Zheng He: Ming China's Great Admiral

Zheng He monument

hassan saeed / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Scholars of Zheng He's life always wonder how history would be different if the first Portuguese explorers to round the tip of Africa and move into the Indian Ocean in the 15th century had met up with the admiral's huge Chinese fleet. Would Europe still have gone on to dominate much of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Zheng He is surrounded by such "what if" questions. However, it's important not to lose sight of his amazing accomplishments as they actually happened among all the counterfactual speculation. At the beginning of the 1400s, Zheng He and his sailors set out to show off China's might across the world, forever changing the history of the world.

Early Life and Career

Zheng He was born in 1371 in the city now called Jinning in Yunnan Province. His given name was "Ma He," indicative of his family's Hui Muslim origins since "Ma" is the Chinese version of "Mohammad." Zheng He's great-great-great-grandfather, Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, had been a Persian governor of the province under the Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty which ruled China from 1279 to 1368.

Ma He's father and grandfather were both known as "Hajji," the honorific title bestowed upon Muslim men who make the "hajj", or pilgrimage, to Mecca. Ma He's father remained loyal to the Yuan Dynasty even as the rebel forces of what would become the Ming Dynasty conquered larger and larger swathes of China.

In 1381, the Ming army killed Ma He's father and captured the boy. Just 10 years old, he was made into a eunuch and sent to Beiping (now Beijing) to serve in the household of 21-year-old Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan who later became the Yongle Emperor.

Ma He grew to be seven Chinese feet tall (probably around 6 foot 6 inches), with "a voice as loud as a huge bell." He excelled at fighting and military tactics, studied the works of Confucius and Mencius, and soon became one of the prince's closest confidants. In the 1390s, the Prince of Yan launched a series of attacks against the resurgent Mongols who were based just north of his fiefdom.

Zheng He's Patron Takes the Throne

The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Prince Zhu Di's eldest brother, died in 1398 after naming his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor. Zhu Di did not take kindly to his nephew's elevation to the throne and led an army against him in 1399. Ma He was one of his commanding officers.

By 1402, Zhu Di had captured the Ming capital at Nanjing and defeated his nephew's forces. He had himself crowned as the Yongle Emperor. Zhu Yunwen probably died in his burning palace, although rumors persisted that he had escaped and become a Buddhist monk. Due to Ma He's key role in the coup, the new emperor awarded him a mansion in Nanjing as well as the honorific name "Zheng He."

The new Yongle Emperor faced serious legitimacy problems due to his seizure of the throne and the possible murder of his nephew. According to Confucian tradition, the first son and his descendants should always inherit, but the Yongle Emperor was the fourth son. Therefore, the court's Confucian scholars refused to support him and he came to rely almost entirely upon his corps of eunuchs, Zheng He most of all.

The Treasure Fleet Sets Sail

Zheng He's most important role in his master's service and the reason he is remembered today was as the commander in chief of the new treasure fleet which would serve as the emperor's principal envoy to the peoples of the Indian Ocean basin. The Yongle Emperor appointed him to head the massive fleet of 317 junks crewed by over 27,000 men that set out from Nanjing in the fall of 1405. At the age of 35, Zheng He had achieved the highest rank ever for a eunuch in Chinese history.

With a mandate to collect tribute and establish ties with rulers all around the Indian Ocean shores, Zheng He and his armada set forth for Calicut on India's western coast. It would be the first of seven total voyages of the Treasure Fleet, all commanded by Zheng He, between 1405 and 1432.

During his career as a naval commander, Zheng He negotiated trade pacts, fought pirates, installed puppet kings, and brought back tribute for the Yongle Emperor in the form of jewels, medicines, and exotic animals. He and his crew traveled and traded not only with the city-states of what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, Siam, and India but even with the Arabian ports of modern-day Yemen and Saudi Arabia, going as far as Somalia and Kenya.

Although Zheng He was raised Muslim and visited the shrines of Islamic holy men in Fujian Province and elsewhere, he also venerated Tianfei, the Celestial Consort and protector of sailors. Tianfei had been a mortal woman living in the 900s who achieved enlightenment as a teenager. Gifted with foresight, she was able to warn her brother of an approaching storm at sea, saving his life.

The Last Voyages

In 1424, the Yongle Emperor passed away. Zheng He had made six voyages in his name and brought back countless emissaries from foreign lands to bow before him, but the cost of these excursions weighed heavily on the Chinese treasury. In addition, the Mongols and other nomadic peoples were a constant military threat along China's northern and western borders.

The Yongle Emperor's cautious and scholarly elder son, Zhu Gaozhi, became the Hongxi Emperor. During his nine-month rule, Zhu Gaozhi ordered an end to all treasure fleet construction and repairs. A Confucianist, he believed that the voyages drained too much money from the country. He preferred to spend on fending off the Mongols and feeding people in famine-ravaged provinces instead.

When the Hongxi Emperor died less than a year into his reign in 1426, his 26-year-old son became the Xuande Emperor. A happy medium between his proud, mercurial grandfather and his cautious, scholarly father, the Xuande Emperor decided to send Zheng He and the treasure fleet out again.

In 1432, the 61-year-old Zheng He set out with his largest fleet ever for one final trip around the Indian Ocean, sailing all the way to Malindi on Kenya's east coast and stopping at trading ports along the way. On the return voyage, as the fleet sailed east from Calicut, Zheng He died. He was buried at sea, although legend says that the crew returned a braid of his hair and his shoes to Nanjing for burial.

A Lasting Legacy

Although Zheng He looms as a larger-than-life figure in modern eyes both in China and abroad, Confucian scholars made serious attempts to expunge the memory of the great eunuch admiral and his voyages from history in the decades following his death. They feared a return to the wasteful spending on such expeditions. In 1477, for example, a court eunuch requested the records of Zheng He's voyages with the intention of restarting the program, but the scholar in charge of the records told him that the documents were lost.

Zheng He's story survived, however, in the accounts of crew members including Fei Xin, Gong Zhen, and Ma Huan, who went on several of the later voyages. The treasure fleet also left stone markers at the places they visited. As sailors will, they left behind people with distinctly Chinese features in some ports, as well.

Today, whether people view Zheng He as an emblem of Chinese diplomacy and "soft power," or as a symbol of the country's aggressive overseas expansion, all must agree that the admiral and his fleet stand amongst the great wonders of the ancient world.