January 1, 1371 - Zheng He

Zheng He was born in 1371 with the name Ma He in Yunnan (the Himalayan foothills).  Three years before his birth, China had regained their land from the Mongols under the new Ming Dynasty.  Emperor Hongwu ruled China at the time.  He’s father was an official in the Mongol Empire.  When He was around ten years old, the Ming army invaded Yunnan to take it back under Chinese control.  The army killed his father and took He as prisoner.  As customary for young prisoner boys, they castrated him.  He survived this and was put as a servant in the household of the emperor’s fourth son, Zhu Di.  Castrated men, called eunuchs, were considered a special group of people across China and even beyond.  Royalty and generals often employed them to work as staff members for women because they could not threaten the bloodline of royalty and important officials.  Zhu Di and Ma He were stationed in Beijing, which was near Mongol territory.  They spent a lot of time together around these areas scouting on horseback for Mongols.  As Ma He got older, he became unusually tall, strong, and an excellent fighter.  This helped kickstart his important career. 

When the first Ming emperor, Hongwu, died, his grandson was given the throne.  Zhu Di took the throne from the grandson and became Emperor Yongle or Yonglo.  He made Ma He the director of palace servants.  Di also changed He’s name to Zheng He which celebrated the help Ma He was with getting Di the throne, and it was the name of his favorite warhorse.  Emperor Yongle was very ambitious and wanted to do many things during his time as emperor.  He made the new capital in Beijing and extended the Great Wall of China.  One of the very first things he did, however, was command the construction of a 3,500-ship fleet.  Zheng He was put as supervisor for the building and then when it was done, he would command it.  When the fleet was completed, many of the ships went off on the first voyage He would command.  Some of the ships in this fleet were the biggest the world has ever seen.  For example, He’s flag ship measured about 400 feet long.  The absolute size of the fleet was insane even though the whole 3,500 ships were not all going at the same time.  The various ships constructed would go on different voyages at different times.  There were 62 nine-masted treasure ships, a nine-masted flag ship for He, and over 200 other kinds of ships carrying helpers, grain, horses, and 28,000 armed soldiers ready to fight if needed on the first of seven voyages. 

The first voyage took the fleet from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India.  The purpose of this expedition was to obtain gifts and recognition from other areas and rulers.  They did just this, they gained recognition and gave gifts.  People were wondering who these outsiders were and where they came from.  They had so many riches and their fleet was massive and impressive.  Most rulers who met Zheng He and his fleet respected and traded with the foreigners.  When the fleet headed back to China after meeting many rulers and exploring far and wide, they ran into pirates.  The pirate leader pretended to surrender in order to escape and Zheng He knew what he was doing.  He commanded his fleet to attack.  The fleet decimated the pirates, killing around 5,000 of them, and taking the leader back to be beheaded in China.  Following the first voyage, there were five more voyages before Emperor Yongle died.  All these voyages did almost the same thing as the first voyage but with different parts explored between Southeast Asia and Eastern Africa.  Zheng He’s fleet traded with many cultures and people in these areas.  After the death of Emperor Yongle in 1424, He went on one more voyage in 1431 and is suspected to have died on board his flag ship from an illness and was buried off the coast of India in 1433.  Some believe He might have made it back to China and died there, but no one truly knows.  After the seventh voyage, China stopped venturing out and isolated themselves from other cultures and countries around them. 

There are many reasons why Zheng He is so important in history.  The main reason is because of his seven voyages during the span of his life.  These voyages showed Chinese superiority over other countries by showcasing how grand and powerful the Ming Empire was.  The Ming gave out silver, silk, and other valuables and showed off their amazing and powerful fleet to everyone they could.  In result of these voyages, sixteen other countries started sending tributes to the Ming Courts out of respect for the Chinese empire.  They also created cultural blending from the different cultures the fleet ran into and traded with.  This expanded trade for China from Southeast Asia to Eastern Africa.  All these factors eventually led to the Chinese withdrawing into isolation to keep the influence of other countries to a minimum to preserve the Chinese culture.  The Chinese culture was being affected by outsider influence after Zheng He’s voyages, and the Ming did not want to lose the Chinese way.  They decided to shut almost all their trading ports and modes of trade off from the rest of the world. 

 

 

Works Cited: 

bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-10767321 

flickr.com/photos/stereozaff/37044999322 

khanacademy.org/partner-content/big-history-project/expansion-interconnection/exploration-interconnection/a/zheng-he 

World History: Patterns of Interaction 

 

By Linnea Alstead