Zheng He the Greatest Yet Little Known Admiral of China’s Imperial Fleet

Raana Haider
Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Zheng He. Source: blogs.fanbox.com

“An order was respectfully received from our imperial court that the principal envoy, the Grand Eunuch Zheng He, should go to all the foreign countries to read out the imperial commands”


Ma Huan, Zheng He’s fifteenth century chronicler


The most celebrated Venetian explorer Marco Polo used the overland Silk Route to travel to China in the thirteenth century. It was the advent of maritime trade in southern waters that gradually diminished the land-based trade traffic along the upper land mass through which ran the Silk Route. The Eurocentric perspective of the “Age of Discovery” records that European vessels in the sixteenth century plied the sea routes in their pursuit of international trade. From Macao in China to Zanzibar off the eastern coast of Africa – there emerged major coastal trading settlements along what came to be known in history as the Spice Route.


Yet it was the least celebrated Grand Admiral Zheng He of imperial China who led seven maritime expeditions early in the fifteenth century – between 1405 and 1433 – to Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the east coast of Africa and by some accounts – beyond to the Cape of Good Hope. Zheng He’s ‘Great Armada’ took place almost a century before the arrival of the Italian-born Christopher Columbus in the Americas and that of Portuguese Vasco da Gama in India. He extracted for his Emperor Yongle great political leverage of China’s sovereignty with the thirty-six countries visited during his voyages.


Born in 1371 in Jinning near Kunming, Yunnan province of China to a Muslim family, Zheng He was taken to Nanjing during one of the Ming dynasty’s military forays against the Mongols. A young prince Zhu Di who was destined to become Emperor Yongle took note of the young boy and he became a member of the imperial household. Castrated, Zheng He was named the “Tall Eunuch” due to his height (2.10 m.). He became the head eunuch at the Ming court of the Emperor whose reign lasted twenty-two years. And in time, he was appointed “Grand Admiral of the Imperial Treasure Fleets”. A court official is on record in his description of Zheng He: “His eyebrows were like swords and his forehead wide, like a tiger’s.”


A naval fleet was built to impress and it was impressive undoubtedly. Hundreds of ships numbered the imperial armada. The largest – 130 metres long, were nine-masted galleons that in its day were technological masterpieces. According to Tim McGirk in his article “Out to Sea with the Great Ships” in a Time magazine article whose cover story is “Asian Voyage: From the Middle Kingdom to Mombasa with China’s greatest adventurer”: when McGirk asks a Hong Kong master ship-builder of how much it would cost to build Zheng He’s vessel today. The reply is: “Impossible”. “There is no shipyard big enough in Hong Kong to do the job. One sailor guesses that the imported teakwood and the silk sails alone would cost upwards of $10 million…you’d need to shell out a few million dollars more for guidance systems and satellite communications.” Some of these ships collectively described as “swimming dragons” were five times longer than those of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. The largest ones were manned by some 1000 people. On board were astrologers, cooks, doctors, interpreters, soldiers and traders. All senior captains were eunuchs.


While Europeans navigators took to the seas in small flotillas, the Chinese took the Middle Kingdom out to sea with them. “They had boats like floating farms, where they grew vegetables and raised pigs and chickens. Smaller sampans shuttled between the flotilla and the coastline, bringing aboard fresh water,” adds McGirk. With more than 300 ocean-going vessels and a crew of some 30,000 men, it was this commander of the imperial naval force who remains a principal contributor to China’s role as a regional and perhaps the world’s fifteenth century superpower. And with him went China’s porcelain and silk – products that have endured centuries – from then till today.


Zheng He’s numerous naval expeditions in the 1400s took him to places far and wide. The vast water expanses of the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea were his floating home for years. From Nanjing in China, he sailed to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Java and Sumatra in present day Indonesia; Sri Lanka, India, Oman, Yemen and Kenya. To his immense regret, he never was able to perform Holy Hajj in Mecca (Saudi Arabia). All his sojourns at sea could not permit him to reach the land-locked pilgrimage site. Yet both his father and grandfather had made the overland journey to Mecca from Yunnan province in south-western province – long before Ming imperial sails had been hoisted on international waters.


Today’s Bangladesh featured in Zheng He’s naval excursions. The former capital of Bengal, Sonargaon – once a hub of commerce and trade was visited by him. His naval fleet was anchored at the port city of Chittagong. As an emissary of Emperor Yongle, Zheng He met with the ruler of the day – Sultan Giyasuddin Azam Shah.


