The remarkable career of the Ming Dynasty admiral, Zheng He (c. 1371-1433) was more than a match for many of the famous European explorers. In around three decades of seafaring, Zheng He led his armada from China to places such as Vietnam, Thailand, Melaka, Indonesia, India, Persia, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa. While these are the canonical destinations of Zheng He’s voyages, others argue that his ships might have circumnavigated the world around a century before Ferdinand Magellan accomplished that feat in the early 16th century. Even though Zheng He’s expeditions were spectacular enough to make him a legendary figure, the admiral’s origins in Yunnan province, China, add further richness to his already extraordinary tale.
In 1371, a boy named Ma He (or Ma Sanbao) was born in Yunnan, China, while the region was still under the control of the Mongols. Ma He was from a Muslim family with ancestral ties that traced back to both Mongolia and Bukhara. At the time, Yunnan was still a stronghold of Mongolian power, but the new Ming Dynasty of China, founded by Emperor Hongwu in 1368, was on the offensive, ridding China of Mongolian influence. In 1381, Ming forces successfully recaptured Yunnan—it would be a painful time for Ma He, but it would put the 11-year-old boy on the path to greatness.
When the Ming forces occupied Yunnan, Ma He was one of the many young boys seized by the victorious troops. These captured boys were castrated and trained in the ways of court eunuchs. In exchange for their ability to reproduce, these eunuchs were given leadership positions within the Ming government, in roles such as that of a military officer, bureaucrat or diplomat. By 1390, Ma He had made a name for himself in these administrative fields to the extent that he caught the appraising eye of the prince of Yan, the uncle of Emperor Jianwen. When the prince (taking the name, Yongle) eventually usurped his nephew’s throne in 1400, Ma He continued to ascend the hierarchy of the Ming government. Emperor Yongle eventually granted the eunuch the name that is still known worldwide—Zheng He. In 1405, Zheng He set sail with a fleet of 62 ships, intending to explore Southeast Asia. He would continue exploring for most of his life, until he died mid-voyage near Calicut (Kozhikode), India, around 1433.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Monument of Zheng He from Malacca in front of a Zheng He Cultural Museum exhibit, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.