The Chinese Admiral


Zheng He was a Muslim born in China’s mountainous province of Yunnan in 1372. Much of his achievements and adventures are, unfortunately, mainly folk tales and have not often been written down. Therefore, much of it should not necessarily be taken at face value.

Zheng He on one of his voyages (x)

The Ming Dynasty had been established in 1368, bringing to an end Mongol rule. At the Age of 11, Zheng He (his name was actually Ma He) was captured as a servant and castrated when Ming forces were sent to Yunnan to destroyed the last stronghold of the old regime. His reputation for bravery had be noted, however, and he was assigned to a royal household where over time he became very powderful. As an adult he was described as brave and quickwitted, a tall, heavy man with clear-cut features, long earlobes and a stride like a tiger.

When his master seized the Dragon Throne and became Emperor Yong Le, he made Ma He to Zheng He “ Admiral of the Western Seas”. Over the next three years an incredible flotilla of sailing ships was built under his direction, ushering in a golden period of exploration and trade for China as well as Tribute payments, and making her the most advanced seafaring nation in the world. Seven great exploration fleets commanded by Zhend He set sail between 1405 and 1433 to seven voyages, they were the mightiest the world had ever seen.

Reconstruction of the Fleet, by Ward Sarah, 2006 (x)

The ships of various designs, including huge junks, the famous treasure ships,  which according to ancient Chinese chronicles measured up to 120 m long, 50 m wide, nine masts, red sails, 24 bronze guns and huge eyes of the bow and as well as a crew of 1000 Men. However, modern research on the treasure fleet suggests that these size figures are probably greatly exaggerated and that the largest treasure ships were only about 59m to 84 m in size. In addition to sailors and soldiers there were merchants, astrologers, craftsmen and priests on board.

Dimensions of Zheng He’s treasure ship (120 m) and Columbus’s Santa Maria (31 m), Illustration: Gregory A. Harlin/National Geographic Stock


Zheng He’s fleet had a number of technological innovations, including magnetic compasses and watertight compartments, which would not be seen in European vessels for hundreds of years. He sailed to western Asia, Africa and Arabia, visting 40 countries. Some speculate that he reached America and even circumnavigated the world, others believed that he sailed off the shores of Australia. It is assumed today that he was actually only in Asia, Africa and Arabia. Of all the wonders he brought back, the most exciting to his countrymen was a giraffe from Somalia.

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant, by Shen Du, 1357 – 1434

In contrast to the other references, the Philadelphia Museum of
Art considers this to be rather a later work by an unknown painter from
the 16th century (x) 

The Admiral of the Western Seas died in 1433 on the return voyage of the seventh expedition, other sources said that he died 1435, at least his Tomb lies near Nanjing. However, the large sarcophagus made of light-coloured stone in the Ox Head Mountains, which is officially considered a tomb and memorial, is demonstrably empty. Thereafter there were no more heroic voyages, for the journeys brought the imperial court no profit at all – on the contrary, they cost too much. New Chinese ruler ushered in 500 years of isolation; the logbooks of these seven voyages were destroyed, and the giant treasure ships abandoned and left to decay.

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