Little did the famous Muslim geographer Ibn Battuta know that about 22 years after his historic visit to China, the Mongol Dynasty (called the Yuan Dynasty in China) would be overthrown. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) would begin, and a Muslim boy would help a Chinese prince. That prince would become the emperor, and the boy would grow up to be the Admiral of the Chinese Fleet.
His name... Zheng He. The ships that he would sail throughout the Indian Ocean would retrace some of the same routes taken by Ibn Battuta, but he would be in huge boats called junks. He would go to East Africa, Makkah, the Persian Gulf, and throughout the Indian Ocean.
Speak of the world's first navigators, and the names Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama flash through a Western mind. The remarkable feats of a Chinese Muslim who helped transform China into the region's, and perhaps the world's, superpower of his time, Zheng He's (1371-1433) adventures are little known and were accomplished decades before those of the two European adventurers.
In 1405, Zheng was chosen to lead the biggest naval expedition in history up to that time. Over the next 28 years (1405-33), he commanded seven fleets that visited 37 countries throughout Southeast Asia to faraway Africa and Arabia. In those years, China had by far the biggest ships of the time. In 1420, the Ming navy dwarfed the combined navies of Europe.
Ma He, as he was originally known, was born in 1371 to a poor ethnic Hui (Chinese Muslim) family in Yunnan province, southwest China. His grandfather and father once made an overland pilgrimage to Makkah. Their travels contributed much to young Ma's education. He grew up speaking Arabic and Chinese, learning much about the world to the west and its geography and customs.
Recruited as a promising servant for the Imperial household at the age of ten, two years later Ma was assigned to the retinue of Duke Yan, who would later usurp the throne as Emperor Yong Le. Ma accompanied the Duke on a series of successful military campaigns and played a crucial role in the capture of Nanjing, then the capital. As a result, he was awarded supreme command of the Imperial Household Agency and was given the surname Zheng.
Emperor Yong Le tried to boost his damaged prestige as a usurper by displaying China's might abroad, sending spectacular fleets on great voyages, and bringing foreign ambassadors to his court. He also put foreign trade under a strict Imperial monopoly by taking control away from overseas Chinese merchants. Command of the fleet was given to his favorite, Zheng He, an impressive figure said to be over eight feet tall.
A great fleet of large ships, with nine masts and manned by 500 men, each set sail in July 1405, half a century before Columbus' voyage to America. There were great treasure ships over 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, the biggest being 440 feet long and 186 feet across, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers. Most of the ships were built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, the remains of which can still be seen today.
Zheng He's first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men, and meteorologists. On board were large quantities of cargo, including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements, and cotton goods. The fleet sailed along China's coast to Champa close to Vietnam and, after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java and Sumatra and then reached Sri Lanka by passing through the Strait of Malacca. On the way back, it sailed along the west coast of India and returned home in 1407. Envoys from Calicut in India and several countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ships to pay visits to China. Zheng He's second and third voyages, taken shortly after, followed roughly the same route.
In the fall of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men for Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz, he sailed around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region, and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng He's ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le.
In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng He. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa, and Zanzibar. He might have reached Mozambique. The sixth voyage, in 1421, also went to the African coast.
Emperor Yong Le died in 1424, shortly after Zheng He's return. Yet, in 1430 the admiral was sent on a final seventh voyage. Now 60 years old, Zheng He revisited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and Africa, and died in 1433on his way back while in India.
Zheng He's junks
Zheng He's flag treasure ship was 400 feet long ” much larger than Columbus'. In this drawing, the two flagships are superimposed to give a clear idea of the relative size of these two ships. Columbus' ship the St. Maria was only 85 feet long, while Zheng He's flag ship was an astonishing 400 feet long.
Imagine six centuries ago, a mighty armada of Zheng He's ships crossing the China Sea, then venturing west to Sri Lanka, Arabia, and East Africa. The fleet consisted of giant nine-masted junks, escorted by dozens of supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses, and patrol boats. The armada's crew totaled more than 27,000 sailors and soldiers.
Loaded with Chinese silk and porcelain, the junks visited ports around the Indian Ocean. Here, Arab and African merchants exchanged the spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods, and pearls so eagerly sought by the Chinese imperial court.
Seven times, from 1405 to 1433, the treasure fleets set off for the unknown. These seven great expeditions brought a vast web of trading links ” from Taiwan to the Persian Gulf ” under Zheng He's imperial control. This took place half a century before the first Europeans, rounding the tip of Africa in frail Portuguese caravels, discovered the Indian Ocean.
His humble tomb
Zheng He (1371-1433), or Cheng Ho, is arguably China's most famous navigator. Starting from the beginning of the fifteenth century, he set out seven times. For 28 years, he traveled more than 50,000 km and visited over 37 countries, including Singapore. Zheng He died in the tenth year Ming emperor Xuande's (1433) reign, and was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing.
In 1983, 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 and reconstructed according to the customs of Islamic teachings.
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. Inscribed on top of the tomb are the Arabic words Allahu Akbar (God is Great).