemy is difficult to attack from behind (which is usually tall). This is an advantage in naval battles.
Because they are built and based in Nanjing, and repeatedly sail along the Yangtze river (including in winter, when the water is low), their draft cannot exceed 7-7.5 m. It is also known that Zheng He's fleet visited Palembang in Sumatra, where they needed to cross the Musi river. We do not know whether Zheng He's ships sailed as far as Palembang, or whether they waited on the shore in the Bangka Strait while the smaller ships sailed at Musi; but at least the draft of the ship that reaches Palembang should not be more than 6 m.
One explanation for the alleged size of these colossal ships was that the largest 44 Zhang treasure ships were merely for a display of imperial power by the Emperor and imperial bureaucrats on the Yangtze River when on court business, including when reviewing Zheng He's actual expedition fleet. The Yangtze River, with its calmer waters, may have been navigable for such large but unseaworthy ships. Zheng He would not have had the privilege in rank to command the largest of these ships. The largest ships of Zheng He's fleet were the 6 masted 2000-liao ships. This would give burthen of 500 tons and a displacement tonnage of about 800 tons.
Zheng Ming and Chuan Dandan estimated the size of Zheng He's treasure ship based on calculation done by Zheng Ming, and by estimating liao figures in Ningbo Fuzhi and Longjiang Shipyard Records.
|1500 liao ship||Ma chuan or horse ship||15.34 zhang (47.71 m)||3.3 zhang (10.26 m)||1.34 zhang (4.17 m)|
|2000 liao ship||Second-class baochuan or treasure ship||16.92 zhang (52.62 m)||3.64 zhang (11.32 m)||1.48 zhang (4.6 m)|
|5000 liao ship||First-class baochuan or treasure ship||22.75 zhang (70.75 m)||4.9 zhang (15.24 m)||1.98 zhang (6.16 m)|
The story of the treasure ships has captured popular imagination, both in China and in the West. In fact, a 233.3-foot (71.1 m) replica of a treasure ship was announced in 2006 to be completed in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. In 2010, the press showed some pictures of the replica of this size in the process of construction in Nanjing. The ship is to be ready for sailing by 2013.
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- Traditions and Encounters - A Global Perspective on the Past by Bentley and Ziegler.
- When China Ruled the Seas: Treasure Fleets of the Dragon Throne by Louise Levathes
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