The Great Chinese Admiral Zheng He [Cheng Ho, Sam Po]

Zheng He

Zheng He [Cheng Ho, Sam Po]

Columbus sailed to America in St. Maria (eighty-five feet) in 1492. Zheng He sailed from China to many places throughout South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Taiwan, Persian Gulf and distant Africa in seven epic voyages from 1405 to 1433 ,some 80 years before Columbus's voyages.

Zheng He flag "treasure ship" is four hundred feet long - much larger than Columbus's.
In the drawing below, the two flagships are superimposed to give a clear idea of the relative size of these two ships.

Zheng He's treasure ship (four hundred feet)
and Columbus St. Maria (eighty-five feet).

Speak of the world's first navigators and the names Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama flash through a Western mind. Little known are the remarkable feats that a Chinese Ming Dynasty admiral named Zheng He, or Cheng Ho (1371-1433) had accomplished decades before the two European adventurers.

In 1405, Zheng was chosen to lead the biggest naval expedition in history up to that time. Over the next 28 years (1405-1433), he commanded seven fleets that visited 37 countries, through Southeast Asia to faraway Africa and Arabia. In those years, China had more vessels afloat than all the rest of the world, and by far the biggest ships of the time. In 1420 the Ming navy dwarfed the combined navies of Europe.

Ma He, as he was originally known, was born in 1371 to a poor ethnic Hui (Chinese Muslims) family inYunnan Province, Southwest China. The boy's grandfather and father once made an overland pilgrimage to Mecca. Their travels contributed much to young Ma's education. He grew up speaking Arabic and Chinese, leaming much about the world to the west and its geography and customs.
Recruited as a promising eunuch for the Imperial household at the age of ten, Ma was assigned two years later to the retinue of the then Duke Yan, who would later usurp the throne as the emperor Yong Le. Ma accompanied the Duke on a series of successful military campaigns and played a crucial role in the capture of Nanjing, then the capital. This helped his master to take over the throne from his nephew. Ma was thus awarded the supreme command of the Imperial Household Agency and, upon his conversion to Buddhism, was given the surname Zheng and the religious name Sanbao (or Three Jewels).

Emperor Yong Le tried to boost his damaged prestige as a usurper by a display of China's might abroad, sending spectacular fleets on great voyages and by bringing foreign ambassadors to his court. He also put foreign trade under a strict Imperial monopoly by taking control from overseas Chinese merchants. Command of the fleet was given to his favorite Zheng He, an impressive figure said to be over eight feet tall.

A great fleet of big ships, with nine masts and manned by 500 men, each set sail in July 1405, half a century before Columbus's voyage to America. There were great treasure ships over 300-feet long and 150-feet wide, the biggest being 440-feet long and186-across, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers ( Columbus's three ships were less than 50-feet long). Most of the ships were built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, the remains of which can still be seen today.

Zheng He's first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. On board were large quantities of cargo including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements and cotton goods. The fleet sailed along China's coast to Champa close to Vietnam and, after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java, Sumatra and reached Sri Lanka by passing through the Strait of Malacca.

According to local legend, the ship of the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), or called Sam Po in Semarang, sank off Japara, north of Semarang, in 1433. The Chinese erected the Sam Po Kong temple in his honor and placed inside an Anchor believed to have come from his ship.

The admiral's Muslim helmsman, Kyai Juru Mudi Dampoawang, is buried in the temple precinct, and twice each month, Javanese and Chinese worshippers sleep by his grave to obtain his blessings.

The shrine, legend has it, was built by Wang Jinghong, a trusted lieutenant to Zheng He (Sam Po), who settled here following one of the journeys.

The temple holds a festival every year to celebrate its founding, when thousands come from all over Java to attend and to pay their respects to Sam Po. With them they bring musicians, lion- and dragon-dancers, and the mediums fall into a trance to call down the spirit of Sam Po.

On the way back it sailed along the west coast of India and returned home in 1407. Envoys from Calicut in India and several countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ships to pay visits to China. Zheng He's second and third voyages taken shortly after, followed roughly the same route.

In the fall of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men to Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz he coasted around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region, and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng He's ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le.

In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng He. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar and may have reached Mozambique. The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast.

Emperor Yong Le died in 1424 shortly after Zheng He's return. Yet, in 1430 the admiral was sent on a final seventh voyage. Now 60 years old, Zeng He revisited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa and died on his way back in 1433 in India.

The first navigator, Sanbao, had sailed the longest distance of anyone in the world. He created a set of 24 surprisingly accurate navigation maps. He brought back many important discoveries including products of Renaissance Europe. His voyages contributed to economic and cultural exchanges between China and other nations, and he opened up sea routes for East-West trade just as Zhang Qian and Xuan Zang had opened up land routes.

Today, Zheng He is virtually unknown in theWest, but in Asia he lives on. Six images of the admiral are preserved in temples. There is a Sanbao Harbor, a Sanbao Pagoda and a Sanbao Town. At the opposite end of the Indian Ocean, Arab storytellers tell of the fantastic seven voyages of a Muslim sailor named Sinbad. Or was it Sanbao? Historians wonder.

Zheng He's Tomb

Zheng He died in the tenth year of the reign of the Ming emperor Xuande (1435) and was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing.

In 1985, during the 580th anniversary of Zheng He's voyage, his tomb was restored. The new tomb was built on the site of the original tomb in Nanjing and reconstructed according to the customs of Islamic teachings, as Zheng He was a Muslim.

At the entrance to the tomb is a Ming-style structure, which houses the memorial hall. Inside are paintings of the man himself and his navigation maps. To get to the tomb, there are newly laid stone platforms and steps. The stairway consists of 28 stone steps divided into four sections with each section having seven steps. This represents Zheng He's seven journeys to the West. The Arabic words "Allah (God) is great" are inscribed on top of the tomb.

Zhenghe constructed many wooden ships, some of which are the largest in the history, in Nanjing. Three of the shipyards still exist today.

2/3 oz silver commemorative coin of Zheng He