Zheng He


Born: 1371 in Kunyang, Yunnan, China
Died: 1433 (at age 61-62) in At sea
Nationality: Chinese
Occupation: Admiral, diplomat, explorer, and palace eunuch

Zheng He was a Hui-Chinese explorer, mariner, diplomat, fleet admiral, and court eunuch. He led expeditions to South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East during the early part of the fifteenth century.

Early Life

He was born in 1371, into a Hui family from Kunyang, Yunnan. His original name was Ma He. Zheng He had one older brother and four sisters. He was raised a Muslim, and he studied Islam when he was quite young. Zheng He’s grandfather and father had made pilgrimages to Mecca, and were very familiar with faraway lands. His grandfather and father influenced his interests in other lands.

In 1381, the Ming armed forces killed his father and captured him when he was ten years old. He became a eunuch and was sent to Nanjing to serve in Prince Yan’s household. As a young adult he was very tall, most likely around six and a half feet. He learned military and fighting tactics, as well as studied the works of Mencius and Confucius. He became a very close confidant of the prince.


For four years, He fought on Prince Zhu Di’s side and accompanied him on numerous battles throughout China. He was a key player in Zhu Di’s gaining imperial power. In 1404, Zheng He was promoted to Grand Eunuch. The Yongle Emperor appointed He commander of a large treasure fleet and over twenty thousand men. Zheng He, at thirty-five years old, had the highest rank of any eunuch in the history of China.

The fleet left Nanjing in the autumn of 1405. Zheng He’s armada sailed for Calicut, located on the west coast of India. This was the first of seven expeditions of the treasure fleet that Zheng He commanded from 1405 to 1432. Over the years, he travelled to many areas such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Siam, India, Yemen, Somalia, Keyna and Saudia Arabia. He traded and made many diplomatic acquaintances during these expeditions.

The Yongle Emperor died in 1424. By this time, Zheng He had already finished six voyages and had brought back many emissaries from various foreign lands to meet the emperor. However, these excursions were very costly to the Chinese treasury. The Yongle Emperor’s oldest son, Zhu Gaozhi, was made the Hongxi Emperor. In his nine month rule, the emperor stopped all treasure fleet repairs and construction because of the expenses. The emperor wanted to spend money fighting the Mongols and also feeding his people in the provinces that were experiencing famines.

Final Voyage

The Hongxi Emperor passed away after ruling for less than one year, in 1426. The new ruler was the Xuande Emperor and he made a decision to send Zheng He and his treasure fleet out once again. In 1432, when Zheng He was sixty-one years old, he left with one of his largest fleets for his final sea voyage across the Indian Ocean. He sailed to Malindi, off of Kenya’s coast, and stopped at many trading ports on the way. Zheng He died on the return voyage in 1433 as his fleet was sailing east from Calicut. He was laid to rest at sea, though legend states that his crew returned to Nanjing with a piece of his hair braid, along with his shoes for a burial on land.