Amazing ancient Chinese treasure ships
Giant sea-going wooden vessels challenge Ark skeptics
One of the objections Bible skeptics raise against the Genesis account concerns the feasibility of constructing such a large wooden vessel as Noah’s Ark.
They claim that ancient people did not have modern shipbuilding techniques, and so a vessel of such dimensions—300 cubits (137 m, 450 ft) long, 50 cubits (23 m, 75 ft) wide, and 30 cubits (13.7 m, 45 ft) high (Genesis 6:15)1—would not be seaworthy because it would twist, and sag, and break up.
Skeptics also say that it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that wooden vessels of 125 m (400 ft) and upwards began to appear and that this was only because of the technique of using iron strapping.
However, there have been huge wooden ships in the past, such as the 130 m-long Egyptian warship built by Ptolemy Philopator (c. 244–205 BC).2
Furthermore, the size of some of the vessels constructed of wood (teak and bamboo) that the 15th century Chinese imperial fleet used for long sea voyages confirms that shipbuilders had mastered advanced techniques at that time.
From 1405 to 1433, under the command of Admiral Zheng He (formerly romanized as ‘Cheng Ho’), a fleet of up to 300 vessels undertook seven voyages around south-east Asia, India and to ports as far west as Africa. The imposingly tall Zheng was the favoured palace eunuch of the Yongle Emperor, who ordered the voyages.
Known as the Treasure Ships voyages, they were shrouded in mystery for centuries, partly as details of Zheng He’s exploits in the official records in China were lost in a fire. When details began to emerge, doubts were expressed over the size of the Treasure Ships, known as baochuan.3
Records show that as many as 60 of these vessels were 44 zhang long and 18 zhang wide.3 The zhang unit of length was comprised of 10 chi. The length of a chi has varied over time and it’s believed it was about 31.1 cm (12.2 ins) during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). This means that Zheng He’s baochuan would have been between 123 m and 137 m (404–450 feet) long.
Another indication of the construction of enormous vessels was the discovery in 1957 at Longjiang shipyard in Nanjing, China—where the Treasure Ships were built—of a tiller measuring 11 m (36 ft).
The main purpose of Zheng He’s 44-zhang-long Treasure Ships was—as the name suggests—to bring back treasures from foreign states.
Joanna Waley-Cohen, a history professor at New York University who specializes in Chinese history, said the large vessels had nine masts arranged in such a way that they spread out like a fan to catch the wind more effectively.4
The sails were hoisted by pulleys high in the mast and operated by crews on deck, in contrast to European ships on which sailors climbed aloft to deal with the sails.5 Note that a vessel designed to carry such sails would need to be much stronger than Noah’s Ark to cope with the stresses generated by the sails and masts.
The Chinese fleet carried up to 28,000 people as well as food, water, various goods and animals including horses for its fighting men, who several times were called upon to repel attacks.6
Zheng He left his mark in history. In the Indonesian port city of Semarang, the Sam Poo Kong temple was built to honour the Admiral and, in 2005 there were celebrations both in Indonesia and Singapore to mark the 600th anniversary of his voyage to the region. Also, an island off Lamu Archipelago, Kenya, has two villages named for Zheng He, in which some of the population includes descendants of shipwrecked crew from one of the voyages.7
The evidence from six centuries ago that Chinese shipbuilders were constructing enormous seaworthy wooden vessels is no real surprise. We need only to look to the advanced engineering needed to erect pyramids in Egypt and South America thousands of years earlier. If we did not have the pyramids, but only written records of them, the skeptics no doubt would say that the ancients could not have built them—even today engineers struggle to understand how the people of the time cut and moved such large stone blocks.
People in ancient times also had superb navigational skills; the Greeks had a sophisticated device that could compute planetary motions—the ‘Antikythera mechanism’—which some scientists have called an early ‘computer’.8 And the Parthians possibly developed battery power about 2,000 years ago.9
Contrary to what skeptics claim, ancient man was highly intelligent, innovative and creative, just as modern man—descended from Noah and his family—is. In 15th century China, Zheng He sailed enormous wooden ships, larger than those built in Europe hundreds of years later. These Chinese ships were about the same size as the Ark that Noah had built thousands of years before.
References and notes
- The exact measure of a cubit (46 cm or 18 in) to get the size of Noah’s Ark has been a point of debate. See also Lovett, T., Which cubit for Noah’s Ark?, J. Creation 20(3):71–77, 2006; creation.com/ark-cubit. Return to text
- Pierce, L., The large ships of antiquity, Creation 22(3):46–48, 2000; creation.com/huge-ships. Return to text
- Ward, S., Chinese Whispers, academia.edu, November 2006. Return to text
- Waley-Cohen, J., The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History, W.W. Norton, New York, p. 1785, 2000. Return to text
- Ref. 4. Return to text
- Szczepanski, K., Zheng He’s Treasure Ships, asianhistory.about.com, 2014. Return to text
- Anqi, L., Zheng He’s Seven Voyages of Peace—An Earlier Era of Oceanic Exploration, www.rmhb.com.cn, 2014. Return to text
- Scientists unlock mystery of 2,000-year-old computer, CBC News, 30 November 2006. See also Smith, C., Japheth, remember to turn off the computer … , creation.com/antikythera, 22 December 2006. Return to text
- Criswell, D., Ancient civilizations and modern man, Creation 17(2):40–43, 1995; creation.com/ancient-man. Return to text