Zheng He—the forgotten Chinese mariner

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M. Hali[1]

China has produced remarkable statesmen, reformers, philosophers, scientists, economists, inventors and travelers but little is known about an ancient Chinese mariner, Zheng He (1371–1433), who brought China on the map of the world and left deep impressions of Chinese culture, tradesmanship and the art of marine navigation.

Formerly romanized as Cheng Ho, Zheng He was a Hui court eunuch, mariner, explorer and fleet admiral during China’s early Ming Dynasty. Zheng commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433.

Zheng He was born into a noble Muslim family but later suffered incarceration and was sold as a slave before his rise to fame. He was the great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the Governor of Yunnan during the early Youan Dynasty. His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan. His grandfather carried the title hajji. His father had the surname Ma and the title hajji, implying that they had made the pilgrimage to Makah. Zheng He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and was conversant in the Arabic language.

Fortunes changed for the ten year old Zheng He when, 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 at the age of 39, becoming a casualty of the hostilities between the Ming armies and Mongol forces while resisting the Ming conquest.

Zheng He was captured by the Ming armies at Yunnan in 1381, castrated and sent to serve in the household of Zhu Di, Prince of Yan (the future Yongle Emperor). Since 1380, the prince had been governing Beiping (the future Beijing), which was located near the northern frontier where the hostile Mongol tribes were situated. Zheng He would spend his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier. He often participated in Zhu Di’s military campaigns against the Mongols.

He 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. On 2 March 1390, Zheng He accompanied Zhu Di when he commanded his first military expedition, which was a great victory as the Mongol leader Naghachu surrendered after being trapped in a pincer movement.

Gradually, Zheng He gained the confidence and trust of the prince and assisted him in his usurpation of power as the Yongle Emperor, which in turn propelled Zheng He to the top of the imperial hierarchy.

During the (Chinese) New Year’s day on 11 February 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname “Zheng” to him (his original name was still Ma He), because he had distinguished himself defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba against imperial forces in the Siege of Beiping of 1399. Another reason was that the eunuch commander also distinguished himself during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing. Zheng He served as commander of the southern capital Nanjing (the capital was later moved to Beijing by Yongle). Zheng He’s greatest contributions came when he was appointed as Admiral of the Chinese fleet and led seven successful sea voyages to the west.

In the fourteenth and early fifteenth century, China was not well known. The Yongle Emperor designed 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. Admiral Zheng He’s seven voyages expanded Sino-Arab trade during the 14th century and gradually expanded Chinese knowledge of the world, extending Chinese influence to Africa and the Middle East. Zheng He’s first voyage departed 11 July 1405, from Suzhou and comprised a fleet of 317 ships holding 28,000 crewmen, while his last voyage was in 1433, during which he died and was buried at sea off the Malabar Coast near Calicut in western India. His grave, however, sans his mortal remains was situated at Nanjing. In 1985, a Muslim-style tomb was built in Nanjing on the site of the earlier horseshoe-shape grave; it contains his clothes, headgear, sword and other personal possessions inscribed in Arabic. A small museum was built next to it.

The remarkable aspect of Zheng He’s seven voyages are that he dispensed with Chinese merchandise but brought back great treasures, riches and won the hearts of the visiting ports and capitals through his skills of diplomacy; although, when faced with aggression, he responded with courage and audacity. His large army awed most would-be enemies into submission. Some reports mention 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. 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 took him back to China for trial and execution. He also waged a land war against the Kingdom of Kotte in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and East Africa. From his fourth voyage, he brought envoys from thirty states who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.

After the ascension of Zhu Di’s son as the Hongxi Emperor, the ocean voyages were discontinued and Zheng He was appointed as Defender of Nanjing, the empire’s southern capital. During the tenure of his rule at Nanjing, he executed the construction of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, an enormous pagoda described as a wonder of the world as late as the 19th century. Zheng He also built the Tianfei Palace (天妃宫, Tiānfēigōng, lit. “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. The “Deed of Foreign Connection and Exchange” (通番事跡) or “Tongfan Deed Stele” is located in the Tianfei Palace in Taicang, whence the expeditions first departed. The stele was submerged and lost, but has been rebuilt. 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), describing their earlier voyages.

