This year marks the 603rd anniversary of the western voyages of China's great maritime explorer, Zheng He, who between 1405 and 1433 led huge fleets of Chinese sailing ships on seven transoceanic expeditions.

The expeditions, which reached as far as the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa, were unprecedented in the history of maritime exploration.

Details about the voyages and the ability of this great Chinese maritime explorer are being displayed until August 10 at St James Cavalier, in Valletta. Organised by the China Cultural Centre of Valletta and called Envoy Of Peace From China: Zheng He's Great Voyages (1405-1433), the exhibition includes replicas of contemporary maritime instruments and copies of porcelain ornaments and utensils.

During his time as a trusted friend of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, Zheng He came into contact with the highest echelons of China's ruling class, greatly expanding his knowledge. In recognition of his extraordinary abilities and loyal service, the emperor chose him from among his most trusted advisors as the ideal commander for the western voyages.

His voyages marked the beginning of the age of maritime exploration in both East and West. Undertaken before the invention of any type of mechanical propulsion and into largely uncharted waters, his voyages were exceptional feats.

Among the European explorers who followed Zheng He were Vasco Da Gama, who sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India; Christopher Columbus, who reached the Americas; and Ferdinand Magellan, the first mariner to circumnavigate the globe (1519-1522).

Zheng He's fleets were several dozen times larger than those of Columbus and Da Gama, as were his individual ships and crews. Each of Zheng He's voyages launched a fleet of over 200 ships.

His fleets consisted of treasure ships, horse ships, supply ships, staff ships and guarding ships, with the largest being 140 metres long and 57 metres wide.

The treasure ships were the largest. The average treasure ship had a loading capacity of 800 tons with the largest able to carry 1,500 tons. The term "treasure ship" came to be used as a general term for all the ships in Zheng He's fleet, regardless of size or type.

In comparison, Columbus's first voyage from Spain to the Americas in 1492 consisted of only three ships.

The largest of these, the Santa Maria, which could carry 120 tons, was only 34 metres long. Columbus's smaller ships, the Nina and the Pinta, could carry 50 and 60 tons respectively. His largest fleet consisted of 17 ships, with the largest having a loading capacity of about 200 tons.

Despite the historical limitations of his time, Zheng He's fleet fearlessly undertook seven voyages over the course of 30 years, peacefully transmitting Chinese culture to peoples of distant lands.

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