Authors: Laurence Bergreen and Sara Fray
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Release Date: Jan. 19/21
Length: 176 pages
Thank you to the debut author Sara Fray, the publisher and Edelweiss + for an eARC copy.
I have never described myself as a nonfiction reader, but lately, I am discovering that I enjoy reading about various explorations. I did not know anything about China’s explorations, but I was about to learn a lot and be fascinated.
Seven Voyages: How China’s Treasure Fleet Conquered the Sea provides readers with some background information about the Yongle Emperor, Admiral Zheng He in charge of the fleet , the construction of the boats and the seven voyages taken with these ships.
The first few chapters introduce Zheng He and the Yongle Emperor and the relationship between the two men. Zheng He, born Ma He was the son of a Muslim family. When Yunnan city was captured, Ma He, now a prisoner, was castrated and became a eunuch (a common practice of the time). Ma He served in Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan’s, household and later became the Yongle Emperor. Ma He became a trusted advisor and soldier to the Prince, and when he usurped his nephew, (the Emperor at that time), Zhu Di, Prince of Yan, became the Yongle Emperor. The new Emperor promoted Ma He to be the Grand Eunuch (the highest possible rank) and gave him his new name, Zheng He.
Learning where the two men came from and how their paths crossed allowed me to see the connections and how they both respected one another despite the class differences. The Yongle Emperor provided Zheng He with some extraordinary opportunities to represent the Emperor and China. In return, Zheng He wanted to represent the Emperor in the best light and not let him down. Throughout the book, it talked about how Zheng He tried to use diplomatic measures rather than force when dealing with other countries or dignitaries.
Knowing nothing about this fleet and little about this time in history, I became enthralled with the building of the Treasure ships themselves. The sheer size of these boats and what they had aboard was simply mind-blowing. The Treasure ships were 450 feet in length, ships that housed horses carry supplies, and transport troops ranged from 165 -339 feet. The illustration that compared the Treasure ship and Columbus ship demonstrated how Columbus’s ships simply dwarfed in size. For years, Emperor Yongle would build over 1 600 of these types of vessels. Each of the seven voyages varied in the number of ships and the size of the personnel. The first voyage had 317 ships and 28 000 crew members. Compare that to Christopher Columbus with three ships and 90 crew or Ferdinand Magellan who had 5 ships and a crew of 257.
The number and size of the ships for the voyages were astonishing, but onboard, those ships are what displayed innovative thinking. The vessels would have not one but two hulls and house water tanks that would hold enough fresh water for the entire crew for thirty days. It had floating gardens to grow food and tanks to keep caught sea life fresh. They used pulleys, adjustable rudders and early forms of the compass, all evidence of Chinese ingenuity.
The Yongle Emperor wanted to dominate not only the seas but establish ports and routes for trading power. Each of the Seven Voyages had a specific purpose and goal and laid a foundation for the subsequent voyages. The voyages also served to transport royalty and dignitaries bearing gifts to and from China. During this time, it was evident that the Chinese dominated when it came to the sea.
I appreciated the maps and illustrations showing the cross-sections of the boats. Despite having those text features, I still had oceanic maps open on my phone to learn more about the routes. I admire the scaffolding of the voyages and the patience and strategy it took to build safe ports and routes. I think readers interested in exploration will find these voyages fascinating. Many (like myself) unfamiliar with this time of exploration will learn a great deal.
Beneficial for readers interested in learning about Chinese exploration of the seas in the early 1400s, there is a great deal to discuss. The implications of ceasing the explorations and how history may have looked very different if the Chinese had continued to use the fleet. This book would be best suited for upper middle-grade readers due to some content explained in a fair amount of detail (concubines and subsequent violence).
Other Books By Laurence Bergreen: Columbus: The Four Voyages, Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu and Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe