Young Pioneer Tours

Admiral Cheng Ho: Astonishing Explorer & Sinbad

by Andy khong

Being a modern-day traveler/explorer, have you heard of Admiral CHENG Ho* (ZHENG He^)?

At a time when China was the richest, and most advanced country in the world, Admiral Cheng Ho was head of an armada bigger than the combined fleets of all of Europe, and explored further than anyone before him going to 37 countries over 28 years. He led seven expeditions which were astonishing in distance, and size that are unmatched in history.

[CHENG Ho – Wade-Giles* spelling; “ZHENG He” – Pinyin^ spelling. Wade-Giles is the system of Romanization for Mandarin developed from 1867 named after Thomas WADE, Herbert GILES, & Lionel GILES. Pinyin meaning ‘spelled sounds’ was developed by ZHOU Youguang during the 1950ies. Pinyin was adopted as the international standard for Romanization of Mandarin by the International Organization for Standardization (IOS) in 1982, and the United Nations in 1986]. 

Admiral Cheng Ho was a Chinese admiral, explorer, and diplomat who lived during the early 15th century. He was born as MA He in 1371, a member of the Hui Muslim minority in the province of Yunnan, in south-west China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Ma He was the great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, the Governor of Yunnan province during the Yuan dynasty (Mongol dynasty).

Ma He was captured, and castrated by the army of the Ming Dynasty at the age of 10, and taken as prisoner of war to serve as a eunuch in the Imperial Court. Ma He became a trusted adviser, and administrator to the Prince of Yan, and for his meritorious service was nicknamed “SanBao” (meaning Three Jewels) by Prince of Yan’s household. The Prince of Yan eventually through a power struggle became Emperor Yongle (meaning ‘perpetual happiness’). The Emperor then changed Ma He’s name to Cheng Ho to commemorate the roles Ma He played in battles to help him ascend the throne.

Emperor Yongle conferred Cheng Ho the title of Admiral, and appointed him to lead a series of expeditions to explore and establish diplomatic, and commercial relations with foreign powers as part of the emperor’s ambitious foreign policy. Cheng Ho led seven expeditions from 1405 to 1433, traveling to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa, and returning with valuable goods, exotic animals, and diplomatic agreements.

Cheng Ho’s expeditions were significant for their size, and scope, as well as for their diplomatic, and commercial objectives. His fleet consisted of hundreds of ships, including massive treasure ships that were up to 130 meters (400 feet) long, and 52 meters (160 feet) wide. He used these ships to establish diplomatic relations with foreign powers, to carry out trade, and to project Chinese power, and prestige.

Cheng Ho’s voyages are notable for their early date, and for the fact that they took place at a time when Europe was just beginning to explore the world. Some scholars have suggested that Cheng Ho’s expeditions may have had a significant impact on the development of global trade, and exploration in the early modern period.

Historical records found of Cheng Ho’s seven expeditions are:

  1. First Expedition (1405-1407): Cheng Ho’s first voyage was in command of 317 ships, with a crew of 28,000 men. The expedition visited several ports along the coasts of south-east Asia, including Java, Sumatra, and Malacca (Melaka), establishing friendly relations with local rulers, and collecting tribute.
  2. Second Expedition (1407-1409): The second voyage was even larger than the first, with over 300 ships, and more than 30,000 men. This time, Cheng Ho’s fleet visited India, where they established diplomatic relations with local rulers, and collected valuable goods such as spices, gems, and textiles.
  3. Third Expedition (1409-1411): Cheng Ho’s third voyage was focused on exploring the Indian Ocean, and expanding Chinese influence in the region. The fleet visited various ports in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and East Africa, establishing diplomatic relations with local rulers, and collecting tribute.
  4. Fourth Expedition (1413-1415): This expedition was focused on exploring south-east Asia, and expanding Chinese trade, and influence in the region. The fleet visited several ports in Java, Sumatra, and Malacca, where they established diplomatic relations, and collected tribute.
  5. Fifth Expedition (1417-1419): Cheng Ho’s fifth voyage was the largest of all, with over 300 ships, and more than 37,000 men. The fleet visited several ports in south-east Asia, and the Indian Ocean, including Calicut, the centre of the spice trade in India.
  6. Sixth Expedition (1421-1422): This expedition was focused on the western coast of India, and the Persian Gulf. The fleet visited several ports, including Hormuz, the center of the Persian Gulf trade, where they established diplomatic relations, and collected tribute.
  7. Seventh Expedition (1431-1433): Cheng Ho’s final voyage was a diplomatic mission to south-east Asia, and Middle East where he delivered messages from the Chinese emperor to various rulers in the region. The expedition visited several ports, including Malacca, where they helped to establish a new ruler friendly to the Chinese. Cheng Ho temporarily left his fleet during this expedition to make his hajj to the Muslim holy city of Makkah (Mecca).

