Zheng He: The forgotten voyager

share this article

If you thought China today was a symbol of naval aggression, a quick rewind to the Ming era — to the time of Admiral Zheng He — would put things more in perspective

Imagine yourself in the year 1405, looking out into the vast Indian Ocean. Suddenly, a massive shadow appears on the horizon. National Geographic describes this approaching shadow thus:

‘As the shadow rises, it breaks into a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. With relentless determination, the cloud draws ever closer, and in its fiery embrace an enormous city appears. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before… Stretched across miles of the Indian Ocean in terrifying majesty is the armada of Zheng He, admiral of the imperial Ming navy.‘

China's Great Armada, National Geographic, June, 2005

The armada consisted of 317 ships carrying about 28,000 men. About 60 of these ships were enormous "treasure ships". These huge vessels were over 400 hundred feet long, 160 feet wide, with several stories, nine masts, twelve sails, four decks and luxurious staterooms with balconies. To put it in perspective, all the ships of Columbus and Vasco da Gama combined could have been stored on a single deck of a single vessel. They could carry 2,500 tons of cargo each and were armed with dozens of small cannons. They were accompanied by hundreds of smaller ships filled with water, supplies (they grew sprouts in tubs to ward off vitamin deficiency), troops, ammunition, horses and impressive gifts of silks, brocades, porcelains, tea, ironworks etc., for leaders of countries to be visited.

Seven such voyages were made under Zheng He between the years 1405-33. Sanctioned by the Yongle Emperor, their objective was to spread Ming influence over the known world and to establish the tribute system popular with the Middle Kingdom. The aspiration wasn’t far-fetched. China was the foremost economy of that time, and had been for centuries. Their navy was the most advanced, at its height having 3,500 ships (again, to put it into perspective, the United States has about 400 ships today, and India less than 200). Their advances in navigation, naval architecture, and propulsion made wind-efficient and safe vessels, innovations that weren’t introduced in Europe until 1,000 years later!

Such was the standing of the Ming Emperor that at the inauguration of the Forbidden City in 1421 foreign dignitaries were brought from various countries in these fleets and duly escorted home afterwards. Apparently, no European leaders were present. They were considered too insignificant to be invited. Such is the whimsy of time.

The Middle Kingdom’s fleet travelled to thousands of kingdoms spanning South Asia, India (Calicut and Kochi), Middle East and Africa. While Zheng He preferred diplomacy on these trips, he did not shy away from showing Chinese military might, cowing kingdoms with small militaries and pirates with big reputations alike.


Yet, there is more. For some believe that Zheng He’s fleet was the first to circumnavigate the world, discovering the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica and the South Pole along the way. Decades before Columbus, Magellan and Tasman.

I first stumbled on this theory during my first years in China more than a decade ago. HK airport (with its bookstore) turned out to be my doorway into China, both literally and metaphorically — for there, in front of my eyes, sat the book 1421: The Year China Discovered The World, just waiting to be picked up.

Its author, Gavin Menzies, a retired British Naval officer, claims that the first European explorers, when they set sail on their explorations, already had in their possession old Chinese world-maps from during Zheng He’s sixth expedition. As evidence, he refers to:

  • Wreckages of large mahogany ships in south-west Australia. Europeans didn’t build mahogany ships.
  • Copies of old maps. Nicola de Conti, a merchant is said to have travelled with the fleet and got a copy of the map. The details on these maps include descriptions of the native people in these lands — black-red skin and feathers around the head and waists of Native Americans. Australians, on the other hand, are black skinned, naked and wearing bone articles around their waists.
  • Star charts, adjusted for changes in 600 years.
  • Chinese and European historical records dating back to 1418.
  • Carved stones erected along the way. 7 stones with text in Tamil, Farsi, Arabic, Chinese and medieval Malayalam (language of Calicut, a key stop in the journey) have been found.
  • Lifestyle markers, such as the first European explorers’ discovery of Asiatic hens in Patagonia. These birds cannot fly and are unique to south-east Asia. At the same time, maize, unique to the Americas was found in China. Maize can only be propagated by man.
  • Legends such as the Aboriginal one that talks of ‘yellow’ people settling amongst them.

The theory is contested by some historians, although so far no one has blamed the ‘Made in China’ maps for Columbus losing his way. China was, after all, the global super power of that time, known for its most advanced naval technology and astronomy.

Tracing his lineage to the Mongols and a Central Asian king, Zheng He (He was called 'Ma He' then. Ma is the Chinese abbreviation for ‘Muhammad’) hailed from the Hui Muslim minority nationality in China's Yunnan province. His father and grandfather were both Hajjis. When he was 10 years old, the Ming army prevailed upon the Mongols ruling that area. Zheng He was castrated as per custom and served the Prince of Yan thenceforth. Well-educated and possessing a commanding presence, he quickly rose through the ranks, winning many battles for the prince who later became the Yongle Emperor, and was suitably rewarded by him. Zheng He was over 6 feet tall and well built. Not your typical stereotype of a eunuch.

In 1403, the emperor appointed him commander of his fleet of ships, giving him the authority to act as his official envoy in the voyages that started two years later. His rise is remarkable for both the fact that he was not from the majority Han Chinese community and for being a eunuch, who were a mistrusted lot.

Zheng He is said to have died on his last voyage in 1433, near Calicut in India. The voyages too were brought to an end with the death of the Yongle Emperor. He is remembered not only in China but in Southeast Asia such as in Thailand, where three temples are said to be dedicated to him.


Twelve years since my introduction to Zheng He, we were reacquainted recently, on a visit to a temple built by him in my current town, Shenzhen, in southern China. First built in 1410, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, the last in the 1990s by the municipal government of Shenzhen.

It is said that as the fleet set forth in 1405, they were hit by a severe storm in this region. Fearing for the success and safety of his fleet, Zheng He prayed to Goddess Tian Hou (or Mazu as she is called in the South). Goddess Tian Hou protects sailors and fishermen and has a following across Southeast Asia. The fleet was saved and he promised to build a temple for her.

Goddess Tian Hou also appeared to the Emperor, said she had saved the fleet and instructed that a temple be built in her honour.

Perhaps it’s a testimony to the inclusiveness of Zheng He’s heart that the temple is a combination of Chinese folk religion, Taoism and Buddhism. Although Tian Hou is a Taoist goddess, there is an altar to the Buddhist Goddess Guan Yin. At its largest, it consisted of 120 buildings bordering the sea. Now it’s a small complex, a stone's throw away from modern docks and high-rise buildings.

As I walked around the complex, I remembered Zheng He afresh. What does it take for a little boy with everything stacked against him to rise so high? I tried to imagine the line-upon-line of ships as they entered the waters of smaller kingdoms. What does it take for a country to rise to such heights?

The voyages were called off by the anti-expansionist faction after the Yongle emperor’s death. Slowly, the naval advances were forgotten too. Far from the large treasure ships with nine masts, by the Century's end, ships could not be built with more than two masts. In 1525 the government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships and China’s foreign policy took an inward turn that lasted centuries.

As China and India again try to regain their lost positions as global powers, I also wondered what course world history might have taken had the Chinese fleets not been recalled. If, instead, colonies had been established in the Americas and Australia. Like the old maps found by Gavin Menzies, would our school maps teach us about ‘The Dragon’s Tail’ instead of the Strait of Megallan?

And, would you be reading this article in Chinese instead?

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor