Zheng He: The versatile Chinese Muslim of Ming era

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Chinese Muslim

A leading Chinese Muslim

People, in general, know very little about the contribution of any Chinese Muslim towards the progress of that great Asian civilization. Zheng He was one such prominent Muslim figure, who played a versatile role during Ming Dynasty’s rule. He was one of the leading mariners during the 15th century. Zheng was an explorer, a noted diplomat, and a successful fleet admiral of the Ming navy. He conducted voyages to far-flung areas across the including, the Indian subcontinent, west Asia, southeast Asia, and west Africa.

Life and times of Zheng He

Zheng was born as Ma Sanbao c. 1371, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, in Kunyang city of Yunnan province. While his father’s name is not known, it is certain that he belonged to a Hui Chinese Muslim family. And his father was a Hajji, i.e. a person who had successfully completed the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In 1381 Chinese Ming soldiers overran Yunnan, and during one of the raids captured and castrated Ma Sanbao. He then entered into the imperial service as a eunuch, whence he came to be known as Ma He.

The young Chinese Muslim soon made a mark in his career as an orderly. And this enabled him to obtain an important position in the household of the young prince of Yan Zhu Di. Ma He also proved his military acumen during this period, and he became one of the close confidantes of the prince. He accompanied his master to several military campaigns, where he also demonstrated his leadership quality. In 1391 the prince of Yan rose in rebellion against his nephew and the Ming emperor Jianwen. And by 1402 he succeeded in overthrowing the emperor and crowned himself as the Yongle Emperor. The new Emperor conferred upon Ma the title of Zheng.

The naval adventures of Zheng He

Following his rise in the court of Yongle Emperor Zheng began making several naval explorations. As an admiral, he headed a huge fleet and armed forces, and he was the first Chinese Muslim to command so many expeditions. His first voyage departed from the port of Suzhou, on July 11, 1405. And it included 62 ships and 27800 members of the crew. According to historians, one of the major goals of Zheng He was to expand and demonstrate the power of the Chinese empire.

Between 1405 and 1418 Zheng He made four major voyages. On his fifth voyage (1417–19), the great Chinese Muslim admiral revisited the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. In 1421 Zheng launched yet another voyage in order to take a large number of foreign emissaries from China to their homes in Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and Africa. Things, however, took a difficult turn for Zheng in 1424 as the Yongle emperor died. The next emperor Honxi suspended naval expeditions abroad. And he appointed Zheng as the garrison commander in Nanjing.

Even after this Zheng made his final voyage, leaving China in the winter of 1431. This time He visited the states of Southeast Asia, the coast of India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa. During this long voyage, the great Chinese Muslim explorer died in Calicut, India, in the spring of 1433.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)