Zheng He

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Zheng He
Zhen he.jpg
Statue from a modern monument to Zheng He at the Stadthuys Museum in Malacca City, Malaysia
Born1371 [1]
Died1433 (aged 6162) or
1435 (aged 6364)
Other namesMa He
OccupationAdmiral, diplomat, explorer, and palace eunuch
Era Ming dynasty
Zheng He
Zheng He (Chinese characters).svg
"Zheng He" in traditional (top) and simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese 鄭和
Simplified Chinese 郑和

Zheng He (Chinese :鄭和; 1371 – 1433 or 1435) was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral, and court eunuch during China's early Ming dynasty. He was originally born as Ma He in a Muslim family, and later adopted the conferred surname Zheng from Emperor Yongle. [2] Zheng commanded expeditionary treasure voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. His larger ships allegedly carried hundreds of sailors on four tiers of decks and may have stretched 120 meters or more in length, [3] but these claims have been disputed. [4] [5]

Traditional Chinese characters Traditional Chinese characters

Traditional Chinese characters are Chinese characters in any character set that does not contain newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946. They are most commonly the characters in the standardized character sets of Taiwan, of Hong Kong and Macau. The modern shapes of traditional Chinese characters first appeared with the emergence of the clerical script during the Han Dynasty, and have been more or less stable since the 5th century.

Chinese exploration includes exploratory Chinese travels abroad, on land and by sea, from the 2nd century BC until the 15th century.

Imperial China had a long tradition of foreign relations. From the Qin dynasty until the Qing dynasty, Chinese culture had influenced neighboring and distant countries, while gradually being transformed by outside influences as well. During the Western Han dynasty, the Silk Road trade routes were established and brought Hellenistic Central Asia, Persia under the Parthian Empire, and South Asia into contact with the Chinese empire. During the 2nd century BC, Zhang Qian became the first known Chinese diplomat to venture deep into Central Asia in search of allies against the Mongolic Xiongnu confederation. Han Chinese attempts were made at reaching the Roman Empire and although the mission led by Gan Ying in 97 AD was a failure, Chinese historical records nevertheless maintain that the Romans traveled to southern China and Vietnam via the Indian Ocean. Buddhism from India was introduced to China during the Eastern Han period and would spread to neighboring Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, all of which would adopt similar Confucian cultures based on the Chinese model.


As a favorite of the Yongle Emperor, whose usurpation he assisted, Zheng rose to the top of the imperial hierarchy and served as commander of the southern capital Nanjing (the capital was later moved to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor). His voyages were long neglected in official Chinese histories but have become well known in China and abroad since the publication of Liang Qichao's Biography of Our Homeland's Great Navigator, Zheng He in 1904. [6] [7] A trilingual stele left by the navigator was discovered on the island of Ceylon shortly thereafter.

Yongle Emperor 15th-century Chinese emperor

The Yongle Emperor — personal name Zhu Di — was the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty, reigned from 1402 to 1424.

Nanjing Prefecture-level & Sub-provincial city in Jiangsu, Peoples Republic of China

Nanjing, alternatively romanized as Nanking and Nankin, is the capital of Jiangsu province of the People's Republic of China and the second largest city in the East China region, with an administrative area of 6,600 km2 (2,500 sq mi) and a total population of 8,270,500 as of 2016. The inner area of Nanjing enclosed by the city wall is Nanjing City (南京城), with an area of 55 km2 (21 sq mi), while the Nanjing Metropolitan Region includes surrounding cities and areas, covering over 60,000 km2 (23,000 sq mi), with a population of over 30 million.

Liang Qichao Chinese historian, philosopher and reformist

Liang Qichao, courtesy name Zhuoru, art name Rengong, was a Chinese scholar, journalist, philosopher, and reformist who lived during the late Qing dynasty and the early Republic of China. He inspired Chinese scholars with his writings and reform movements.

Early life and family

Zheng He was born Ma He (馬和) to a Muslim family of Kunyang, Kunming, Yunnan, China. [8] He had an older brother and four sisters. [9]

Islam in China Religious communities

Islam has been practiced in Chinese society for 1,400 years. Currently, Muslims are a minority group in China, representing between 0.45% to 1.8% of the total population according to the latest estimates. Though Hui Muslims are the most numerous group, the greatest concentration of Muslims is in Xinjiang, with a significant Uyghur population. Lesser but significant populations reside in the regions of Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai. Of China's 55 officially recognized minority peoples, ten groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

Kunyang Subdistrict Subdistrict in Yunnan, China

Kunyang Subdistrict is a subdistrict and the administrative center of Jinning District, Yunnan, China. It is situated southwest of Dianchi, with a resident population of 83,500 within its total area of 119.79 square kilometres.

