Zheng He - A Great Explorer in China

"In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue" is how the children's nursery rhyme begins. However, more than 90 years before the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, a Chinese Muslim eunuch born in poverty ascended the ranks of the great naval powerhouse of the Ming Dynasty. His name was Zheng He and his skills as an ambassador and navigator helped to spread the glory of the Ming Dynasty over much of the known world.

The Jinghai (Calm Sea) Temple, located at the southwestern foot of the Lion Hill, was first built in the 9th year (1411) of the Yongle reign of the Ming Dynasty.

Zheng He was born in the southwestern province of Yunnan but is forever associated with the great capital of Nanjing. It was the third Ming Emperor Zhu Di who found favor with Zheng and recognized his intelligence and diplomatic skills. This respect from the imperial throne solidified Zheng a place in Chinese history and contributed to one of the greatest periods of exploration.

Trade was important to China and the goods that China was known for -silk, porcelain, and art - were highly sought: out by the West. The Silk Road, the overland journey that originated in Europe, through the Arab world and into China via the Gobi desert was at the time of the early Ming becoming more and more dangerous. All parties involved were seeking new routes to trading ports in India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. This was the time of the early Renaissance and the beginning of the age of exploration in Europe. However, modern history is only beginning to recognize the Chinese treasure fleets helmed by Zheng as the earliest winners in the race.

In the early years of the 1400s, the Ming Dynasty as well as Nanjing was reaching new heights of wealth and power. Emperor Zhu Di, in order to show the finer aspects of Chinese culture to the world adopted an aggressive policy of exploration. His goal was to reach out to across the known world and dazzle all who were encountered with the glory of the Chinese and to receive tribute from these countries. This resulted in seven voyages that stretched far and wide spreading diplomacy, establishing trade routes and returning with riches and artifacts never before seen in China.

The first two voyages made travels to what are now Indonesia, Singapore and India. Here Zheng and his fleet concluded contracts for the ever-growing and all important spice trade that added to the wealth of the emperor. Additionally Zheng won favor with local leaders who in turn traveled to Nanjing to pay tribute to the imperial court. One such example was that the king of Boni (what is now modern day Brunei) visited China and upon his passing away was even buried in Nanjing with full imperial pomp usually reserved for an emperor. China was opening up to the world.

The later voyages of Zheng extended to Africa and the Arab world. For the first time Chinese explorers could see other great nation-states of the world. On the African coast the treasure fleet was welcomed by large cities built with stone, not barbaric peoples as once thought. The coffers were filled not only with the standard treasures and, artifacts but a menagerie of wild African animals including ostriches and giraffes to be sent back to the emperor.

The relationships made on Arab land gave the Chinese doctors and pharmacologists who accompanied Zheng access to new medicinal herbs and creations. Also, specifically for the Muslim Zheng these trips gave him and his court the ability to visit not only mosques but also other religious sites of Buddhism along the way. These voyages helped to spread not only tangible but also the spiritual and philosophical components of Chinese culture.

To accomplish all of this required a large amount of men from all facets of life. Zheng's voyages consisted of over 200 vessels manned by over 25,000 crew members. This is not including the artists, translators, diplomats, scientists and doctors. The armadas that Zheng piloted were more like floating cities than the small handful of tiny ships used later by the great Western explorers. This lofty and complicated undertaking required both a great leader and. a great fleet of ships.

The great flotilla was truly a city with different ships ser\ring in different roles. There were of course the main treasure ships that carried both the precious cargo for trade and acquired wealth. There were supply storage ships and ships that carried supplies of fresh water. There were also ships carrying a large number of troops and separate ships for cavalry horses and smaller patrol and warships that protected the fleet. So massive was the sight of the armada with its multiple sails and intimidating posture that many of the nations visited were awestruck. Some accounts even discuss how the massive navy even quashed rebel and pirate uprising along the way.

The massive commission to build the necessary 200 ships required an even greater feat of Chinese engineering. Today in modern Nanjing you can still visit what remains of the few remaining dry docks that made up the 4,000-acre shipyard. Here close t0 30,000 men worked round the clock to build the giants that sailed out of Nanjing. Fortunately today you can even climb aboard a recently built and full-scale example of one of the great ships to catch a glimpse of just how massive these ships really were.

