Zheng He Treasure Ship - earliest primary sources don't say size

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#1
I stumbled across this article that discusses the plausibility of the Zheng He treasure ships being 450 ft long. It discusses the documents available and one thing it said is that our earliest text for Zheng He don't give the dimensions of the Treasure Ship. It also points out that a number of scholars have said that wooden ships the size of Zheng He would not be feasible.


ZHENG HE: AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE PLAUSIBILITY OF 450-FT TREASURE SHIPS

Sally K. Church
Monumenta Serica
Vol. 53 (2005), pp. 1-43
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/40727457?seq=1/subjects
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#2
While I have long known that number of ship engineers have long said that wooden 450 foot Treasure Ship as reputed for Zheng He was not technologically feasible, I was not aware that the earliest textual evidence did not have the dimensions of he Zhang He Treasure Ships in them.

Per Sally Church in her "Zheng He: An Investigation into the Plausibility if 450-FT Treasure Ships" article:

1. The 3 major first hand reports of Zheng He trips (Ma Huang, Fei Xin, and Gong Zhen) do not reference Treasure Ship dimension in their oldest available copies. For example, the oldest extant edition of Ma Huang text's, the Jilu Huibian published by Shen Jiefu in about 1617, does not have the dimensions of the Treasure Ship in it. Only later editions of Ma Huang's work have the ship dimensions given. Shen Jiefu's edition is thought to be the closest to the first edition published in 1451.

2. A novel about Zheng He's exploit published in 1597, Luo Maodeng"s "Sanbao taijian Xiyang ji", does contain dimension of the Treasure Ships. Some scholars think the vdimensions given for the Treasure Ships came from this novel , which is full of fantastical elements (a divine being helped build the Treasure Ships, for example.) and exaggeration (the total number of ships given for Zheng He voyages is 4 times the number in the historical sources).

3. In an examination of pre 1597 sources, none give the Treasure ship dimensions. An inscription of the voyage in Jinghai temple in Nanjing said Zheng He had ships the size of 2,000 liao in 1405 and 1,500 liao in 1409. The liao is thought to be a unit of capacity weights around 500 lbs, so the ships would have bee 500 and 375 tons. (My note:. For referencs, the infamous East Indiaman Batavia had a tonnage of 650 tons and a legth of 187 ft).

4. Gong Zhen said the crew size of Zheng He ships were 200 to 300. Per Song Li, Minster of 1405 to 1422, a sea going vessels needed a crew of 100 to transport 1,000 piculs of grain (250 tons), which implies 1 man per 2.5 tons. So for Gong Zhen crew size of 300 would imply a ship size of 750 tons. However, Ms. Church points out that the 2.5 tons/man rule was for commercial ships, and that military ships could have significantly larger crews; for example some 100 tons ships having crews of 100, 1 ton/man. (My observation:. Since Zheng He fought pirates , have crew size was more likely to be more like mililary ones than commercial ones, so the 2.5 rule probably over estimates the size of the ships. )

5. As note, a number of experts have said that the 450 ft.dimension of the Treasure Ships were not technicaly feasible for wood ships. Professor of shipbuilding engineering at Shanghai Jiaotong University Xin Yuanou argues 450 ft treasure ships were highly unlikely, and suggest they were more likely 200 to 250 ft.
 

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,774
United States
#3
So is Luo Maodeng's source the one where we get the 450 ft figure from?

Yeah it's pretty clear from all lines of evidence that the oft-repeated dimensions are unreliable and exaggerated. However 200-250 feet is quite large for the time, so their noteworthiness is not overestimated.
 
Mar 2018
756
UK
#4
450ft would make it longer than the longest wooden ship ever built; which was in the 20th century, had metal braces for extra support and steam pumps to keep the water out, and yet was still barely sea worthy: it sank at sea. There are a small number of European ships in the 200-250ft range in the 16th century so it does seem plausible - yet still very impressive - for the Chinese to build things of a similar size in the 15thC
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#5
So is Luo Maodeng's source the one where we get the 450 ft figure from?

Yeah it's pretty clear from all lines of evidence that the oft-repeated dimensions are unreliable and exaggerated. However 200-250 feet is quite large for the time, so their noteworthiness is not overestimated.
Yes, the evidence does seem to indicate that the novel, either directly or indirectly, is the source of the rather fantastical figure of 450 ft.

And, yes, 200 ft would still be impressively large for any wooden ship, the 17th century Swedish Vasa was 226 ft long overall.

(But some of the actually indication indicates Zheng He ships were more like 150 to.200 ft, still very big for the time.

According to Ms. Church article, the first hand accounts, Gomg Zhen's, said Zheng He ships crew sizes were 160 to 300, and a Song official gave figures of 1 sailor per 2.5 tons for sea going grain ships, which implies a size of 750 tons burthen. The Vasa had a displacement of 1200 tons and an overall length of 226 ft; a rule of thumb is that tons burthen is around 3/5 tons displacement, which implies the Vasa would have around 720 tons burthen.

