Zheng He: China’s Admiral of the Seas

Personal Profile

Born: Ma He, 1371, Kunming, Yunnan, Ming Empire (South-West China)

Died: 1433 (aged 61-62) or 1435 (aged 63-64)

Other Names: Ma He, Ma Sanbao, Cheng Ho

Era: Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Occupation: Admiral, diplomat, explorer, and palace eunuch

Early Life (1371-81)

A statue of Zheng He and his father in Kunyang, Yunnan, China.

Unfortunately, very little is known about Zheng He’s early life. What we do know, is that he was born into a Muslim family, and had an older brother and four sisters. He was also a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar, who was the first Governor of Yunnan during the early Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. Omar surrendered to Genghis Khan during his tenure as Governor from 1274-79.

In 1381, a Ming army invaded and conquered Yunnan, which at the time was ruled by Basalawarmi. This invasion of Yunnan was the final phase in the Ming Dynasty’s expulsion of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty rule from China. During the invasion and ensuing battles, Zheng He’s father died, although it is unclear if he was fighting for or against the Mongols. Zheng He was captured by General Fu Youde of the Ming Army when he was asked if he knew the location of the Mongol pretender. Zheng He told him that he had jumped into a lake, and then was captured and taken as a Ming prisoner.

Zheng He’s Rise in the Ming Court (1381-1405)

Sometime between 1381-85 when Zheng was aged 10-14, he was castrated, and thus became a eunuch. He was sent to serve in the household of Zhu Di, who later became the Yongle Emperor (third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, r. 1402-24). He gained the trust of the Prince, and accompanied him on his military campaigns, and as a result learned much about military tactics and warfare from an early age, serving as a soldier on the northern frontier. Possibly the biggest battle in his early life was when he accompanied the Prince at the Battle of Jinshan on 2 March 1390, which was a huge victory for the Ming Dynasty, as the Mongol commander Naghachu surrendered.

The Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-24)

Zheng He also received a proper education at Beiping, which he would not have had, had he been placed in the Imperial Capital (which at the time was Nanjing, roughly 300km/150miles north of Shanghai). This was because the Hongwu Emperor (first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, r. 1368-98) did not trust eunuchs, and thought it was best that they remain illiterate.

The Hongwu Emperor died on 24 June 1398, and as all of his eldest sons had predeceased him, this left Zhu Di as his only surviving son and thus a rightful claimant to the Imperial Throne. However, Zhu Di’s nephew (and the Hongwu’s grandson) succeeded the Imperial Throne as the Jianwen Emperor (r. 1398-1402), and immediately issued a policy called xuēfān (“reducing the feudatories”) which eliminated all princes by stripping them of their titles and armies. Zhu Di openly rebelled against his nephew, and in 1399 Zheng He successfully defended Beiping’s city reservoir against the Imperial armies. It was the name of this reservoir – Zhenglunba – which is where he gained the name ‘Zheng’ from. [note: Prior to this, he had been called Ma He, but for simplicity purposes and to avoid any confusion, I have referred to him as Zheng He throughout.]

The Jianwen Emperor (r. 1398-1402)

Zhu Di’s forces defeated the Imperial Army in early 1402 and marched into Nanjing on 13 July 1402. On 17 July, Zhu Di accepted the invitation to become Emperor, and was crowned as the Yongle Emperor. He promoted Zheng He to Grand Director of the Directorate of Palace Servants on 11 February 1404 in Chinese New Year, and it was then that Zheng He’s name was made official (he had been called Ma He up until this point, as mentioned above).

Voyages with the Treasure Fleet (1405-33)

In 1403, the Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of the Treasure Fleet. This was part of the early Ming Dynasty’s militaristic expansionism, where they set about making their presence known in the world and establishing trade with other civilisations. Zheng He was named as Admiral of the Treasure Fleet and placed in control of the huge ships. To gather an idea of the size, below is an image which compares one of Zheng He’s ships of the Treasure Fleet to one of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s ships.

