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Zheng He: The Eunuch Who Ruled the Seas

This Ming Dynasty explorer spearheaded China's brief age of exploration and lead its greatest navy

12·02·2014

Chinese high school history books ( “Ancient Chinese History”《中国古代史》(zhōngguó gǔdài shǐ) give Zheng He (郑和) a pretty hard time. One of China’s greatest maritime emissaries is dismissed merely as an expensive tool used by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to satisfy their curiosity for exotic trinkets and foreign tributes. While it’s true Zheng’s voyages were economically impractical, he stands the test of time as an exceptional diplomat, military commander and buccaneering adventurer.

Born Ma Sanbao (马三宝) in 1371, the boy who would become Zheng He was raised a Hui Muslim in Yunnan Province, where his father’s stories of journeying to Mecca imbued him with a ravening curiosity for adventure in foreign lands. At the age of 10, Ma got his wish when Ming forces invaded Yunnan, killing his father and whisking the boy off to become a eunuch slave to the Ming state. After castration in Nanjing, Ma was dispatched to serve in Beijing under the 21-year-old Prince Zhu Di—an assignment that would change his fortune forever. Ma quickly distinguished himself with his intelligence, loyalty and courage, later cementing the prince’s confidence when the two men fought side-by-side in a series of campaigns against the Mongols.

In 1402 Zhu Di’s forces captured the Ming capital of Nanjing and he crowned himself the Yongle Emperor. As thanks for his leading role in the victory, Zhu installed Ma in a mansion in Nanjing, and awarded him the honorific name “Zheng He.”

By this time, Zheng was in prime position to capitalize on the connections and experience he had amassed as his master’s right hand. Between 1405 and 1433, he was charged with leading seven major naval expeditions designed to expand China’s influence overseas, bring troublesome trade partners to heel and extend the empire’s tributary system.

While historical sources attesting to the size and extent of these voyages remain controversial, historian Professor Zheng Ming believes that Zheng’s first fleet consisted of 28,000 crew spread across 317 ships, some of which are said to have been an astounding 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. This initial voyage visited Arabia, Brunei, the Horn of Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Thailand, during which they collected novelties including ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory and a giraffe.

Zheng He's voyages took him all around the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Zheng He’s voyages took him all around the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

In his own account of the voyages, Zheng wrote, “We have traversed more than 100,000 (around 31,069 miles) li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky. We have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors… traversing those savage waves as if treading a public thoroughfare.”

While the size and extent of Zheng’s expeditions were unprecedented for his time, his travel routes were not. China, as early as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), had extended maritime trade to the Arabian Peninsula. Proceeding eras, such as the Three Kingdoms (220-280) and the Song Dynasty (960-1279) had also successfully extended trade along the coast of Asia and East Africa, respectively.

Yet Zheng He was more than just an explorer. He was also a diplomat and general, who according to one contemporary “walked like a tiger” and wasn’t afraid to use violence. According to the historical study “Ying-yai Shan-lan,” on his very first expedition, Zheng’s forces were confronted by a band of pirates, which they soundly defeated “killing over 5,000 men, burning or taking 17 ships, and capturing Ch’enTsu-i, who was later presented to the emperor and decapitated at the capital, Nanking.” Moreover, on his fourth voyage, he returned escorting dignitaries and ambassadors from about 30 countries to pay tribute to the Ming court.

Due partly to the Ming’s distrust of foreigners, Emperor Hongxi (reigned 1424-1425) forbade further maritime exploration. Despite Hongxi’s short reign, this edict remained in force under succeeding emperors until Emperor Longqing (1567-1572) once again permitted sea trade. While commerce under this arrangement grew extensively, imperial China never again possessed a navy of equivalent size and strength to that commanded by Zheng He. Like many great admirals and adventurers, he was buried at sea after he passed away during his treasure fleet’s final voyage.

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