The Greatest Explorer ...
You Never Heard Of

By Frank Viviano
Published: August/September 2013

Illustration of Zheng He, a 15th-century Chinese admiral
Illustration: Hongnian Zhang /National Geographic Creative

In a past feature story we celebrated the voyages of Capt. James Cook, calling him the greatest seafarer of all time. Well, BoatUS member Geoff Keato disagreed, writing to introduce us to China's legendary Zheng He, "who did it all 300 years before Cook, and 50 years before Columbus found the Bahamas." Geoff was right! The accomplishments of this 15th century explorer are dazzling. Here's the remarkable story.

When I first heard the admiral's name spoken, it was by a corrupt police inspector in 1982. He was a local potentate in Sumatra, the Indonesian island that cuts like a scimitar through the eastern Indian Ocean, separating it from the Strait of Malacca. The city of Padang, where the inspector presided, hugs a stagnant estuary on the Indian Ocean side of the island. I'd stopped by the police station looking for a map; there was no apparent logic to Padang's sweltering streets, and I was tired of aimlessly walking in search of a hotel. The inspector was warmly disposed toward anybody who might bring money his way.

He pointed to a three-story concrete building up the road. "All foreigner stay there. Air-conditioned," he said. When he learned I was a journalist, a cloud flitted across his face, but he took the plunge: "Now I show you something." A cloth bundle was carried in by an underling and placed on the desk. The inspector unwrapped it, gently tugging the folds of cloth away until a small cup emerged. A peacock strutted on its thin, almost transparent ceramic shell, in a light azure-blue glaze. "Ming Dynasty," the inspector said. "Shipwreck in Malacca Strait. Maybe one of Cheng Ho ships. He make big battle near Sumatra."

Photo of Viviano's Ming Dynasty peacock cup
Viviano's Ming Dynasty peacock cup, which once was at the bottom of the ocean.

I had no idea who he was talking about. The inspector smiled and wrote "100 US$" on a piece of scrap paper. I paid him what he asked without haggling. A few weeks later in Singapore, I learned that "Cheng Ho" was the dialect name of Zheng He, a 15th-century Chinese admiral. "You hear many things about him, but you never know what to believe," an antique dealer told me. "He was a eunuch, they say." The peacock cup became my talisman. I left it with a friend in San Francisco, and visited it every time I visited her. It held a lost story in its fragile shell, an irresistible temptation.

From Humble Beginnings

Few tales of survival — and eventual triumph — are more remarkable than that of a 10-year-old boy named Ma He who is run down by invading Ming cavalrymen in the Himalayan foothills 600 years ago, thrown to the ground, and castrated — standard practice for juvenile captives in the late 14th century. Orphaned and mutilated on a savage morning in 1382, this boy becomes by 1405 the second most powerful man in the world's largest and most advanced nation, the commanding Admiral of the Western Seas, and eventually the greatest seafarer in the 5,000-year annals of China. Yet, by birthright, he is meant for anything but the sea, and isn't even Chinese. Ma He was born in a valley that lies 6,000 feet above sea level, more than two months' journey from the closest port. He was the son of a minor official in the Mongol empire, a Central Asian killed during the invasion. In China's scheme of things, he is yi ren, a despised barbarian.

Ma He is trained as a household servant in the retinue of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan and fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhong, founder of the Ming Dynasty. We can only guess at the mileposts in his spectacular rise over the subsequent 15 years, in documents alluding to a eunuch aide at the side of Zhu Di on a succession of battlefields. What we know with certainty is that Ma He becomes the prince's chief of staff by his mid-20s; the de facto governor of Nanjing, the Ming capital; and a key tactician in wars that consolidate the dynasty's hold on the Middle Kingdom.

In 1402, the ambitious Zhu Di seizes the throne from his nephew and declares himself Yongle, the "Perpetually Jubilant Emperor." Virtually every monument associated today with China's Age of Glory, from the massive extension of the Great Wall to thousands of ornate temples and the immense Forbidden City in the new imperial capital of Beijing, is the work of the Yongle emperor. The apex of Zhu Di's ambition, however, is to reign over history's most imposing sea power.

