Zheng He is hailed as one of the greatest explorers of all time. He is held by many as the greatest Chinese admiral. While all Zheng He major accomplishments precede those of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, he is clubbed with them as the hallmarks of the age of discovery.
1. A Castrated Servant to Chief Aide of Zhu Di
Zheng He was born as Ma He. Ma is Muhammad in Chinese. Born to a Muslim family in 1371, although there is some debate pertaining to the year of his birth, Zheng He was captured by the forces of Ming Dynasty and was castrated. He was then sentenced to serve Zhu Di, who was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. While he was a servant to twenty year old prince of Yan, Zhu Di, Zheng He trained himself in military fighting under the supervision of the prince and he later went on to become the chief aide of Zhu Di. As the chief aide, Zheng He accompanied the prince in various battles across China and emerged as a skilled and effective military leader. During this time, he became a confidant of the prince and also made friends with some influential people.
2. Zheng He’s Campaign for Zhu Di’s Accent to the Throne
Being the fourth son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, he was fourth in line for the throne. However, all his elder brothers were dead at the time of death of the Emperor. Zhu Di’s rightful ascent was blocked by his nephew who claimed the throne for himself. Zheng He along with other military commanders launched a campaign and eventually overthrew Di’s nephew who reigned as the Jianwen Emperor. Following the ascent of Zhu Di as the Yongle Emperor, Zheng He was appointed as a key strategist.
3. Earning the Surname ‘Zheng’
Till 1404, at the age of thirty three, Zheng He was still known as Ma He. He was given the surname of Zheng by Yongle Emperor, recognizing his services to the empire and in particular the conquest of the city of Nanjing. Later, Zheng He was given the position of the Grand Director of the Directorate of Palace Servants. He eventually became the commander of the Chinese Navy. That remains the highest rank in Chinese history for any eunuch.
4. Zheng He: The Explorer
As the admiral of the Chinese Navy, Zheng He headed a massive fleet of more than twenty seven thousand men and he had more than fifty ships at his disposal. With all that might, Zheng He set sails to claim the Indian Ocean for the empire. In his attempt to establish Chinese authority over the waters, he embarked on seven voyages. There is evidence to believe that the ships Zheng He had were much larger than those used by Vasco da Gama or Christopher Columbus. It is believed that He’s ships were the largest to be ever made of wood.
5. The Explorations & Subsequent Impact
Zheng He sailed westward and reached Africa. He sailed to Thailand, Java, Brunei, Arabia and India. He introduced gold and silk to some of these regions. He also traded in porcelain and silver. In exchange, he brought back fuel, building materials and other exotic artifacts. China was introduced to glass by Arabian artisans who sailed back with Zheng He.
6. The Battle with Chen Zuyi
Zheng He had already proved his military prowess before becoming an admiral. Once he attained such a status, he resorted to diplomacy to solve problems. However, there were many problems that were beyond diplomacy. One such problem was the menace of piracy. At the time, there were many pirates plaguing the Indian Ocean. Zheng He, having perhaps the mightiest navy of the time and the biggest army to summon if help was needed, crushed many pirates who threatened his voyages or came in the way of his explorations. One of the most notable Zheng He major accomplishments of such battles is the capturing and execution of Chen Zuyi, the most notorious and feared pirate of the fifteenth century. He defeated Chen Zuyi, killed more than five thousand men under his command and later brought Zuyi to China. The pirate was publicly executed.
7. The Last Voyage
After the death of the Yongle Emperor, the voyages were deemed unnecessary by the Hongxi Emperor, the son of Zhu Di. Zheng He had been on six voyages by 1424. Even though the explorations came to a standstill and no major voyages were commissioned, Zheng He embarked on one last voyage, chronicled as the seventh epic expedition. He died while returning in 1433.
The explorations of Zheng He were almost a century before European explorers embarked on their expeditions, what is today referred to as the age of discovery. Zheng He remains one of the most revered historical figures in China.