The Life Voyage Of Zheng He: A Prominent Navigator In Chinese History
Zheng He was the one of the most prominent navigators in the history of China. It is believed that he sailed and explored the Indian Ocean seven times with a fleet of more than 300 ships loaded with gold, silver and other treasures, and a total of 27,800 men.
His voyages and encounters with other cultures have been silenced by a dynasty determined to discard any contact with the outside world and by the discovery of new lands by Christopher Columbus. Zheng He, originally named Ma He, was born in the village of Hedai, Yunnan province, in 1371 and died making his last trip offshore near the coasts of India in 1433 when he was 62 years old. His father, Ma Haiji, and his mother, Weng, had six children – two boys and four girls – of whom Ma He was the second boy.
When Ma He was only ten years old, the Yunnan province was reconquered by the Chinese army of the Ming dynasty, and the young man was captured, castrated and recruited as a soldier. He was sent to serve Beiping under the orders of Prince Zhu Di, who in 1402 ascended the throne with the name of Emperor Taizong – his reign is known as Yongle or ‘Eternal Happiness’. Eventually, He became an army officer. It was the emperor himself who, as a reward for his services in the conquest of Nanjing, named him Zheng He, in memory of his lost horse in the Battle of Zhengcunba.
Gradually, Zheng He distinguished himself as an officer of great skill, both in war and diplomacy, and quickly made friends in the court who helped him up move up the ranks. Under the mandate of Emperor Zhu Di, the empire reached its maximum splendor and the economy grew at a dizzying pace. In order to strengthen ties with other countries, Zhu Di decided to send his chief eunuch to tour the ‘Western Ocean’ —which would correspond today to the Indian Ocean—, organizing a total of seven major naval expeditions.
Beginning in 1405, Zheng he set out on the first of his seven total voyages with a fleet of more than 300 ships loaded with gold, silver and other treasures, and over 27,000 men. He and his crew traveled half the world, reaching many kingdoms in South and Southeast Asia. The fleet traveled the seas of the Philippines, India, the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia – where he stopped to visit Mecca -, East Africa, South Africa and even Egypt, contributing to the commercial, cultural and technological exchange between China and other regions, developing trade and promoting economic growth in all these areas.
Zheng He’s voyages occurred 87 years ahead of those of Christopher Columbus, 93 years of those of Vasco de Gama and 116 years to those of Ferdinand Magellan.
His fleets were also much larger and numerous than those of European navigators. While the Chinese explorer captained between 48 and 63 ships in each expedition, and about 28,000 men, Christopher Columbus carried only 3 ships and 90 sailors, Vasco de Gama 4 ships and 160 men, and Ferdinand Magellan 5 ships and 265 sailors. Zheng He’s ships measured 122 meters in length and weighed 1,000 tons, while those of Christopher Columbus were about 30 meters and weighed 200 tons. That means that, compared to today’s ships, Chinese ships resembled the gigantic transoceanic cargo ships that are currently sailing the seas. In addition to these ships, they also sailed alongside other smaller ships that served as warehouses with provisions, stables for hundreds of horses, drinking water, and other supplies.
After the death of emperor, and the succession of the next in 1424, the expeditions were suspended and Zheng He did not travel again until 1431, which would be his seventh and last expedition. Again, he visited South and Southeast Asia. These missions contributed to the expansion of Chinese political influence throughout the area and served as an incentive for emigration, thanks to which Chinese colonization took place in Southeast Asia. The descendants of these immigrants continue to live in places like Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, the islands of the Pacific Ocean.
Zheng He’s ships were loaded with various items that were used for commercial exchange, such as wine, spices, tea, embroidery, silk, gauze, yarn balls, wool, porcelain, paintings, calligraphy and jade. In addition, among the sailors who accompanied him were a large number of artisans, doctors, merchants, chefs, officials, scientists, and astronomers to direct the routes and take note of the position of the stars where they passed, barbers, tailors, artists and, and of course, well trained soldiers. They also carried live animals – pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, laying hens, ducks, etc. – that served as food.
All this was intended, rather than conquering other nations, to show the populations that He visited China’s wealth, knowledge, and power. According to oceanographer Jin Wu, the purpose of his travels was ‘to manifest the glory and power of the Ming Dynasty and collect tributes from the barbarians who lived beyond the seas.”
During the reign of Emperor Xuande, China entered period of isolation from the rest of the world that lasted several centuries, following the Confucian teachings of the protection of Chinese culture against foreign influence. . During this period, Emperor Xuande was more interested in controlling the attacks from the north by the Mongols. This caused Zheng He to halt his travels, and eventually his fleet gradually disappeared. Many ships were destroyed, burned, abandoned, converted into fishing boats or sunk in the sea.
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