Zheng He (1371–1433), was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral, who made the voyages collectively referred to as the travels of “Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean” (Chinese: 三保太監下西洋) or “Zheng He to the Western Ocean,” from 1405 to 1433.
As a young boy, Zheng He was taken captive by the Ming and made a eunuch in the imperial service. He became a close confidant of the Yongle Emperor. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He commanded a series of seven naval expeditions sponsored by the Ming government to establish a Chinese presence and extend the tributary system to the maritime nations in Southeast Asia. Zheng He set sail on his first voyage on July 11, 1405, commanding 62 treasure ships, 190 smaller ships and 27,800 men. At each port, Zheng He demanded that the inhabitants submit to the “Son of Heaven” (tianzi, the Chinese Emperor), and rewarded those who cooperated with gifts. Zheng He brought back emissaries from 36 countries who agreed to a tributary relationship, along with rich and unusual gifts, including African zebras and giraffes that ended their days in the Ming imperial zoo. Zheng He died during the seventh voyage and was buried at sea off the Malabar coast near Calicut in Western India.
Zheng He was born in 1371 of the Hui ethnic group in Kunyang (昆阳), Jinning (晋宁), modern-day Yunnan Province (雲南), one of the last possessions of the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty before being conquered by the Ming Dynasty. According to his biography in the History of Ming, he was originally named Ma Sanbao (Ma Ho; 馬三保). Zheng belonged to the Semu or Semur caste which practiced Islam. He was a sixth-generation descendant of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a famous Khwarezmian Yuan governor of Yunnan Province from Bukhara in modern day Uzbekistan. His family name “Ma” came from Shams al-Din’s fifth son Masuh (Mansour). Both his father Mir Tekin and grandfather Charameddin had traveled on the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and their travels contributed much to the young boy’s education.
In 1381, following the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, a Ming army was dispatched to Yunnan to put down the Mongol rebel Basalawarmi, commonly known as the Prince of Liang, a descendant of Kublai Khan and a Yuan Dynasty loyalist. Zheng He, then only a young boy of eleven years, was taken captive by that army and castrated, becoming a eunuch. He was made an orderly in the army, and by 1390, when the army was placed under the command of the Prince of Yen, Zheng He (Ma Ho) had distinguished himself as a junior officer, skilled in war and diplomacy. He became a close confidant of Prince of Yen. In 1400, the Prince of Yen revolted against his nephew, the Jianwen (Chien-wen) Emperor (建文帝; the second Emperor of the Ming dynasty, personal name Zhu Yunwen), and took the throne in 1402 as the Yongle Emperor]] (永楽帝) of China (reigned 1403–1424, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty). The Yongle emperor conferred the name Zheng He as a reward for his support in the Yongle rebellion against the Jianwen Emperor (建文帝 ). Zheng He studied at Nanjing Taixue (The Imperial Central College). The Ming court then sought to display its naval power to the maritime states of South and Southeast Asia. The Chinese had been expanding their influence across the seas for three hundred years, establishing an extensive sea trade to bring spices and raw materials to China. Chinese travelers visited foreign nations, and Indian and Muslim visitors had widened China’s geographical horizons. By the beginning of the Ming dynasty, shipbuilding and the art of navigation had reached new heights in China.
Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. Emperor Yongle intended them to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin. He also might have wanted to extend the tributary system, by which Chinese dynasties traditionally recognized foreign peoples.
Zheng He was selected by the Yongle Emperor to be commander in chief of the missions to the “Western Oceans.” He set sail on his first voyage on July 11, 1405, commanding 62 treasure ships and 27,800 men. Many of these ships were mammoth nine-masted “treasure ships,” by far the largest marine craft the world had ever seen. The fleet visited Annan, Champa (now South Vietnam), Siam, Malacca, and Java; then sailed through the Indian Ocean to Calicut, Cochin, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), returning to China in 1407.
