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Zhen He Travelling to the West

Zheng He (or Ma Sanbao) (1371-1433), a court eunuch, marine explorer and fleet admiral, was born into an adventurous Muslim family in Kunyang of Yunnan Province, and his grandfather was a noble from the Mongolian tribe and once made pilgrimages to Mecca. Zheng He had an elder brother and two sisters, whose family was greatly respected in Kunyang owing to their pious religious belief.

The Ming Army attacked Yunnan in the 13th year (1381) of the Hongwu Period in the Ming Dynasty, and the eleven-year old Zheng He was captured and castrated as a eunuch in the palace of the Prince of Yan (later the Yongle Emperor). Zheng He assisted the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, to seize the throne against Emperor Jianwen in the battle of Zhengzhou (presently Renqiu of Hebei Province). After ascending the throne, Zhu Di bestowed the imperial surname “Zheng"on Ma Sanbao as a reward, hence the name Zheng He. During 1404 and 1433, Zheng He led seven expeditionary voyages to the western countries successively under the Emperor's orders, accomplishing a great feat in the history of China's marine navigation, for which he was conferred Sanbo Eunuch (Three-Protection Eunuch) in the 6th year (1431) of the Xuande Period.

Preconditions of Zheng He's Marine Voyages

  • The shipbuilding industry became very prosperous in the Tang and the Song dynasties, which made long-distance oceanic exploration possible. 
  • The technological developments of compasses and gunpowder provided security assurance for oceanic exploration.
  • The Yongle Emperor showed off the national strength out of political reasons.
  • The ocean trade in the Yuan Dynasty was very prosperous, and the Yuan Empire boasted the strongest army and largest fleets in the world, laying a good foundation for ocean exploration economically and militarily.
  • The sailors, armies and translators worked together to complete the enduing task.

Zheng He's Seven Travels to the West

Starting from Liujiagang Suzhou of Jiangsu Province, Zheng He led a fleet of 240 ships, holding about 27,000 crewmen, and visited over 30 states neighboring the West Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean on the 3rd year of the Yongle Emperor's reign (1405); this greatly deepened the friendly relationship between China and the Southeast Asian countries and Eastern African countries. The 7th voyage stopped on the 8th year (1433) of the Xuande Period owing to Zheng He's death at Guli in India, and he and his crewmen reached as far as the Red Sea and the East African coast.

The First Voyage to the WestZheng He set sail from Longjiang Harbor of Nanjing on June 15th of the 3rd year (1405) of the Yongle Emperor's reign and returned on September 2nd of the 5th year (1407) of the Yongle Emperor's reign, and over 27,800 crewmen participated in the voyage according to historical records. Zheng He had visited Champa (presently Vietnam), Java Island, Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Qiulon, Kollam, Cochin (presently South West India) and Calicut (presently South India) during the first voyage.

The Second Voyage to the WestDozens of days after Zheng He's return, he led his fleet to the West for the second time on September 13th of the 5th year (1407) of the Yongle Emperor's reign, during which he visited Champa, Java Island, Siam (presently Thailand), Malacca, Cochin, Ceylon (presently Sri Lanka) and Calicut. On his returning voyage in July of the 7th year (1409) of the Yongle Emperor's reign, Zheng He made a special trip to Ceylon and erected a monument at Mt. Ceylon Temple to commemorate this voyage. It was estimated that over 27,000 crewmen joined in the voyage.

The Third Voyage to the West

Starting from Liujiagang, Suzhou of Jiangsu Province, Zheng He led a fleet of 48 ships and started the voyage into the West for the third time in September of the 7th year (1409) of the Yongle Emperor's reign, and he visited Champa, Java, Malacca, Semudera, Ceylon, Quilon, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri and Kayal, namely, the present Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India. Zheng He also received the Buddha's relics on his way home via Ceylon on July 9th of the 9th year (1411) of the Yongle Emperor's reign.

The Fourth Voyage to the West

Over 27,670 crewmen were enrolled on Zheng He's fourth journey to the West in November of the 11th year (1413) of the Yongle Emperor's reign, and they detoured around the Arabic Peninsular and sailed as far as Mogadishu and Malindi (presently Kenya). On July 8th of the 13th year of the Yongle Emperor's reign (1415), Zheng He and his fleet returned home, when the envoy from Malindi presented giraffes to the Ming emperor.

The Fifth Voyage to the West

Zheng He's fifth voyage to the West started at Quanzhou (presently Guangdong Province) in May of the 15th year (1417) of the Yongle Emperor's reign and ended at Ma Lam (an ancient kingdom in an East African country) via Champa and Java Island, and they sailed home on July 17th of the 17th year (1419) of the Yongle Emperor's reign. At that time, the Aden Kingdom offered unicorns, Maldive lions and Barawa ostriches to the Ming emperor.

The Sixth Voyage to the West

Under the escort of a fleet of ships, Zheng He was ordered to send the foreign envoys home on September 30th of the 9th year (1421) of the Yongle Emperor's reign, and he passed by Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin, Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu and Brava. The fleet returned back home with envoys from Siam, Samudera and Aden on August 18th of the 20th year (1422) of the Yongle Emperor's reign. On the 22nd (1426) year of the Yongle period, the Yongle Emperor passed away, and Zhu Gaozhi (later known as the Renzong Emperor) ascended to the throne and he stopped Zheng He's voyage into the West owing to the bankrupt national treasury.

The Seventh Voyage to the West

Setting sail at Longjiangguan (presently Xiaguan of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province), Zheng He led his fleet to the West for the 7th time on December 6th of the 5th year of the Xuande Emperor's reign (January, 1431), and he died of being overworked on his homeward voyage in 1433. The fleet was led by another eunuch, Wang Jinghong, which returned to Nanjing on July 7th of the 8th year of the Xuande Emperor's reign (July 22nd, 1433). The number of the crewmen reached 27,550 during the voyage.

Zheng He's Contribution to Global Ocean Exploration

As an outstanding diplomat and navigator in the history of China, Zheng He's travels to the West are great events in the history of the world, for which he is widely considered as a famous historical and cultural figure.

Zheng He's travels to the West were unprecedented in terms of their scale and scope. Zheng He made great contributions to the friendly relations between China and the world in politics, economy and culture.

Zheng He's travels to the West turned a new page in the history of world marine navigation, which was 87 years earlier than when Christopher Columbus discovered America, 92 years earlier than when Vasco Da Gama discovered the Cape of Good Hope and 114 years earlier than when Magellan sailed around the globe.