Zheng He — An Epic Diplomat and His Unparalleled Voyages
Zheng He (1371 — 1433), original name Ma He or Ma Sanbao, was one of the greatest diplomats and fleet admirals in ancient Chinese history, as well as a brave warrior and excellent general of the Ming Dynasty.
After having suffered extremely tragic encounters in his childhood, Zheng He grew up into a determined, strong person who later gained the trust of the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di (1360 — 1424).
Supported by Yongle Emperor, Zheng He completed the largest and longest navigation in ancient Chinese history and visited over 30 countries along the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Sad Childhood of Zheng He
Zheng He was born into a noble family of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368).
His hometown was one of the places still loyal to the Northern Yuan and kept fighting against the Ming Empire.
In the year 1381, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang planned to conquer the remaining forces of the Yuan.
Led by remarkable generals Fu Youde, Lan Yu, and Mu Ying, Ming’s army won in half a year.
Afterward, the current Yunnan Province was under Ming governance. General Mu Ying and his family were assigned to rule and guard there until the Ming Dynasty ended a few centuries later.
The other two generals returned to their emperor, together with Ming’s soldiers and some prisoners of this war.
The 11 years old Zheng He was one of them; he was castrated and assigned to prince Zhu Di.
Unearthed Gold Tablet, Carved with the Testament of General Mu Ying the King of Qianning (1344 — 1392) — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Exceptional Braveness that Impressed the Prince
Prince Zhu Di was assigned to garrison in Beijing, the front line to fight against the forces of the Northern Yuan.
Therefore, young Zheng He participated in many wars with his prince, who was impressed by Zheng's braveness and talent and then nominated him as his royal guard.
When this prince Zhu Di initiated the Incident of Jingnan that snatched the throne, Zheng He contributed significantly.
Therefore, after Zhu Di got the throne and became the Yongle Emperor of Ming, Zheng He was also promoted to the most honorable eunuch, and his surname Zheng was conferred by the emperor during this period.
Yongle was one of the most remarkable emperors in Chinese history; he commanded the construction of the Forbidden City and published the world's largest paper encyclopedia, the Yongle Encyclopedia (Chinese name Yongle Da Dian), vastly expanded Ming's territory, and brought his people stable lives.
The Forbidden City in Beijing that was Constructed Under Command of Yongle Emperor Zhu Di
Zheng He’s Voyages and Secret Mission
As an exceptional emperor, Zhu Di had been worrying about one problem.
When Zhu Di led his army, won the Incident of Jingnan, and arrived at Ming’s first capital city, his nephew Zhu Yunwen, the legit sovereign (Jianwen Emperor) of the Ming Empire, burnt down the royal palace and disappeared.
As long as Zhu Yunwen was alive, he would always be the legit monarch of the Ming Empire, which made Zhu Di a throne snatcher.
Hence, Zhu Di sent two teams trying to find this former emperor, and Zheng He was the leader of the maritime team.
However, searching for the previous emperor was his secret goal, while his official mission was to disseminate Chinese culture and peace, to know more about the world, and in exchange for goods, etc.
Zheng He did a great job as an adventurous commander of a powerful fleet.
The Unparalleled Grand Fleet
Zheng He set sail for his first voyage in the year 1405.
His fleet had over 27,800 people, including sailors and soldiers.
Among around 200 ships of his fleet, most were allocated with fire lances and cannons. And the largest one, the Treasure Ship, was about 150 meters long and 60 meters wide.
Leading such a powerful fleet, he never pulled the trigger, even when a small country accidentally killed hundreds of his soldiers.
He always followed the principle of staying in peace, except once when about 5000 pirates tried to rob him, and another time a small country sent around 50,000 soldiers and tried to attack Zheng He’s fleet.
Zheng He defeated them quickly, as the general that had experienced many large-scale wars in the Ming Empire.
When his fleet returned to China, many exotic goods and emissaries came to Ming along with them.
More countries started to pay tributes to the Ming, as well as the initiation of more international trade and cultural communication.
In the following decades, admiral Zheng He led his fleet and navigated another five times, and opened up other different routes.
As the longest and furthest navigation in Chinese history, Zheng He arrived as far as East Africa.
Auspicious Giraffe (Qilin) That Imported to Ming with Zheng He's Fleet as Tribute to Yongle Emperor, Painted by Artist Shen Du in 1414 — Taipei Palace Museum
Flat Life and Zheng He's Last Voyage
In 1424, the Yongle Emperor, the biggest supporter of Zheng He's voyages, passed away.
The new emperor commanded to stop the voyages and assigned Zheng He and his people in the fleet team to garrison Nanjing city.
A few years later, suddenly, the new emperor Zhu Zhanji summoned Zheng He back and asked him to start his seventh voyage.
Zheng He was super happy and started all the preparation work immediately, though he was already a 60-year-old man.
As a Chinese Muslim, this time, Zheng He finally arrived at his sacred place Mecca.
Soon, however, he got ill and passed away in his beloved treasure fleet on his way back home.
Copper Bell that Zheng He Made to Pray for Blessing for the seventh Voyage — National Museum of China
The Corroded Fleet and Lost of Valuable Navigation Journals
Zheng He's miserable experience in childhood and early youth gave him a strong heart, and his services in the army of the Ming Empire brought him excellent military skills.
As the chief commander of such a powerful fleet, and a general with remarkable battle experiences, he had been a bringer of peace and friendship; no invasions, very little blood, and no colonization could be attributed to him.
This made Zheng He an excellent diplomat, an extraordinary navigator, a legendary commander, and a great person with a big heart.
Hongjue Temple in Niushou Mountains of Nanjing City, Nearby is Zheng He's Tomb.
After Zheng He's death, Ming Dynasty stopped further navigation for several reasons.
Many officials of the ming court criticized that those navigations were a waste of money, which should have been spent on dealing with threats from nomads on the north border.
Indeed, the Ming Empire barely had war threats from the sea line at that time.
Others believed that the following monarchs of the Ming Dynasty strictly obeyed Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's will, in which they shouldn't try to initiate wars or invasions without a decent reason; managing the current territory well would be enough.
Consequently, those fabulous ships in Zheng He's fleet gradually corroded as time passed; his detailed and valuable navigation journals were secretly preserved in Ming's royal palace.
However, most of those precious documents were lost mysteriously later; how those journals were gone is still a secret.
Restored Model of the Main Ship of Zheng He's Fleet — Wuhan Science and Technology Museum
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