What were the motivations for exploration for Zheng He of China's Ming's Dynasty?
There are generally said to have been two motivations for the voyages of Zheng He. Neither of them, in contrast to European voyages of exploration, had to do with wealth or actual practical power over any other country.
One motivation for the voyages has to do with internal Chinese politics. Zheng He was working for the Emperor Yung-lo who had taken the throne in a coup. The previous emperor had not been captured but had, instead, run away. It was said that he might have gone to Southeast Asia. It is said that one reason for the voyages was to look for him.
However, this was clearly not the reason for most of the voyages. Zheng He did not spend much time looking for the ex-emperor, and the voyages to Africa were clearly not meant to find him. Instead, these voyages seemed to be meant to show off. They were meant to show the world the power of China. The emperor hoped to get people in other countries to acknowledge his importance and that of his empire. However, this would not mean that they would be ruled by China in fact.
Thus, the voyages of Zheng He were largely about securing prestige for China.
The Ming emperor made Zheng He admiral of a fleet of 317 ships for a series of seven voyages that began in 1405 and ended around 1433. This was sixty years before Portuguese Vasco da Gama sailed around the tip of southern Africa. Zheng He, however, did not discover new trade routes, nor did he sail around Africa's tip. Instead, he travelled along established routes that went around Cambodia, India, and as far west as Ethiopia, in east Africa.
Zheng He's huge fleet was meant to shore up China's prestige as a powerful nation. The emperor also wanted to establish China's dominance over the Indian Ocean and extract tribute from other nations. For that reason, the ships that sailed were sometimes called treasure ships, as they were meant to come home laden with treasures.
Zheng He was able to curtail piracy in the Indian Ocean and impress neighboring countries with China's might. His goal was not to find new trade routes, as that was not the pressing concern for China that it was for Europe, at that time, but to assert China's naval power.
Zheng He’s grandiose expeditions sponsored by the Ming Dynasty, under the leadership of Emperor Zhu Di, were aimed at demonstrating and affirming China’s superiority and power. Emperor Zhu Di wanted to portray the Ming Dynasty as a strong administration to the world. He wanted the recognition mainly to assert authority over China's neighbors and maintain the perception of being a strong country to far-flung regions.
He reinstated the tribute system and to effectively enforce it, he commissioned several voyages and the construction of great ships. Some of these ships, known as “Treasure Ships” measured four hundred feet long and one hundred and sixty feet wide. The ships could carry over 25,000 men and 2,500 tons of cargo, which was an astounding feat at the time. Zheng He organized and went on voyages to as far as the East African Coast with the huge treasure ships. The expeditions affirmed the Ming Dynasty’s prowess in navigation and shipbuilding.