On his second voyage, in 1409, Zheng He (Cheng Ho) encountered hostility from King Alagonakkara of Ceylon. He defeated his forces and took the King back to Nanking as a captive to apologize to the Emperor. In 1411, Zheng He (Cheng Ho) set out on his third voyage, sailing to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. On his return he touched at Samudra, on the northern tip of Sumatra. Zheng He set out on his fourth voyage in 1413. After stopping at the principal ports of Asia, he proceeded westward from India to Hormuz. A part of the fleet then cruised southward down the Arabian coast, the Persian Gulf and Arabia, visiting Djofar and Aden. A Chinese mission visited Mecca and continued to Egypt. The fleet visited Brava and Malindi in what is now Kenya, and almost reached the Mozambique Channel. On his return to China in 1415, Cheng Ho brought envoys from more than 30 states of South and Southeast Asia to pay homage to the Chinese emperor. During Zheng He (Cheng Ho)’s fifth voyage (1417–1419), the Ming fleet revisited the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. In 1421, a sixth voyage was launched to return the foreign emissaries to their homes, again visiting Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and Africa.
In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to curb Zheng He’s influence at court and appointed him garrison commander in Nanking. Zheng He made one final voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), visiting the states of Southeast Asia, the coast of India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa, but after that the Chinese treasure ship fleets were disbanded. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage. Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was, like many great admirals, buried at sea.
The records of Zheng He’s last two voyages, which were believed to have been his farthest, were unfortunately destroyed by the Ming emperor. Therefore it can never be ascertained exactly where Zheng sailed on these two expeditions. The traditional view is that he went as far as Persia. It is now the widely accepted view that his expeditions went as far as the Mozambique Channel in East Africa, from the ancient Chinese artifacts discovered there.
At each port, Zheng He demanded that the inhabitants submit to the “Son of Heaven” (tianzi, the Chinese Emperor), and rewarded those who cooperated with gifts. Throughout his travels, Zheng He liberally dispensed Chinese gifts of silk, porcelain, and other goods. In return, he received rich and unusual presents from his hosts, including African zebras and giraffes that ended their days in the Ming imperial zoo. Zheng He and his company paid respects to local deities and customs, and in Ceylon they erected a monument honoring Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu.
Ultimately, 36 countries in what the Chinese called the “Western Ocean” agreed to a tributary relationship with China. Zheng He generally sought to attain his goals through diplomacy, and his large army awed most would-be enemies into submission. But a contemporary reported that Zheng He “walked like a tiger,” and did not shrink from violence when he considered it necessary to impress foreign peoples with China’s military might. He ruthlessly suppressed pirates who had long plagued Chinese and southeast Asian waters. He also intervened in a civil disturbance in order to establish his authority in Ceylon, and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and east Africa. From his fourth voyage, he brought envoys from 30 states who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.
Zheng He’s missions were impressive demonstrations of organizational capability and technological advancement, but did not lead to significant trade, since Zheng He was an admiral and an official, not a merchant. Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared. Their motivations were political; during much of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), the eunuchs exercised great power in the imperial court, at the expense of the Confucian civil bureaucracy. The expeditions of Zheng He, who was himself a eunuch, were strongly supported by eunuchs in the court and bitterly opposed by the Confucian scholar bureaucrats.
During the 1950s, historians including John Fairbank and Joseph Needham popularized the idea that after Zheng’s voyages, China turned away from the seas and underwent a period of technological stagnation. Most current historians of China question the accuracy of this view, pointing out that Chinese maritime commerce did not stop after Zheng He, and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng and Chinese ships continued to dominate Southeast Asian commerce until the nineteenth century. The travels of the Chinese Junk Keying to the United States and England between 1846 and 1848 testify to the power of Chinese shipping. Historians such as Jack Goldstone argue that the Zheng He voyages ended for practical reasons that did not reflect the technological level of China Starting in the early fifteenth century, China experienced increasing pressure from resurgent Mongolian tribes from the north. In 1421 the emperor Yongle (the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty) moved his capital north from Nanjing to present-day Beijing, from where, at considerable expense, China launched annual military expeditions to weaken the Mongolians. These land campaigns and a massive expansion of the Great Wall of China took precedence over state-sponsored naval explorations.
