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Home > May 2013 > "Great Explorers"-- Admiral Zheng He

"Great Explorers"-- Admiral Zheng He
By Dr. Jeff Sanders

We've all heard of Christopher Columbus and his "sailing the ocean blue 1492."  But did you know that almost 60 years before his great adventure, the Chinese were launching naval expeditions involving hundreds of ships and thousands of soldiers and sailors and sailing up and down the east coast of Africa?  I didn't know the story of the great Chinese explorer Zheng He (pronounced "Jung Huh") until a few years ago.

Zheng He lived from 1371 to 1433 in the days when Europe was just beginning to experience its Renaissance, but China had already been a world power and the most advanced of all civilizations.  He was a Hui Chinese-- that is a Chinese whose family had converted to Islam decades (or centuries) before.  Although his grandfather bore the title "hajji" (implying he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca), Zheng He later worshiped "Tian Fei"-- the Heavenly Princes goddess who protected all seafarers.  He grew up in China during a time of incessant warfare.  At age 11 he was captured in battle, taken to Nanjing and castrated in order to become a court eunuch.  Zheng distinguished himself as a warrior and became very proficient in winning battles.  He soon became a man of impressive power and favor in the court of the Chinese emperor.  

In 1405, China began to launch a series of seven naval expeditions to the far reaches of southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.  These were to establish a Chinese trading presence and to project Chinese military power over the Indian Ocean and regions beyond.   Zheng He was appointed admiral of each of the seven voyages.  They were not token trips with a few piddly ships.  

The Chinese were thorough in their preparations.  They established a school of foreign languages to train linguists who would accompany them on their journeys.  They built immense treasure ships, "equine" ships to carry horses, ships to carry drinkable water, and ships for troops.  The first fleet had 317 ships holding a total of 28,800 men!  Imagine that!  His flagship was an astounding 416 feet long, and 170 feet wide.  That is about as long as a football field.  (In comparison, the Bible states that Noah's ark was 450 feet long and 75 feet wide).  Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria was merely 85 feet long.  Zheng He's flagship was the largest ship ever built until the 19th century.  It had nine masts, four decks, and carried 500 passengers!  When Zheng He's fleet sailed, it was the largest fleet on earth for centuries.  

The ships carried with them navigators, medical personel, craftsmen, soldiers and sailors.  They brought to trade porcelain, gold, silver, and silk.  The massive fleet sailed all over southeast Asia down to modern day Indonesia, then on to Burma, India, Persia, Arabia, and finally the east coast of Africa.  On one voyage they sailed to present day Tanzania.  Along the way they wiped out pirate bases, captured foreign dignataries (like the king of Sri Lanka-- King Alakeshwarma), and took back to China exotic animals.  (There is a famous Chinese silk painting from that era of a Chinese soldier holding a pet giraffe from east Africa.)  His voyages expanded China's knowledge of world geography, worldwide influence, and trade with western Europe.

Sadly, with changing political winds in the Chinese government, Zheng He fell out of favor, and China did not see the need for further exploration for the next several hundred years.  Zheng He, the most famous of China's explorers, died in 1433, at age 65 and was buried at sea.  


Wednesday, May 01, 2013, 04:24 PM

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