The Greatest Explorer ...
You Never Heard Of

By Frank Viviano
Published: August/September 2013

An Empire Turns Inward

Ma Huan's diary, entitled Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores), was published in 1451, on the eve of its author's death. Like the story it tells, the memoir had nearly vanished by the 1960s, dwindling to three known copies. More than 90 percent of the several million documents that once rested in the Ming archives in Nanjing and Beijing were destroyed by later emperors when the dynasty reversed Zhu Di's overseas maritime policies, embracing an isolationism that has characterized China's foreign relations for centuries ever since. Most of the ships were burned, and Chinese merchants were forbidden to travel abroad.

In the overwhelming darkness of this void, the interpreter's scroll was an explosion of light. Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan is an eyewitness record of Zheng He and his fleet's daily life and discoveries. It has the raw honesty of actual experience, the wonder of discovering a new and often bizarrely exotic world, thousands of miles distant from the familiar.

He investigates spice trading in the Indian city of Cochin, describing the world's first commodities market, and recounts the story told by Cochin Jews of a holy man named "Moshie" who punishes his people for worshipping a golden calf. Ceylonese jewel merchants tell him that their rubies are the crystallized tears of Buddha. On Zheng He's orders, Ma participates in the haj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ma writes of a strange African animal, 17 feet tall with a 9-foot-long neck, and guesses it's a kind of qilin, a cousin of the fabled unicorn (although it's more likely a giraffe). He explains the 10 different uses of the coconut and lists the birds, animals, and plants of every country he visits. More than a mere diary, Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan is a treatise on society and nature across half the planet in the 15th century, and the comprehensive account of a novel undertaking: Zheng's fleet, the most lethal in existence, will ply the seas for three decades of exploration and discovery, without conquering a single foreign state or annexing a sliver of-territory.

A Final Voyage

Eventually, despite his extraordinary achievements, Zheng He foundered on sinister shoals, forced ashore by political struggles after the death of the Yongle emperor in 1424. There were no voyages for the next seven years, as xenophobic mandarins exerted growing influence on Zhu Di's successors.

In 1431, the fifth Ming emperor had a temporary change of heart, and sent Zheng He on what proved to be his and the fleet's final voyage. After clearing the mouth of the Yangtze in his flagship, he stopped off at Chang Le, a harbor in Fujian Province where he had taken aboard crewmen and supplies on previous voyages. A granite pillar was erected above the port, engraved in Zheng's own calligraphy, carefully listing the landfalls his fleet had made, "altogether more than 30 countries large and small."

It recounted adventures Zheng and his sailors shared: the fearful waves stirred by a cyclone; the fleet's role in restoring a legitimate king to his lost throne in Sri Lanka; the zebras, lions, leopards, and ostriches that he carried back to the Yongle emperor as gifts from the sultans of African city-states — and in graphic detail, the annihilation of the pirate flotilla, which presumably sent my peacock cup to the bottom of the Malacca Strait. The deliberate purpose of the monument, its inscription made clear, was to confront the rewriting of history by the isolationists, to commit "the years and months of the voyages to stone — in order to leave (the memory) forever."

Zheng is believed to have died in 1432 or early 1433, before the fleet's return to China, and been buried at sea off India. I visited the Change Le stela in 2004. It was still legible after six centuries, housed in a small museum. In a sense, it had accomplished its task. The story of Zheng He has experienced a major revival in the nation that suppressed it for more than 500 years. The boy who lay orphaned on a Yunnan hill in 1382 is now viewed as a heroic precursor to today's booming China, foreshadowing its emergence as a global giant.End of story marker


Frank Viviano was a foreign correspondent for the Pacific News Service, and worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for 14 years. His work has appeared in more than 200 publications including National Geographic. A version of this article appeared in California Magazine.

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