Zheng He’s tomb and museum
Zheng He’s tomb in Nanjing has been repaired and a small museum has been built next to it. The tomb is empty as he was buried at sea off the Malabar coast near Calicut in Western India. However, his sword and other personal possessions were interred in a typical Muslim tomb inscribed with Arabic characters.
Zheng He as a Chinese Muslim
Zheng He travelled to Mecca, though he did not perform the pilgrimage itself. The government of the People’s Republic of China uses him as a model to integrate the Muslim minority into the Chinese nation.
Zheng He was a living example of religious tolerance, perhaps even syncretism, or at least a master of diplomacy. The Galle Trilingual Inscription set up by Zheng He around 1410 in Sri Lanka records the offerings he made at a Buddhist mountain. “Inscriptions written in Chinese, Tamil and Persian praise Buddha, Shiva and Allah in equal measure.”
Around 1431, he set up a commemorative pillar at the temple of the Daoist goddess Tian Fei, the Celestial Spouse, in Fujian( 福建) province, to whom he and his sailors prayed for safety at sea. This pillar records his veneration for the goddess and his belief in her divine protection, as well as a few details about his voyages.
We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…
—(Tablet erected by Zheng He, Changle, Fujian, 1432. Louise Levathes
Regions along the way
|1st Voyage||1405-1407||Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Aru, Sumatra, Lambri, Ceylon, Kollam, Cochin, Calicut|
|2nd Voyage||1407-1408||Champa, Java, Siam, Sumatra, Lambri, Calicut, Cochin, Ceylon|
|3rd Voyage||1409-1411||Champa, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Quilon, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Kaya, Coimbatore, Puttanpur|
|4th Voyage||1413-1415||Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Kayal, Pahang, Kelantan, Aru, Lambri, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Brawa, Malindi, Aden, Muscat, Dhufar|
|5th Voyage||1416-1419||Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Lambri, Ceylon, Sharwayn, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Brawa, Malindi, Aden|
|6th Voyage||1421-1422||Hormuz, East Africa, countries of the Arabian Peninsula|
|7th Voyage||1430-1433||Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz… (17 politics in total)|
Size of Zheng He’s Ships
Treasure ship is the name of a type of vessel that the Chinese admiral Zheng He sailed in. His fleet included 62 treasure ships, with some said to have reached 600 feet (146 meters) long. The fleet was manned by over 27,000 crew members, including navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, Muslim teachers, and soldiers.
According to ancient Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions. The 1405 expedition consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships supported by approximately 190 smaller ships. The fleet included:
The dimensions of the Zheng He’s ships according to ancient Chinese chronicles and disputed by modern scholars (see below):
- “Treasure ships”, used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (nine-masted, said to be about 126.73 meters (416 ft) long and 51.84 meters (170 ft) wide), according to later writers. The great size of these ships was probably exaggerated by later writers. The treasure ships purportedly weighed as much as 1,500 tons.126.73m by 51.84 m (415.780ft by 170.078ft) By way of comparison, a modern ship of about 1,200 tons is 60 meters (200 ft) long , and the ships Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492 were about 70-100 tons and 17 meters (55 ft) long.
- “Horse ships”, carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet (eight-masted, about 103 m (339 ft) long and 42 m (138 ft) wide).
- “Supply ships”, containing staple for the crew (seven-masted, about 78 m (257 ft) long and 35 m (115 ft) wide).
- “Troop transports”, six-masted, about 67 m (220 ft) long and 25 m (83 ft) wide).
- “Fuchuan warships”, five-masted, about 50 m (165 ft) long).
