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When it comes to sea expeditions or geographical discoveries, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the names of great pioneers, such as Fernando Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus. Few people know that in faraway China, long before the discoveries of Europeans, a grand expedition led by Admiral Zheng He was carried out, both in scale and in political and cultural consequences. Six centuries later, crumb researchers are recreating the story of Zheng He. Unfortunately, immediately after the admiral's death, all the detailed descriptions of the travels and scientific notes about them were destroyed.
The famous Chinese navigator Zheng He was born in 1371 in Kunyang County (now Jinying). His father and grandfather were orthodox Muslims who strictly adhered to all the requirements of the Qur'an and even performed the Hajj to Mecca (Zheng’s birth name Ma is a Chinese transcription of the name Muhammad). The boy's childhood coincided with riots and wars and the change of the imperial dynasty, the rebels killed his father, an imperial official, and He was captured. He became one of the many eunuchs at the Beijing court of the new emperor's brother, Grand Duke Zhu Di (Brown). Zheng He’s background is quite extraordinary, considering that the future voyager and one of the best tacticians in history were born half-Muslim in China. While his early life is rather tragic, his future achievements appear to somewhat compensate for that.
The boy was somewhat lucky, he received an excellent education, because Zhu Di was sympathetic to the eunuchs, in contrast to the emperor, who did not trust them and even forbade them to teach literacy. So, when, after the death of his brother, Zhu Di revolted against his nephew, the heir to the throne, the eunuchs sided with him. The support and assistance were so great that ascending the throne, Zhu Di allowed eunuchs to participate in political and governmental matters and even to hold public office. Young Ma He, who distinguished himself during the defense of Beijing and the capture of Nanjing (then the capital of the empire), received for exceptional merit not only a new name under which he went down in history, Zheng He but also became the chief eunuch (Brezina 65). This only brought He’s success further, allowing him to pursue his passion for voyages and expeditions.
The first three of Zheng He's seven expeditions took place one after the other, from 1405 to 1411. From the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean, ships traveled to Ceylon and southern India, and during their last voyages, they also entered the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea, and sailed to the east coast of Africa. During the first two years of travel, the explorer visited almost thirty countries and islands. Zheng He's ships carried unique goods of Chinese masters to distant lands, lacquered products, porcelain, and silk. These ships returned, laden with precious stones, ivory, spices, tropical tree trunks, and various luxuries (which were highly valued in China), as well as specimens of rare plants, including medication and unusual animals (Brown). The discoveries of Zheng He then accelerated the progress of China, making it one of the most developed civilizations known today.
The last ships sent by Zhu Di sailed back to the shores of the Mongol Empire in October 1423, staying in the ocean for about two and a half years. The sailors of Zheng He's fleet were unaware of the events in the country and expected to be greeted as heroes, especially since all their voyages were successful. They brought with them wonderful things, samples of amazing plants and unknown animals. But this did not happen. Returning to their homeland, the captains and admirals of the Golden Fleet were subjected to possible humiliation and repression. Zheng He resigned, leaving him an admiral's pension and a palace, which he had previously given Zhu Di. According to another version, according to legends transmitted by Zheng He's heirs, the admiral died on the way back to China during his seventh voyage (i.e. in 1433), and his body was buried at sea (Brezina 97). Just as he lived an extraordinary life, Zheng He also had several mysterious aspects in his life, some of which are yet to be researched in the future.
An excellent organizer, strategist, and tactician, Zheng He took into account the smallest details when preparing to sail, he was interested in everything from arming ships to providing scientists with enough paper and ink. Speaking in modern language, the admiral, in addition to diplomatic and military skills, also had remarkable managerial skills. A member of the fourth expedition, a translator, a Muslim Ma Huan, who knew Arabic and Persian, described in his memoirs all sorts of household details of sailing, including the diet of sailors. By the way, in popular literature, there was an opinion that Zheng He was the prototype of Sinbad the Sailor. The result of Chinese maritime expeditions was a marked increase in the authority and strengthening of China's influence in overseas countries, the revival of maritime trade, as well as the strengthening of the Chinese resettlement colonies in the South Seas.
Brezina, Corona. Zheng He: China’s Greatest Explorer, Mariner, And Navigator. Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2016.
Brown, Cynthia Stokes. "Zheng He". Khan Academy, 2022, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/big-history-project/expansion-interconnection/exploration-interconnection/a/zheng-he.
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