On his travels, Zheng He built numerous mosques while also spreading the worship of Mazu. He apparently never found time for a pilgrimage to Makah but did send sailors there on his last voyage.

He played an important part in developing relations between China and Islamic countries. Zheng He also visited Muslim shrines of Islamic holy men in the Fujian province.

Zheng He’s elder brother had buried their father outside of Kunming. In his capacity, Admiral Zheng He had an epitaph engraved in honor of his father, which was composed by the Minister of Rites Li Zhigang on the Duanwu Festival of the 3rd year in the Yongle reign (1 June 1405).

Upon Zheng He’s death the voyages of the Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. In the decades after the last voyage, imperial officials minimized the importance of Zheng He and his expeditions throughout the many regional and dynastic histories they compiled. The information in the Yongle and Xuande Emperor’s official annals was incomplete and even erroneous; other official publications omitted them completely.

Although some have seen this as a conspiracy seeking to eliminate memories of the voyages, 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 because 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.

Zheng He’s 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. A trilingual stele known as the Galle Trilingual Inscription left by the navigator was discovered in the city of Galle in Sri Lanka 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 Buddhist Tenavarai Nayanar Temple of Tondeswaram.

In modern times, interest in Zheng He revived significantly. In Vernor Vinge’s 1999 science-fiction novel, A Deepness in the Sky, a race of commercial traders in human space is 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, China’s CCTV produced a special television series: Zheng He Xia Xiyang.

The General Survey of the Ocean Shores (瀛涯勝覽, Yíngyá Shènglǎn) composed in 1416 by the translator Ma Huan, who had accompanied Zheng He during his seven voyages, gave very detailed accounts of his observations of people’s customs and lives in the ports they visited.

Zheng himself wrote of his travels:

‘We have traversed more than 100,000 li (the “Chinese mile”, is a traditional Chinese unit of distance and is equivalent to half a kilometer or 1,640 feet; which is further divided into 1 500 chi or “Chinese feet”) 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…’

Zheng He’s sailing charts 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 earlier voyages. 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.

There is little attempt to provide an accurate 3-D representation; instead the sailing instructions are given using a 24-point compass system with a Chinese symbol for each point, together with 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 the 300 named places outside China, more than 80% can be confidently located. There are also fifty observations of stellar altitude to facilitate astronomical navigation.

Traditional and popular accounts of Zheng He’s voyages have described his great fleet comprising of gigantic ships, far larger than any other wooden ships in history. 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. Renowned travelers Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their translated accounts. Niccolò Da Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness of such mammoth ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen 5 masted junks weighing about 2,000 tons. There are even some sources that claim some of the treasure ships might have been as long as 600 feet. 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 ÌOrient, 65 meters (213.3 ft) long, which was built in the late 18th century. The first ships that were 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 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. However ample evidence is available confirming the gargantuan size of the treasure ships. 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.

Modern China has recognized the services of Zhong He. In the People’s Republic of China, 11 July is observed as Maritime Day (国 航海日, Zhōngguó Hánghǎi Rì) and is devoted to the memory of Zheng He’s first voyage. The Peoples Liberation Army and Navy training ship has been named after Zheng He. Initially the Chinese province of Yunnan’s capital city’s Kunming Changshui International Airport was to be named Zheng He International Airport.

It is imperative to conduct greater research into the travels and discoveries of Zheng He and restore the ancient mariner’s place in history because he had a profound effect on the region, including the territory now included in Pakistan.


The author is a former Pakistan Air Force Group Captain, who has served as Naval and Air Attaché at Riyadh (1991-95) is now a columnist, analyst and TV Talk Show host. He has authored three books Defence and Diplomacy, Pakistan Air Force: Second to None and Nairang-e-Zamana (in Urdu)