15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The eunuch admiral Zheng He

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Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.
Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.

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Zheng He (1371 – 1433) also romanized as Cheng Ho was born Ma He. He was the second son of a Hui Muslim parents from Kunyang in Yunnan. He had four sisters and one older brother. Though born a Muslim, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He’s devotion to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers, was the dominant faith to which he adhered.

Ma He’s father had the surname Ma and the title hajji that suggests that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ma He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and knew Arabic.

In 1381, Ma Hajji died at age 39 during the hostilities between the Ming armies and Mongol forces in Yunnan. It is not clear whether he died while helping the Mongol army or was just caught in the onslaught of battle. Ming soldiers took his son, the 10-year-old Ma He, as a prisoner. After castration, they forced him to serve in the household of the 21-year-old Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. There, Ma He, was known as Ma Sanbao and received a proper education.

Amid the continuing struggle against the Mongols, to consolidate his own power, Zhu Di eliminated rivals such as the successful general Lan Yu.

Ma Sanbao spent his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier. He often participated in Zhu Di’s military campaigns against the Mongols. On March 2, 1390, Ma Sanbao accompanied Zhu Di and commanded his first expedition. It was a great victory since the Mongol leader Naghachu surrendered. From then on, Zheng He became a trusted adviser to the prince.

Zhu Di promoted Ma Sanbao as the Grand Director (Taijian) of the Directorate of Palace Servants.

On February 11, 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname “Zheng” to Ma Sanbao, for distinguishing himself by defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba against the imperial forces during the Siege of Beiping of 1399, and also for distinguishing himself during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing. Zheng He served in the highest posts, as Grand Director and later as Chief Envoy during his sea voyages..

The Chinese may have been sailing to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) or earlier.

Desiring to expand Chinese influence throughout the known world, the Yongle Emperor sponsored the great and long-term expeditions under the command of his eunuch admiral Zheng He and his associates Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and others.

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Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty's fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)
Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty’s fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)

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According to medieval Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 that resulted in contact with foreign cultures. He sailed to Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Africa and many other countries.

Under Zheng He’s direction, the Chinese ships loaded with silk and porcelain plied the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean.

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A Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).
A Chinese Ming Dynasty ( blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).

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Zheng He’s fleet sailed to Japan, Ryukyu, and many locations in South-East Asia, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans. They traded gemstones, coral, pepper, and the cobalt used in the splendid porcelains for which the Ming dynasty would become known.

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Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He's fleet
Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet

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The Chinese fleet reached major trade centers of Asia: Thevan Thurai (Dondra Head), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Hormuz, Aden and Malindi in north-eastern Africa.

 The seven voyages of Zheng He
VOYAGE PERIOD REGIONS ALONG THE WAY
1st voyage 1405–1407 ChampaJavaPalembang,Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, KollamCochin,
Calicut.
2nd voyage 1407–1409 Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut.
3rd voyage 1409–1411 Champa, Java, Malacca, Samudera, Ceylon,
Kollam, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Korkai
Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Puttanpur.
4th voyage 1413–1415 Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang,
Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin,
Calicut, Korkai, Hormuz, MaldivesMogadishu,
Barawa, MalindiAdenMuscat, Dhofar.
5th voyage 1417–1419 Ryukyu, Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca,
Samudera, Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn,
Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu,
Barawa, Malindi, Aden.
6th voyage 1421–1422 Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin,
Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu,
Barawa.
7th voyage 1431–1433 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Samudera,
Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Bengal, Ceylon,  Calicut, Hormuz,  Aden,  Ganbali, Bengal,
Laccadive and Maldive Islands,  Djofar,  Lasa,  Aden, Mecca,  Mogadishu, Barawa.

In the early 15th century, China became the world’s premier maritime power.

The increase in Chinese sea trade also made piracy lucrative on these seas. The Japanese pirates harassed the whole of southeastern China.

Zheng He‘s feud with King Vira Alakeshwara of Ceylon.

Zheng He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from many kingdoms. During all his seven voyages, Zheng He landed in Ceylon.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, he visited Tevanthurai or Dondra Head (Tamil: தேவன்துறை), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon. There, Zheng He erected a trilingual stone tablet written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. The tablet recorded the offerings he made to Buddha, Allah and Hindu gods. The Chinese Admiral also prayed to the thousand Hindu deity statues оf stone аnd bronze and to the primary deity, god Tenavarai Nayanar at the Tenavaram temple, іn Tevanthurai (or Dondra Head). He invoked the blessings of the deities for a peaceful world built on trade.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, Vira Alakeshwara’s army confronted and plundered his expedition.

Four years later, in 1409, during his third voyage, Zheng He came to Ceylon with an army. King Vira Alakeshwara (Tamil: வீர அழகேஸ்வரர்) of Kotte confronted the Chinese forces. The Chinese retaliated. They captured King Vira Alakeshwara, his queen, his family and kinsmen.

Zheng He then returned to China he brought along with him the captive King Vira Alakeshwara, his family and kinsmen. He wanted Vira Alakeshwara to apologize to the Yongle Emperor for offenses against the Chinese mission.

In 1411, the Yongle Emperor released King Vira Alakeshwara et al.

On the night after King Vira Alakeshwara returned to his capital Kotte in Ceylon his enemies murdered him.

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Next →  Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet 

← Previous: Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor

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