When people think of great explorers, they think of the usual names: Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Evliya Çelebi,Christopher Columbus, etc. But not many know of one of the most interesting and influential of all time. In China, he is well known, although not always recognized or glorified. He is Zheng He, the Muslim who became China’s greatest admiral, explorer, and diplomat.
Zheng He was born in 1371 in the southern China region of Yunnan to a Hui (a Muslim Chinese ethnic group) family. His birth name was Ma He. In China, the family name is said first, followed by the given name. “Ma” is known in China as short for “Muhammad”, indicating Zheng He’s Muslim heritage. Both his father and his grandfather were able to travel to Makkah and complete the Hajj, so Zheng He came from a practicing Muslim family.
At a young age, his town was raided by the Ming Dynasty’s army. He was captured and transported to the capital, Nanjing, where he served in the imperial household. Despite the oppressive and difficult circumstances he was in, Zheng He actually befriended one of the princes, Zhu Di, and when he became the emperor, Zheng He rose to the highest positions in government. At this time, he was given the honorific title “Zheng” and was known as Zheng He.
In 1405, when emperor Zhu Di decided to send out a giant fleet of ships to explore and trade with the rest of the world, he chose Zheng He to lead the expedition. This expedition was massive. In all, almost 30,000 sailors were in each voyage, with Zheng He commanding all of them. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led 7 expeditions that sailed to present day Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Kenya, and many other countries. It is probable that during one of his journeys, Zheng He was even able to go to Makkah to complete the Hajj.
A map showing the routes taken by Zheng He on his 7 expeditions in the 1400s
Zheng He was not the only Muslim on these expeditions. Many of his advisors and were also Chinese Muslims, such as Ma Huan, a translator who spoke Arabic and was able to converse with the Muslim peoples they encountered on their journeys. He wrote an account of his journeys, titled the Ying-yai Sheng-lan, which is an important source today for understanding 15th century societies around the Indian Ocean.
Seeing these expeditions must have been an event that people did not easily forget. The ships Zheng He commanded were up to 400 feet long, many times the size of Columbus’s ships that sailed across the Atlantic. For hundreds of years, people thought that the giant proportions of these ships were exaggerations. However, archaeological evidence from the shipyards where they were built in the Yangtze River prove that these ships were in fact even larger than modern football pitches.
Everywhere they sailed, they commanded the respect (and sometimes fear) of the local people, who offered tributes to the Chinese emperor. Because of this tribute and trade with all the peoples they encountered, Zheng He would sail back to China with exotic goods such as ivory, camels, gold, and even a giraffe from Africa. The expeditions sent one message to the world: China is an economic and political superpower.