Kunming Prefecture-level city in Yunnan, Peoples Republic of China

Kunming is the capital and largest city of Yunnan province in southwest China. Known as Yunnan-Fu until the 1920s, today it is a prefecture-level city and the political, economic, communications and cultural centre of the province as well as the seat of the provincial government. Kunming is also called the Spring city due to its weather. The headquarters of many of Yunnan's large businesses are in Kunming. It was important during World War II as a Chinese military center, American air base, and transport terminus for the Burma Road. Located in the middle of the Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau, Kunming is located at an altitude of 1,900 metres above sea level and at a latitude just north of the Tropic of Cancer. Kunming has as of 2014 a population of 6,626,000 with an urban population of 4,575,000, and is located at the northern edge of the large Dian Lake, surrounded by temples and lake-and-limestone hill landscapes.

Ma He's religious beliefs became all-embracing and eclectic in his adulthood. [10] The Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He's devotion to Tianfei (the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers) was the dominant faith to which he adhered, reflecting the goddess' central role to the treasure fleet. [11] John Guy mentions, "When Zheng He, the Muslim eunuch leader of the great expeditions to the 'Western Ocean' (Indian Ocean) in the early fifteenth century, embarked on his voyages, it was from the Divine Woman that he sought protection, as well as at the tombs of the Muslim saints on Lingshan Hill, above the city of Quanzhou." [12]

Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, while blending practices of various schools of thought. Syncretism involves the merging or assimilation of several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths. Syncretism also occurs commonly in expressions of arts and culture as well as politics.

Zheng He was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty. [13] [14] His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan. [15] Zheng He's grandfather carried the title hajji , [16] while his father had the sinicized surname Ma and also the title hajji, which suggests that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. [17] Peterson (1994) suggests that the Hajji of both his father and grandfather indicated that Zheng He may have had Mongol-Arab ancestry and that he could speak Arabic. [18]

Mongol Empire former country in Asia and Europe

The Mongol Empire existed during the 13th and 14th centuries; it became the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in Mongolia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia; eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina and the Iranian Plateau; and westwards as far as the Levant and the Carpathian Mountains.

Yuan dynasty former Mongolian-ruled empire in Eastern and Northeastern Asia

The Yuan dynasty, officially the Great Yuan, was the empire or ruling dynasty of China established by Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan. It followed the Song dynasty and preceded the Ming dynasty. Although the Mongols had ruled territories including modern-day North China for decades, it was not until 1271 that Kublai Khan officially proclaimed the dynasty in the traditional Chinese style, and the conquest was not complete until 1279 when the Southern Song dynasty was defeated in the Battle of Yamen. His realm was, by this point, isolated from the other Mongol khanates and controlled most of modern-day China and its surrounding areas, including modern Mongolia. It was the first non-Han Chinese dynasty to rule all of China and lasted until 1368 when the Ming dynasty defeated the Yuan forces. Following that, the rebuked Genghisid rulers retreated to their Mongolian homeland and continued to rule as the Northern Yuan dynasty. Some of the Mongolian Emperors of the Yuan mastered the Chinese language, while others only used their native language and the 'Phags-pa script.

Hajji title of honor

Hajji is a title which is originally given to a Muslim person who has successfully completed the Hajj to Mecca. It is also often used to refer to an elder, since it can take time to accumulate the wealth to fund the travel, and in many Muslim societies as an honorific title for a respected man. The title is placed before a person's name; for example Joshua Omo becomes Hajji Joshua Omo.

In the autumn of 1381, a Ming army invaded and conquered Yunnan, which was then ruled by the Mongol prince Basalawarmi, Prince of Liang. [19] In 1381, Ma Haji (Zheng He's father) died in the fighting between the Ming armies and Mongol forces. [20] Dreyer (2007 , p. 12) states that Zheng He's father died at age 39 while resisting the Ming conquest, while Levathes (1996 , p. 62) states Zheng He's father died at age 37, but it is unclear if he was helping the Mongol army or just caught in the onslaught of battle. Wenming, the oldest son, buried their father outside of Kunming. [20] In his capacity as Admiral, Zheng He had an epitaph engraved in honor of his father, composed by the Minister of Rites Li Zhigang on the Duanwu Festival of the 3rd year in the Yongle era (1 June 1405). [21]

Ming dynasty Former empire in Eastern Asia, last Han Chinese-led imperial regime

The Ming dynasty, officially the Great Ming, was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644 following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty was the last imperial dynasty of China ruled by ethnic Han Chinese. Although the primary capital of Beijing fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng, numerous rump regimes loyal to the Ming throne – collectively called the Southern Ming – survived until 1662.

