Zheng He: The Explorer, Admiral
And Diplomat

The Chinese history epitomizes Zheng He for his fearless achievements by sheer dint of merit and the rag to reach story. Born to non-Chinese parents, he rose in the imperial hierarchy to become a close confidant of the Ming ruler.

The brilliance of character and extraordinary ability of this eunuch led him to become the most famous Chinese maritime explorer and a military commander of the first class. Seven voyages under his admiralty showcased the splendor of Ming Dynasty across thirty Asian and African countries.

Birth and Rise in Ming Hierarchy

Zheng He was born to Arabian Muslim decent in 1371AD at present-day Jinning County of Yunnan Province in southwest China bordering Myanmar and Thailand. His grandfather and father were appointed to high offices under the Yuan rulers. He was captured at the age of 10 by the invading Ming army following the death of his father in war to cleanse Yuan sympathizers. He was castrated and sent to the court of Prince Zhu Di in Beijing.
 
The loyalty and brilliance of the young eunuch was quickly recognized by the prince and he became his most trusted aide. He showed extraordinary military genius and leadership skills that contributed to Zhu Di’s military exploits during the Jingnan Campaign and war against Mongols between 1399 and 1402. He was also instrumental in ascension of Zhu Di to the imperial throne at Nanjing in 1403. The Yongle Emperor promoted him as the Grand Eunuch and bestowed him an imperial honor.

The Expeditions of Zheng He

Zheng He on a Chinese stamp from 2005

The knowledge of politics and military strategy coupled with Emperor Zhu Di’s patronage added glory to Zheng He's illustrious career. He was selected to lead the extensive sea voyage to showcase Chinese glory overseas. Zheng was chosen as the chief admiral of the huge fleet and a big contingent of army was placed under his tutelage during seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 AD.

The first voyage sailed forth in 1405 and visited many southeast countries, India and Ceylon before returning home two years later. He traversed through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca to visit all important Indian Ocean-area civilizations as the Chinese ambassador. The second (1407-1409) and third (1409-1411) expeditions reached to all kingdoms on the east and west coast of India. The fourth voyage (1413-1415) under his admiralty went as far as Africa. He visited the west coast of India, Maldives, the Persian Gulf regions, Aden, Muscat and the Somali African coast.

The fifth one (1416-1419) repeated the Asian and African expeditions. His sixth voyage (1421-1422) focused on diplomatic missions to East Africa, Hormuz and Arabian countries. The last maritime expedition (1433-1434) covered 18 Asian kingdoms, including Kenya. According to Venetian Cartographer Fra Mauro, the Chinese Admiral crossed the Cape of Good Hope and reached as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Zheng He died during the return journey of his last voyage and given a sea burial off the coast of Calicut, India.

Significance of Maritime Expeditions

The maritime explorations established him as an extraordinary leader and hero in China and exalted the Ming Dynasty. He’s flotilla had more than 60 big ships and 150 support ships, including treasure ships, warships, transport ships and water tanks, with about 28,000 men. The scholarly attitude of Zheng He was evident during all his sea voyages. He carried out extensive research based on celestial navigation and prepared sailing charts, recorded interesting eastern and western almanacs and geography. Hi efforts contributed to development of Chinese marine sciences and shipbuilding industry.
 
He covered more than 30 nations during his voyage establishing Chinese diplomatic relations. The voyages established trade routes extending 2,000 miles and led to exchange of cultures. The expedition backed by state diplomacy helped growth and expansion of east-west trade. Ships loads of foreign goods, animals, flora and even artisans were brought to China from distant countries. The admiral was credited to have brought giraffe and zebra to China.

His maritime voyages were unprecedented in the history of human civilization for its size, range and navigational achievements. He’s story even today told by every proud Chinese and sea lover and he stands as symbol of Chinese trade diplomacy.

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