Zheng He — An Epic Navigator and His Unparalleled Voyages in the History of China

Zheng He (1371 — 1433), original name as Ma He or Ma Sanbao, was one of the greatest diplomats and navigators 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 had 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). 

When Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty in the year 1368, Yuan’s last emperor Toghon Temür escaped northward and organized a regime named the Northern Yuan. 

Zheng He’s hometown was one of the places that were 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 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 had been under Ming’s governance. General Mu Ying and his family were assigned to rule and guard there until the Ming Dynasty was ended a few centuries later. 

The other two generals came back to their emperor, together with Ming’s soldiers and some prisoners of this war.  

The 11 years old Zheng He was one of them, who then got 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)

Zheng He’s Exceptional Braveness that Impressed the Prince

Prince Zhu Di was assigned to garrisoning in Beijing, the front line to fight against the forces of the Northern Yuan. 

Therefore, young Zheng He had participated in many wars with his prince. Zheng He's braveness and talent impressed Zhu Di, who then nominated him as his royal guard. 

When Zhu Di initiated the Incident of Jingnan that snatched the throne, Zheng He contributed significantly as well. 

Therefore, after Zhu Di got the throne and became the Yongle Emperor of Ming, Zheng He was also promoted as the most honorable eunuch. 

Yongle was one of the most remarkable emperors in Chinese history, who commanded to construct the Forbidden City and publish the world’s largest paper encyclopedia the Yongle Encyclopedia (Chinese name Yongle Da Dian), largely 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’s had been worrying about one problem.

When Zhu Di led his army and won the Incident of Jingnan and arrived Ming’s first capital city, his nephew Zhu Yunwen, the legit sovereign of the Ming Dynasty, burnt down the royal palace and disappeared.

As long as Zhu Yunwen was alive, he would always be the legit monarch of the Empire Ming, which made Zhu Di a throne snatcher. 

Hence, Zhu Di sent two teams trying to find his nephew, and Zheng He was the leader of the maritime team.

However, searching for the previous emperor was Zheng He’s secret goal; his official mission was disseminating 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.

Zheng He's Unparalleled Voyages and Grand Fleet

Zheng He started 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 of them were allocated with fire lances and cannons. And the largest one was about 150 meters long and 60 meters wide.

Leading such a powerful and strong fleet, Zheng He never pulled the trigger, even when hundreds of his soldiers were killed by a small country accidentally.

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 easily, as the general that had experienced many large-scale wars in the Ming Empire.

Many exotic goods and emissaries came to Ming along with Zheng He.

More countries started to pay tributes to Ming, as well as the initiation of more international trades and cultural communication.

In the next decades, Zheng He led his fleet navigated another 5 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 the year 1424, 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 people in his fleet garrison in 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 works immediately, though he was already a 60-year-old man.

As a Muslim, this time Zheng He finally arrived at his sacred place Mecca.

Soon, however, he got ill and passed away in his beloved ship 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, Zheng 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 navigations for several reasons.

Many officials criticized that those navigations were a waste of money, which should be spent on dealing with threats from nomads on the north border. Indeed, at that time, Empire Ming barely had war threats from the sea-line.

Others believed that the following monarchs of the Ming Dynasty strictly obeyed Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang’s will that 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 were gradually corroded as time went by; his detailed and valuable navigation journals were preserved secretly in Ming's royal palace.

However, most of those precious documents got lost mysteriously later; how did those journals were gone is still a secret in the history of China.  

Restored Model of the Main Ship of Zheng He's Fleet — Wuhan Science and Technology Museum

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