Zheng He (郑和, 1371–1433 or 1435), formerly romanized as Cheng Ho, was a Hui court eunuch, mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during China’s early Ming dynasty. Born Ma He, Zheng commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433.
Zheng He was born into a Muslim family. Zheng He was the second son of a family from Kunyang, Yunnan. His family were Hui people. He had four sisters and one older brother.
He was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty. His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan. His grandfather carried the title hajji. His father had the surname Ma and the title hajji. The title suggests that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. It also suggests that Zheng He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and that he could speak Arabic.
Zheng He’s appearance as an adult was recorded: he was seven chi (尺) tall, had a waist that was five chi in circumference, cheeks and a forehead that were high, a small nose, glaring eyes, teeth that were white and well-shaped as shells, and a voice that was as loud as a bell. It is also recorded that he had great knowledge about warfare and was well-accustomed to battle.
In 1431, Zheng He was bestowed with the title “Sanbao Taijian“, using his informal name Sanbao and characters meaning “Three Treasures”. This name was a reference to the Three Jewels (triratna) in Buddhism.
One theory is that Admiral Zheng He died in 1433. It may have happened during or shortly after the seventh voyage. Another belief is that Zheng He continued to serve as the defender of Nanjing, dying in 1435.
In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (r. 1424–1425), stopped the voyages during his short reign. Zheng He made one more voyage during the reign of Hongxi’s son, the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426–1435) but, after that, the voyages of the Chinese treasure ship fleets were ended. Xuande believed his father’s decision to halt the voyages had been meritorious and thus “there would be no need to make a detailed description of his grandfather’s sending Zheng He to the Western Ocean.” The voyages “were contrary to the rules stipulated in the Huang Ming Zuxun” (皇明祖訓), the dynastic foundation documents laid down by the Hongwu Emperor:
“Some far-off countries pay their tribute to me at much expense and through great difficulties, all of which are by no means my own wish. Messages should be forwarded to them to reduce their tribute so as to avoid high and unnecessary expenses on both sides.”
They further violated longstanding Confucian principles. They were only made possible by (and therefore continued to represent) a triumph of the Ming’s eunuch faction over the administration’s scholar-bureaucrats. Upon Zheng He’s death and his faction’s fall from power, his successors sought to minimize him in official accounts, along with continuing attempts to destroy all records related to the Jianwen Emperor or the manhunt to find him.
Although unmentioned in the official dynastic histories, Zheng He probably died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage. Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was buried at sea.