- Zheng He, the legendary Chinese seafarer the West overlooks
- Zheng’s voyages had a lasting impact on Asia, setting up patterns of migration and cultural exchange that continue today
- The 15th-century citizens who received him had never seen anything like his innovations
In the 1400s, Zheng He sailed thousands of miles around Asia and Africa in ships the size of soccer fields, spreading Chinese innovations like compasses and gunpowder in the process. A legendary Chinese seafarer the West overlooks says an article on PBS.
The Chinese admiral Zheng He must have made quite the impression when the 300 ships under his command arrived at a new destination. The biggest vessels, known as “treasure ships,” were by some estimates longer than a soccer field. Their rigging was festooned with yellow flags, sails dyed red with henna, hulls painted with huge, elaborate birds.
Innovations for transportation
Accompanying them were an array of support boats, including oceangoing stables for horses, aqueous farms for growing bean sprouts to keep scurvy away, and water taxis for local transportation. The 15th century citizens who received him in what are now Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, and Yemen had never seen anything like it.
Establishing trade relations
And that was before the 28,000 inhabitants of Zheng’s ships debarked to establish trade relations with the local government. They came bearing luxuries, from tools (axes, copper basins, porcelain) to cloth (fans, umbrellas, velvet) to food (lychees, raisins, salted meats). In return, they received tribute goods to carry back to China, including spices and precious stones and—on a few notable occasions—ostriches, elephants, and giraffes.
About the legend
Zheng (known in early life as both Ma Sanbao and Ma He) was born around 1371 in Southwest China, his family was part of a Muslim ethnic minority in an area still controlled by Mongols of the recently toppled Yuan dynasty. The battles that marked the transition from Yuan to the Ming dynasty in the area were brutal and bloody. During one, Zheng (who was still a boy) saw his father murdered. He was left alive but captured and, as was common practice at the time, castrated and made a eunuch.
The unknown explorer
Zheng’s influence might have been yet more outsized if geopolitical pressures hadn’t changed China instead. But his legacy still lives on from the Swahili Coast to Yemen, Kolkata to Hong Kong. Michael Yamashita, a photographer, and contributor to National Geographic spent several years writing a book and producing a multipart documentary on the Chinese mariner. “He was the greatest explorer that the world had never heard of,” Yamashita says.
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