- “Patrol boats”, eight-oared, about 37 m (120 feet) long).
- “Water tankers”, with 1 month supply of fresh water. 126.73 m by 51.84 m (415.780ft by 170.078ft)
Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.
The dimensions of the treasure ships, as recorded in later historical chronicles, are disputed by scholars. It is probable that the actual size of the ships was smaller, since in later historical periods wooden ships approaching this size (such as HMS Orlando) were unwieldy and visibly undulated with the waves, even with steel braces in the hull. The problem of “hogging,” the tendency of the largest wooden ships to sag (like a pig’s body) because of buoyancy in the middle, would have been impossible to solve. The length-to-width ratio of 2.47 is not well suited for fast navigation on the oceans. Hydrodynamic models have proved that ships with such dimension are unsailable in open seas.
Recent research suggests that the actual length of the biggest treasure ships may have lain between 59 m and 84 m. If the treasure ships actually had the dimensions attributed to them, they would have been several times larger than any wooden ship ever recorded, including the largest l’Orient (65 m long). The length of the treasure ships would have been equivalent to that of the first generation aircraft carriers in the early twentieth century. Research on the original source of these dimensions indicates that they came from a novel written in the sixteenth century.
Accounts of Medieval Travelers
The characteristics of the Chinese ships of the period are described by Western travelers to the East, such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. According to Ibn Battuta, who visited China in 1347:
…We stopped in the port of Calicut, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. China Sea traveling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called chunks (junks), middle sized ones called zaws (dhows) and the small ones kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited into mats. They are never lowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind.
Three smaller ones, the “half,” the “third” and the “quarter,” accompany each large vessel. These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun and Sin-Kalan. The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants.
This is the manner after which they are made; two (parallel) walls of very thick wooden (planking) are raised and across the space between them are placed very thick planks (the bulkheads) secured longitudinally and transversely by means of large nails, each three ells in length. When these walls have thus been built the lower deck is fitted in and the ship is launched before the upper works are finished.” (Ibn Battuta).
Zheng He and Islam in Southeast Asia
Template:Islam and China Indonesian religious leader and Islamic scholar Hamka (1908–1981) wrote in 1961: “The development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaya is intimately related to a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He.” In Malacca, Zheng He built granaries, warehouses and a stockade, and it is likely that he left behind many of his Muslim crews. Much of the information on Zheng He’s voyages was compiled by Ma Huan, also Muslim, who accompanied Zheng He on several of his inspection tours and served as his chronicler and interpreter. In his book The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores (Chinese: 瀛涯勝覽) written in 1416, Ma Huan gave very detailed accounts of his observations of the peoples’ customs and lives in ports they visited. Zheng He had many Muslim eunuchs as his companions. At the time when his fleet first arrived in Malacca, there were already Chinese of the ‘Muslim’ faith living there. Ma Huan talks about them as tangren (Chinese: 唐人) who were Muslim. According to Ma Huan, Zheng He’s entourage frequented mosques, actively propagated the Islamic faith, established Chinese Muslim communities and built mosques.
Indonesian scholar Slamet Muljana writes:
“Zheng He built Chinese Muslim communities first in Palembang, then in San Fa (West Kalimantan), subsequently he founded similar communities along the shores of Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. They propagated the Islamic faith according to the Hanafi school of thought and in Chinese language.” When the Chinese naval expeditions were suspended after Zheng He’s death, the Hanafi Islam that Zheng He and his followers propagated lost almost all contact with Islam in China, and gradually was totally absorbed by the local Shafi’i sect.
When Melaka was successively colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and later the British, Chinese were discouraged from converting to Islam. Many of the Chinese Muslim mosques became San Bao Chinese temples commemorating Zheng He. After a lapse of six hundred years, the influence of Chinese Muslims in Malacca had almost disappeared.
