Jul 112018

On this date in 1405 Zheng He (鄭和, 1371–1433 or 1435), a Chinese imperial official and admiral, set out with a fleet on the first of seven expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. Until the 20th century these voyages had been forgotten to Chinese history.

Zheng He was born Ma He (馬和) to a Muslim family of Kunming in Yunnan. He had an older brother and four sisters. Zheng He was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty. His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan. Zheng He’s grandfather carried the title hajji, while his father had the sinicized surname Ma and also the title hajji, which suggests that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In the autumn of 1381, a Ming army invaded and conquered Yunnan, which was then ruled by the Mongol prince Basalawarmi, Prince of Liang. In 1381, Ma Haji (Zheng He’s father) died in the fighting between the Ming armies and Mongol forces. It is unclear if he was helping the Mongol army or just caught in the onslaught of battle. Wenming, the oldest son, buried their father outside of Kunming. Ma He was captured by the Ming armies at Yunnan in 1381. General Fu Youde saw Ma He on a road and approached him in order to inquire about the location of the Mongol ruler. Ma He responded defiantly by saying that the Mongol ruler had jumped into a lake. The general took him prisoner, had him castrated, and placed in service to the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, who later became the Yongle Emperor.

Zhu Di

Since 1380, the Zhu Di had been governing Beiping (later Beijing), which was located near the northern frontier where the hostile Mongol tribes were situated. Ma spent his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier, and often participated in Zhu Di’s military campaigns against the Mongols. On 2nd March 1390, Ma accompanied Zhu Di when he conquered the Mongol commander Naghachu. Eventually, he gained the confidence and trust of the prince. Ma was also known as “sān bǎo” during the time of service in Zhu Di’s household. This name was a reference to the Three Jewels (三寶, triratna) in Buddhism, also known as the “Three Protections” (the Buddha, the teachings, the monastic order). Ma He received a formal education while at Beiping, which he would not have had if he had been placed in the imperial capital Nanjing, because the Hongwu Emperor did not trust eunuchs and believed that it was better to keep them illiterate. Meanwhile, the Hongwu Emperor purged and exterminated many of the original Ming leadership and gave his enfeoffed sons more military authority, especially those in the north like the Prince of Yan.

Ma He’s appearance as an adult was recorded: he was 7 chi tall, had a waist that was five chi in circumference. The chi was around 9.3 inches (actually varying between 9.1 and  9.6 inches), meaning that he was probably quite tall for the time (around 5’ 6” or taller), and also stout  (with a waist of 46 inches or greater).  It is recorded that he had a high forehead, a small nose, glaring eyes, teeth that were white and well-shaped (like shells), and a voice that was as loud as a bell.

Ma He eventually became a trusted adviser to the prince and assisted him when the Jianwen emperor’s hostility to his uncle’s feudal bases prompted the 1399–1402 Jingnan Campaign (which ended with the ascension of Zhu Di as the Yongle Emperor). In January 1402, Zhu Di began a military campaign to capture the imperial capital Nanjing. Zheng He was one of his commanders during this campaign. ­­In 1402, Zhu Di’s armies defeated the imperial forces and marched into Nanjing on 13th July 1402. Zhu Di accepted the elevation to emperor four days later. After ascending the throne as the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di promoted Ma He to Grand Director (太監, tài jiàn) of the Directorate of Palace Servants. During the New Year’s festivities on 11th February 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname “Zheng” on Ma He, in honor of one of his victories. In the new administration, Zheng He served in the highest posts, as Grand Director and later as Chief Envoy (正使, zhèngshǐ) during his sea voyages. Over the next three decades he conducted seven of these voyages on behalf of the emperor, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Expanding Sino-Arab trade during the 14th century had gradually expanded Chinese knowledge of the world: “universal” maps previously only displaying China and its surrounding seas began to expand further and further into the southwest with much more accurate depictions of the extent of Arabia and Africa. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored seven naval expeditions. The Yongle Emperor – disregarding the Hongwu Emperor’s expressed wishes – designed them to establish a Chinese presence and impose imperial control over the Indian Ocean trade, impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin, and extend the empire’s system of tribute. It has also been inferred from passages in the History of Ming that the initial voyages were launched as part of the emperor’s attempt to find and capture his escaped predecessor.

Zheng He was placed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions. Wang Jinghong was appointed his second in command. Preparations were thorough and wide-ranging, including the use of so many linguists that a foreign language institute was established at Nanjing to prepare them. Zheng He’s first voyage departed 11th July 1405, from Suzhou and consisted of a fleet of 317 ships holding almost 28,000 crewmen.

Zheng He’s fleets visited Brunei, Java, Thailand and Southeast Asia, India, the Horn of Africa, and Arabia, dispensing and receiving goods along the way. Zheng He presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain, and silk. In return, China received such novelties as ostriches, zebras, camels, and ivory from coastal east Africa. The giraffe he brought back from Malindi was considered to be a qilin (legendary creature of good fortune) and taken as proof of the favor of heaven upon the administration.

While Zheng He’s fleet was unprecedented, the routes were not. Zheng He’s fleet was following long-established, well-mapped routes of trade between China and the Arabian peninsula employed since at least the Han dynasty. This fact, along with the use of large numbers of crew members that were regular military personnel (not necessary for sailing the ships), leads some historians to speculate that these expeditions were largely geared towards China’s aspirations at colonial expansion. During the Three Kingdoms Period, the king of Wu sent a twenty year-long diplomatic mission led by Zhu Ying and Kang Tai along the coast of Asia, which reached as far as the Eastern Roman Empire. After centuries of disruption, the Song dynasty restored large-scale maritime trade from China in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, reaching as far as the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. When his fleet first arrived in Malacca, there was already a sizable Chinese community. The General Survey of the Ocean Shores (瀛涯勝覽, Yíngyá Shènglǎn) composed by the translator Ma Huan in 1416 gave very detailed accounts of his observations of people’s customs and lives in the ports they visited. He referred to the expatriate Chinese as “Tang” people (唐人, Tángrén).