Other sites in Nanjing also stand in recognition of the great admiral. Commissioned by Emperor Zhu Di sit Jinghai Temple and Tianfei Palace. Both sites are dedicated to Zheng He's voyages and served as place of worship and sacrifice to the goddess of the sea where many sailors, including Zheng, would visit time and time again. Beautifully they sit intertwined with nature at the bottom of the Lion Hill. Zheng's own burial site was personally chosen for its oneness with nature. The tomb is nestled in a bucolic scene of quiet stillness among the trees of a small forest in the south of the city.

Volumes have been written about the exploits and fantastical voyages of Zheng. Some modern day scholars and adventure enthusiasts have even speculated that ships from these journeys made it as far as South America and the Caribbean, giving the Chinese the title of discovering America. Whether this is true or not only fuels the growing fire sparked by the great nautical exploits of Zheng.

Reading in Depth:Legacy

Cult of Zheng He

Among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Zheng He became the object of cult veneration.Even some of his crew members who happened to stay in this or that port sometimes did as well, such as "Poontaokong" on Sulu. The temples of this cult – called after either of his names, Cheng Hoon or Sam Po – are peculiar to overseas Chinese except for a single temple in Hongjian originally constructed by a returned Filipino Chinese in the Ming dynasty and rebuilt by another Filipino Chinese after the original was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. (The same village of Hongjian, in Fujian's Jiaomei township, is also the ancestral home of Corazon Aquino.)


The oldest and most important Chinese temple in Malacca is the 17th-century Cheng Hoon Teng, dedicated to Guanyin. During Dutch colonial rule, the head of the Cheng Hoon Temple was appointed chief over the community's Chinese inhabitants.

Following Zheng He's arrival, the sultan and sultana of Malacca visited China at the head of over 540 of their subjects, bearing ample tribute. Sultan Mansur Shah (r. 1459–1477) later dispatched Tun Perpatih Putih as his envoy to China, carrying a letter from the sultan to the Ming emperor. The letter requested the hand of an imperial daughter in marriage. Malay (but not Chinese) annals record that, in the year 1459, a princess named Hang Li Po or Hang Liu was sent from China to marry the sultan. The princess came with 500 high-ranking young men and a few hundred handmaidens as her entourage. They eventually settled in Bukit Cina. It is believed that a significant number of them married into the local populace, creating the descendants now known as the Peranakan. Owing to this supposed lineage, the Peranakan still use special honorifics: Baba for the men and Nyonya for the women.


In 1961, the Indonesian Islamic leader and scholar Hamka credited Zheng He with an important role in the development of Islam in Indonesia.The Brunei Times credits Zheng He with building Chinese Muslim communities in Palembang and along the shores of Java, the Malay Peninsula, and the Philippines. These Muslims allegedly followed the Hanafi school in the Chinese language.[91] This Chinese Muslim community was led by Hajji Yan Ying Yu, who urged his followers to assimilate and take local names. The Chinese trader Sun Long even supposedly adopted the son of the king of Majapahit and his Chinese wife, a son who went on to become Raden Patah.[92] Amid this assimilation (and loss of contact with China itself), the Hanafi Islam became absorbed by the local Shafi'i school and the presence of distinctly ethnic Chinese Muslims dwindled to almost nothing.[93] The Malay Annals also record a number of Hanafi mosques – in Semarang and Ancol, for instance – were converted directly into temples of the Zheng He cult during the 1460s and '70s.

In the 1950s, historians such as John Fairbank and Joseph Needham popularized the idea that after Zheng He's voyages China turned away from the seas due to the Haijin edict and was isolated from European technological advancements. Modern historians point out that Chinese maritime commerce did not totally stop after Zheng He, that Chinese ships continued to participate in Southeast Asian commerce until the 19th century, and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng. Moreover revisionist historians such as Jack Goldstone argue that the Zheng He voyages ended for practical reasons that did not reflect the technological level of China. Although the Ming Dynasty did ban shipping with the Haijin edict, this was a policy of the Hongwu Emperor that long preceded Zheng He and the ban – so obviously disregarded by the Yongle Emperor – was eventually lifted entirely. However, the ban on maritime shipping did force countless numbers of people into smuggling and piracy. Neglect of the imperial navy and Nanjing dockyards after Zheng He's voyages left the coast highly vulnerable both to Japanese and "Japanese" Wokou during the 16th century.[citation needed]

Richard von Glahn, a UCLA professor of Chinese history, commented that most treatments of Zheng He present him wrongly: they "offer counterfactual arguments" and "emphasize China's missed opportunity." This "narrative emphasizes the failure" instead of the accomplishments, despite his assertion that "Zheng He reshaped Asia." Glahn argues maritime history in the 15th century was essentially the Zheng He story and the effects of his voyages.

From Wikipedia