A stone stele was erected by Zheng He on his third trip to Sri Lanka. The date on the tablet is February 15, 1409. The tablet with inscriptions in Chinese, Persian and Tamil paid equal homage to all the religious groups on the island – Buddhist, Hindus and Muslim. It was discovered by a British engineer in a store in the port town of Galle in 1911. Today it lies forgotten at the National Museum in Colombo.


There appears to be a revival of interest in this early global traveller. In the year 2003, Gavin Menzies wrote 1421: The Year China Discovered the World’ and resurrected Zheng He and three other admirals of the imperial naval fleet. Menzies, a retired British submarine commander argues that Chinese “treasure fleets” crossed the seas of the world early in the fifteenth century. Zheng He’s first expedition was from 1405-1407. Each fleet consisted of some 25-30 ships. We are told in an intriguing and highly persuasive argument: “I suggest that the first settlers of North America came not with Columbus or any other European pioneers but in the junks of Admiral Zhen Wei’s fleet, land around Christmas 1421…Perhaps New England should now be renamed New China.”


A compilation of the people and places known to the Chinese early in the fifteenth century is I Yu Thu Chih (The Illustrated Record of Strange Countries) by the Ming prince Zhu Quan. It appeared in 1430. The book shows etchings of lions and elephants in India, zebras and giraffes from Africa and jaguars and armadillos of South America. The single copy exists at Cambridge University. It forms part of the donated collection of Professor Wade, the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge.


We are told in Fei Xin of Chinese fleets reaching Timor, some 300 miles from Australia in the years 1405-1431. The document is translated as “Marvellous Visions from the Star Raft.” It was Ma Huan who documented the travels of Zheng He in The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores.  This was published in 1435 following Zheng He’s final naval voyage. Ma Huan was Zheng He’s chronicler, interpreter and a fellow Muslim. A novel about his voyages appeared as early as in 1597. Once highly popular, the only existing copy of Hsi-Yang-Chi is to be found at the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. The immensely popular Arab-Persian tale of Seven Voyages of Sinbad was derived from the travels of Zheng He.


In 2006, Michael Yamashita authored Zheng He. Yamashita also puts forth a strong case for crediting the Ming admiral and his colleagues in the discovery of the Americas – well before Columbus. Both Menzies and Yamashita put forth a compelling case for China’s early global naval presence. They argue convincingly that it is only “on the shoulders of giants” that enabled the Portuguese – much later – to put forth the notion of the “Age of Discovery.” For as Menzies declares: “They (Portuguese) more than any other nation benefited from the hard-won Chinese knowledge of the oceans and new lands that lay beyond them.”


Intrepid pioneer travellers, it was another fourteenth century giant who remarked that “He who finds a new path is a pathfinder even if the trail has to be found again by others; and he who walks far in advance of his contemporaries is a leader, even though centuries may pass before he is recognized and as such and intelligently followed.” Ibn Khaldun, the definitive Arab historian was the most original interpreter of history to emerge from the classical Islamic world. He completed Muqaddimah, the monumental history of the world in 1377. Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta and Zheng He were such “pathfinders”.


Yet China’s Golden Age of Discovery and its command as a naval power in the South and Southeast region came to a halt in the years following his demise in 1433 at the age of 62 during his seventh sea expedition. He was buried at sea. An empty tomb is said to exist in Nanjing in honour of the intrepid explorer. China turned inwards in its outlook with the passing away of Emperor Yongle. More conservative and domestic oriented policies followed. In the words of Roderick MacFarquhar, a sinologist at Harvard University: “Yellow River over blue water’” became the motto of the times. The age of openness and exploration took a back seat as an era of insularity and protectionism took over.


In three decades of intense exploration, the fifteenth century Ming period Muslim admiral covered more than thirty countries in seven voyages whilst collecting knowledge, riches and power along the way. The Zhang He Park in Kunming commemorates the pioneering traveller who according to recent accounts ‘discovered’ the Americas some decades before the ‘discovery’ made by Christopher Columbus. During visits to Kunming, time constraint has not permitted us a visit to this memorial. Although, little known in global history, it was Zheng He who led the world’s earliest extensive naval expeditions – much of it in the South Asian region – and thus demands to be recognized as one of the world’s greatest seafaring explorers.


Raana Haider is the author of China: Contrasting Contours, University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2008.

Leave a Reply