Chinese Admiral and Explorer
Cheng Ho was one of the greatest early explorers, expanding the predominance of his homeland China into many foreign lands, particularly those in or bordering on the Indian Ocean. After his death, however, powerful Chinese officials became increasingly isolationist, eventually destroying many of the records documenting his travels.
Cheng Ho (also known as Zheng He) was born in 1371 in China's Kunyang, Yunnan province, under the name of Ma Sanpao. Ming troops captured him when he was ten years old and sent him as a household servant to a prince named Chu Ti (Zhu Di). Like the other local children captured by the army, Cheng was castrated.
Over the next two decades, Cheng's duties grew, and he soon began following the prince into battle against the Mongols. Through these engagements, Cheng made a name for himself as a military leader. In 1402, the prince led a successful revolt against the throne and became Ming emperor, with the new name of Yung-lo. Yung-lo repaid Cheng for his accomplishments by giving him the title of Imperial Palace Eunuch and making him commander of an overseas expedition that, at least in part, was to search for the fleeing previous emperor Hui-ti.
Cheng prepared for the voyage and set sail in 1405 with his Grand Fleet of 28,000 men and more than 300 vessels, some nearly 450 feet (137 m) long. Carrying various valuable commodities, including fine silk, the fleet left the Yangtze River and headed into the South China Sea for what would become a two-year trading expedition. During the voyage, Cheng entered into a conflict with Chen Tsu-i, a pirate and ruler of Sumatra. Cheng was victorious in battle, and sent the pirate as a prisoner to meet his fate back in Nanjing.
Over the next four years, Cheng made two more voyages. In these trips, he revisited the spice capital Calicut in India, made side trips to Thailand, Java, Malacca, Sumatra and Sri Lanka, and offered gifts from the Ming royalty to the foreign leaders. After a two-year break from his naval expeditions, Cheng made his fourth voyage from 1413-1415 to Sri Lanka, Bengal, Maldive Islands, Persia and Arabia. On his next two voyages in 1417-1419 and 1421-1422, his fleet sailed to Ryukyu Islands (near Japan), Borneo, Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Mozambique and Somalia.
During these voyages, Cheng traveled an amazing 30,000 miles (48,280 km) across the ocean's waters. It was not until the voyages of Portuguese and European adventurers nearly 100 years later that these seas would be so thoroughly explored. In all, Cheng visited nearly three dozen countries and opened diplomatic relations with the leaders of many of them. His travels greatly extended the Chinese influence throughout the world and helped to make the country a world power. Despite these achievements, the expeditions had their detractors.
When Emperor Yung-lo died in 1424, Cheng lost support for his travels. The Chinese officials who took control felt that the benefits of the voyages were outweighed by their high costs, and halted further expeditions. They could not see any advantage to forging relationships with the governments or the trading industries of foreign lands. The officials made Cheng commander of a garrison in Nanking, where he remained for several years.
Cheng's days of adventure weren't over, however. In 1431 new Emperor Chu Chan-chi (Hsüan-te) approved one last voyage for the Grand Eunuch. Cheng prepared to set sail the following year for travel to the east coast of Africa. While on this voyage, Cheng died. His crew brought his body back to China for burial in Nanjing. Conservative Chinese government leaders, who disfavored eunuchs, opposed trade and championed isolationism, later destroyed all official records of Cheng's voyages. With China no longer a naval power, European countries now had access to the Indian Ocean and began their explorations.
LESLIE A. MERTZ
Cheng Ho (1371-ca. 1433) was a eunuch in the service of the Ming emperor Yung-lo and commander in chief of the Chinese expeditionary fleet to the South Seas in the early years of the 15th century.
Born into a family named Ma, presumably of Mongol-Arab origin, in central Yünnan Province, Cheng Ho was selected to be castrated by the general in charge of recruiting eunuchs for the court in 1381, when he was about 10. Assigned to the retinue of Chu Ti, who later became emperor, Cheng accompanied him on military campaigns, culminating in the usurpation of the throne by Chu Ti in 1402.
Because of a report that the former emperor Hui-ti had fled overseas, but probably with other good reasons, such as promoting Chinese influence or trade opportunities, Yunglo sent out expeditions overseas under Cheng's command. In a period of 28 years, from 1405 to 1433, Cheng directed seven expeditions and visited no fewer than 37 countries, stretching from Champa in the east to the African coast in the west.
In preparation for these expeditions, some 1,180 ships of various types and measurements were constructed. The size of the fleet varied from voyage to voyage. The first expedition consisted of a 27,800-man crew and 62 large vessels and 255 smaller ones carrying cargoes of silk, embroideries, and other valuable products. Cheng took personal command of each voyage, but he often entrusted his lieutenants to undertake side trips away from the main itinerary. The countries visited ranged from the nearby states, such as Champa, Sumatra, and Java, to the faraway lands to the East, including Arabia and places on the east African coast, such as Mogadishu and Brawa.
The purpose of these trips was to assure foreigners of China's friendliness, extend imperial gifts and greetings to the chiefs of the foreign kingdoms, and report the conditions of these distant lands to the court. But at the same time, Cheng's fleet also managed to annihilate a powerful Chinese pirate, interfere in a Javanese war, and reinstate a legitimate ruler in Ceylon. Yielding loads of exotic native products, the expeditions were often followed by tribute-bearing envoys from across the sea.
Nonetheless, these voyages were criticized by Chinese officials as useless and wasteful of resources. After Yunglo's death in 1424, the expeditions were suspended, and Cheng was made a garrison commander of Nanking. The last voyage (1432-1433) took place under the auspices of Emperor Hsüan-te. Cheng is customarily said to have died in 1435/1436, at the age of 65, but one source holds that he died early in 1433.
Cheng's expeditions, undertaken almost a century before those of Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama, not only strengthened China's influence over its neighbors but also marked a unique achievement in the history of maritime enterprise. A navigational chart attributable to the expeditions has been preserved and translated into English.
There is no book-length biography of Cheng in any Western language. A translation of Cheng's biography in the Chinese official history of the Ming dynasty is included in W. P. Groeneveldt, Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca, Compiled from Chinese Sources (1876), which was reprinted in 1960 as Historical Notes on Indonesia and Malaya, Compiled from Chinese Sources. Other scholarly evaluations of Cheng's expeditions include J. J. L. Duyvendak, China's Discovery of Africa (1949); Colin Jack-Hinton, ed., Papers on Early South-east Asian History (1964), which includes an article about Cheng by William Willets; and J. V. G. Mills, trans. and ed., The Overall Survey of the Oceans' Shores (1970). General historical background is in L. Carrington Goodrich, A Short History of the Chinese People (1943; 4th ed. 1969).
Levathes, Louise, When China ruled the seas: the treasure fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. □