Zheng He

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 61–62) or
1435 (aged 63–64)
Other namesMa He
Sanbao
OccupationAdmiral, diplomat, explorer, and palace eunuch
EraMing 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]

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.

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]

Zheng 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]

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]

In the autumn of 1381, a Ming army invaded and conquered Yunnan, which was then ruled by the Mongol prince Basalawarmi, Prince of Liang.[18] In 1381, Ma Hajji (Zheng He's father) died in the fighting between the Ming armies and Mongol forces.[19] 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.[19] 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).[20]