Zheng He or Cheng Ho as he was also known, is arguably China’s most famous navigator. (AD 1371 – 1433) This relatively unknown admiral and explorer was born in Kunyang, today known as Jinning County, Kunming in Yunnan Province, China. He studied at Nanjing Taixue – The Imperial Central College.
Between AD 1405 and 1433, he commanded seven expeditions to the “Western Oceans” (Southeast Asia, Sumatra, Java, Ceylon, India, Persia, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, the Red Sea as far as Egypt Africa as far south as the the Mocambique Channel) on royal orders of the Ming emperor Yongle and his successor the Hongxi Emperor. The Muslim court eunuch, He, visited over 30 countries and regions in Asia and Africa and successfully extended Chinese influence in culture and technology as well as fostering trade and goodwill. These seven voyages were without equal in the world’s maritime history.
Zheng He’s flotilla comprised over 200 ships and a crew of more than 20,000. The hundred-metre long flagships, known as “treasure ships”, sailed in convoy with a fleet of battleships, combat billets, supply ships, water tankers and horse ships. Steered by stars and directed by the compass, the fleets succeeded in reaching as far as the eastern African coast during their seven voyages, using nautical astronomy and geonavigation. The size of the fleets sent, the equipment used and the distance traveled all demonstrated that nautical technology in China during the Ming Dynasty was well ahead of other maritime powers.
The well-known Columbus sailed to America in St. Maria (eighty-five feet) in 1492. Zheng He sailed from China to many places throughout South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Taiwan, Persian Gulf and distant Africa in seven epic voyages from 1405 to 1433, some 80 years before Columbus’s voyages. Zheng He’s flag “treasure ship” was four hundred feet long – much larger than Columbus’s ship.
His first voyage, which called in at Malacca and reached India, consisted of sixty-two ships. Starting from the beginning of the 15th Century, he travelled to the West seven times. For twenty-eight years, he travelled more than 50,000 km and visited over 30 countries including Singapore. The voyages were made possible by the use of the compass and by Chinese progress in navigation and shipbuilding. The reason for the voyages is unclear as they were neither used for trade development nor for political influence with the countries visited. He did, however, return with compliments in the form of gifts to the emperor, including giraffes, ostriches, and zebras from Mogadishu in East Africa.
Unlike later naval expeditions conducted by European governments, the Chinese treasure ships appear to have been doomed in the long run as the voyages lacked any economic motive. They were primarily conducted to increase the prestige of the emperor, and the costs of the expeditions and of the return gifts provided to foreign royalty, and ambassadors more than offset the benefit of any tribute collected.
Zheng He died in the tenth year of the reign of the Ming emperor Xuande (1435) and was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull’s Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing. In 1985, during the 580th anniversary of Zheng He’s voyage, his tomb was restored. The new tomb was built on the site of the original tomb in Nanjing and reconstructed according to the customs of Islamic teachings, as Zheng who was a Muslim.
At the entrance to the tomb is a Ming-style structure, which houses the memorial hall. Inside are paintings of the man himself and his navigation maps. To get to the tomb, there are newly laid stone platforms and steps. The stairway consists of 28 stone steps divided into four sections with each section having seven steps. This represents Zheng He’s seven journeys to the West. The Arabic words “Allah (God) is great” are inscribed on top of the tomb.
Zhenghe constructed many wooden ships, some of which are the largest in the history, in Nanjing. Three of the shipyards still exist. The characteristics of the Chinese ships of the period are confirmed by Western travelers to the East, such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo.