Early life and family
Zheng He was born Ma He (馬和) to a Muslim family of Kunyang, Kunming, Yunnan, China. He had an older brother and four sisters.
Zheng He's religious beliefs became all-embracing and eclectic in his adulthood. 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. 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."
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. His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan. Zheng He's grandfather carried the title hajji, while his father had the sinicized surname Ma and also the title hajji, which suggests that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the autumn of 1381, a Ming army invaded and conquered Yunnan, which was then ruled by the Mongol prince Basalawarmi, Prince of Liang. In 1381, Ma Hajji (Zheng He's father) died in the fighting between the Ming armies and Mongol forces. 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. 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).