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Zheng He: China's Most Famous Muslim Navigator

posted on: Dec 16, 2015

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

During the early 20th century an inscription on a stone pillar was discovered in the Taoist goddesses’ Temple of the Celestial Spouse in a town in China’s Fujian province. It told of the amazing epic voyages of a Chinese admiral named Zheng He, sometimes spelled Cheng Ho, made in the 15th century some 70 years before Columbus’s voyages. This discovery brought to light the voyages of this Chinese admiral – historically, China’s most famous navigator. It is said that if the Chinese had continued his voyages they would have ‘discovered’ Europe instead of less than a century later the Europeans ‘discovering’ China.

Zheng He (1371-1435 A.D.) whose birth name was Ma Sanbao, was also known by his Arabic name, Hajji Mahmud Shams and for having made at least seven wondrous voyages to the West. In his 28 years of sailing he traveled more than 50,000 km (31,056 mi), visiting over 30 countries. These voyages of discovery made between 1405 and 1433 show that China in the 15th century had the ships and navigational skills to explore the world. Yet, for some strange reason, China did not build on the discoveries of Zheng He. It was to be the Europeans who would carry on the torch of discovery.

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Kunyang, a town in the southwest Yunnan Province of China. His family were Muslims who originally came from Central Asia and both his grandfather and father had made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. After the Ming armies, in 1382, conquered Yunnan, one of the last strongholds of the Mongols, Zheng He, now about the age of 10 years was captured and castrated to become an eunuch. He was made a servant, working in the palace of Zhu Di, the fourth son of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who later became the Emperor Yong Le.

Chinese historical records describe Zheng He as maturing into a two meter (six feet seven inches) tall and heavy-set person with a tiger’s stride and a voice clear and vibrant. He became a brave soldier, well liked and admired for his quick wit. When his prince, Zhu Di, seized the Chinese throne, Zheng He fought well on his behalf, accompanying him on countless campaigns and battles throughout China. He became a close confident of the new emperor who named him to the position of Grand Eunuch.

Emperor Yong Le of the relatively new Ming Dynasty was an ambitious and vigorous ruler who had great plans for his country. He built his new capital at Beijing and rebuilt the Great Wall to a greater extent than it had ever been. The Emperor also decided to build a navy to establish relations with foreign countries, to expand trade contacts and to assert Chinese power on the high seas – plans which had been on the drawing board since the overthrow of the Mongols. He appointed Zheng He to lead this navy and gave him the title ‘Admiral of the Western Seas’.

Zheng He, in his own words, describes how the Emperor ordered him to sail to ‘the countries beyond the horizon – all the way to the end of the earth.’ His goal was to display the might of Chinese power and collect tribute from the ‘barbarians beyond the seas’.

An individual of extraordinary ability, Zheng He first conducted an exhaustive study of existing nautical charts, celestial navigation, eastern and western almanacs, astronomy and geography, marine sciences, piloting, and shipbuilding and repair.   He then set out to organize a navy whose ships were mostly built in the shipyards at Najing (Nanking).   During his lifetime Zheng He was to build a total of 1622 ships in these shipyards.

On the seven voyages that he was to make, Zheng He organized each expedition on an enormous scale – into the largest and most advanced fleet in the world in the 15th century. Each expedition included some 300 ships and 27,800 men. On every trip his fleet had 62 major ships, each about 475 ft long and 193 ft wide with nine masts that flew 12 large sails manned by more then 200 sailors and holding 1,000 people per ship. The largest sea-going vessels of the day, they dwarfed any European ship such as Columbus’ Santa Maria (75 ft x 25 ft) more than 6-fold.

In 1405 Zheng He set out on his first voyage with an armada labelled the ‘Chinese Ming Imperial Treasure Fleet’ the like of which no other nation on earth had been able to put to sea.   According to one Chinese historian who described the flotilla: “The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses. When their sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky.”

Besides sailors and navigators, aboard the ships on this and all the later voyages, were artisans, clerks, interpreters, officers and soldiers, scribes, shipwrights, medical men and meteorologists. Also, Muslim religious leaders and Buddhist monks were brought along to serve as friendly diplomats in lands where people were Buddhist or Muslim. Each ship carried enough food to last the entire voyage. In addition to rice and preserved food, the ships carried on deck large containers of soil for growing vegetables.