The Ming conquest of Yunnan was the final phase in the Chinese Ming dynasty expulsion of Mongol Yuan dynasty rule from China in the 1380s.

Basalawarmi, commonly known by his hereditary title, the Prince of Liang, was a descendant of Kublai Khan and a Yuan Dynasty loyalist who fought against the ascendant Ming Dynasty in China. He was a descendant of Khökhechi, the fifth son of Kublai Khan.

Capture, castration and service

Zheng He was captured by the Ming armies at Yunnan in 1381. [20] General Fu Youde saw Ma He on a road and approached him in order to inquire about the location of the Mongol pretender. Ma He responded defiantly by saying that the Mongol pretender had jumped into a lake. Afterwards, the general took him prisoner. [22] One source states that he was castrated at the age of 10 and then was placed in the service of the Prince of Yan, [23] while another source indicates that the castration occurred in 1385. [22]

Ma He was sent to serve in the household of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, who later became the Yongle Emperor. [24] Zhu Di was eleven years older than Ma. [25] While enslaved as a eunuch servant, Ma He eventually gained the confidence of Zhu Di, while Zhu Di as his benefactor would gain the allegiance and loyalty of the young eunuch. [26] Since 1380, the prince had been governing Beiping (later Beijing), [19] which was located near the northern frontier where the hostile Mongol tribes were situated. [27] Ma would spend his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier. [28] He often participated in Zhu Di's military campaigns against the Mongols. [29] On 2 March 1390, Ma accompanied the Prince when he commanded his first expedition, which was a great victory as the Mongol commander Naghachu surrendered as soon as he realized he had fallen for a deception. [30]

Ma Hajji, a Yuan Dynasty official in Yunnan (a descendant of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar), and his young son Ma He, future admiral Zheng He, as imagined by a modern Kunyang sculptor. Kunyang - Zheng He Park - P1350545.JPG
Ma Hajji, a Yuan Dynasty official in Yunnan (a descendant of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar), and his young son Ma He, future admiral Zheng He, as imagined by a modern Kunyang sculptor.

Eventually, he gained the confidence and trust of the prince. [25] Ma was also known as "sānbǎo" during the time of service in the household of the Prince of Yan. [31] This name was a reference to the Buddhist Three Jewels ( 三寶 ; sānbǎo, also known as triratna). [19] This name could also be written 三保; sānbǎo, literally "Three Protections". [lower-alpha 1] Ma received a proper education while at Beiping, which he would not have had if he had been placed in the imperial capital Nanjing, as the Hongwu Emperor did not trust eunuchs and believed that it was better to keep them illiterate. [31] Meanwhile, the Hongwu Emperor purged and exterminated many of the original Ming leadership and gave his enfeoffed sons more military authority, especially those in the north like the Prince of Yan. [32]

Adulthood and military career

Ma He's appearance as an adult was recorded: he was seven chi [lower-alpha 2] tall, had a waist that was five chi in circumference, cheeks and a forehead that was high, a small nose, glaring eyes, teeth that were white and well-shaped as shells, and a voice that was as loud as a bell. It is also recorded that he had great knowledge about warfare and was well-accustomed to battle. [33]

The young eunuch eventually became a trusted adviser to the prince and assisted him when the Jianwen Emperor's hostility to his uncle's feudal bases prompted the 13991402 Jingnan Campaign which ended with the emperor's apparent death and the ascension of the Zhu Di, Prince of Yan, as the Yongle Emperor. In 1393, the Crown Prince had died, thus the deceased prince's son became the new heir apparent. By the time the emperor died (24 June 1398), the Prince of Qin and the Prince of Jin had perished, which left Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, as the eldest surviving son of the emperor. However, Zhu Di's nephew succeeded the imperial throne as the Jianwen Emperor. In 1398, he issued a policy known as xuēfān (削藩), or "reducing the feudatories", which entails eliminating all the princes by stripping their power and military forces. In August 1399, Zhu Di openly rebelled against his nephew. In 1399, Ma He successfully defended Beiping's city reservoir Zhenglunba against the imperial armies. [34] In January 1402, Zhu Di began with his military campaign to capture the imperial capital Nanjing. Zheng He would be one of his commanders during this campaign. [35]

In 1402, Zhu Di's armies defeated the imperial forces and marched into Nanjing on 13 July 1402. [36] Zhu Di accepted the elevation to emperor four days later. [37] After ascending the throne as the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di promoted Ma He as the Grand Director (太監, tài jiàn) of the Directorate of Palace Servants. [37] During the New Year's day on 11 February 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname "Zheng" to Ma He, because he had distinguished himself defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba against imperial forces in the Siege of Beiping of 1399. [38] Another reason was that the eunuch commander also distinguished himself during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing. [39] It is believed that his choice to confer the surname "Zheng" was because the eunuch's horse had been killed during the battle at Zhenglunba near Beiping at the onset of his rebellion. [40] [ clarification needed ]