Cheng Ho’s expeditions were significant for their size, and scope, as well as for their diplomatic, and commercial objectives. They helped to establish China’s influence in the region and beyond, and contributed to the exchange of ideas, and goods between different cultures. Cheng Ho died in Kozhikode, Kerala, India in 1433 towards the end of his 7th expedition.

Cheng Ho served different Emperors during his expeditions, and each had their own priorities, and interests. Towards the end of his expeditions, there was a shift in priorities away from maritime expeditions, and marked the beginning of a period of relative isolation for China, as the country turned inward, and focused more on domestic concerns than on international trade, and diplomacy. This ushered in 500 years of isolation, leaving the way open for Spain and Portugal, and later Netherlands and Britain to rule the oceans instead.

There are some historical accounts that suggest that some of the records of Cheng Ho’s expeditions were destroyed by the Ming Emperor, and his eunuch advisers. The Ming Dynasty was known for its highly centralized government, and the emperor, and his courtiers exercised significant control over information, and records. It’s possible that some of Cheng Ho’s records may have been lost or destroyed as a result of political or cultural changes in the years following his expeditions; hence details of some or part of the expeditions are missing.

Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He)

Cheng Ho discovered Australia, and is Sinbad

In 1982, Australian media reported that the navigation charts of Admiral Cheng Ho were discovered, indicating that he might have discovered Australia before the Dutch.

Gavin Menzies (a retired British Royal Navy submarine commander) in his book, “1421: the Year China Discovered The Worldconcluded from navigational charts of the western part of Australia, and the Great Barrier Reef, that in 1422, Cheng Ho, and his vice-admirals Hong Bao, and Zhou Man had landed in Australia.

In history, the first recorded European sighting of Australia was by Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606, and the first recorded landing by Europeans on Australian soil was by Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog in 1616; meaning that if Menzies’ conclusion is correct, then Hartog set foot almost two centuries after Cheng Ho ‘discovered’ Australia!. This also mean that when British explorer James Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770, it was 348 years after Cheng Ho.

Among the evidence that Cheng Ho’s expeditions were here first are wrecks (found off Warrnambool, Perth, and Byron Bay), anchors and fishing gear with Chinese characters, plants/vegetables found in Australia by the early European settlers which had come from China, carved stones, kangaroos in the Chinese Emperor’s zoo, Chinese jade, figurines, ceramics, funerary urns, coins, and cave drawings by Aboriginals found near Sydney. There is also anecdotal evidence that Cheng Ho discovered New Zealand. However, Menzies’ theory is not supported by mainstream historians or scholars; and is criticized for lack of evidence, inaccuracies, contradictions, and speculations used to support his arguments.

Present day Chinese government also believes that Admiral Cheng Ho landed in Australia before the Dutch. An excerpt of Chinese Premier Hu Jintao’s speech to the Australian Parliament on 24th October 2003:

“Back in the 1420’s, the Expeditionary Fleets of China’s Ming Dynasty reached Australian shores.  For centuries, the Chinese sailed across vast seas and settled down in what they called “Southern Land”, or today’s Australia.  They brought Chinese culture to this land and lived harmoniously with the local people, contributing their proud share to Australians economy, society and its thriving pluralistic culture.”

The travel expeditions of Cheng Ho were narrated to people in the Middle East which eventually became part of folklore, storytelling, and recorded in ‘The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights)’. The stories of Sinbad, and the voyages of Cheng Ho share similarities in their seven expeditions of the world’s oceans, and their encounters with different cultures, although they are separate and distinct entities in both fact and fiction. Some historians, and National Geographic magazine have suggested that Sinbad is the mispronunciation of Cheng Ho’s royal household name “SanBao”. 