Zheng He generally sought to attain his goals through diplomacy, and his large army awed most would-be enemies into submission. But a contemporary reported that Zheng He “walked like a tiger” and did not shrink from violence when he considered it necessary to impress foreign peoples with China’s military might. He ruthlessly suppressed pirates who had long plagued Chinese and southeast Asian waters. For example, he defeated Chen Zuyi, one of the most feared and respected pirate captains, and returned him back to China for execution. He also waged a land war against the kingdom of Kotte on Ceylon island, and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and East Africa. From his fourth voyage, he brought envoys from thirty states who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.

In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (r. 1424–1425), stopped the voyages during his short reign. Zheng He made one more voyage during the reign of Hongxi’s son, the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426–1435) but, after that, the voyages of the Chinese treasure ship fleets were ended. Xuande believed his father’s decision to halt the voyages had been meritorious and thus “there would be no need to make a detailed description of his grandfather’s sending Zheng He to the Western Ocean.” The voyages “were contrary to the rules stipulated in the Huang Ming Zuxun” (皇明祖訓), the dynastic foundation documents laid down by the Hongwu Emperor:

Some far-off countries pay their tribute to me at much expense and through great difficulties, all of which are by no means my own wish. Messages should be forwarded to them to reduce their tribute so as to avoid high and unnecessary expenses on both sides.

They further violated longstanding Confucian principles. They were only made possible by (and therefore continued to represent) a triumph of the Ming’s eunuch/military faction over the administration’s scholar/bureaucrats. Upon Zheng He’s death and his faction’s fall from power, his successors sought to minimize him in official accounts, along with continuing attempts to destroy all records related to the Jianwen Emperor or the manhunt to find him.

Although unmentioned in the official dynastic histories, Zheng He probably died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage. Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was buried at sea. The following tabulation gives a summary of Zheng He’s seven voyages based on primary documents:

Order Time Regions along the way
1st voyage 1405–1407 Champa, Java Palembang, Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Qulion(Kollam), Kollam, Cochin, Calicut
2nd voyage 1407–1409 Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut
3rd voyage 1409–1411 Champa, Java, Malacca, Semudera, Ceylon, Quilon, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Kayal, Coimbatore, Puttanpur
4th voyage 1413–1415 Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Kayal, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Baraawe, Malindi, Aden, Muscat, Dhofar
5th voyage 1417–1419 Ryukyu, Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca, Samudera, Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Aden, Mogadishu, Baraawe, the Lamu Islands, and Malindi.
6th voyage 1421–1422 Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin, Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu, Baraawe
7th voyage 1430–1433 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Semudera, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Bengal, Laccadive and Maldive Islands, Djofar, Lasa, Aden, Mecca, Mogadishu, Baraawe

Zheng himself wrote of his travels:

We have traversed more than 100,000 li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, 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 as rapidly as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.

Dishes from the Ming dynasty are well documented, and their descendants are still exemplars of what Westerners often think of as “Chinese cooking.” Ni Tsan’s (1301 – 1374) Forest Hall Collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating includes 52 recipes intended for ordinary households. The Chinese knew Ni as a painter whose work was considered some of the finest examples of Taoist and Zen Buddhist ideas in art.

When first published in China, ordinary people read Ni Tsan’s collection of recipes and could use it to make soy sauce (the book’s first recipe), noodles, four different preparations for crab, ‘yellow-bird’ buns, clams, vegetable and mushroom dishes, shrimp rolls, snails, fish, stew, kidneys, pickled ginger, turtle, pig’s head, barbecued pork and goose, jellyfish, and how to brew wine and make several different teas. The recipes are typical of foods from Jiangsu of the time. Here is a modernized version of his Dragon and Phoenix (stir fried chicken and squid), a dish which embodies the balance of several elements: yin and yang, hot and cold, spicy and sour, etc. Without a wok, a powerful burner, and some know-how concerning stir frying, you may not do all that well with this recipe, but you can have a go.

Dragon and Phoenix


½ lb squid, cut in pieces and scored with cross-cuts
¼ lb chicken breast pieces
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
½ cup cornstarch
1 egg white
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 green onions, cut into 1” slivers
4 slices peeled fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 tsp Chinese vinegar
3 tbsp soaked cloud ear fungus, cut into ½” strips
3 tbsp bamboo shoots, thinly sliced
6 oz fresh greens, cut into ½” strips


Blanch the pieces of squid in boiling water for 20 to 30 seconds, then immerse them in cold water, drain them, and pat them dry. Then set them aside.

Mix the chicken pieces with half the salt and half the wine, stir well, then add the cornstarch and egg white. Mix well to coat, and set aside for five minutes.

Heat a wok on very high heat. Add the oil and when it starts to smoke, fry the chicken pieces until they are crisp and golden. When cooked, remove them with a wire strainer and drain them on wire racks. Discard all but one tablespoon of the oil from the wok.

Heat the remaining oil, stir fry the scallions, ginger, and garlic for 30 seconds, then add the vinegar, cloud ear fungus, and bamboo shoots, and stir fry for one minute before adding the chicken and squid pieces. Stir well for 30 seconds, then add the greens.  Stir fry for another 30 seconds, then put in a bowl and serve with boiled rice.