In the new administration, Zheng He served in the highest posts, as Grand Director and later as Chief Envoy (正使; zhèngshǐ) during his sea voyages. [41] Over the next three decades he conducted seven of these voyages on behalf of the emperor, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In 1424, Admiral Zheng He traveled to Palembang in Sumatra to confer an official seal [lower-alpha 3] and letter of appointment upon Shi Jisun, who was placed in the office of Pacification Commissioner. [43] The Taizong Shilu 27 February 1424 entry reports that Shi Jisun had sent Qiu Yancheng as envoy to petition the approval of the succession from his father Shi Jinqing, who was the Pacification Commissioner of Palembang, and was given permission from the Yongle Emperor. [44] On 7 September 1424, Zhu Gaozhi had inherited the throne as the Hongxi Emperor after the death of the Yongle Emperor on 12 August 1424. [45] When Zheng He returned from Palembang, he found that the Yongle Emperor had died during his absence. [46]

After the ascension of Zhu Di's son as the Hongxi Emperor, the ocean voyages were discontinued and Zheng He was instead appointed as Defender of Nanjing, the empire's southern capital. In that post, he was largely responsible for the completion of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, an enormous pagoda still described as a wonder of the world as late as the 19th century.

On 15 May 1426, the Xuande Emperor ordered the Directorate of Ceremonial to send a letter to Zheng He to reprimand him for a transgression. Earlier, an official [lower-alpha 4] petitioned the emperor to reward workmen who had built temples in Nanjing. The Xuande Emperor responded negatively to the official for placing the costs to the court instead of the monks themselves, but he realized that Zheng He and his associates had instigated the official. According to Dreyer (2007), the nature of the emperor's words indicated that Zheng He's behaviour in this situation was the last straw, but that there is too little information about what had transpired beforehand. Nevertheless, the Xuande Emperor would eventually come to trust Zheng He. [48]

In 1430, the new Xuande Emperor appointed Zheng He to command over a seventh and final expedition into the "Western Ocean" (Indian Ocean). In 1431, Zheng He was bestowed with the title "Sānbǎo Tài Jiàn" ( 三寶 太監 ), using his informal name Sānbǎo together with the title of Grand Director. [49]


One theory is that Admiral Zheng He died in 1433, during or shortly after the seventh voyage. [50] Another is that Zheng He continued to serve as the defender of Nanjing, dying in 1435. [51]

A tomb was built for Zheng He at the southern slope of Cattle Head Hill, Nanjing. The original tomb was a horseshoe-shaped grave. It is a cenotaph believed to contain his clothes and headgear.In 1985, the tomb was rebuilt following a Muslim style. [52]


The Yuan dynasty and expanding Sino-Arab trade during the 14th century had gradually expanded Chinese knowledge of the world: "universal" maps previously only displaying China and its surrounding seas began to expand further and further into the southwest with much more accurate depictions of the extent of Arabia and Africa. [53] Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored seven naval expeditions. The Yongle Emperor disregarding the Hongwu Emperor's expressed wishes [54] designed them to establish a Chinese presence and impose imperial control over the Indian Ocean trade, impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin, and extend the empire's tributary system.[ citation needed ] It has also been inferred from passages in the History of Ming that the initial voyages were launched as part of the emperor's attempt to capture his escaped predecessor, [53] which would have made the first voyage the "largest-scale manhunt on water in the history of China". [55]

Zheng He was placed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions. Wang Jinghong was appointed his second in command. Preparations were thorough and wide-ranging, including the use of such numerous linguists that a foreign language institute was established at Nanjing. [53] Zheng He's first voyage departed 11 July 1405, from Suzhou [56] :203 and consisted of a fleet of 317 [57] [58] [59] ships holding almost 28,000 crewmen. [57]

Early 17th-century Chinese woodblock print, thought to represent Zheng He's ships. ZhengHeShips.gif
Early 17th-century Chinese woodblock print, thought to represent Zheng He's ships.

