Zheng He (1371–1433), formerly romanized as Cheng Ho, was a Hui Chinese court eunuch, mariner, explorer,diplomat and fleet admiral, who commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. As a favorite of the Yongle Emperor, whose usurpation he assisted, he rose to the top of the imperial hierarchy and served as commander of the southern capital Nanjing. These voyages were long neglected in official Chinese histories but have become well known in China and abroad since the publication of Liang Qihao’s “Biography of Our Homeland’s Great Navigator, Zheng He” in 1904. Atrilingual stele left by the navigator was discovered on Sri Lanka shortly thereafter.
Zheng He was born into a Muslim family. However, his religious beliefs became all-embracing and eclectic in his adulthood. The true faith of his treasure fleet centered around Tianfei, the “Heavenly Princess”, who was the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers. The Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He’s life was mostly defined by the treasure voyages. Consequently, it also suggests that his devotion to Tianfei was the dominant faith to which he adhered.
Zheng He led seven expeditions to the “Western” or Indian Ocean. Zheng He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from more than thirty kingdoms – including King Vira Alakeshwara of Ceylon, who came to China as a captive to apologize to the Emperor for offenses against his mission.
There has been speculation that at least some of Zheng’s ships may have traveled beyond the Cape of Good Hope. In particular, the Venetian monk and cartographer Fra Mauro in his 1459 map described the travels of a huge “junk from India” 2,000 miles into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420. What Fra Mauro meant by ‘India‘ is uncertain and some scholars believe he meant an Arab ship. Others, most famously Gavin Menzies, propose Zheng He may have discovered America 70 years before Christopher Columbus. Few historians accept Menzies’ theories, but he has a professorship at a Chinese University.
Zheng himself wrote of his travels:
We have traversed more than 100,000 li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…
Upon Zheng He’s death and his faction’s fall from power, his successors sought to minimize him in official accounts, along with continuing attempts to destroy all records related to the Jianwen Emperor or the manhunt to find him.Although unmentioned in the official dynastic histories, Zheng He probably died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage. Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was buried at sea.
Cult of Zheng He
Among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Zheng He became the object of cult veneration. Even some of his crew members who happened to stay in this or that port sometimes did as well, such as “Poontaokong” on Sulu. The temples of this cult – called after either of his names, Cheng Hoon or Sam Po – are peculiar to overseas Chinese except for a single temple in Hongjian originally constructed by a returned Filipino Chinese in the Ming dynasty and rebuilt by another Filipino Chinese after the original was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Read more at Wikipedia
|Order||Time||Regions along the way|
||Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Aru, Samudera,
Lambri, Ceylon, Qiulon, Kollam, Cochin, Calicut
||Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut
||Champa, Java, Malacca, Semudera, Ceylon,Quilon,
Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Kayal, Coimbatore,
||Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin,
Calicut,Kayal, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu,
Barawa,Malindi, Aden, Muscat, Dhofar
|5th voyage||1417–1419]||Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca, Samudera,
Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn, Cochin, Calicut,
Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Barawa, Malindi, Aden
|6th voyage||1421–1422||Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin,
Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu, Brava
|7th voyage||1430–1433||Champa,] Java, Palembang, Malacca, Semudera, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Bengal, Laccadive and Maldive Islands, Djofar, Lasa,Aden, Mecca, Mogadishu, Brava