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Zheng He

Zheng He (; Birth name: 马三宝; pinyin: Mǎ Sānbǎo; Arabic name: Hajji Mahmud) (1371 - 1435), a famous Chinese mariner and explorer, made the voyages collectively referred to as the "Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean" (三保太監下西洋) or "Zheng He to the Western Ocean", from 1405 to 1433. Life magazine ranked Zheng He the 14th most important person of the last millennium.



Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch who served as a close confidant of the Yongle Emperor of China (reigned 14031424), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Originally named Ma Sanbao (馬 三保), he came from Yunnan province. He belonged to the Semur minority, who are originally from Central Asia, and practice Islam. He was the sixth generation descendant of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a famous Yuan governor of the Yunnan Province from Bukhara in modern day Uzbekstan. His family name "Ma" came from Shams al-Din's fifth son Masuh. Both his father and grandfather had travelled on pilgrimage to Mecca, and no doubt he heard them recounting tales of travels to far away lands. After the Ming army conquered Yunnan, he was taken captive, and castrated, thus becoming a eunuch. The name Zheng He was given by the emperor. He studied at Nanjing Taixue (The Imperial Central College). His missions showed impressive demonstrations of organizational capability and technological might, but did not lead to significant trade, since Zheng He was an admiral and an official, not a merchant. There were also rumors that he was at least seven feet tall.

Zheng He sailed to Malacca in the 15th century. By the mid-15th century, a princess of China, Princess Hang Li Po (or Hang Liu) was sent by the Emperor of China to marry the King of Malacca (Sultan Mansur Shah). The princess came with her entourage (500 sons of ministers and a few hundred handmaidens). They eventually settled in Bukit Cina in Malacca. The descendants of these people (from mixed marriages with the local natives) are known today as Baba (the male title) and Nyonya (the female title). (MP)

In 1424 the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to curb the influence of the eunuchs at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended.


"The Western Ocean" refers to the Asian and African places Zheng He explored, including:

The number of his voyages vary depending on method of division, but he travelled at least seven times to "The Western Ocean" with his fleet. He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from more than thirty kingdoms -- including King Alagonakkara of Ceylon, who came to China to apologize to the Emperor.

There are speculations that some of Zheng He's ships may have travelled beyond the Cape of Good Hope. In particular, the Venetian monk and cartographer Fra Mauro describes in his 1457 Fra Mauro map the travels of a huge "junk from India" 2,000 miles into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420.

Zheng He himself wrote of his travels:

"We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense waterspaces 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..." (Tablet erected by Zhen He, Changle , Fujian, 1432. Louise Levanthes)

The fleets

According to Chinese sources, the fleet comprised 30,000 men and over 300 at its height.

The 1405 expedition consisted of 27,000 men and 317 ships, composed of:

  • "Treasure ships", used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (Nine-masted, about 400 feet long and 160 feet wide).
  • "Horse ships", carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet(Eight-masted, about 339 feet long and 138 feet wide)
  • "Supply ships", containing food-staple for the crew (Seven-masted, about 257 feet long and 115 feet wide).
  • "Troop transports" (Six-masted, about 220 feet long and 83 feet wide).
  • "Fuchuan warships" (Five-masted, about 165 feet long).
  • "Patrol boats" (Eight-oared, about 120 feet long).
  • "Water tankers", with 1 month supply of fresh water.

The enormous characteristics of the Chinese ships of the period are confirmed by Western travelers to the East, such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. According to Ibn Battuta, who visited China in 1347:

"...We stopped in the port of Calicut, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. On the China Sea travelling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called chunks (junks), middle sized ones called zaws (dhows) and the small ones kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited into mats. They are never lowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind.

A ship carries a complement of a thousand men, six hundred of whom are sailors and four hundred men-at-arms, including archers, men with shields and crossbows, who throw naphtha. Three smaller ones, the "half", the "third" and the "quarter", accompany each large vessel. These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun and Sin-Kalan. The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants.

This is the manner after which they are made; two (parallel) walls of very thick wooden (planking) are raised and across the space between them are placed very thick planks (the bulkheads) secured longitudinally and transversely by means of large nails, each three ells in length. When these walls have thus been built the lower deck is fitted in and the ship is launched before the upper works are finished" (Ibn Battuta).

Connection to the history of Late Imperial China

One popular belief holds that after Zheng He's voyages, China turned away from the seas and underwent a period of technological stagnation. This view of history has been used to support the notion of investment into space exploration. Although historians such as John Fairbank and Joseph Needham popularized this view in the 1950s, most current historians of China question its accuracy. They point out that Chinese maritime commerce did not stop after Zheng He, that Chinese ships continued to dominate Southeast Asian commerce until the 19th century and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng He. The travels of the Chinese junk Keying to the United States and England between 1846 to 1848 testify to the power of Chinese shipping until the 19th century.

Although the Ming Dynasty did ban shipping for a few decades with the Hai jin edict, they eventually lifted this ban. The alternative view cites the fact that by banning ocean going shipping the Ming (and later Qing) dynasties forced countless numbers of people into blackmarket smuggling. This reduced government tax revenue and increased piracy. The lack of an ocean going navy then left China highly vulnerable to the Waku (wakou) pirates that ravaged China in the 16th century.

One thing is certain. State-sponsored Ming naval efforts declined dramatically after Zheng He's voyages. Starting in the early 15th century China experienced increasing pressure from resurgent Mongolian tribes from the north. In recognition of this threat and possibly to move closer to his family's historical geographic power base, in 1421 the emperor Yongle moved the capital north from Nanjing to present-day Beijing. From the new capital he could apply greater imperial supervision to the effort to defend the northern borders. 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.

In 1449 Mongolian cavalry ambushed a land expedition personally led by the emperor Zhengtong 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 Zhengtong after his half-brother had proclaimed himself the new Jingtai emperor. Not until 1457 did political stability return when Zhengtong recovered the throne. 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.

More fundamentally, unlike the later naval expeditions conducted by European nations, the Chinese treasure ships appear to have been doomed in the long run (at least in the eyes of economic determinists) because the voyages lacked any economic motive. They were primarily conducted to increase the prestige of the emperor and the costs of the expeditions and of the return gifts provided to foreign royalty and ambassadors more than offset the benefit of any tribute collected. Thus when China's governmental finances came under pressure (which like all medieval governments' finances they eventually did), funding for the naval expeditions melted away. In contrast, by the 16th century, most European missions of exploration made enough profit from the resulting trade and seizure of native land/resources to become self-financing, allowing them to continue regardless of the condition of the state's finances.

Cultural echoes

A recent controversial theory put forward by Gavin Menzies (see the book 1421 cited in 'Further Reading' below) suggests that Zheng He circumnavigated the globe and discovered America in the 15th century before Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus.

The Qeng Ho space-faring society alluded to in Vernor Vinge's science fiction novel A Fire Upon the Deep (and later prominently featured in A Deepness in the Sky) reflects the name of Zheng He.

Zheng He's voyages and the subsequent abandonment of maritime exploration by the Chinese emperors have become symbolic in the space advocacy community of the success and cancellation of the Apollo Program.

See also

External links

Further reading

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