Ma Huan, 15th Century Chinese Explorer

Ma Huan journeyed to Hormuz.
Ma Huan journeyed to Hormuz.

Also known as Zongdao or the Mountain-woodcutter, Ma Huan was a Chinese translator explorer who lived in the 15th century. The Muslim explorer was born in present-day Shaoxing and lived between c. 1380–1460. The area known as Shaoxing was previously known as Shanyin and Kuaiji. As a translator, he could speak a number of languages such as Persian and Arabic. He was also knowledgeable in several Buddhist and Classical Chinese works. During his life, he made his name as a voyager by joining Admiral Zheng He of China on a number of his missions to the Western Ocean. The Western Ocean was the name that the Chinese gave to the Indian Ocean.

4. Early Life

Ma Huan’s date of birth is not known for sure. However, it is believed that he was born somewhere around 1380 and passed away around 1460 (most sources agree it was after 1451). Little is known about his parents but it is known that he was born in modern-day Shaoxing in an area that was known as Zhejiang's Kuaiji Commandery.

3. Professional Duties and Skill Sets

Ma Huan had a number of skill sets and duties that helped to build his reputation over the years. The most apparent skill set was his translation skill. Ma could pick up new languages easily perhaps because of his scholarly nature and good educational background. Where he got his education is unknown although there is substantial proof to show that he had a good background. He was well versed in both classical Chinese works as well as Buddhist ones.

In his capacity as a scholar and interpreter, he had the honor of joining Admiral Zheng Fe on his voyages to the Western Ocean. His first voyage was to Hormuz between 1413 and 1415. During the voyages, Ma Huan managed to write several works documenting the places he visited.

2. Achievements

His biggest achievement was the honor in accompanying the great Admiral Zheng He on his missions around the world. He managed to visit a number of places in different years. For example, in 1413, he visited places like Hormuz, Java, Sumatra, and others. After his first voyage, he began writing a book about his voyages, which he completed in 1416. Additional additions were made to the book after consequent voyages. The final version of the book was completed in 1451. Compared to other scholars of his time, his works were vastly superior.

1. Death and Legacy

A few years after he completed his writing exploits, Ma Huan passed away. Even in death, he managed to leave behind a legacy in his books, which are some of the most reliable sources of information for his time. To this day, his book has been rewritten and translated several times.


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