First Voyage: Exploration of the Western Ocean

The preparations for the first voyage were huge – including the use of so many linguists that a foreign language institute was established at Nanjing. In early April 1405, an order was given to Zheng He to lead 27,000 troops to the Western Ocean (modern-day Indian Ocean). The night before the voyage, 10 July 1405, the Yongle Emperor held a banquet for the crew, and presented them with gifts according to their rank. On the voyage, Zheng He was equipped with imperial letters to give to the kings of the various countries of the ‘Western Ocean’, as well as gifts including gold brocade, and decorated silks.

The first expedition departed from Suzhou (roughly 60 miles west of Shanghai) and consisted of a fleet of 317 ships and almost 28,000 crew members. The fleet was organised into squadrons when they briefly stopped at Luijiagang. From there, they sailed down to coast to Changle where they waited out the winter monsoons.

The Treasure Fleet followed a southern route initially, stopping at Champa (modern-day Vietnam), before sailing further south to territories which are now a part of modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia: Java, Malacca, Aru, Semudera and Lambri. Zheng He’s ships then turned westward and onto Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and then Kollam and Calicut in India. One of the ships split off at this point and went onto the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The fleet turned back at Cape Comorin – the most southerly tip of the Indian subcontinent – and began their return journey back to China.

The Voyages of Zheng He, see the dates for when he undertook each individual voyage.

However, the Treasure Fleet was drawn into battle at the Battle of Palembang (capital of South Sumatra, Indonesia) against Chen Zuyi and his pirate fleet. Chen was a pirate leader who had taken Palembang and thus dominated the sea routes of the Malacca Straits. Zheng He’s forces defeated Chen Zuyi’s, and took his as a prisoner. When they arrived back in Nanjing on 2 October 1407, he and his lieutenants were executed. Following this, the Ming Court appointed Shi Jinqing as the Pacification Ambassador, establishing an ally at Palembang and securing safe trade and travel routes of the Malacca Strait.

The foreign envoys who had accompanied the Treasure Fleet back to Nanjing visited the Ming court with gifts from their countries and to pay homage to the Yongle Emperor.

Second Voyage: South-East Asia Calling

The Yongle Emperor wasted no time in issuing the imperial edict for the Second Voyage of the Treasure Fleet, and it was issued later in October 1407. On 30 October, a Grand Director was dispatched with a squadron to Champa, before Zheng He followed with the main fleet; this is noted as ‘during the fifth year of the Yongle reign’, so could be either late 1407 or early 1408. The Taizong Shilu (or Ming Shilu) – which is the biggest primary source of the Ming dynasty and recorded the imperial annals of the Ming emperors – stated that Zheng He visited Calicut, Malacca Semudera and Aru again, while also visiting Siam (modern-day Thailand) for the first time and Kochi (in India). The fleet was ordered to carry out the formal investiture of Mana Vikraan as the King of Calicut, which they succeeded in doing. A tablet was placed in Calicut to commemorate the relationship between China and India.

During the voyage, the Treasure Fleet visited the Similan Islands in the Strait of Malacca in 1409. This was recorded by Fei Xin, a military commander on board who recorded all the activities of the countries they visited. He stated that:

“In the seventh year of Yongle, Zheng He and his associates sent government troops onto the island to cut incense. They obtained six logs…whose aroma was pure and far-ranging. The pattern [of the wood] was black, with fine lines. The people of the island opened their eyes wide and stuck out their tongues in astonishment, and were told that ‘We are the soldiers of the Heavenly Court, and our awe-inspiring power is like that of the gods.'”

Fei Xin, 1409.

The Fleet returned in January 1409 to Nanjing.

