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The Admiral Of the Western Seas – Cheng Ho (Zheng He)



In the 1930s, a stone pillar was discovered in a town in Fujian province. It held an inscription that described the amazing voyages of a Chinese admiral named Zheng He. Five hundred years earlier, Zheng He had chosen "a lucky day" to place this pillar in the Temple of the Celestial Spouse, a Taoist goddess.

Zheng He described how the emperor of the Ming Dynasty had ordered him to sail to "the countries beyond the horizon," all the way to the end of the earth." His mission was to display the might of Chinese power and collect tribute from the "barbarians from beyond the seas."

The pillar contains the Chinese names for the countries Zheng He visited. Altogether, Zheng He visited thirty nations from Asia to Africa, traveling more than "one thousand li" about 35,000 miles. He wrote:

 We have…..beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course rapid like that of a star, transversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.

In all, Zheng He made seven wondrous voyages of discovery between 1405 and 1433. His achievements show that China had the ships and navigational skills to explore the world. Mysteriously, China did not follow up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted further expeditions. Thus, a century later, Europeans would "discover" China, instead of the Chinese "discovering" Europe.

China has a very old seafaring tradition. Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty. Chinese sailors had an important invention to help them-the compass. The compass, or "south pointing spoon," started out as a fortune-telling instrument used like an Ouija board. By the Song era, sailors had taken it up. As a foreign ship captain wrote, "In dark, weather they look to the south pointing needle, and use a sounding line to determine the smell and nature of the mud on the sea bottom, and so know where they are.

Chinese shipbuilders also developed fore-and-aft sails, the stern post rudder, and boats with paddlewheels. Watertight compartments below decks kept the ship from sinking. Some boats were armor plated for protection. All these developments made long distance navigation possible.

After the Mongols were overthrown in 1368, the emperor of the new Ming Dynasty wanted to assert Chinese power. Because China was no longer part of a land empire that stretched from Asia to Europe, the emperor turned to the sea. He decided to build a navy. The Chinese made elaborate plans that would not be fulfilled for many years. A shipyard was built at the new capital of Najing (Nanking). Thousand of varnish and tung trees were planted on nearby Purple Mountain to provide wood for shipbuilding. The emperor established a school of foreign languages to train interpreters. While all this was going on, the man who would lead the navy was still an infant.

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Kunyang, a town in southwest Yunnan Province. His family, named Ma, were part of a minority group known as the Semur. They originally came from Central Asia and followed the religion of Islam. Both his grandfather and father had made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng He grew up hearing their accounts of travel through foreign lands.

Yunnan was one of the last strongholds of Mongol support, holding out long after the Ming Dynasty began. After Ming armies conquered Yunnan in 1382, Zheng He was taken captive and brought to Nanjing. The eleven year old boy was made a servant of the prince who would become the Yong Le Emperor. It was Yong Le who renamed the boy Zheng He.

 Zheng He is described in Chinese historical records as tall and heavy, with "clear-cut features and long ear lobes; a stride like a tiger's and voice clear and vibrant." He was well liked and admired for his quick wit in argument. Moreover, he was a brave soldier. When his prince seized the Chinese throne from nephew, Zheng He fought well on his behalf. As a result, Zheng He became a close confidant of the new emperor and was given an important position at court.

The Yong Le emperor had ambitious plans. A vigorous man, he rebuilt the Great Wall to the condition in which it exists today. He also built his new capital at Beijing, next to the remains of the former Yuan capital. The emperor decided to go ahead with the sea voyages that had long been planned. He appointed Zheng He to lead them and gave him the title "Admiral of the Western Seas."

At each country Zheng He visited, he was to present gifts from the emperor and to exact tribute for the glory of the Ming. The Chinese had a unique view of foreign relations. Because China developed its culture in isolation from other great civilization, it says itself as the center of the world. The Chinese called their country "the Middle Kingdom."

The Chinese emperor's duty was to attract "all under heaven" to be civilized in Confucian harmony. When foreign ambassadors came to the Chinese court, they "kowtowed" as they approached the emperor. (The required process of "kowtow" was to kneel three times and bow one's head to the floor three times at each kneeling.) In return for tribute from other countries, the emperor sent gifts and special seals that confirmed their rulers' authority. In fact, these foreign kings were officially made part of the Ming Dynasty.

In 1405 Zheng He set out on his first voyage. No nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them. A Chinese historian described them; "The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses. When their sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky."

Zheng He's first port of call was in Champa, a part of today's Vietnam. He was surprised to find many Chinese living there. Merchants and craftsmen had emigrated from the coastal provinces since the time of the Tang Dynasty. They had already helped to spread Confucian ideals, and Champs's ruler willingly offered tribute for the Chinese emperor. In return, of course, Zheng He presented the king with lavish gifts that were probably more valuable.

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. The terrified sailors prepared to die; some prayed to the Taoist goddess called the Celestial Spouse. 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.

The miraculous light that appeared on the mast was probably St. Elmo's fire, static electricity that is familiar sight to experienced sailors. Because the sailors had prayed to the Taoist goddess, they believed it was her sign of protection. From then on, they followed wherever Zheng He led them. That was why he later placed a pillar of thanksgiving at the Temple of the Celestial Spouse in Fujian province.


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 crew member 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 fill-filled a personal dream. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the duty of every good Muslim once in his lifetime. He also visited Muhammad's tomb in Medina. On the fifth voyage, he reached the coast of Africa, landing in Somalia on the east coast.

Zheng He organized each expedition on an enormous scale. Some consisted of as many as 27,000 men. 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 or Buddhist.

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 crew member 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, jack fruit 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 animals.

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 crew members wrote.

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.



Source: "Images Across The Ages-Chinese Portraits" By Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler

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