Memorials, Museums, and Mosques dedicated to Admiral Cheng Ho

Today there are several memorials, museums, and mosques dedicated to Admiral Cheng Ho in various parts of the world, particularly in China, and south-east Asia.

  1. Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, Malacca, Malaysia – This museum is located in the Malaysian city of Malacca, and is dedicated to the history, and legacy of Cheng Ho’s expeditions. It features exhibits on Chinese navigation, trade, and culture, as well as replicas of the ships used on Cheng Ho’s voyages.
  2. Cheng Hoo Mosque, Surabaya, Indonesia – This mosque, also located in Surabaya, is named after Cheng Ho, and features a blend of Chinese, and Islamic architectural styles.
  3. Zheng He Memorial Park, Jining County, Kunming, Yunnan, China – This memorial park is located in the hometown of Cheng Ho in Yunnan Province, China. It features historical materials, and documents of Cheng Ho’s seven spectacular voyages, as well as exhibits on his life, and legacy.
  4. Nanjing Municipal Museum, Nanjing, China – This museum features exhibits on Chinese maritime history, including the voyages of Cheng Ho, and other Chinese explorers.
  5. Zheng He Treasure Ship Park, Nanjing, China – This museum is located on the former docks where the treasure ships were built 600 years ago. It is dedicated to the history of the Maritime Silk Road, with a bronze map displaying the network of trade routes connecting China to south-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East. It features exhibits on Cheng Ho’s expeditions, as well as the broader history of Chinese maritime trade. There is a replica of one of his medium sized treasure boats which you could board.

The above are a few examples of memorials, museums, and mosques dedicated to Admiral Cheng Ho. His legacy has had a significant impact on Chinese, and south-east Asian history, and continues to be celebrated, and studied by scholars, and enthusiasts around the world.

Comparing Admiral Cheng Ho to Christopher Columbus, and Vasco da Gama

Admiral Cheng Ho, Columbus, and Vasco da Gama were all important explorers who made significant contributions to world history. However, there are some key differences between them in terms of their backgrounds, motivations, and impact.

  1. Background and Motivations:

Cheng Ho was a Chinese admiral who led several expeditions throughout the Indian Ocean, and south-east Asia from 1405 to 1433. He was commissioned by the Ming dynasty to establish trade, and diplomatic relations with local rulers, and his expeditions were focused on expanding Chinese influence in the region.

Columbus was an Italian navigator who sailed under the Spanish flag. He is famous for his 1492 voyage (59 years after Cheng Ho’s last expedition) to the Americas, which he undertook in search of a new trade route to Asia. Columbus believed that he had reached the East Indies, and referred to the indigenous people he encountered as “Indians.”

Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese explorer who reached India in 1498 (65 years after Cheng Ho’s last expedition). He was also seeking a new trade route to Asia, and was commissioned by King Manuel I of Portugal to establish trade relations with the Indian subcontinent. Vasco da Gama’s expedition was a significant step in establishing Portuguese dominance in the Indian Ocean region.

  1. Expeditions and Impact:

Cheng Ho’s expeditions were focused on diplomacy, and trade rather than conquest, and colonization. His fleet consisted of hundreds of ships, and tens of thousands of men, and he established friendly relations with local rulers, facilitated trade, and cultural exchange, helped to spread Chinese influence in the region, and introduced new products, ideas, and technologies to different cultures.

Columbus’s voyages to the Americas had a profound impact on world history. They led to the colonization, and exploitation of indigenous populations, the transatlantic slave trade, the establishment of European dominance in the Americas; it also led to the exchange of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old, and New Worlds. Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India was a significant step in establishing Portuguese dominance in the Indian Ocean region. It opened up new trade routes, and led to the establishment of Portuguese colonies in the region.

Overall, while all three explorers made important contributions to world history, their motivations, and impact were quite different. Cheng Ho’s expeditions were focused on diplomacy, and trade, while Columbus, and Vasco da Gama’s expeditions were motivated by the desire for new trade routes, and territories. Columbus’s voyages had a profound impact on world history, but it was a mixed legacy that included colonization, and exploitation. Vasco da Gama’s voyage was a significant step in establishing European dominance in the Indian Ocean region.

Monument of Admiral Cheng Ho

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