Zheng He's fleets visited Brunei, Java, Thailand and Southeast Asia, India, the Horn of Africa, and Arabia, dispensing and receiving goods along the way. [59] Zheng He presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; in return, China received such novelties as ostriches, zebras, camels, and ivory from the Swahili. [56] :206 [59] [60] [61] [62] The giraffe he brought back from Malindi was considered to be a qilin and taken as proof of the favor of heaven upon the administration. [63]

While Zheng He's fleet was unprecedented, the routes were not. Zheng He's fleet was following long-established, well-mapped routes of trade between China and the Arabian peninsula employed since at least the Han dynasty. This fact, along with the use of a more than abundant number of crew members that were regular military personnel, leads some to speculate that these expeditions may have been geared at least partially at spreading China's power through expansion. [64] During the Three Kingdoms Period, the king of Wu sent a twenty year long diplomatic mission led by Zhu Ying and Kang Tai along the coast of Asia, which reached as far as the Eastern Roman Empire. [65] After centuries of disruption, the Song dynasty restored large-scale maritime trade from China in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, reaching as far as the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. [66] When his fleet first arrived in Malacca, there was already a sizable Chinese community. The General Survey of the Ocean Shores (瀛涯勝覽, Yíngyá Shènglǎn) composed by the translator Ma Huan in 1416 gave very detailed accounts of his observations of people's customs and lives in the ports they visited. [67] He referred to the expatriate Chinese as "Tang" people (唐人; Tángrén).

The Kangnido map (1402) predates Zheng's voyages and suggests that he had quite detailed geographical information on much of the Old World. KangnidoMap.jpg
The Kangnido map (1402) predates Zheng's voyages and suggests that he had quite detailed geographical information on much of the Old World.
Detail of the Fra Mauro map relating the travels of a junk into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420. The ship also is illustrated above the text. FraMauro1420Ship.png
Detail of the Fra Mauro map relating the travels of a junk into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420. The ship also is illustrated above the text.

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. [68] He ruthlessly suppressed pirates who had long plagued Chinese and southeast Asian waters. For example, he defeated Chen Zuyi, one of the most feared and respected pirate captains, and returned him to China for execution. [69] He also waged a land war against the Kingdom of Kotte on Ceylon, and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and East Africa. [70] From his fourth voyage, he brought envoys from thirty states who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.[ citation needed ]

In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (r. 14241425), stopped the voyages during his short reign. Zheng He made one more voyage during the reign of Hongxi's son, the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426–1435) but, after that, the voyages of the Chinese treasure ship fleets were ended. Xuande believed his father's decision to halt the voyages had been meritorious and thus "there would be no need to make a detailed description of his grandfather's sending Zheng He to the Western Ocean".[ attribution needed ] [54] The voyages "were contrary to the rules stipulated in the Huang Ming Zuxun" (皇明祖訓), the dynastic foundation documents laid down by the Hongwu Emperor: [54]

Some far-off countries pay their tribute to me at much expense and through great difficulties, all of which are by no means my own wish. Messages should be forwarded to them to reduce their tribute so as to avoid high and unnecessary expenses on both sides. [71]

They further violated longstanding Confucian principles. They were only made possible by (and therefore continued to represent) a triumph of the Ming's eunuch faction over the administration's scholar-bureaucrats. [53] Upon Zheng He's death and his faction's fall from power, his successors sought to minimize him in official accounts, along with continuing attempts to destroy all records related to the Jianwen Emperor or the manhunt to find him. [54]

Although unmentioned in the official dynastic histories, Zheng He probably died during the treasure fleet's last voyage. [53] Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was buried at sea. [72]

Zheng He led seven expeditions to the "Western" or Indian Ocean. Zheng He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from more than thirty kingdoms – including King Vira Alakeshwara of Ceylon, who came to China as a captive to apologize to the Emperor for offenses against his mission.

Zheng himself wrote of his travels:

We have traversed more than 100,000 li 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... [73]

Sailing charts

One of a set of maps of Zheng He's missions (Zheng He Hang Hai Tu 
), also known as the Mao Kun map, 1628 WuBeiZhi.jpg
One of a set of maps of Zheng He's missions (郑和航海图), also known as the Mao Kun map, 1628
A section of the Wubei Zhi oriented east: India in the upper left, Sri Lanka upper right, and Africa along the bottom. Zhenghe-sailing-chart.gif
A section of the Wubei Zhi oriented east: India in the upper left, Sri Lanka upper right, and Africa along the bottom.

Zheng He's sailing charts, the Mao Kun map, were published in a book entitled the Wubei Zhi (A Treatise on Armament Technology) written in 1621 and published in 1628 but traced back to Zheng He's and earlier voyages. [74] It was originally a strip map 20.5 cm by 560 cm that could be rolled up, but was divided into 40 pages which vary in scale from 7 miles/inch in the Nanjing area to 215 miles/inch in parts of the African coast. [67] </ref>

Investigation into folios 19V to 20R of the Mao Kun Map which covers the Indian Ocean including South India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and East Africa suggests that it is a composite of four maps, one for Sri Lanka, one for South India one for the Maldives and one for around 400 km of the East African coast, no further south than 6 degrees south of the Equator. Each of these maps is positioned at a different orientation to fit with the ocean currents and winds required of a sailing chart, rather than a formal map. The analysis also suggests that Arabic-speaking pilots with a detailed knowledge of the African coast were involved in the cartography. [75]

There is little attempt to provide an accurate 2-D representation; instead the sailing instructions are given using a 24-point compass system with a Chinese symbol for each point, together with a sailing time or distance, which takes account of the local currents and winds. Sometimes depth soundings are also provided. It also shows bays, estuaries, capes and islands, ports and mountains along the coast, important landmarks such as pagodas and temples, and shoal rocks. Of 300 named places outside China, more than 80% can be confidently located. There are also fifty observations of stellar altitude.

