Source / Courtesy: Wikipedia
Zheng He (1371–1433, 鄭和 / 郑和; pinyin: Zhèng Hé), also known as Ma Sanbao (馬三寶 / 马三宝) and Hajji Mahmud Shamsuddin (Persian: حاجی محمود شمس) was a Hui-Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral, who commanded voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa, collectively referred to as the Voyages of Zheng He or Voyages of Cheng Ho from 1405 to 1433.
Zheng, born as Ma He (馬和 / 马和), was the second son of a Muslim family which also had four daughters, from Kunyang, present day Jinning, just south of Kunming near the southwest corner of Lake Dian in Yunnan.
He was the great great great grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongolian Empire and was appointed governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan Dynasty. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather carried the title of Hajji, which indicates they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been a member of a Mongol garrison in Yunnan.
In 1381, the year his father was killed, following the defeat of the Northern Yuan, a Ming army was dispatched to Yunnan to put down the army of the Mongol Yuan loyalist Basalawarmi during the Ming conquest of Yunnan. Ma He, then only eleven years old, was captured by the Ming Muslim troops of Lan Yu and Fu Youde and made a eunuch. He was sent to the court of one the emperor‘s son, Zhu Di the Prince of Yan, where he was called San Bao (三寶/三宝, or 三保) meaning ‘Three Jewels.’ The young eunuch eventually became a trusted adviser of the Prince of Yan, and assisted the prince in his insurrection against his nephew the Jianwen Emperor. For his valor in this war, the eunuch received the name Zheng He from his master. Once Zhu Di deposed Jianwen and became crowned as Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424), Zheng He continued serving in his court as a Eunuch Grand Director (太監, taijian). It was during the Yongle era that Zheng He, with the rank of Chief Envoy (正使, zheng shi) carried his first six overseas missions.
In 1425 Yongle’s successor the Hongxi Emperor appointed Zheng He to be Defender of Nanjing. In 1428 the Xuande Emperor ordered him to complete the construction of the magnificent Buddhist nine-storied Da Baoen Temple in Nanjing, and in 1430 appointed him to lead the seventh and final expedition to the “Western Ocean”. It is commonly believed that Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage, on the returning trip after the fleet reached Hormuz in 1433.
The picture above is the route of the 7th voyage of Zheng He’s fleet. Solid line: main fleet; dashed line: a possible route of Hong Bao‘s squadron; dotted line: a trip of seven Chinese sailors, including Ma Huan, from Calicut to Mecca on a native ship. Cities visited by Zheng He’s fleet or its squadron on the 7th or any of the previous voyages are shown in red.
Henry Kissinger writes in his recent book, On China, highlighting the contributions of a Zheng He:
“Historians still debate the actual purpose of these missions. Zheng He was a singular figure in the age of exploration: a Chinese Muslim eunuch conscripted into imperial service as a child, he fits no obvious historical precedent. At each stop on his journeys, he formally proclaimed the magnificence of China’s new Emperor, bestowed lavish gifts on the rulers he encountered, and invited them to travel in person or send envoys to China. There, they were to acknowledge their place in the Sinocentric world order by performing the ritual “kowtow” to acknowledge the Emperor’s superiority. Yet beyond declaring China’s greatness and issuing invitations to portentous ritual, Zheng He displayed no territorial ambition. He brought back only gifts, or “tribute”; he claimed no colonies or resources for China beyond the metaphysical bounty of extending the limits of All Under Heaven. At most he can be said to have created favorable conditions for Chinese merchants, through a kind of early exercise of Chinese ‘soft power.’
Zheng He’s expeditions stopped abruptly in 1433, coincident with the recurrence of threats along China’s northern land frontier. The next Emperor ordered the fleet dismantled and the records of Zheng He’s voyages destroyed.”