Zheng He (Pinyin Zheng4 He2, Wade-Giles Cheng Ho, Gwoyeu Romatzyh Jenq Her). (1371-1433?). Chinese court eunuch and commander-in-chief of the Ming dynasty's maritime expeditions. The popular spelling Qeng Ho is not traditional, but derives from an error by the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge.

Zheng He was born in Yunnan province, to a family named Ma, evidently of Mongol-Arab stock. His father and grandfather both bore the name Hazhi, apparently a transliteration of Hajji, one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ma ("horse") remains a common surname among Chinese Muslims.

After gaining fame for his military prowess in battles against the Mongols as a young man, he was appointed Director of Eunuch Affairs in 1404 and shortly thereafter put in charge of the fleet. It was a token of his rising stature that he was granted use of the native Chinese surname Zheng. For most of his career he was under the protection of the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di (1360-1424), who had usurped the throne in 1402 with Zheng's active military assistance. (Zhu Di is better known today as the Yongle Emperor.)

Zheng He directed seven voyages before court intrigue put an end to the Ming's expeditions. The voyages were designed to raise Ming prestige among trading partners and to secure known trade routes, rather than to explore the unknown. (Since China traditionally viewed trading partners as vassal states, however, Zheng He's forces also engaged in some military and political activities, mostly in Java.) The expeditions went to important trading nations in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Arabia, and East Africa. These are all places with a significant Muslim presence, and it is possible that Zheng's Muslim background was a factor in his being chosen to lead the voyages. Surviving navigation records use terminology that suggests familiarity with Arabic notation, although it is likely that non-Chinese navigators were employed. But Zheng He took a Buddhist name, Fushan (Fu2-shan4 "fortune"+"goodness"), and allowed his image to be placed in temples in a number of places in Southeast Asia. Both of these acts clearly violate cardinal rules of Islam.

Zheng He's voyages were as follows:

  • First Expedition. 1405-1407. Main site visited: The fleet consisted of 62 or 63 large "treasure-ships" and 255 smaller vessels, manned by 27,800 sailors and passengers. A highlight of this expedition was Zheng's confrontation with the Cantonese pirate Chen Zuyi, who had been active for some years in the Straits of Malacca. Zheng's forces fought Chen's in a bloody battle and brought the pirate back to China where he was executed in 1407. This police action liberated the Malacca Strait and gained the Ming court a shining reputation in Southeast Asia as a force for righteousness.

  • Second Expedition. 1407-1409. Sites visited: This was the first Chinese expedition into the Indian Ocean. Calicut had long been in trade contact with China, and Zheng He had been commanded to pay a formal visit to the King of Calicut, with gifts from the Emperor. On the way back, Zheng's forces became embroiled in a conflict between the rival Javanese rulers, Wikramawarddhana in Madjapahit and Werabhumi in Eastern Java. After 170 of his men were killed by Wikramawarddhana's troops, Zheng decided to intervene and placed a son of Werabhumi on the throne. On his return to China he built a a votive temple in thanks to the Chinese sea-goddess Tianfei (not the sort of thing a good Muslim is supposed to do, to be sure).

  • Third Expedition. 1409-1411. Sites visited: This smaller expedition mounted a trade show of Ming crafts in Ceylon, especially featuring things involved in Buddhist ritual. Zheng's fleet was attacked in the night by the local ruler, who apparently coveted his goods. The ruler and his family were, however, captured by Zheng, and taken back to China before eventually being released. The other main activities on this expedition seem to have involved paying diplomatic courtesies and gathering herbs and lumber.

  • Fourth Expedition. 1413-1415. Sites visited: This expedition was as large as the first had been, and reached significantly beyond the range of the previous three. On the way back, Zheng's forces became involved in a civil war in Sumatra, crowning a ruler of Zheng's choice and taking the contender back to China as a prisoner. No fewer than nineteen of the states Zheng had visited sent envoys back with him to China, which pleased the Ming court greatly. Zheng brought back a giraffe as part of his tribute cargo, the first ever seen in China, which astonished the court.

  • Fifth Expedition. 1417-1419. The nominal purpose of this expedition was to send home the envoys who had gone to China with the Fourth Expedition. A good Chinese host always sees his guests part of the way back home, does he not? When the envoys reached their homes and reported the Chinese reaction to the sight of a giraffe, their countrymen gathered menageries of unusual local animals, which Zheng He was obliged to carry back to China as tribute. These animals included ostriches, leopards, lions, zebras, camels, rhinoceros, and more giraffes. It is thought that Taiwan may have been visited in a side journey by part of the fleet on this expedition.

  • Sixth Expedition. 1421-1422. New sites visited: This voyage seems to have been largely diplomatic. Still more giraffes were dispatched to China.

  • Seventh Expedition. 1432-1433. This last expedition was delayed by political infighting, because the Yongle Emperor had died in 1424 and Zheng He's opponents were now free to obstruct him. The fifth Ming emperor, Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435, the Xuande Emperor), eventually ordered the final expedition several years after coming to the throne in 1426. A prime goal of this expedition was to renew diplomatic relationships that had weakened after the Yongle Emperor's death. Zheng He is thought to have died at Calicut on this journey. It is said he was buried at Niushou Mountain near Nanjing. In 1985 the Chinese government grandly refurbished a Zheng tomb that may have been his.

Zheng He's appearance is described as follows in the records of his family:

When he entered adulthood, he reportedly became seven feet tall and had a waist about five feet in circumference. His cheeks and forehead were high but his nose was small. He had glaring eyes and a voice as loud as a huge bell. He knew a great deal about warfare and was well accustomed to battle. (See end of write-up for citation.)

The main effects of Zheng He's voyages were increased prestige of the Ming in countries all around the shores of the Indian Ocean, and greater Chinese knowledge of the larger world (especially about giraffes). Chinese officialdom in particular gained improved knowledge of the major sea-lanes through which China's trading wealth came. But after Zheng He's death, the traditional forces of insularity gained the upper hand in Chinese politics, which they have held with only a few breaks down to our own time.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978, millions of Chinese citizens have been travelling abroad to experience the vast non-Chinese world and let the world know something about China. Millions of non-Chinese have travelled to China and accomplished the same ends in a different way. Zheng He, that Arab-Mongol-Chinese Muslim-Buddhist, a lowly eunuch who rose to command 300 ships, is a good symbol for all of us. May China and the world commingle forever more!

Although Zheng He's travels were soft-pedaled in later histories, they formed the basis of a popular but mostly fictional account, Sanbao Taijian Xia Xiyang Ji (The Record of the Triple-Treasure Eunuch Going Down to the Western Ocean), penned by Luo Moudeng in 1597. ("Triple Treasure Eunuch" seems to have been Zheng He's title as a eunuch.) This book is a work of fantasy in the tradition of the Journey to the West and other Chinese favorites. Recently a British historian named Gavin Menzies has claimed that Zheng He circumnavigated the earth and reached both Australia and North America. Time will tell if this is the truth or another fantasy.

This write-up draws heavily on the article by Chang Kuei-sheng in the Dictionary of Ming Biography, edited by L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1976), pp. 194-200. My thanks to dharmaraja, who offered material that he had prepared for his own write-up on Zheng He, which mine seems unfortunately to have preempted.

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