Size of the ships

Traditional and popular accounts of Zheng He's voyages have described a great fleet of gigantic ships, far larger than any other wooden ships in history.

Chinese records state that Zheng He's fleet sailed as far as East Africa. [76] According to medieval 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. [77] [78] Although many historians disagree about the size of the Zheng He's ships, the fleet included:

Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size. [79]

If the accounts can be taken as factual Zheng He's treasure ships were mammoth ships with nine masts, four decks, and were capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, as well as a massive amount of cargo. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their translated accounts. [80] Niccolò de' Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness of ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen 5 masted junks weighing about 2,000 tons. [81] There are even some sources that claim some of the treasure ships might have been as long as 600 feet. [82] [83] On the ships were navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, and soldiers along with the translator and diarist Gong Zhen.

The largest ships in the fleet, the Chinese treasure ships described in Chinese chronicles, would have been several times larger than any other wooden ship ever recorded in history, surpassing l'Orient, 65 metres (213.3 ft) long, which was built in the late 18th century. The first ships to attain 126 m (413.4 ft) long were 19th century steamers with iron hulls. Some scholars argue that it is highly unlikely that Zheng He's ship was 450 feet (137.2 m) in length, some estimating that they were 390–408 feet (118.9–124.4 m) long and 160–166 feet (48.8–50.6 m) wide instead [84] while others put them as small as 200–250 feet (61.0–76.2 m) in length, which would make them smaller than the equine, supply, and troop ships in the fleet. [85]

One explanation for the seemingly inefficient size of these colossal ships was that the largest 44 Zhang treasure ships were merely used by the Emperor and imperial bureaucrats to travel along the Yangtze for court business, including reviewing Zheng He's expedition fleet. The Yangtze river, with its calmer waters, may have been navigable by these treasure ships. Zheng He, a court eunuch, would not have had the privilege in rank to command the largest of these ships, seaworthy or not. The main ships of Zheng He's fleet were instead 6 masted 2000-liao ships. [86] [87] This would give burthen of 500 tons and a displacement tonnage of about 800 tons. [86] [88]


Imperial China

The pet giraffe of the Sultan of Bengal, brought from the Somali Ajuran Empire, and later taken to China in the thirteenth year of Yongle (1415). Chen Zhang's painting of a giraffe and its attendant.jpg
The pet giraffe of the Sultan of Bengal, brought from the Somali Ajuran Empire, and later taken to China in the thirteenth year of Yongle (1415).

In the decades after the last voyage, Imperial officials minimized the importance of Zheng He and his expeditions throughout the many regnal and dynastic histories they compiled. The information in the Yongle and Xuande Emperors' official annals was incomplete and even erroneous; other official publications omitted them completely. [7] Although some have seen this as a conspiracy seeking to eliminate memories of the voyages, [93] it is likely that the records were dispersed throughout several departments and the expeditions unauthorized by (and in fact, counter to) the injunctions of the dynastic founder presented a kind of embarrassment to the dynasty. [7]

State-sponsored Ming naval efforts declined dramatically after Zheng's voyages. Starting in the early 15th century, China experienced increasing pressure from the surviving Yuan Mongols from the north. The relocation of the capital north to Beijing exacerbated this threat dramatically. At considerable expense, China launched annual military expeditions from Beijing to weaken the Mongolians. The expenditures necessary for these land campaigns directly competed with the funds necessary to continue naval expeditions. Further, in 1449, Mongolian cavalry ambushed a land expedition personally led by the Zhengtong Emperor at Tumu Fortress, less than a day's march from the walls of the capital. The Mongolians wiped out the Chinese army and captured the emperor. This battle had two salient effects. First, it demonstrated the clear threat posed by the northern nomads. Second, the Mongols caused a political crisis in China when they released the emperor after his half-brother had already ascended and declared the new Jingtai era. Not until 1457 and the restoration of the former emperor did political stability return. Upon his return to power, China abandoned the strategy of annual land expeditions and instead embarked upon a massive and expensive expansion of the Great Wall of China. In this environment, funding for naval expeditions simply did not happen.

