China: Hero of the Ming Dynasty: The man who mapped the world
- Hero of the Ming Dynasty: The man who mapped the world
A Mongolian Muslim who was castrated as a boy became
one of the most intrepid explorers in history. As
China prepares to celebrate the 600th anniversary of
his first voyage, Clifford Coonan in Beijing tells the
extraordinary story of Admiral Zheng He
Published: 26 September 2006
Standing seven feet tall, Admiral Zheng He towered
over his crew at the prow of his legendary treasure
ship. Setting out six centuries ago on the first of
seven landmark voyages, he reached south-east Asia,
India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and as far as
the east coast of Africa. Some say he may even have
made it to America.
The exploits of the intrepid Ming Dynasty explorer
known as the Three-Jewelled Eunuch, a devout Muslim of
Mongolian descent from Yunnan province, still resonate
in China today, where he is seen as a symbol of
emerging modern China's peaceful rise.
Zheng He's journeys took him to 37 countries over 28
years as part of the mightiest fleet that ever sailed,
with 300 ships and 28,000 sailors. It wasn't until the
First World War that a bigger flotilla took to the
The pride of the fleet was the flagship, Zheng He's
treasure ship, a hardwood vessel with 1,000 men on
board. At 400ft, it dwarfed Christopher Columbus's
Santa Maria, a minnow at 98ft. It had nine masts and
12 red sails and was packed full of porcelain,
calligraphy scrolls, elegant musical instruments - the
finest items China had to offer.
Emperor Yongle, the first ruler of the Ming dynasty,
wanted to showcase China's naval power, and in 1402
commissioned Zheng to undertake a daring mission to
the seas known to the Chinese as the Western Oceans.
Three years later, the expedition was ready.
Born Ma He in 1371, (the name Ma is the Chinese
transcription of Muhammad), to poor parents, the
future great seafarer was captured by soldiers and
castrated when he was still a boy. He was forced into
the army, where he excelled, earning the honorific
surname "Zheng" after fighting in a battle near
Eunuchs were politically influential in the court, and
Zheng De became close to the third Ming emperor, Zhu
Di, as a key strategist, earning him the title of
Prince of Yan. He also studied languages and
He died in 1433, aged 62 - some say on the return leg
of his seventh and final journey. His tomb, bearing
the inscription "Allah is Great" stands at the
southern outskirts of Niushou in Nanjing.
Leaving Nanjing laden with silk, ceramics, pottery and
copper coins, the fleet returned packed with spices,
fruits and rare and exotic fauna, such as China's
first giraffe, which the voyagers picked up in
Somalia. The emperor himself went down the palace gate
to see the giraffe, which was accompanied by a zebra
and an oryx.
All the information about Zheng He's voyages we have
comes from writing on a stone pillar discovered in the
1930s in Fujian province, and the accounts of those
who sailed with him. The account on the pillar tells
of seeing "in the ocean huge waves like mountains
rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian
regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of
But the voyages were not only about trade. A Muslim
scholar named Ma Huan documented the daring voyages.
He wrote of how in 1407, a Cantonese sea pirate named
Chen Zuyi, who with 5,000 men operated out of Sumatra
preying in the Straits of Malacca, was destroyed by
Zheng He's armada. Chen Zuyi was taken back to Nanjing
and publicly executed.
The sailors were helped by technological advances such
as the compass, or "south pointing spoon", fore and
aft sails, and airtight compartments in the hull.
Boat-builders in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu
province in eastern China, have just completed a
replica of one of the ships in the fleet, 200ft long
and 46 ft wide. Sailing in ships like the replica just
completed, Zheng He is credited as the first man to
have established a direct sea route linking the
western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
The Nanjing shipyard where much of Zheng He's fleet
was built has been excavated. The next step for the
boat builders working at the Nanjing Treasure Boat
Heritage Park is to embark on their most ambitious
project to date - a replica of the treasure ship
itself. Work begins this month and should be completed
in 2008, when the replica boat is expected to sail as
an "image envoy" in the aquatic events in the 2008
The boat will also travel to countries along the
ancient Maritime Silk Route explored by early Chinese
sailors, its builders said.
A problem with building replicas of the treasure ship
and other vessels in Zheng He's fleet is that no one
really knows what the ships looked like. While
thousands of ships were built, none of them exist
today, not even as shipwrecks, leaving boat-builders
to try to recreate the vessels from documentary
evidence. It's a procedure involving experiment, trial
and error. Previous efforts to rebuild the treasure
ship have sunk, and the size of the replica will be
considerably smaller than the original ship because of
the lack of records which might explain how its
structure held together, a senior engineer told the
Xinhua news agency.
