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Zheng He

Zheng He (鄭和 in pinyin: Zhng H), or Cheng Ho in Wade-Giles, (1371 - 1435), a famous Chinese mariner and explorer, made the voyages collectively referred to as the "Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean" (三保太監下西洋) or "Zheng He to the Western Ocean", from 1405 to 1433.

Table of contents
1 Voyages
2 Biography
3 Connection to the history of Late Imperial China
4 Cultural Echoes
5 External links
6 Further reading


"The Western Ocean" refers to the Asian and African places Zheng He explored, including:

The number of his voyages vary depending on method of division, but he explored at least seven times to "The Western Ocean" with his fleet. The fleet comprised 30,000 men and seventy ships at its height. He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from more than thirty kingdoms -- including King Alagonakkara of Ceylon, who came to China to apologize to the Emperor. Life magazine ranked Zheng He the 14th most important person of the last millennium.


Zheng He, a eunuch, served as a close confidant of the Yongle Emperor of China (reigned 1403 - 1424), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Originally named Ma Sanbao (馬 三保), he came from Yunnan province. The name Zheng He was given by the emperor. His missions showed impressive demonstrations of organizational capability and technological might, but did not lead to significant trade, since Zheng He was an admiral and an official, not a merchant.

Drawn by Shen Du (沈度 shen3 du4), a giraffe brought from Africa in the twelfth year of Yongle (1414 AD).

In 1424 the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi (reigned 1424 - 1425), decided to curb the influence of the eunuchs at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426 - 1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended.

Connection to the history of Late Imperial China

One popular belief holds that after Zheng He's voyages, China turned away from the seas and underwent a period of technological stagnation. This view of history has been used to support the notion of investment into space exploration. Although historians such as John Fairbanks and Joseph Needham popularized this view in the 1950s, most current historians of China question its accuracy. They point out that Chinese maritime commerce did not stop after Zheng He, that Chinese ships continued to dominate Southeast Asian commerce until the 19th century and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng He. Although the Ming Dynasty did ban shipping with the Hai jin for a few decades, they eventually lifted this ban.

Yet certainly Ming naval efforts declined dramatically after Zheng He's voyages. Starting in the early 15th century China experienced increasing pressure from resurgent Mongolian tribes from the north. In recognition of this threat and possibly to move closer to his family's historical geographic power base, in 1421 the emperor Yongle moved the capital north from Nanjing to present-day Beijing. From the new capital he could apply greater imperial supervision to the effort to defend the northern borders. At considerable expense, China launched annual military expeditions from Beijing to weaken the Mongolians. The expenditures necessary for these land campaigns directly competed with the funds necessary to continue naval expeditions.

In 1449 Mongolian cavalry ambushed a land expedition personally led by the emperor Zhengtong less than a day's march from the walls of the capital. The Mongolians wiped out the Chinese army and captured the emperor. This battle had two salient effects. First, it demonstrated the clear threat posed by the northern nomads. Second, the Mongols caused a political crisis in China when they released Zhengtong after his half-brother had proclaimed himself the new Jingtai emperor. Not until 1457 did political stability returned with the old emperor seizing back the throne. Upon his return to power China abandoned the strategy of annual land expeditions and instead embarked upon a massive and expensive expansion of the Great Wall. In this environment funding for naval expeditions simply did not happen.

More fundamentally, unlike the later naval expeditions conducted by European nations, the Chinese naval expeditions appear doomed in the long run (at least in the eyes of economic determinists) because the voyages lacked any economic motive. They were primarily conducted to increase the prestige of the emperor and the costs of the expeditions and of the return gifts provided to foreign royalty and ambassadors more than offset the benefit of any tribute collected. Thus when China's governmental finances came under pressure (which like all medieval government's finances they eventually did), funding for the naval expeditions melted away. In contrast by the 16th century most European missions of exploration made enough profit from the resulting trade and seizure of native land/resources to become self-financing and would continue regardless of the condition of the state's finances.

Cultural Echoes

A recent controversal theory put forward by Gavin Menzies (see the book 1421 cited in 'Further Reading' below) suggests that Zheng He circumnavigated the globe and discovered America in the 15th century before Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus. This theory has found little support among historians (see also: Sung Document).

The "Qeng Ho" space-faring society in Vernor Vinge's science fiction novels A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky reflect the name of Zheng He.

Zheng He's feats may have inspired the fictional literary stories of Sinbad in later times.

See also:

External links

Further reading