IntroduMing emperor Yung-lo and commander in chief of the Chinese expeditionary fleet to the South Seas in the early years of the 15th century. Born into a family named Ma, presumably of Mongol- Arab origin, In central Yunnan Province, Cheng Ho was selected to be castrated by the general In charge of recruiting eunuchs for the court In 1381, when he was about 10. Assigned to the retinue of Chu Tl, who later became emperor, Cheng accompanied him on military campaigns, culminating in the usurpation of the throne by Chu Ti in 402.
Ma Ho proved himself to be an exceptional servant to Prince Zhu Di. He became skilled in the arts of war and diplomacy and served as an officer of the prince. Zhu Di renamed Ma Ho as Cheng Ho because the eunuch’s horse was killed in battle outside of a place called Zhenglunba. (Cheng Ho is also Zheng He in the newer Pinyin transliteration of Chinese but he’s still most commonly called Cheng Ho). Cheng Ho was also known as San Bao which means “three Jewels. ” Cheng Ho, who was said to have been seven feet tall, was given greater power when Zhu Di became emperor in 402.
One year later, Zhu Di appointed Cheng Ho admiral and ordered him to oversee the construction of a Treasure Fleet to explore the seas surrounding China. Admiral Cheng Ho was the first eunuch appointed to such a high military position In China. Because of a report that the former emperor Hul-tl had fled overseas, but probably with other good reasons, such as promoting Chinese influence or trade opportunities, Yunglo sent out expealtlons overseas unaer cneng’s command.
In a perloa 0T 2 years, from 1405 to 1433, Cheng directed seven expeditions and visited no fewer than 7 countries, stretching from Champa in the east to the African coast in the west. In preparation for these expeditions, some 1,180 ships of various types and measurements were constructed. The size of the fleet varied from voyage to voyage. The first expedition consisted of a 27,800-man crew and 62 large vessels and 255 smaller ones carrying cargoes of silk, embroideries, and other valuable products.
Cheng took personal command of each voyage, but he often entrusted his lieutenants to undertake side trips away from the main itinerary. The countries visited ranged rom the nearby states, such as Champa, Sumatra, and Java, to the faraway lands to the East, including Arabia and places on the east African coast, such as Mogadishu and Brawa. The purpose of these trips was to assure foreigners of China’s friendliness, extend imperial gifts and greetings to the chiefs of the foreign kingdoms, and report the conditions of these distant lands to the court.
But at the same time, Cheng’s fleet also managed to annihilate a powerful Chinese pirate, interfere in a Javanese war, and reinstate a legitimate ruler in Ceylon. Yielding loads f exotic native products, the expeditions were often followed by tribute-bearing envoys from across the sea. Nonetheless, these voyages were criticized by Chinese officials as useless and wasteful of resources. After Yunglo’s death in 1424, the expeditions were suspended, and Cheng was made a garrison commander of Nanking.
The last voyage (1432-1433) took place under the auspices of Emperor Hs?an-te. Cheng is customarily said to have died in 1435/1436, at the age of 65, but one source holds that he died early in 1433. Cheng’s expeditions, undertaken almost century before those of Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama, not only strengthened China’s influence over its neighbors but also marked a unique achievement in the history of maritime enterprise. A navigational chart attributable to the expeditions has been preserved and translated into English.
First voyage (1405-1407) The first Treasure Fleet consisted of 62 ships; four were huge wood boats, some of the largest ever built in history. They were approximately 400 feet (122 meters) long and 160 feet (50 meters) wide. The four were the flagships of the fleet of 62 ships assembled at Nanjing along the Yangtze (Chang) River. Included in the fleet were 339-foot (103-meter) long horse ships that carried nothing but horses, water ships that carried fresh water for the crew, troop transports, supply ships, and war ships for offensive and defensive needs.
The ships were filled with thousands of tons of Chinese goods to trade with others during the voyage. In the fall of 1405 the fleet was ready to embark with 27,800 men. The fleet utilized the compass, invented in China in the 1 lth century, for navigation. Graduated sticks of incense were burned to measure time. One day was equal to 10 “watches” of 2. 4 hours each. Chinese navigators determine latitude through monitoring the North Star (Polaris) in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Cross in the Southern Hemisphere.
The ships of the Treasure Fleet communicated with one another through the use of flags, lanterns, bells, carrier pigeons, gongs, and banners. The destination of the first voyage of the Treasure Fleet was Calicut, known as a major trading center on the southwestern coast of India. India was initially “discovered” by Chinese overland explorer Hsuan- ‘sang In tne seventn century. I ne meet stopped In Vietnam, Java, ana Malacca, ana hen headed west across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and Calicut and Cochin (cities on the southwest coast of India).
They remained in India to barter and trade from late 1406 to the spring of 1407 when they utilized the monsoon shift to sail toward home. On the return voyage, the Treasure Fleet was forced to battle pirates near Sumatra for several months. Eventually Cheng Ho’s men managed to capture the pirate leader and take him to the Chinese capital Nanjing, arriving in 1407. second voyage (1407-1409) A second voyage of the Treasure Fleet departed on a return trip to India in 1407 but Cheng Ho did not command this voyage. He remained in China to oversee the repair of a temple at the birthplace of a favorite goddess.