However, missions from Southeast Asia continued to arrive for decades. Depending on local conditions, they could reach such frequency that the court found it necessary to restrict them: the History of Ming records imperial edicts forbidding Java, Champa, and Siam from sending their envoys more often than once every three years. [94]

Southeast Asia

The Ong Bon Temple, built to venerate Zheng He, or Bon Dau Cong in Saigon, Vietnam Mieu Nhi Phu.jpg
The Ông Bổn Temple, built to venerate Zheng He, or Bổn Đầu Công in Saigon, Vietnam

Veneration of Zheng He

The Cakra Donya Bell, a gift from Zheng He to Pasai, now located at the Museum Aceh in Banda Aceh. Cakra Donya.JPG
The Cakra Donya Bell, a gift from Zheng He to Pasai, now located at the Museum Aceh in Banda Aceh.

Among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Zheng He became a figure of folk veneration. [95] Even some of his crew members who happened to stay in this or that port sometimes did as well, such as "Poontaokong" on Sulu. [94] The temples of this cult called after either of his names, Cheng Hoon or Sam Po are peculiar to overseas Chinese except for a single temple in Hongjian originally constructed by a returned Filipino Chinese in the Ming dynasty and rebuilt by another Filipino Chinese after the original was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. [94] (The same village of Hongjian, in Fujian's Jiaomei township, is also the ancestral home of Corazon Aquino.)


The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca. Ma Liu Jia San Bao Miao .JPG
The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca.

The oldest and most important Chinese temple in Malacca is the 17th-century Cheng Hoon Teng, dedicated to Guanyin. During Dutch colonial rule, the head of the Cheng Hoon Temple was appointed chief over the community's Chinese inhabitants. [94]

Following Zheng He's arrival, the sultan and sultana of Malacca visited China at the head of over 540 of their subjects, bearing ample tribute. Sultan Mansur Shah (r. 14591477) later dispatched Tun Perpatih Putih as his envoy to China, carrying a letter from the sultan to the Ming emperor. The letter requested the hand of an imperial daughter in marriage. Malay (but not Chinese) annals record that, in the year 1459, a princess named Hang Li Po or Hang Liu was sent from China to marry the sultan. The princess came with 500 high-ranking young men and a few hundred handmaidens as her entourage. They eventually settled in Bukit Cina. It is believed that a significant number of them married into the local populace, creating the descendants now known as the Peranakan. [96] Owing to this supposed lineage, the Peranakan still use special honorifics: Baba for the men and Nyonya for the women.


Stamp from Indonesia commemorating Zheng He's voyages to secure the maritime routes, usher urbanization and assist in creating a common prosperity throughout continents and cultures. Stamps of Indonesia, 026-05.jpg
Stamp from Indonesia commemorating Zheng He's voyages to secure the maritime routes, usher urbanization and assist in creating a common prosperity throughout continents and cultures.
The Zheng Hoo Mosque in Surabaya. Cheng Hoo1.JPG
The Zheng Hoo Mosque in Surabaya.

Indonesian Chinese have established temples to Zheng He in Jakarta, Cirebon, Surabaya, and Semarang. [94]

In 1961, the Indonesian Islamic leader and scholar Hamka credited Zheng He with an important role in the development of Islam in Indonesia. [97] The Brunei Times credits Zheng He with building Chinese Muslim communities in Palembang and along the shores of Java, the Malay Peninsula, and the Philippines. These Muslims allegedly followed the Hanafi school in the Chinese language. [98] The Malay Annals also record a number of Hanafi mosques in Semarang and Ancol, for instance were converted directly into temples of the Zheng He cult during the 1460s and '70s. [94] The Sam Poo Kong temple in Semarang was built to commemorate Zheng He's voyage to Java.

Modern scholarship

In the 1950s, historians such as John Fairbank and Joseph Needham popularized the idea that after Zheng He's voyages China turned away from the seas due to the Haijin edict and was isolated from European technological advancements. Modern historians point out that Chinese maritime commerce did not totally stop after Zheng He, that Chinese ships continued to participate in Southeast Asian commerce until the 19th century, and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng. Moreover, revisionist historians such as Jack Goldstone argue that the Zheng He voyages ended for practical reasons that did not reflect the technological level of China. [99] Although the Ming dynasty did ban shipping with the Haijin edict, this was a policy of the Hongwu Emperor that long preceded Zheng He and the ban so obviously disregarded by the Yongle Emperor was eventually lifted entirely. However, the ban on maritime shipping did force countless numbers of people into smuggling and piracy. Neglect of the imperial navy and Nanjing dockyards after Zheng He's voyages left the coast highly vulnerable to Japanese Wokou during the 16th century. [100] [101]