But Zheng He ships, which were expected to fight pirates and take military action, likely had higher crew ratios than for plain commercial grain ships, so the size of the ships indicstdd by Gong Zhen could be somewhat overestimated using a 2.5 ton/man ratio. The Mary Rose also had around 700 tons burthen. Still, solid multiple lines of evidence all point to Zheng He's Treasure Ships being among the biggest wooden warships.afloat, even if not 450 ft).
 

heylouis

Ad Honorem
Apr 2013
6,413
China
#6
this ancient thread is not catching up with state of art researches. in 2010, hong bao's tomb was discovered, inside his tomb, researchers discovered his epitaph on stone, which clear said the leading ships were of 5000 料 (~2000 tons).
the epitaph is one of reliable primary sources, as it will not be mistakenly altered or intentionally altered as written ones on paper.

in 1846, a ship originally intended to serve for tea trade was secretly sold to british, despite made by nongovernmental powers, it reached 800 tons as a full wooden ship. this ship's data is clear and undoubted, as it was also witnessed by queen Victoria
Keying (ship) - Wikipedia
 
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Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,699
Portugal
#7
4. Gong Zhen said the crew size of Zheng He ships were 200 to 300. Per Song Li, Minster of 1405 to 1422, a sea going vessels needed a crew of 100 to transport 1,000 piculs of grain (250 tons), which implies 1 man per 2.5 tons. So for Gong Zhen crew size of 300 would imply a ship size of 750 tons. However, Ms. Church points out that the 2.5 tons/man rule was for commercial ships, and that military ships could have significantly larger crews; for example some 100 tons ships having crews of 100, 1 ton/man. (My observation:. Since Zheng He fought pirates , have crew size was more likely to be more like mililary ones than commercial ones, so the 2.5 rule probably over estimates the size of the ships.
“Song Li, Minster of 1405 to 1422, a sea going vessels needed a crew of 100 to transport 1,000 piculs of grain (250 tons)” is an interesting reference, and I don’t know if we can compare directly, but for the same century and the following one a Portuguese ship or a Spanish one could sail with an inferior ratio, probably not at its best, but that happened with some frequency.

this ancient thread is not catching up with state of art researches. in 2010, hong bao's tomb was discovered, inside his tomb, researchers discovered his epitaph on stone, which clear said the leading ships were of 5000 料 (~2000 tons).

the epitaph is one of reliable primary sources, as it will not be mistakenly altered or intentionally altered as written ones on paper.

in 1846, a ship originally intended to serve for tea trade was secretly sold to british, despite made by nongovernmental powers, it reached 800 tons as a full wooden ship. this ship's data is clear and undoubted, as it was also witnessed by queen Victoria

Keying (ship) - Wikipedia
From 800 tons to 2000 tons goes a bit. Furthermore in the 19th century, 5 centuries later, 800 tons was relatively common, so I don’t think that the 1846 example help us much.
 
Feb 2011
6,462
#9
Tons burthen (cargo capacity) and displacement (ship weight) isn't quite the same. Sally K Church seems to think that for junks, 500 tons burthen equates to 800 tons displacement. So if using the same ratio, the 800 tons burthen of the Keying would equate to 1280 tons displacement. There's also a bigger 19th century junk than the Keying, that is the Tek Sing with a crew of 200 men, 50 meters in length as opposd to the Keying's 45 meters. It was 1000 tons which using Sally K's ratio would equate to 1600 tons in displacement.

Sally K also thinks that a 2000 liao ship equates to 500 tons in capacity and by extension 800 tons in displacement. So by that ratio a 5000 liao ship as described in the relatively newly discovered Hong Bao's tomb would be 1250 tons in capacity and 2000 tons in displacement.

Nicolo de Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He and visitor to South China, did say the following: They doe make bigger Shippes than wee do, that is to say, of 2000 tons, with five sayles, and so many mastes'.

If he's talking about displacement then that matches really well.

An additional problem is that there are different definitions of displacement. Some include only the weight of the ship empty of crew and cargo, other definitions include the weight of both ship and nearly everything/everyone that's contained within it.
 
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Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,699
Portugal
#10
full wooden? not just wooden hulled?
Not sure if I understood your questions. Care to elaborate? What parts are you consider that could be in other material?

A Portuguese nau of the India had in the middle of the 16th century about 600 toneis (a tonel as 1000kg) and 27 meters. There were bigger but quite rarely exceeded the 1000 tóneis, and they loose navigability capabilities as they got bigger. But in the following centuries we saw bigger and bigger ships.

But descriptions like the Madre de Deus (Madre de Deus - Wikipedia) with 1600 tons burden, or the Botafogo (Spitfire) (Botafogo (galleon) - Wikipedia ) with 1000 tons and 366 cannons must be taken with extreme care.
 

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