The cargo consisted usually of over 40 different categories of goods including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silver ware, copper utensils, iron implements, cotton, perfumes and much more, mostly for trade and as gifts for foreign kings and princes. In exchange for such wares the ships brought back medicinal herbs, dyes, spices, precious gems, rhinoceros horns, ivory, and exotic animals such as the ‘celestial horse, (zebra) and ‘celestial stag’ (oryx).   At the arrival of these strange beasts the Emperor himself went to the palace gate to receive them and the palace officials performed the kowtow before the heavenly animals.

Often the ships traveled for days across the Indian Ocean out of sight of any land. Many of the navigational problems encountered were solved in a scientific way by the use of navigational apparatus like the compass and sea charts. This accounted for the fact that in spite of terrible storms, the fleet was able to sail day and night even when the ships tossed wildly in fierce storms and, at times, seemed to be on the verge of sinking.

Zheng He kept, on all his journeys, a detailed logbook and made a good number of nautical charts that were later collected in what was called ‘Zheng He’s Nautical Charts’ – the first of its kind in the world. From these it can be established that China in Zheng He’s days, no doubt, led the world in the technology of shipbuilding and in the science of navigation.

On each voyage Zheng He acted as the envoy and commercial representative of the Ming court. Every country that he visited, he always called first on the ruler of the land to present rich gifts from the Emperor as a token of China’s desire to develop friendly relations and, at the same time, asking the host ruler to send emissaries to China. On his fifth voyage alone, 17 countries sent their envoys to China.

Wherever he was, he made a careful study of the customs and habits of local residents. Showing them due respect, he bartered or dealt with them through consultation and negotiation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. These voyages by Zheng He brought about very friendly relations between China and other countries in Asia and Africa and gave an impetus to cultural and economic exchange.

Seven times, Zheng He’s ships set sail for unknown lands. Unprecedented in size, organization, navigation and technology, they demonstrated not only the power and wealth of the Ming Dynasty, but also Zheng He’s extraordinary ability to command. His fleets sailed in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, visiting the countries in these regions. Later, his voyages took him to India, Ceylon, Iran and to Arabia where he fulfilled a personal dream, making the pilgrimage to Mecca and visiting the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina.

His fleets sailed more than once to East Africa. Some Ming historians have indicated that he even sailed around Cape of Good Hope to France and Portugal and Holland. In all, Zheng He stopped in more than 30 countries and territories, this all taking place more than 70 years before Columbus’s ‘Voyage of Discovery’. Without question, his expeditions can with certainty be called ‘unprecedented feats in the history of the navigation of mankind’.

When Zheng He returned from his seventh voyage in 1433, he was sixty-two years old. During his voyages, he had accomplished much for China, spreading the glory of that ancient land to many countries that now sent tribute and ambassadors to the Ming court. However, when a new emperor ascended the throne jealous officials in the royal court criticized Zheng’s achievements and the famous sea voyages were abandoned. Mysteriously, the Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted further expeditions.

It was a fateful decision that gave the Europeans the chance to conquer most of the world. In the centuries that followed, European explorers would establish colonies in all parts of the world. In abandoning the sea voyages, China, by turning its back on exploration, would suffer and become insignificant in world affairs.

Zheng He died in 1435 and was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull’s Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing. However, some historians indicate that he died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage and like many great admirals was buried at sea.

Today, China’s most famous maritime explorer is remembered for his extraordinary ability and vision as well as his great achievements, including maritime exploration, foreign diplomacy, and military affairs. His exploits have won him lasting fame in the annuals of mankind. Plays and novels have been written about his voyages and in such places as Malacca and Java, towns, caves, and temples were named after him.

In 1985, his tomb was restored. The new tomb was built on the site of the original tomb in Nanjing and reconstructed according to the customs of Islam. At the entrance to the tomb is a Ming-style structure, which houses the memorial hall, containing paintings of the man himself and his navigation maps. To get to the tomb, there is a stairway consisting of 28 stone steps, representing his sailing years, divided into four sections – each section having seven steps, representing Zheng He’s seven epic voyages. As a crowning farewell to this great Muslim/Chinese admiral, atop his tomb is inscribed the Arabic words ‘God is great’.