Zheng He was a Chinese explorer, sailor, diplomat, fleet admiral, and court eunuch who lived during the late 14th century and early 15th century, and served the early monarchs of the Ming dynasty. Hailing from a Muslim family from the Yunnan province, he was taken captive by the Ming forces during their invasion of the region. He was castrated when he was either 10 or 14 years old. He then entered the service of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, who eventually ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor. His original name was Ma He. It was Zhu Di who later conferred the surname Zheng to him. Between 1405 and 1433, he led several expeditionary treasure voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa. According to a legend, his larger ships were operated by hundreds of sailors on four decks. They were built twice as long as any wooden ship in recorded history. One of the most trusted advisors of the Yongle Emperor, he helped the other man depose the Jianwen Emperor. Over the course of his career, he became one of the most powerful people in China and was appointed the commander of the southern capital Nanjing.
Childhood & Early Life
Ma He was born in 1371 in Kunyang, Kunming, Yunnan, China, in a Muslim family and grew up with an older brother and four sisters. His father’s name was Ma Hajji; he died during the Ming invasion of the region, which had been controlled by the Mongols before that. His older brother, Wenming, subsequently performed their father’s last rites.
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Captivity, Castration, & the Beginning of Service
In 1381, Ma He was taken captive by the Ming forces. After finding him on the road, General Fu Youde asked him where the Mongol pretender could be found. A defiant Ma He answered that the Mongol pretender had jumped into a lake. Fu Youde then ordered his capture.
According to one source, his castration took place when he was ten years old, while a second source claims that it occurred in 1385 when he was about 14 years old. He was then taken to the household of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, who was 11 years his senior.
In the next few years, he gradually became one of the trusted servants of the prince. Ma He went through much of his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier, fighting the Mongols.
While he was serving in the prince’s household, he was referred to as "Sanbao". During his time in Beiping, he obtained a good education. According to records, he was a large and imposing man as an adult, with seven chi in height and five chi in circumference.
He had high cheekbones and forehead, small nose, glaring eyes, good teeth, and a voice that resonated like a bell. Furthermore, he was a battle-hardened soldier who was well-versed in warfare.
Service in the Ming Military
He played a vital role in the Prince of Yan’s struggle against his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor. The civil war between them, which came to be known as Jingnan Campaign, lasted from 1399 to 1402 and concluded following the apparent death of the Jianwen Emperor and the ascension of Zhu Di as the Yongle Emperor.
The new emperor made Ma He the “Grand Director” of the Directorate of Palace Servants and bestowed upon him the surname "Zheng" on February 11, 1404, for leading the defence of the city reservoir Zhenglunba against imperial forces in the Siege of Beiping in 1399, as well as for his service as a commander during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing.
Zheng He was one of the most prolific figures in the new administration. During his expeditions, he served as the chief envoy. In the ensuing three decades, he embarked on seven voyages as a representative of his emperor, doing trades and gathering tributes in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.
In 1424, he went to Palembang in Sumatra to bestow an official seal and letter of appointment upon Shi Jisun, the newly made Pacification Commissioner. When he eventually came back to China, he found out that the Yongle Emperor had passed away, and his son, the Hongxi Emperor, was on the throne.
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Unlike his father, the Hongxi Emperor was not interested in great voyages and put a stop to them on September 7, 1424.
On February 24, 1425, Admiral Zheng He was posted as the defender of Nanjing. The emperor also instructed him to keep serving as the commander of the treasure fleet for the city's defence.
On March 25, 1428, he along with several others received the order to oversee the rebuilding and repair of the Great Bao'en Temple at Nanjing. The project was finished in 1431.
In 1426, Admiral Zheng He and his associates set in motion a plan in which an official approached the Xuande Emperor to submit a petition asking the court to reward the labourers who had worked on the temple.
The emperor was incensed, as he believed that the workers should be paid by the monks. When he found out that Admiral Zheng He was behind it, he sent him a letter rebuking him for the transgression.
In later years, Admiral Zheng He became a trusted subordinate of the Xuande Emperor. In 1430, he embarked on his seventh and final voyage into the "Western Ocean" (Indian Ocean). A year later, he received the title "Sanbao Taijian", a combination of his informal name Sanbao and title of “Grand Director.”
As an admiral in the Ming navy, Zhang He commanded a huge fleet and armed forces. He embarked on his first expedition on July 11, 1405, from Suzhou, with a fleet of 317 ships carrying almost 28,000 crewmen.
Admiral Zheng He and his men travelled to Brunei, Java, Thailand and Southeast Asia, India, the Horn of Africa, and Arabia, trading gold, silver, porcelain, and silk for exotic animals and ivory. Although he preferred to accomplish his objectives through diplomacy, he did not shy away from violence when he thought it was needed to make an impression on the people of the foreign lands.
The admiral’s sailing charts, the Mao Kun map, were included in the book titled the ‘Wubei Zhi’ (A Treatise on Armament Technology). The book was completed in 1621 and was put out in 1628.
According to traditional and popular accounts, his fleet was comprised of several types of gigantic wooden ships. The Chinese treasure ships carried the commander and his lieutenants, the equine ships transported horses, and the troop transports bore the soldiers. However, their sizes and dimensions have been the subjects of a much-heated debate.
Death & Legacy
Several theories have been proposed throughout the years about his death. One of these speculates that he passed away in 1433, during or shortly after the seventh voyage.
Another claims that Zheng He kept on serving as the defender of Nanjing until his death in 1435. He had a burial at sea. However, a tomb was constructed for him at the southern slope of Cattle Head Hill, Nanjing. Inside the cenotaph, his clothes and headgear were supposedly placed.
For a long time, Zheng He’s voyages were overlooked in China. In 1904, historian Liang Qichao published the book ‘Biography of Our Homeland's Great Navigator, Zheng He’, after which he became a popular historical figure. He is revered by Chinese diaspora in places like Malacca, Indonesia, and the Philippines.