Third Voyage: Trouble in Ceylon

Zheng He embarked on the third voyage in October 1409. After travelling to Malacca, Siam, Java and Calicut, they arrived back at Ceylon during the home journey in 1411. The Treasure Fleet confronted King Alakeshvara of Ceylon. Alakeshvara posed a threat to the countries and local waters of Ceylon and Southern India. Zheng and 2000 of his troops marched overland to Kotte (capital of Sri Lanka), because Alakeshvara had lured them into his territory. Immediately, Alekeshvara cut off their escape route back to the Treasure Fleet – which was anchored at Colombo – while he planned a surprise attack on the Fleet. In response, Zheng and his men invaded Kotte, which the Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) army tried to retake. Their army numbered about 50,000, but Zheng He’s 2000 troops defeated them soundly each time. The Ming troops took Alakeshvara, his family and his officials as prisoner.

Zheng He capturing Alakeshvara.

Zheng returned to Nanjing on 6 July 1411. After he had presented the captives to the Yongle Emperor, the Emperor decided to let them live, and returned them to Ceylon. The Chinese dethroned Alakeshvara in favour of Parâkramabâhu IV as the King of Ceylon, with Zheng and his troops supporting him. From that moment onwards, the Treasure Fleet never experienced any hostilities in Ceylon.

Fourth Voyage: Further West Than Ever Before

The Yongle Emperor gave the imperial edict for the Fourth Voyage in December 1412, and the Treasure Fleet set sail in Autumn 1413.

The Treasure Fleet visited its usual destinations in Siam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, but their mission was to go further west this time. They reached Hormuz (Ormus) in the Arabian Peninsula, which is located on the Persian Gulf, stretching as far west as Bahrain at its Zenith. The Fleet was also recorded as reaching the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

At Java, the Treasure Fleet delivered gifts from the Yongle Emperor – in return, the Chinese received “western horses” from the Javanese in 1415, when a Javan envoy reached Nanjing. The Fleet returned back to Nanjing on 12 August 1415. However, the Yongle Emperor had been absent since 16 March 1413, fighting on his Second Mongol campaign.

Fifth Voyage: Africa and Arabia

The Yongle Emperor returned to Nanjing on 14 November 1416, and on 19 December, the 18 ambassadors were received at the Ming Court. On 28 December, the ambassadors received robes and were given their leave to return home – which was the task that Zheng He was given, and the imperial edict issued the same day for the Fifth Voyage of the Treasure Fleet.

Zheng He left on the Fifth Voyage sometime around Autumn 1417. After returning the 18 ambassadors, the Treasure Fleet sailed onto Aden (capital of Yemen), Mogadishu (capital of Somalia), Brava (South-West Somalia), and Malindi (Kenya).

The pet giraffe of the Sultan of Bengal, brought from the Somalian Ajuran Empire to China.

The Fleet reached the Aden Coast in January 1419 and did not leave until March of the same year: the Rasulids, who controlled Ta’izz (Yemen) submitted to the Ming and sent them tribute missions, in return for protection against the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

The Treasure Fleet returned to China on 8 August 1419, and although the Yongle Emperor was in Beijing at the time, he received the ambassadors at the Ming Court in September.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Fifth Voyage was the goods which were brought back, which were received with huge sensation at the Ming Court. As the voyage had travelled down Africa’s eastern coast as well as Arabia, African wildlife (and some Arabian) had been brought back to the Yongle Emperor as gifts. Included as part of these gifts were: camels, leopards, lions, rhinoceroses, antelopes and even a giraffe!

Sixth Voyage: Suspension of the Treasure Fleet

An imperial edict was issued on 3 March 1421 to return the envoys back to their homes – they were to return with gifts of paper money, coin money, ceremonial robes, and linings. However, on 14 May, the Yongle Emperor ordered the temporary suspension of the voyages, and, at the expense of the Treasure Fleet, funds were diverted to the Mongol campaigns in the north. As a result, the Fleet remained at Nanjing between 1422 and 1430 to serve in the city’s garrison.

Nevertheless, Zheng He had been given leave to return the envoys, and did so in November 1421, returning in September 1422.

The Hongxi Emperor (r. 1424-25)

In 1424, Zheng He departed on a diplomatic mission to Palembang. On 12 August 1424, the Yongle Emperor died, leaving his son, Zhu Gaozhi, to succeed him as the Hongxi Emperor on 7 September 1424. Upon hearing the news of the death of the Yongle Emperor, Zheng He returned to Nanjing.

