Zheng He/Ma He: Chinese Explorers In The 1400s

Zheng He is considered one of the greatest seafarers of ancient China, who, ironically, was born in the mountains. He is known for traveling far and wide, all across Southeast Asia, Western Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and even East Africa, between the years 1405 and 1433.

And legend has it that he commanded large ships carrying hundreds of sailors on the 4 decks, which were about twice as long as wooden ships ever recorded in history.

Who Was Zheng He?

zheng he statue

Zheng He, who was born in 1371 and died in 1435, was a popular Chinese mariner, diplomat, explorer, fleet admiral, and court eunuch that lived large during the reign of China’s earliest dynasties, the Ming Dynasty.

Born Ma He, Zheng He was from a Muslim family (Hui), and he only adopted the surname Zheng after the Yongle Emperor conferred him. Zheng He’s father was a Hajji Muslim who’d made Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca. His father’s family claims to have descended from the family of one of the early Mongol governors who ruled the Yunnan province located in Southwestern China and also King Muhammad of Bukhara, which is modern-day Uzbekistan. Their family name, Ma, is said to be derived from the Chinese version of the name Muhammad.

What Did Zheng He Do?

zheng he travel map

Zheng He is known for commanding large expeditionary treasure voyages far and wide from China to as far as Southeast Asia, India, Western Asia, and even East Africa. His expeditions were between 1405 and 1433.

At the age of 10, Yunnan, who was the last Mongol to take hold of China, was conquered by the Chinese forces that were led by the Ming Dynasty. The Mongol dynasty (Yunnan) was overthrown in 1386. At the time, young Ma He (Ma Sanbao) was one of the boys captured and also castrated then sent out to the army as an orderly. He remained in the army, and by 1390 when the Chinese commands were under the leadership of Prince Yan, Ma He had established and also distinguished himself as one of the junior officers. He was also highly skilled in not just war but also diplomacy. He also made very influential friends in the Ming Dynasty’s royal court.

He was known for being one of the best Yongle Emperor’s diplomatic agents, and though his naval expeditions stand out the most to historians, he was also one of the emperor’s court eunuchs after he retired from his naval tasks.

zheng he treasure ship

Where Did Zheng He Travel?By 1400 when the Yan Prince started a revolution against his nephew, Emperor Jianwen, subsequently taking over the throne in 1402 as Yongle’s emperor, China’s economy was in ruins, and as the country was being restored, the Ming Court also sought to expand their efforts and exert power. The Ming Dynasty was able to do this through a display of their naval power which brought inline the maritime states of both Southeast Asia and the South. Notably, the Chinese had been working on the expansion of their power out in the sea for about 300 years, and to cement their position, they extended their seaborne commerce introducing the taste of Chinese aromatics and spices to the world and getting more raw materials. The naval forces definitely widened China’s geographic horizons. This was also enhanced by the advancements made in shipbuilding and sailing technologies.

With Ma He as the eunuch of the Ming Dynasty Yongle Court, he ascended through the ranks and was named Zheng He by the emperor. Zheng He was also selected to be the commander in chief by the emperor, and he was in charge of a series of missions going to the Western Oceans,

He set his very first sail in 1405, where he commandeered 62 ships with 27,800 men. His first visit was to Vietnam (Champa back then), Thailand (previously Siam), Melaka (Malacca), the island of Java, then to and through the Indian Ocean all the way to Calicut on Malabar’s Coast in India and Ceylon in Sri Lanka. He had many expeditions until 1407, when he returned to China.

His second voyage was between 1408 and 1409, where he visited Calicut again, stopping at Chochin along the coast, and going to the south. He did, however, encounter a bit of treachery from the Ceylon King Alagonakkara. Zheng He’s forces defeated the Alagonakkara forces, taking king Nanjing captive. He then set out on his 3rd voyage in October of 1409, sailing to Hormuz along the Persian Gulf, returning in 1411 when he touched down at Samudra on Sumatra’s northern tip.

His 4th voyage was in 1413, stopping at all of China’s main ports before proceeding from India to Hormuz. He sent a detachment fleet south towards Arabia’s coast, stopping at Oman (Dhofar) and Yemen (Aden). One of the Chinese missions paid a visit to Mecca and then continued to Egypt. Some of his fleets went down Africa’s East Coast along what’s now Kenya and Somalia, getting near the Mozambique Channel, and returning to China in 1415. On his way back, he had an envoy of at least 30 states from South and also Southeast Asia, all paying homage to the emperor.