According to the Malaysian history, Sultan Mansur Shah (ruled 1459–1477) dispatched Tun Perpatih Putih as his envoy to China and carried a letter from the Sultan to the Ming Emperor. Tun Perpatih succeeded in impressing the Emperor of Ming with the fame and grandeur of Sultan Mansur Shah. In the year 1459, a princess Hang Li Po (or Hang Liu), was sent by the emperor of Ming to marry Malacca Sultan Mansur Shah (ruled 1459–1477). The princess came with her entourage of five hundred male servants and a few hundred handmaidens. They eventually settled in Bukit Cina, Malacca. The descendants of these people, from mixed marriages with the local natives, are known today as Peranakan: Baba (the male title) and Nyonya (the female title).
In Malaysia today, many people believe that it was Admiral Zheng He (died 1433) who sent princess Hang Li Po to Malacca in year 1459. However there is no record of Hang Li Po (or Hang Liu) in Ming documents, she is known only from Malacca folklore. The so-called Peranakan in Malacca were probably Tang-Ren or Hui Chinese Muslims who came with Parameswara, the founder of Malacca, from Palembang, Java and other places as refugees of the declining Srivijaya kingdom. Some of the Chinese Muslims were soldiers and served as warriors and bodyguards to protect the Sultanate of Malacca.
In 1411, Admiral Zheng He brought Parameswara, his wife and 540 officials to China to pay homage to Emperor Yongle. Upon their arrival, a grand welcoming party was held. Animals were sacrificed, Parameswara was granted a two-piece gold-embroidered suit of clothing with dragon motifs, Kylin robe, gold and silverware, silk lace bed quilt, and gifts for all officials and followers. Upon returning home, Parameswara was granted a jade belt, brace, saddle, and coroneted suit for his wife. Upon reaching the heaven’s gate (China), Parameswara was again granted a jade belt, brace, saddle, a hundred gold & platinum pieces, 400,000 banknotes, 2600 cash, 300 pieces of silk brocade voile, 1,000 pieces of silk, two pieces of whole gold plait, two pieces of knee-length gown with gold threads woven through sleeves…. On his return trip from China, Parameswara was so impressed by Zheng He that he adopted the name Sultan Iskandar Shah. Malacca prospered under his leadership and became a half-way port for trade between India and China.
Former British submarine commander Gavin Menzies in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World claims that several parts of Zheng’s fleet explored virtually the entire globe, discovering West Africa, North and South America, Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica and Australia before the voyages of Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus. Menzies also claims that Zheng’s wooden fleet passed through the Arctic Ocean. Menzies proposes that Zheng He’s voyages, records, and maps are the sources for some of the other Ancient world maps, which he claims depicted the Americas, Antarctica, and the tip of Africa before the official European discovery of these areas, and the drawings of the Fra Mauro map or the De Virga world map. However none of the citations in1421 are from Chinese sources and scholars in China do not share Menzies’ assertions.
A related book, The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America by Paul Chiasson maintains that a nation of native peoples known as the Mi’kmaq on the east coast of Canada are descendants of Chinese explorers, offering evidence in the form of archaeological remains, customs, costume, and artwork. Several advocates of these theories believe that Zheng He also discovered modern day New Zealand on either his sixth or seventh expedition.
It has been suggested by some historians and mentioned in a recent [[National Geographic]] article on Zheng He that Sindbad the Sailor (also spelled “Sinbad,” from Arabic السندباد—As-Sindibad) and the collection of travel-romances that make up the “Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor” found in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were influenced heavily by the cumulative tales of many seafarers that had followed, traded and worked in various support ships as part of the armada of Chinese Ming Imperial Treasure Fleets. This belief is supported in part by the similarities in Sindbad’s name and the various iterations of Zheng in Arabic and Mandarin (pinyin: Mǎ Sānbǎo; Cantonese: Máh Sāambóu; Arabic name: Mahmud Shams) along with the similarities in the number (seven) and general locations of voyages between Sindbad and Zheng. This idea has no credibility within the scholarly community.