Zheng He sailed away from the coast, westward
across the Indian Ocean. The ships traveled for days out of sight of any land.
Then they encountered a hurricane. The ships tossed wildly in the fierce storm
and seemed to be on the verge of sinking. Then a "divine light"
suddenly shone at the tips of the mast. "As soon as this miraculous light
appeared, the danger was appeased," Zheng He wrote.
When the Chinese sailors reached Calicut,
India, their giant ships created a stir. The ruler there presented his visitors
with sashes made of gold spun into hair-fine threads and studded with large
pearls and precious stones. The Chinese were entertained with music and songs.
One crewmember wrote that the Indians' musical instruments were "made of
gourds with strings of red copper wire, and the sound and rhythm were pleasant
to the ears."
On the way back to China, the fleet threaded
its way through the Straits of Malacca, stopping at the large islands of Sumatra
and Java. Zheng He established a base at the Straits that he would use for each
of his seven voyages. There are thousands of smaller islands in this vast
archipelago, and some were pirates' lairs. The pirates preyed on unwary
fishermen and small merchant vessels. Zheng He, showing how the emperor treated
those who disrupted harmony, attacked and destroyed a fleet of pirate ships. He
captured the leader and brought him back to Beijing for execution.
When Zheng He returned, the emperor was
pleased. He sent his admiral on ever-longer voyages. Seven times, Zheng He's
ships set sail for unknown lands. On and on he went, following his orders to
travel as far as he could. He reached Arabia, where he fulfilled a personal
dream. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the duty of every good Muslim
once in his lifetime. He also visited Prophet Muhammad Mosque in Medina. On the
fifth voyage, he reached the coast of Africa, landing in Somalia on the east
Zheng He organized each expedition on an
enormous scale. Besides sailors and navigators, they included doctors, scribes,
shipwrights, and cooks. On some voyages Muslim religious leaders and Buddhist
monks were brought along to serve as diplomats in lands where people were Muslim
Each ship brought enough food to last the whole
voyage, in case "barbarian" food was not acceptable. In addition to
rice and other food that could be preserved, the ships carried huge tubs of
earth on deck so that vegetables and fruit could be grown.
On each voyage the fleet anchored at the
Malacca base, where provisions, tribute, and gifts were stored in warehouses.
Zheng He found that foreign kings and princes particularly admired the famous
blue-and-white Ming porcelain dishes, vases, and cups. Foreigners still yearned
for Chinese silk, for cotton printed with Chinese designs, and for the coarse
but long lasting, brownish yellow cloth known as Nankeen because it was made in
Nanking (now Nanjing). The holds of Zheng He's ships were also crammed with gold
and silver, iron tools, copper kitchenware, and perfumes.
In exchange for such wares, and as tribute,
Zheng He brought back medicinal herbs, dyes, spices, precious, gems, pearls,
rhinoceros horns, ivory, and exotic animals. On the homeward voyage, the fleet
again stopped at their base to sort out the foreign goods and wait for a
favorable wind to return to China.
The expeditions were an important source of
information about foreign countries. A crewmember described the Nicobar Islands
in the Bay of Bengal off the east coast of India:
Its inhabitants live in the hollows of trees
and caves. Both men and women there go about stark naked, like wild beasts,
without a stitch of clothing on them. No rice grows there. The people subsist
solely on wild yams, jackfruit and plantains, or upon the fish which they catch.
There is a legend current among them that, if they wear the smallest scrap of
clothing, their bodies would break into sores and ulcers, owing to their
ancestors having been cursed by Buddha for having stolen and hidden his clothes
while he was bathing.
In Sri Lanka, the Chinese visited Buddhist
Temple Hill, where Buddha was said to have left his footprint on a rock. They
marveled at all the temples, particularly one that held a relic of the Buddha's
tooth. According to a crew member, the people of the island do not venture to
eat cow's flesh, they merely drink the milk. When a cow dies they bury it. It is
capital punishment for anyone to secretly kill a cow; he who does so can however
escape punishment by paying a ransom of a cow's head made of solid gold.
Sri Lanka seemed like a treasure island, where
rubies and other precious stones were abundant. The people harvested pearls from
the sea and had discovered the trick of making cultured pearls by planting a
speck of sand inside an oyster's shell.
The king of Sri Lanka was an ardent Buddhist
who treated both cows and elephants with religious respect. However, because he
did not show proper respect for the ambassadors from the Son of Heaven, he was
taken back to China for "instruction." He was returned to his island
on a later voyage.
When the Chinese reached the east coast of
Africa, they found people who built houses of brick. "Men and women wear
their hair in rolls; when they go out they wear a linen hood. There are deep
wells worked by means of cog wheels. Fish are caught in the sea with nets."
The Africans offered such goods a "dragon saliva, incense, and golden
amber." The Chinese found the African animals even more amazing. There
included "lion, gold-spotted leopards, and camel-birds (ostriches), which
are six or seven feet tall." The most exciting thing that Zheng He ever
brought back to the emperor's count was a giraffe.
The animal came from today's Somalia. In the
Somali Language, the name for giraffe sounds similar to the Chinese word for
unicorn. It was easy to imagine that this was the legendary animal that had
played an important part in the birth of Confucius. Surely, it must be a sign of
Heaven's favor on the emperor's reign.
When the giraffe arrived in 1415, the emperor
himself went to the palace gate to receive it, as well as a "celestial
horse" (zebra) and a "celestial stag" (oryx). The palace
officials offered congratulations and performed the kowtow before the heavenly
When Zheng He came back from his seventh voyage
in 1433, he was sixty-two years old. He had accomplished much for China,
spreading the glory of the Middle Kingdom to many countries that now sent
tribute and ambassadors to the court. Though he died soon afterward, his
exploits had won him fame. Plays and novels were written about his voyages. In
such places as Malacca and Java, towns, caves, and temples were named after him.
However, a new Ming emperor had come to the
throne. His scholar-officials criticized Zheng's achievements, complaining about
their great expense. China was now fighting another barbarian enemy on its
western borders and needed to devote its resources to that struggle. When a
court favorite wanted to continue Zheng He's voyages, he was turned down. To
make sure, the court officials destroyed the logs that Zheng He had kept. We
know about his voyages only from the pillar and some accounts that his
Thus, China abandoned its overseas voyages. It
was a fateful decision, for just at that time, Portugal was beginning to send
its ships down the west coast of Africa. In the centuries that followed,
European explorers would sail to all parts of the world. They would establish
colonies in Africa, America, and finally in the nations of East Asia. China
would suffer because it had turned its back on exploration. Zheng He had started
the process that might have led the Middle Kingdom to greater glory
Unfortunately the rulers of the Ming Dynasty refused to follow his lead.
Zheng He died in the tenth year of the reign of
the Ming emperor Xuande (1435) and was buried in the southern outskirts of
Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing.
In 1985, during the 580th anniversary of Zheng
He's voyage, his tomb was restored. The new tomb was built on the site of the
original tomb in Nanjing and reconstructed according to the customs of Islamic
teachings, as Zheng He was a Muslim.
At the entrance to the tomb is a Ming-style
structure, which houses the memorial hall. Inside are paintings of the man
himself and his navigation maps. To get to the tomb, there are newly laid stone
platforms and steps. The stairway consists of 28 stone steps divided into four
sections with each section having seven steps. This represents Zheng He's seven
journeys to the West. The Arabic words "Allah (God) is great" are
inscribed on top of the tomb.
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