Cheng Ho was a Muslim eunuch who became the belief of the Chinese Emperor Yongle (reigned in 1403-1424), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Its original name was Ma He, also known as Ma Sanbao, comes from Yunnan province. When the Sun forces conquered Yunnan, Zheng He was captured and then used as eunuchs. He was a Hui tribes, tribes that are physically similar to the ethnic Han, but the religion of Islam.
“We have…beheld in the ocean, huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarians regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course rapid like that of a star, traversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.”
Those words were written by a famous Chinese admiral known to modern historians as Zheng He. More than a century before Europeans commissioned Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan to unleashed their sails, China sent their admiral "Cheng Ho" to conducted seven major “Treasure Fleets” which promoted China's power and wealth. Cheng Ho’s life began in poverty and ended as the Admiral of China’s Navy. What made Cheng Ho China’s greatest naval hero?
The youth, Ma Ho
The Ming dynasty came to power after the Yuan dynasty of the Mongols had been overthrown in 1368. The newest Emperor demonstrated foresight by planting thousands of trees near his newly established shipyard and school of foreign languages in the new Capital of Najing. As his forest and interpreters developed, he continued to consolidate his kingdom in an effort to show the peripheral of the world the strength of the Chinese.
Zheng He (as modern western historians call him) was born in 1371 A.D in the town of Kunyang in the provence of Yunan. His parents named him “Ma Ho” in honor of Mohammed, the founder of Islam. His father and grandfather were both Muslims and had each visited Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage. Their tales of the long journey thrilled Ma Ho and he longed make a glorious journey himself one day. Ma Ho’s province was one of the last Mongol strongholds and was conquered by the Ming in 1382. The Ming army invaded the Yunan Province, killed Ma Ho’s father, and captured young Ma Ho. By age eleven [some sources say age thirteen] he was brought to the capital, and made a servant under the command of the Emperor’s fourth son, Prince Zhu Di.
In retrospect, the life of a servant was one of the best things that happened to him. During his years with Zhu Di, he worked his way up the ladder until he became one of the prince’s most trusted servants. Later on, Prince Di renamed him “Cheng Ho”.
The adult, Cheng Ho
In 1402 Cheng Ho received even more power when Zhu Di became the Emperor of China and renamed himself Emperor Yong’le. Like many Chinese rulers before him, Emperor Yong’le was a power hungry ruler. However, this did not cloud his field of judgment. He was a sound leader and one of the best of the Ming Dynasty. To expand his power and reinforce China‘s dominance in the surrounding lands, Yong’le appointed Cheng Ho as Admiral of China’s fleet and commanded him to build a “Treasure Fleet” to explore and visit regions beyond China. During just the next three years, Cheng Ho helped produce sixty-two ships, for carrying things such as troops, horses, supplies and water. Four flag ships that were 400 feet long and 160 wide led this Treasure Fleet. The fact that it only took Ho and company three years to build these ships really shows China’s and Ho’s ingenuity. It took Noah around one hundred years to build the ark. “The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits” (Genesis 6:15 NKJV). A cubit is around 18 inches long, and thus Noah’s ark was only slightly longer (450 feet) and a good deal thinner (75 feet) than the flag ships of Cheng Ho. Yet Ho produced four times the ships as Noah in one thirtieth of the time. Of course, Yong’le probably ordered thousands of workers to assist in the building of these mammoth sized ships, while Noah had only seven other helpers.
Cheng Ho was then declared “Admiral of the Western Seas” and given the largest fleet ever to sail on the ocean up to that time. It had sixty-two large ships about 600 feet long, and they were accompanied by hundreds of smaller vessels. A Chinese’s historian described them as “houses that look like great clouds when they spread their sails.” Cheng Ho's first destination was Champa, which is a part of today’s Vietnam. Upon landing there he found that many Chinese people had emigrated there from coastal provinces since the time of the Tang dynasty. He then traveled west across the Indian Ocean for days without sight of any land. The Chinese sailors then met one of the most amazing and horrific things you can meet on the ocean, a hurricane. The ships were tossed violently around and almost sank, the sailors prepared to die and many prayed to the Taoist goddess called the Celestial Spouse. A bright light they later called “divine’ suddenly appeared the tips of the mast. Zheng He writes, “As soon as this miraculous light appeared the danger was appeased.” The sailors thought it was a sign of protection from a Taoist Goddess and from then on they followed Zheng with additional confidence. The light in reality was most likely the phenomenon of St. Elmo’s fire which is merely static electricity, not an unusual sight to experienced sailors. [St. Elmo or Saint Erasmus of Formiae, who died 303 AD, is the Roman Catholic patron saint of sailors who believe the "fire" on the mast tips is evidence of St. Elmo's protection from lightening strikes.] Sailors under Cheng Ho's command esteemed him greatly. The brave and quick-witted Cheng Ho was described as a tall, heavy man with clear-cut features, long earlobes, a stride like a tiger, and a voice loud and strong.
