The Chinese History Podcast
New Perspectives on the Zheng He Voyages: A Conversation with Sean Cronan

New Perspectives on the Zheng He Voyages: A Conversation with Sean Cronan

November 25, 2021

In this episode, Sean talks about some of the new scholarships and perspectives on the famous Zheng He voyages. Zheng He is widely known to history as the eunuch admiral who led several large-scale voyages to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. For many Chinese, the story of Zheng He and his travels to the Indian Ocean (鄭和下西洋) is often seen as a symbol of China's friendship and diplomatic and commercial engagement with Southeast Asian, the Indian Ocean, and east African polities. For many in the West, Zheng He's voyages represent a period in time when China dominated the maritime world. But for both Chinese and Western audiences, the end of the voyages in the 1430s marked the end of China's engagement with the maritime world and is often viewed as the Ming's turn towards isolationism. However, new scholarships have emerged challenging this narrative. Sean discusses how these scholarships have led us to reevaluate the Zheng He voyages and what we can learn about the early Ming and early Ming diplomacy from them.

Disclaimer: We apologize for some of the audio issues in this episode. A few parts may sound a bit distorted.

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Sean Cronan


Sean Cronan is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. His work focuses on East and Southeast Asian diplomatic encounters from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries, tracing the development of new shared diplomatic norms following the Mongol conquests of Eurasia, as well as how rulers and scholar-officials in the Ming (1368- 1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911) institutionalized and challenged these new norms. He explores how ideas of multipolarity, regime legitimacy, and the makeup of the interstate order came under debate throughout the Mongol Empire, Ming China, the Qing Empire, Chosŏn Korea, Dai Viet (Northern Vietnam), Japan, the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Thailand, the Pagan Kingdom of Burma, and beyond. He works with sources in Chinese (literary Sinitic), Japanese, Thai, Burmese, Manchu, and Dutch.

Yiming Ha


Yiming Ha is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His current research is on military mobilization and state-building in China between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on how military institutions changed over time, how the state responded to these changes, the disconnect between the center and localities, and the broader implications that the military had on the state. His project highlights in particular the role of the Mongol Yuan in introducing an alternative form of military mobilization that radically transformed the Chinese state. He is also interested in military history, nomadic history, comparative Eurasian state-building, and the history of maritime interactions in early modern East Asia. He received his BA from UCLA and his MPhil from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


Episode No. 2

Release date: November 13, 2021

Recording location: Los Angeles/Berkeley, CA


Bibliography courtesy of Sean and Yiming


Cover Image: Statue of Zheng He in Malacca, Malaysia (Image Source)

A map of Zheng He's voyages (Image Source).

Zheng He's treasure ship vs. Columbus's ship. Photograph by Lars Plougmann (Image Source).

Another model of one of Zheng He's treasure ships. The Hong Kong Science Museum (Image Source).

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant 瑞應麒麟圖 (1414) by Shen Du (沈度, 1357–1434), currently held in the National Palace Museum in Taipei (Image Source).

Select Bibliography

Danjō Hiroshi 檀上寬. Mindai kaikin=chōkō shisutemu to Kai chitsujo 明代海禁=朝貢システムと華夷秩序  [The Ming Maritime Ban = The Tributary System and the Sino-Barbarian Order]. Kyōto: Kyōto Daigaku Gakujutsu Shuppankai, 2013.
Li, Kangying. The Ming Maritime Trade Policy in Transition, 1368 to 1567. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010.
Lo, Jung-pang. China as a Sea Power, 1127-1368: A Preliminary Survey of the Maritime Expansion and Naval Exploits of the Chinese People. Edited by Bruce A. Elleman. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012.
Sen, Tansen. "The Impact of Zheng He’s Expeditions on Indian Ocean Interactions." Bulletin of SOAS, 79, 3 (2016): 609-636
______. "Zheng He’s Military Interventions in South Asia, 1405–1433." China and Asia Vol. 1 (2019): 158-191.
Tsai, Henry Shih-shan. Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015.
Wade, Geoff. "The Zheng He Voyages: A Reassessment," Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 78, No. 1 (288) (2005): 37-58.
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