Zheng He was not only a Chinese Muslim explorer. He was also a court eunuch, mariner, and diplomat. He lived during the early Ming Dynasty Period in China. As a young boy, Zheng He was captured by General Fu Youde, commander of the Ming armies, in 1381. Being the custom at that time for young prisoners who were relegated to serve as pages for the royal court, he was made into a eunuch. At 10 years of age, he started his life in the household of the Prince of Yan, where he received his early education. Then, as a young man, he served as a soldier fighting against the Mongols.
The early Ming dynasty was just as full of intellectual intrigues as it was of assassinations and treachery within the royal court. Zheng He, as the trusted servant of the Prince of Yan, was able to help his master win the crown after the prince chose to put up a rebellion army against his nephew emperor. As a reward, Zheng He was made admiral of an expedition to find the escaped emperor they had deposed of. He sailed with his fleet of ships and docked at several ports and countries, trading all along the way with Chinese goods, and taking exotic items and unique animals in return. He encountered resistance in some countries, but eventually subdued much of it.
The seven expeditions that Zheng He commanded lasted spanned almost three decades, from 1405 to 1433. These expeditions visited many Asian countries, and the expeditions pushed into parts of the Middle East and Africa. In these countries, he traded with silver, porcelain, silk, and gold. Trading partners reciprocated with exotic animals and ivory. One of his important contributions was reopening the old ocean routes of trade between China and the Middle East. He also collected the tributes that some countries were asked to submit to the Chinese royal court. Later expeditions reached as far as the Byzantine Empire, which would soon fall to the Ottoman Turks. He also captured pirates along the way, many of which had plagued his and others' seagoing vessels for decades. He also did much to spread Islamic influence throughout the Malay Peninsula and the island of Java.
During his career and on his expeditions, Zheng He faced many challenges. He had to command one of the Prince of Yan's armies in their rebellion against the new emperor, who was stripping his master, the Prince, of his titles and property. Eventually defeating the emperor's armies, he was honored by his master, who then ascended to become the emperor himself. In his expeditionary voyages to trade and find the escaped deposed emperor, Zheng He had to fight with pirates and countries that refused to honor his emperor with tributes. As a result, he had only one recourse and that was to either take them prisoner, or make them submit to the emperor's wishes by force. He would strike up a show of military might, and most of these enemies would eventually pay tribute out of fear.
Death and Legacy
Not much is known about Zheng He's death. There were witnesses who said that he died in 1433, but some reports conclude that he died two years later, when he was still acting as defender of the city of Nanjing. He never married in his life, but had adopted a son. In 1985, to honor his accomplishments, a tomb was built over an older grave site, and his headgear, sword, and clothes were interred therein. Zheng He's body itself had been buried at sea in either 1433 or 1435. He left behind him a legacy characterized by his contributions to international cultural relations and the Islamic traditions of China. He also built temples and mosques in the places that his ships traded with and visited along the way, particularly in what are today Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Unfortunately, imperial officials later minimized his personal importance and that of his expeditionary contributions, by omitting them from Chinese educational curricula and historical records.