On Zheng He’s 5th Voyage of 1417 to 1419, Ming’s fleet plied the Persian Gulf once again and went back to the East African coast. This voyage was followed by the 1421 6th voyage taking back home emissaries from China. In this voyage, his fleets visited India, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arabia.

zheng he treasure ship size

Yongle Emperor passed away in 1424, and there was a shift in policies, with the new emperor (Hongxi) suspending all the naval expeditions going abroad. Zheng He was subsequently appointed the garrison commander for Nanjing, and he disbanded his troops.

His last voyage, the 7th one, left China in 1431, and he made trips to Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, Indian Coast, African coast, and the Red Sea. But he died in 1433’s spring in Calicut, returning to China the same summer.

When Did Zheng He Travel?

Zheng He traveled between 1405 and 1433.

What Did Zheng He Discover?

zheng he map

During his 7 voyages, Zheng He made different discoveries. One of the biggest discoveries he made was the expansiveness of the world, the beauty that lay in all these parts of the world, the potential of trade, and also he brought back many new and interesting things, including camels and giraffes. He discovered numerous treasures and also brought back into China many diplomats from many countries, all ready to meet the Chinese emperor.

Zheng He Discovered Australia And America?

“1421”, a best-selling book by Gavin Menzies, a former British naval officer, suggests that the great 15th-century treasure fleets of the Ming dynasty, captained by the famed Muslim eunuch Zheng He, landed in Australia and even as far afield as the Americas.

Why Was Zheng He Important, and Why Is Zheng He Famous?

Zheng He was important and famous because of the multiple discoveries he made and the fact that his treasure voyages opened China to the rest of the world. He also helped to promote Ming Dynasty’s emperor glory.

His legacy to the seas and oceans expanded the political influence of China to the rest of the world while also expanding the relations between the east and the west. He also helped chart new routes for travel and trade.

When Was Zheng He Born And Died?

Zheng He was born in 1371, and he died in 1433.

How Did Zheng He Die?

He died on his 7th voyage in 1433. At this time, he was the commander of the largest Treasure Fleet, sailing to Java, Sumatra, and other parts of Asia, and finally to Calicut in India. On this trip, he finally got to make his Hajj to Mecca. But at some point during this voyage, he fell ill, dying in 1433. His tomb was erected in the city of Nanjing, where it still stands to date.

How Did Zheng He Travel?

zheng he voyages

He traveled in a voyager treasure fleet comprising trading ships, support vessels, and warships. The biggest ship in the fleet was 127 meters long and 52metres wide, and it had 4 decks.  

The other ships in the fleet included the Equine ships, supply ships, Fuchuan warships, patrol boats, troop transports, and water tankers.

How Did Zheng He Impact The World?

In addition to opening up China to the rest of the world, he also opened up the world to China, enhancing trade and making explorations possible throughout the world. And by commandeering the largest, most advanced fleet worldwide using a compass, his expeditions opened up international waters.

He also played a role in the spread of worship across the world – he set up many mosques in the routes he covered.

zheng he vs Columbus

Christopher Columbus

Both Zheng He and Christopher Columbus played pivotal roles in expanding their cultures’ geographical knowledge and spheres of influence. Both their journeys and their reasons for embarking on them were unique.

Zheng was A Chinese explorer from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Between 1405 and 1433, he traveled to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Africa, becoming famous for his explorations in those regions. Zheng His voyages were driven by a desire to expand Chinese commercial and diplomatic ties and cultural influence abroad.

Hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of people made up Zheng He’s crewed on their expeditions. His ships dwarfed those of Christopher Columbus and featured cutting-edge navigational and maritime technology like magnetic compasses, sternpost rudders, and waterproof cabins. The goals of Zheng He’s travels were to increase China’s international profile and to forge tributary alliances with other countries.

Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, was an Italian who sailed for the Spanish. Columbus set sail for the Americas in 1492 in search of a faster route to Asia and to establish a Spanish colony in the New World. The European colonization of the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade both began with Columbus’ voyage.

When compared to Zheng He’s hundreds of ships and thousands of crew members, Columbus’ expeditions consisted of just three small ships. Columbus used old-fashioned tools like maps, charts, and astrolabes because he didn’t have access to Zheng He’s cutting-edge seafaring innovations.

In sum, both Zheng He and Christopher Columbus were important figures in the expansion of their cultures’ geographical knowledge and spheres of influence. Whereas Christopher Columbus set sail in search of a faster route to Asia and a permanent Spanish colony in the New World, Zheng He’s voyages were driven by a desire to expand Chinese trade, diplomacy, and culture. Zheng He’s voyages were not meant to establish colonies, but rather to project Chinese power and prestige. His expeditions were larger and more technologically advanced than Columbus’s.

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