Richard von Glahn, a UCLA professor of Chinese history, commented that most treatments of Zheng He present him wrongly: they "offer counterfactual arguments" and "emphasize China's missed opportunity". This "narrative emphasizes the failure" instead of the accomplishments, despite his assertion that "Zheng He reshaped Asia". Glahn argues that maritime history in the 15th century was essentially the Zheng He story and the effects of his voyages. [102]

Cultural influence

Despite the official neglect, the adventures of the fleet captured the imagination of some Chinese and novelizations of the voyages occurred, such as the Romance of the Three-Jeweled Eunuch in 1597. [93]

On his travels, Zheng He built mosques[ citation needed ] while also spreading the worship of Mazu. He apparently never found time for a pilgrimage to Mecca but did send sailors there on his last voyage. He played an important part in developing relations between China and Islamic countries. [103] [104] Zheng He also visited Muslim shrines of Islamic holy men in the Fujian.[ citation needed ]

In modern times, interest in Zheng He revived substantially. The United States Navy ship USS Cheng Ho (IX-52) was named for Zheng He. In Vernor Vinge's 1999 science-fiction novel A Deepness in the Sky , an interstellar society of commercial traders in human space are named the Qeng Ho after the admiral. The expeditions featured prominently in Heather Terrell's 2005 novel The Map Thief. For the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's voyages in 2005, the China's CCTV produced a special television series Zheng He Xia Xiyang , starring Gallen Lo as Zheng He. He is also mentioned in part of the main storyline of the first-person shooter game Far Cry 3.


Nanjing Temple of Mazu

Zheng He built the Tianfei Palace (天妃宫; Tiānfēigōng; 'Palace of the Celestial Wife'), a temple in honor of the goddess Mazu, in Nanjing after the fleet returned from its first western voyage in 1407.

Taicang Stele

The "Deed of Foreign Connection and Exchange" (通番事跡) or "Tongfan Deed Stele" is located in the Tianfei Palace in Liuhe, Taicang, whence the expeditions first departed. The stele was submerged and lost, but has been rebuilt.

Nanshan Stele

In order to thank the Celestial Wife for her blessings, Zheng He and his colleagues rebuilt the Tianfei Palace in Nanshan, Changle county, in Fujian province as well prior to departing on their last voyage. At the renovated temple, they raised a stele entitled "A Record of Tianfei Showing Her Presence and Power" (天妃靈應之記; Tiānfēi Líng Yīng zhī Jì), discussing their earlier voyages. [105]

Sri Lankan Stele

The Galle Trilingual Inscription in Sri Lanka was discovered in the city of Galle in 1911 and is preserved at the National Museum of Colombo. The three languages used in the inscription were Chinese, Tamil and Persian. The inscription praises Buddha and describes the fleet's donations to the famous Tenavarai Nayanar temple of Tondeswaram frequented by both Hindus and Buddhists. [106] [107] [108]

Tomb and Museum

Zheng He's tomb in Nanjing has been repaired and a small museum built next to it, although his body was buried at sea off the Malabar Coast near Calicut in western India. [109] However, his sword and other personal possessions were interred in a Muslim tomb inscribed in Arabic.

The tomb of Zheng He's assistant Hong Bao was recently unearthed in Nanjing, as well.


In the People's Republic of China, 11 July is Maritime Day (中国航海日, Zhōngguó Hánghǎi Rì) and is devoted to the memory of Zheng He's first voyage. Initially Kunming Changshui International Airport was to be named Zheng He International Airport.

In 2015 Emotion Media Factory dedicated a special multimedia show "Zheng He is coming" for amusement park Romon U-Park (Ningbo, China). The show became a finalist of the amusement industry prestigious Brass Rings Awards by IAAPA. [110] [111]

See also


  1. Historical documents have both phraseology. See Xiang Da (向达) (2004). 关于三宝太监下西洋的几种资料[Regarding several kinds of historical materials on the expeditions of Eunuch Grand Director Sanbao to the Western Ocean]. 郑和研究百年论文选[100 Years of Zheng He Studies: Selected Writings] (in Chinese). p. 10. ISBN   978-7-301-07154-0.
  2. A chi is thought to vary between 10.5 to 12 inches [32]
  3. The Taizong Shilu 27 February 1424 entry reports that Zheng He was sent to deliver the seal, because the old seal was destroyed in a fire. The Xuanzong Shilu 17 September 1425 entry reports that Zhang Funama delivered a seal, because the old seal was destroyed in a fire. The later Mingshi compilers seem to have combined these accounts, remarking that Shi Jisun's succession was approved in 1424 and that a new seal was delivered in 1425, suggesting that only one seal was destroyed by fire. [42]
  4. Unnamed official who served as a Department Director under the Ministry of Works, who earlier had departed for Nanjing to supervise the renovation of government buildings and to reward the skilled workers. [47]

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Further reading