Costing $10m (£5.2m), the boat will be constructed on
an ancient wooden framework made from oak, as
historians think the original probably was, but will
have all mod cons inside, including computers, engines
and air conditioning.
The rehabilitation of Zheng He's reputation began in
the early part of the last century, and by the 1930s
he worked his way into school textbooks as a national
hero. The country has been gripped with Zheng He fever
since the 600th anniversary of the first of his
fantastic voyages. His exploits have become a focal
point for Chinese nationalism because, in the days
when the Admiral roamed the waves, China was far more
technologically advanced than other cultures and had
no equal at sea.
In 2005, the government organised an exhibition at the
National Museum in Beijing's Tiananmen Square
proclaiming him a hero. The propaganda tsars are keen
to push the Zheng He story as a symbol of Chinese
ingenuity, but also of its benign foreign policy -
China's peaceful rise, as President Hu Jintao likes to
put it. They insist that Zheng He was not a coloniser
and was more interested in trade than theft, although
they concede the fleet was also supposed to spread the
word to the peoples of southern Asia in particular
that China was a mighty power.
"Unlike many latter-day European counterparts, which
sailed across the great oceans to conquer other
nations by force, the Chinese fleet brought to those
foreign lands tea, chinaware, silk and craftsmanship.
They gave the rest of the world peace and civilisation
and never occupied any foreign land, an achievement
symbolising the ancient kingdom's sincerity to
increase exchanges with other nations," ran an
editorial in the state-run China Daily last month.
Many historians disagree with this view of Ming
dynasty benevolence. As the Singapore-based historian
Geoff Wade has pointed out, the Ming dynasty was
involved in numerous expansionary campaigns, including
the invasion of Vietnam and dispatching fleets around
south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean to implement a
"pax Ming" across the seas of the region.
They were involved in a civil war in Java in 1406, and
another in Sumatra in 1415; they seized the Sri Lankan
capital - and Sri Lanka's leader - and the Thai
capital of Ayudhya, as well as establishing bases to
control the Straits of Malacca.
Meanwhile, the good admiral was in the limelight again
after the publication by the British author Gavin
Menzies of 1421, which claims that he reached the
Americas in that year. In January, a map unearthed by
a collector of old charts in Shanghai seemed to show
that Admiral Zheng first landed on the shores of the
New World, decades before Christopher Columbus's Santa
Maria had even been built.
The map purported to prove that Zheng rounded Africa's
southernmost tip, the Cape of Good Hope, 76 years
before Vasco da Gama, and circumnavigated the globe
100 years earlier than Ferdinand Magellan.
In June a medal was discovered in North Carolina,
complete with Ming dynasty inscriptions, that had been
dug up kilometres inland from the coast. The
six-Chinese-character inscription, "Da Ming Xuan De
Wei Ci", on the medal translates into "Awarded by Xuan
De of Great Ming". It refers to the period between
1426 and 1435, the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong - long
before Columbus's 1492 landing. Other researchers say
that the high incidence of the genetic disorder,
Machado-Joseph disease among local American Indians,
which first appeared in Yunnan in China, could have
been spread by the Chinese fleet in the 1430s.
Whether he did indeed beat Columbus to the New World,
the story of the way Zheng He faded from view is also
a puzzling one. The admiral sailed for nearly 30
years, but after the emperor died in 1424, China began
to look inward, beginning a policy of isolationism
that lasted hundreds of years. China had the
technology and the manpower in its grasp and she could
easily have gone on to colonise the whole planet - but
instead of becoming the first global superpower, the
new emperor shut the doors and burnt all records of
Zheng's fleet, ending the "Age of Sea".
China's isolationism at the time marked the growing
power of the conservative Confucian scholars, who had
long been envious of the power of the eunuchs. Shortly
after the last voyage of the treasure fleet, the
Chinese emperor forbade overseas travels and stopped
all building and repair of ocean-going junks. Anyone
who disobeyed the ban on overseas travel was killed.
The greatest navy of the world willed itself into
extinction, leaving China closed off and with little
way of protecting itself against attack from Japanese
For their part, great colonial nations such as Spain
and Portugal began honing their sailing skills and, in
tandem, their colonial administration abilities, and
the rest, as they say, is history.