As an admiral, explorer, eunuch, diplomat, and trader, Zheng He led China to become the superpower of the Indian Ocean, considered to be “the world’s most important crossroads of trade”, in the 15th century. Originally born Ma He in 1371, He was captured and castrated by soldiers as a young boy. He was then forced to join the army, where he excelled and earned his name “Zheng.” Being of Mongolian descent and a Muslim from the Yunnan province, He traveled to over thirty countries with over 300 ships, including the treasure fleet, and 28,000 sailors. He is credited as the first man to establish a sea route directing the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean worlds.

He made seven major trips in the Indian world from around 1405 to 1433. He is a superior explorer to his European counterparts: Christopher Columbus in 1492 with three ships; Vasco de Gama in 1498 with four ships; and Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 with five ships. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope seventy-six years before Vasco de Gama did, circumnavigated the globe one hundred years before Ferdinand Magellan, and some say that he reached the Americas decades before Christopher Columbus.

Zheng He was commissioned to start his voyage by the first ruler of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongle. On the first voyage in 1405, He travelled to Mozambique, Persian Gulf, all around the Indian Ocean, and the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. By his last expedition in 1431, which he made while in his sixties, He established many diplomatic relations with more than twenty realms of the Indian Ocean world.

Emperor Zhu Gaozhi relieved Zheng He from the treasure fleet and put him in military control in Nanjing. Gaozhi wanted to alleviate taxes on the population and believed that “the security of the empire lay within the Great Wall, not the sea” This follows Confucian ideas of placing the welfare of the people ahead of the profits of the state. Most of the known information about Zheng He is from stone tablets that were either inscribed by him or those who sailed with him. For example, He knew his of his accomplishments and stated them in the Changle tablet.

It was said that he died of disease in 1433 during his last voyage. He was tossed overboard for fear of spread of disease but his empty tomb is outside of Nanjing. After his death, China turned towards isolationism, banned overseas travel and burned all the ships and records of Zheng He. Yet, all of Zheng He’s superior accomplishments represent China at a focal point in history.

After Zheng He's death during, the whole treasure fleet was destroyed. Not only were all of these ships destroyed, but the shipyards were shut down and most of the documents related to the fleet were ‘lost.' Following the destruction of these ships, an ordinance was placed stating that no ships with more than two masts would be allowed to be built. Over a hundred years after the fleet was destroyed another ordinance was placed that forbid all trade with foreign nations and people.


Robert Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 43-47.

Clifford Coonan, “The man who mapped the world”, The London Independent (September 2006). http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20060926/ai_n16744069/pg_3.

Richard Gunde, “Zheng He’s Voyages of Discovery,” UCLA Center for Chinese Studies (April 2004) http://www.international.ucla.edu/china/article.asp?parentid=10387.

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 164-170.

“The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral” Timeasia.com, (August 2001), http://www.time.com/time/asia/features/journey2001/intro.html.