Zheng He, originally named Ma He, was born into a Muslim family just beyond the borders of China (later Yunnan Province in the southwestern part of China) in 1371. His ancestors were the Arabian immigrated into China during the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). When he was still young the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) conquered his province in 1378, and he was taken to the imperial Chinese capital to serve as a court eunuch.
However, he distinguished himself by helping Zhu Yuanzhang defeat the Yuan Dynasty, and was rewarded with an official post in the government. During the coup started by Zhu Di, who was the fourth son of the first emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty and later became Emperor Chengzu, Zheng He helped Zhu Di gain the throne and was given command of the Chinese navy. Hence he wielded great influence in court.
In 1402, after Emperor Cheng Zu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) ascended the throne, he dispatched Zheng He and Wang Jinghong to lead a giant fleet to the Western Sea (today’s Southeast Asia), carrying members of soldiers and large quantity of goods. The fleet reached the countries of Southeast Asia, east Africa and Arabia, initiating a feat in the history of navigation and regarded as an unprecedented great historical period in Chinese history of trade and cultural exchanges.
From 1405 to 1433, Zheng He led his fleet to voyage to the Western Sea for seven times. The number of ships of his fleet was from 40 to 63 each time, taking many soldiers and sailors on the voyage, with a total party over 27,000 people. Their ships navigated the wide sea area from Ryukyu Islands, the Philippine Islands and Maluku Sea to the Mozambican Channel and the costal areas of South Africa, developing mutual trade, exchanging culture and technologies, communicating traffic on the sea and promoting social and economic development in such countries and areas. The mighty fleet voyaged on the Indian Ocean, not only astonishing the Arabian navigators, but also amazing the Venice businessmen coming and going between Hormuz and Aden, hence providing a new enlightenment to the European navigation. Zheng He’s voyages are 87 years earlier than that of Columbus, 93 years earlier than that of Gama, and 116 years earlier than that of Magellan.
Chinese treasure ships carried a great deal of special Chinese products to foreign countries. As to craftwork, there were brocade, gauze, and skein; as to china, there were newly developed celadon, Xiulihong, as well as the enamelware with Chinese characteristics. By the way, during the Tang Dynasty Chinese people had grasped the technology of sintering glass, but only after Zheng He’s voyage, Chinese had grasped the technology of adding borax in glass to resist heat. The Arabian glass artisan came to China with Zheng He’s fleet and imparted the new technology to sinter new kinds of glass vessel resistant to sudden changes of temperature. Since then, this kind of glass was produced in large quantities in China and became a common utensil.
Zheng He also brought back building materials, fuels and exotic articles. It was at this time that the so-called kylin and Fulu (African giraffe and zebra) became decorative animals for the Chinese imperial garden. After coming back, Zheng He’s subordinates wrote the books asTravel Notes of Foreign Countries, Chorography of Western Countries, etc., introducing the geographic and natural conditions, local customs, as well as production and living of those foreign countries and regions, widening Chinese people’s vision and enlarging their knowledge on foreign countries.
Zheng He’s expedition was half a century earlier than those of the European navigators. Zheng He died in 1435 at the age of 65. After Zheng He’s last voyage no further voyages were launched.