About Zheng He:
Zheng He (1371-1435), or Cheng Ho, is China's
most famous navigator. He built a total of 1622 ships and made at least seven
major excursions between 1405 AD and 1430 AD. He traveled more than 50,000km and
visited over 30 countries, reaching Somalia and probably Europe (France, Holland
Zheng He constructed many wooden ships, some of
which are the largest in the history, in Nanjing. Three of the shipyards still
In each trip, he led a troop of 27,800 people
on more than 300 ships. In each trip, 62 major ships of this fleet were
employed, each over 400 ft long and 193 ft wide, holding 1000 people per ship,
dwarfing Columbus' Santa Maria (75 ft x 25 ft) more than six-fold.
In the 1930s, a stone pillar was discovered in
a town in Fujian province. It held an inscription that described the amazing
voyages of Zheng He.
Zheng He described how the emperor of the Ming
Dynasty had ordered him to sail to "the countries beyond the horizon,"
all the way to the end of the earth." His mission was to display the might
The pillar contains the Chinese names for the
countries Zheng He visited. He wrote:
We have...beheld 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 light vapors, while our sails, loftily
unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course rapid like that of a
star, transversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.
The countries and territories covered and
recorded in the official Ming history includes Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam,
Cambodia, Philippines, Ceylon, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, Somalia,
Mogadishu. As a clear demonstration of his travel to Africa, among the souvenirs
he brought back to China were the giraffes and lions, indigenous animals of
The official history also mentioned
"Franca" (which was the territory to describe today's France and
Portugal) and Holland. The Hollanders were described as tall people with red
hair and beard, long nose, and deep eye sockets. If he did meet with the
Europeans in their native countries, then the only way would be to navigate
around the Cape of Good Hope before the Suez Canal was a throughway.
Unfortunately, Zheng He's magnificent
accomplishment was later targeted by other courtiers as wasteful. Most of his
records were destroyed and building of ships with more than three masts were
considered crimes punishable by death. So, a large part of his excursion (which
might include the America part) has no reports.
In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes
that are clearly Asian-looking. They also consider themselves as the descendants
of Zheng He's crew.
His achievements show that China had the ships
and navigational skills to explore the world. Mysteriously, China did not follow
up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted
further expeditions. Thus, a century later, Europeans would "discover"
China, instead of the Chinese "discovering" Europe.
China has a very old seafaring tradition.
Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty. Chinese sailors
had an important invention to help them-the compass. The compass, or "south
pointing spoon," started out as a fortune-telling instrument used like an
Ouija board. By the Song era, sailors had taken it up. As a foreign ship captain
wrote, "In dark, weather they look to the south pointing needle, and use a
sounding line to determine the smell and nature of the mud on the sea bottom,
and so know where they are.
Chinese shipbuilders also developed
fore-and-aft sails, the sternpost rudder, and boats with paddlewheels.
Watertight compartments below decks kept the ship from sinking. Some boats were
armor plated for protection. All these developments made long distance
After the Mongols were overthrown in 1368, the
emperor of the new Ming Dynasty wanted to assert Chinese power. Because China
was no longer part of a land empire that stretched from Asia to Europe, the
emperor turned to the sea. He decided to build a navy. The Chinese made
elaborate plans that would not be fulfilled for many years. A shipyard was built
at the new capital of Najing (Nanking). Thousand of varnish and tung trees were
planted on nearby Purple Mountain to provide wood for shipbuilding. The emperor
established a school of foreign languages to train interpreters. While all this
was going on, the man who would lead the navy was still an infant.
greatest adventurer, the 15th century Muslim,
Admiral Zheng He
Zheng He was born in 1371 in Kunyang, a
town in southwest Yunnan Province. His family, named Ma, were part of a minority
group known as the Semur. They originally came from Central Asia and followed
the religion of Islam. Both his grandfather and father had made the Muslim
pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng He grew up hearing their accounts of travel through
Yunnan was one of the last strongholds of
Mongol support, holding out long after the Ming Dynasty began. After Ming armies
conquered Yunnan in 1382, Zheng He was taken captive and brought to Nanjing. The
eleven year old boy was made a servant of the prince who would become the Yong
Le Emperor. It was Yong Le who renamed the boy Zheng He.
Zheng He is described in Chinese historical
records as tall and heavy, with "clear-cut features and long ear lobes; a
stride like a tiger's and voice clear and vibrant." He was well liked and
admired for his quick wit in argument. Moreover, he was a brave soldier. When
his prince seized the Chinese throne from his nephew, Zheng He fought well on
his behalf. As a result, Zheng He became a close confidant of the new emperor
and was given an important position at court.
The Yong Le emperor had ambitious plans. A
vigorous man, he rebuilt the Great Wall to the condition in which it exists
today. He also built his new capital at Beijing, next to the remains of the
former Yuan capital. The emperor decided to go ahead with the sea voyages that
had long been planned. He appointed Zheng He to lead them and gave him the title
"Admiral of the Western Seas."
At each country Zheng He visited, he was to
present gifts from the emperor and to exact tribute for the glory of the Ming.
The Chinese had a unique view of foreign relations. Because China developed its
culture in isolation from other great civilization, it says itself as the center
of the world. The Chinese called their country "the Middle Kingdom."
The Chinese emperor's duty was to attract
"all under heaven" to be civilized in Confucian harmony. When foreign
ambassadors came to the Chinese court, they "kowtowed" as they
approached the emperor. (The required process of "kowtow" was to kneel
three times and bow one's head to the floor three times at each kneeling.) In
return for tribute from other countries, the emperor sent gifts and special
seals that confirmed their rulers' authority. In fact, these foreign kings were
officially made part of the Ming Dynasty.
In 1405 Zheng He set out on his first voyage.
No nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included
sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas.
Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them. A Chinese historian described
them; "The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses. When their
sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky."
Zheng He's first port of call was in Champa, a
part of today's Vietnam. He was surprised to find many Chinese living there.
Merchants and craftsmen had emigrated from the coastal provinces since the time
of the Tang Dynasty. They had already helped to spread Confucian ideals, and
Champs's ruler willingly offered tribute for the Chinese emperor. In return, of
course, Zheng He presented the king with lavish gifts that were probably more
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