Finally after a long voyage they reached Calicut, India and created an excited stir with their huge ships. The ruler presented Cheng with sashes spun with gold thread and studded with large pearls and precious studs, they also entertained the explorers with music and songs. On the return journey they went through the straits of Malacca stopping at Sumatra and Java. Cheng created a base there in the straits that he would later use for all of his other voyages. Nearby there were many pirate hideouts and fleets, using his fleet Cheng Ho attacked and destroyed one of them and brought the leader home to China to be executed. When he returned his emperor was extremely pleased and he sent Zheng on six more trips. On one mission of the Treasure Fleet, Ho stayed in China to repair a temple to his favorite goddess, despite his Muslim upbringing.
Cheng Ho used his explorer's freedom to make the pilgrimage required of all able bodied Muslims to visit Mecca at least once in a lifetime. His expeditions were organized on huge scales, usually around or over 25,000 men, including soldiers, navigators, doctors, scribes, and shipwrights. His display of power was enough to extract tribute and insert his unique blend of Confucian philosophy through his Buddhist and Muslim diplomats.
After each voyage to places like Vietnam, Java, Sri Lanka and Calcutta, they docked at the Malacca base to store supplies and tributes in warehouses. His ships carried crates of porcelain dishes, vases and cups, as well as chinese silk, gold and silver. He traded these items mainly for dyes, herbs, spices, gems, pearls, ivory, rhinoceros horns and exotic animals. On the way home they would stop at the base to reorganize and wait for favorable winds. Of all the things he brought back, the most exciting to his countrymen was the giraffe he got from Somalia in 1415. [In 1415, Prince Henry "the Navigator" participated in the capture of Ceuta in North Africa from the Moors.] The Chinese people thought the giraffe was a type of unicorn whose arrival, according to Confucian tradition, meant that a sage of the utmost wisdom and benevolence was in their presence. Ho had exchanged Chinese gold, silks and spices.to bring many other animals from Africa.
Life changed for Ho when Emperor Yong’le suddenly died in 1424. Zhu Gaozhi became the next emperor of China. Gaozhi wanted nothing to do with navel exploring and scrapped all ideas of a seventh Treasure Fleet. For six long years, Ho, who had fought off pirates, waged war with those who didn’t want peace, established trade routes and more, idled his time away doing only minor tasks. Luckily, Emperor Zhu Gaozhi’s reign was short and the next Emperor, Zhu Zhanji, had similar views of Yong’le. In 1430, Zhanji commanded Ho to lead another Treasure Fleet to restore peace with Malacca and Siam. This fleet was the largest of the seven, with over twenty-seven thousand men and one hundred ships. After a year of preparation, Ho set off. China would never see their naval hero alive again.
The legendary, Zheng He
Most historians agree that Zheng He died in 1433 [36 years before the birth of Vasco da Gama] on the return voyage of the seventh Treasure Fleet. After Zheng He’s death, China never again braved the waters on another massive mission. A new emperor and his officials decided that He’s efforts were too costly and wanted to concentrate on fighting their border enemies. They destroyed Zheng He’s logs and his ships, abandoning the huge potential by secluded themselves in self sufficient smugness from the outside world. This monumental turning point allowed Europe to surpass China in the ingenuity that comes from international trade. The reversal of superiority culminated in China's humiliating defeats during the Opium Wars of the late 19th century which were easily won by the rising empire of the British. China's expanding spheres of influence of the 15th century contracted with an implosion as Europeans carved out their own spheres of influence.
Today, Cheng Ho is technically called “Zheng He”. Yet in China, he will always be known as “Cheng Ho”. His rags to riches story makes him a character of heroic proportion who offered China the world. In China's rejection of the world, the state's riches turned to comparative rags leaving Europe to discover China instead of the other way around.
Comparisons with Columbus
Whereas Columbus’s crew eked out the days on their diet of hardtack supplemented by bread baked with ocean water, Zheng He’s men traveled in style. Columbus traveled with 4 boats, Zheng He with 317. The Santa Maria was 24 meters (80 feet) long, with a capacity of 250 metric tons (280 English tons). The treasure ships were at least 120 meters (400 feet) long and carried 2,200 metric tons (2,500 English tons)….All comparisons between the Chinese and the European ships make the same point: the Chinese ships exceeded the European ships, often by a factor of ten or more, in size, staff, and equipment. [Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 381]