Unfortunately, the Hongxi Emperor was hostile to the idea of further voyages of the Treasure Fleet, and on the same day that he succeeded his father as Emperor, he permanently suspended further voyages of the Treasure Fleet. Zheng was instead made Defender of Nanjing. On 29 May 1425, the Hongxi Emperor died, leaving his son, Zhu Zhanji, to succeed him as the Xuande Emperor.

Seventh Voyage: The Final Voyage of the Treasure Fleet

On 25 March 1428, the Xuande Emperor ordered Zheng to oversee the restoration of the Great Bao’en Temple at Nanjing (The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing), which was completed by 1431.

The Xuande Emperor (r. 1425-35)

On 29 June 1430, the Xuande Emperor ordered the Seventh Voyage, with the aim of bringing more Western Ocean lands into submission. On 19 January 1431, Zheng He embarked from Longwan (which literally translates as ‘Dragon Bay’) in Nanjing. They sailed south and stopped off in Vietnam, Java, Palembang, Malacca and Ceylon. From there, they headed further west, even reaching Mecca (in modern-day Saudi Arabia).

They anchored at the Great Nicobar Island, where they were reported to have traded coconuts with the locals. See map of the voyage below for a full explanation of where they visited, before returning to Nanjing in 1433.

Zheng He’s Seventh and final voyage

Zheng He’s Death and Legacy

There is some debate around Zheng He’s death: some sources say that he died on or shortly after the seventh voyage, while others say that he returned to Nanjing and served as Defender of Nanjing for another two years, dying in 1435. Either way, the cause aof his death is unknown. When he died, he would have been around 63-65 years of age.

Zheng He’s legacy is hugely significant in Chinese – and in fact, global – history. Following his death, the Ming Dynasty simply left the Treasure Fleet to rot in the harbour. In what is now viewed as an incredibly arrogant and selfish attitude, the Ming rulers genuinely thought they knew everything, and people could only learn from them. As a result, over the coming centuries, they adopted a philosophy of secrecy and keeping themselves to themselves, and only really begun to open up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the onset of the Opium Wars under the Qing Dynasty.

In China, Zheng He’s achievements were downplayed in the following centuries, with some teachings even going so far as to deny the annals of the early Ming Dynasty and claiming that the voyages never happened! As a result, the Seventh Voyage was the final voyage the Treasure Fleet ever undertook.

However, deny it as they may, there is substantial evidence of Chinese influence in many of the areas Zheng He visited:

The Cakra Donya Bell, gifted by Zheng He to Pasai, Sumatra, Indonesia.

In addition, the fact that ships reached as far away from China as Kenya and Mecca is an incredible achievement – particularly for the time. As historian Gordon Kerr argues, the influence of the following emperors after the Yongle Emperor are also to bame for China’s secrecy policy. “The succeeding emperors, Honxi (r. 1424-25) and Xuande (r. 1425-35) thought expansionism was a dangerous policy and too costly. Honxi prohibited further exploration, and in the years to come, knowledge of Zheng He’s voyages was suppressed. Timing was bad, as other European nations were just gearing up for the great ‘Age of Exploration’.” (Kerr, A Short History of China, 2013).

This is a hugely significant point – had Zheng He’s ships sailed east, and past the Korean peninsula and Japan, who knows what could have been? Might they have landed at Hawaii? Or perhaps even gotten to the American mainland before Columbus. For it was less than sixty years later that Columbus reached the Americas when trying to find an eastward passage to India! And as seen in the image above, Zheng He’s ships were far more powerful and arguably much more adaptable to the conditions of the Pacific Ocean than the Santa Maria would have been.

Regardless of what if’s though, it is clear to see that Zheng He was one of the most influential characters in the history of China. It is such a shame that his ships ended up rotting after all of the work they had one through – but had this not been the case, who knows what the world could have held for China?

Hope you enjoyed reading this one!

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.

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