Zheng He: China's Greatest Naval Explorer’s 7 Voyages

by Farida Haji

Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Cheng Ho) was born to a humble Chinese Muslim family during the late 14th century. He was named Ma He at birth; Ma being the Chinese abbreviation for Muhammed. He went through a great ordeal during his childhood. However, he rose to ranks within the Chinese empire through indisputable loyalty and determination. His name did slip away from history as Confucianism gained popularity throughout China, and the sea-faring trade came to an abrupt halt.

We share a glimpse into the life of Zheng He, who made 7 epic voyages across the oceans, performed Hajj, and was put to rest at sea.

Zheng He statue

The Birth of Zheng He

1371

Ma He was born into a practicing Chinese Muslim family in Yunnan, China, during the Ming dynasty. However, his province was largely controlled by the Mongols. His father and grandfather both carried the title of Hajji, meaning they had performed Hajj.  

1381

Ma He’s father died. It is uncertain if he died fighting against the Chinese soldiers who came and overthrew the Mongols or was caught in slaughter and killed. However, it led to the capture of Ma He. As per custom, he was castrated and sent to serve in the court of Zhu Di, the future Ming Emperor.

Who Was Zheng He

1402

Ma He became prince Zhu Di’s most disciplined and trusted adviser. He got competent in the arts of war, strategy, and diplomacy. He gradually built a reputation as a military commander and was renamed Zheng He by the 3rd Ming Dynasty Ruler, Yongle Emperor (Zhu Di), who encouraged sea expansion. Thus giving rise to one of the greatest maritime explorers of the early 1400s. 

Zheng He Voyages

1405 – 1433

Zheng He traveled from the South China Sea to the east coast of Africa. He made 7 monumental voyages and visited over 30 Asian and African countries from 1405 to 1433 AD. The voyages were not only to spread Chinese trade and create diplomatic relations; he took a keen interest and learned about different cultures and beliefs. 

Zheng He 7 expedition map

The maiden voyage included over 28000 men on 317 ships. The ships were 440 feet long and 186 feet across. Ships carried cargos with products like porcelain, gold, silverware, cotton, copper, and silk goods to trade and present to foreign ambassadors.

Various accounts suggest that Zheng He’s 4th voyage had thirty thousand men. They traveled to Arabia through Hormuz, Aden, and the Red Sea. It is believed that during this expedition, he went to Mecca for Hajj.

Zheng He died aged 61, during his last voyage near Calicut in India. He was put to rest at sea and a tomb was constructed in Ninjang, China.

Tomb of Chinese admiral Zheng He

Cenotaph of Zheng He – Photo by Peter Pang

The Original Muslim Travel Bloggers

Ibn Battuta is one of the more well-known Muslim travelers through Islamic history, as there are multiple accounts far and wide that speak of him. However, due to China’s isolation from the seafaring trade, multiple accounts of Zheng He were destroyed.

However, we should strive to enlighten ourselves with knowledge about Muslim travelers. Their travels show us different perspectives. During the early 20th century, Zheng He’s nautical expeditions came to light through varied records, and discoveries of his voyages were made. Ibn Battuta and Zheng He were two of the most accomplished men of their era, and their names are still remembered today.

Today, Indonesia and Malacca in Malaysia house temples and museums dedicated to the great eunuch Chinese Muslim explorer Zheng He. He played a pivotal role in fostering China’s relationships with other regions especially among Muslim rulers as an accomplished military leader, diplomat, and trader.

Ibn Battuta The Explorer portrays the historical events that surrounded the famous explorer. His years of exploring took him far and beyond his hometown. Learn more about his exciting adventures as he travels around the world on Qalbox.

Ibn Battuta the explorer animated series