Looking Toward The Horizon

For 44 centuries, China had been an inland empire, framed and nourished by mighty rivers. Their watersheds were united by the 1,100-mile Grand Canal, begun in 500 B.C. but phenomenally expanded by Zhu Di. By the end of the 15th century, China would have more than 75,000 miles of navigable waterways. Among the Yongle emperor's first official acts is to commission more than 3,500 ships. Ma He, a man with no experience whatsoever on the sea, is chosen to supervise their construction and command them. In 1404, he is renamed "Zheng He" after Zhu Di's favorite warhorse.

The Ming ships are fantastically larger than anything the world has ever seen. Europe's conquest of the global seas begins in the 1490s, with the departures of Vasco da Gama for India and Christopher Columbus for the Americas. All seven of their vessels would have fit easily on the 80,000-square-foot main deck of Zheng He's flagship; their combined crews of 260 amount to less than one percent of Zheng He's 30,000.

Illustration of one of Zheng He's treasure junks
Illustration: Gregory A. Harlin/National Geographic Stock
Zheng He's treasure junks were 450 feet long, displacing an estimated 3,000+ tons. In contrast, the Santa Maria displaced around 150 tons and measured less than 60 feet on deck.

These numbers, passed down through the centuries, are staggering and were long regarded as myth. Then on an overcast spring day in 1962, workers dredging a flooded trench on the Yangtze riverfront of Nanjing scrape their shovels onto a buried wooden timber 36 feet long. It is a steering post, embedded in the mud alongside the decaying remains of a rudder whose surface area works out to 452 square feet, big enough to maneuver a 21st-century aircraft carrier. Except it is nearly 600 years old! Overnight, improbable myth becomes unimaginable-fact.

The fleet rides the Yangtze current into the sea on October 10, 1405. Its helmsmen set their compasses — a Chinese invention, used for the first time in history as a navigational tool on this voyage — on a southerly tack as far as the Singapore Strait, then west to the Indian Ocean. Over the next three decades, the Ming navy will span half the globe in seven epic voyages, establishing a network of trade and diplomatic posts stretching from present-day Vietnam to East Africa.

In a considerably humbler way, I set sail in Zheng He's wake in the early 1980s, and followed it on dozens of journeys over the subsequent 25 years, usually by air, but whenever I could in Chinese sampans and junks, Arab or African dhows. Although Zheng He's story had been suppressed for centuries in China, he was a godlike presence in Southeast Asia and beyond. On Java and the Malay Peninsula, I was shown strange temples devoted to him, treating Zheng simultaneously as a hallowed imam and a Buddhist sage. In remote jungle villages on the Somali-Kenyan border, almond-eyed African tribesmen insisted that they were descendants of shipwrecked seamen from his fleet. He was said to be seven feet tall, with a waist measuring five feet in circumference.

A Legend Lingers

As the Singapore antiquarian had said when I showed him my cup, it was hard to know what to believe. There was only the evidence of that gargantuan rudder to keep me going until 2003, when I stumbled onto an academic paper delivered a decade earlier. The paper, which I found on a Singapore website, had been delivered by Fred Wakeman, Jr., a celebrated University of California scholar, at the 1992 convention of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C. Zheng He was its main subject.

Wakeman's observations offered an exacting chronicle of the Ming voyages. By his count, based on readings from every available source, 62 colossal, nine-masted baochuan — "treasure junks" — led the way to India on the first voyage in 1405. Each of them was 450 feet long and 180 feet across the beam. "A vessel that large would have displaced at least 3,000 tons, whereas none of Vasco da Gama's ships exceeded 300 tons," he pointed out. "Even in 1588, the largest English merchant ship did not exceed 400 tons."

They were accompanied by hundreds of eight-masted "horse ships" for the Ming cavalry, seven-masted grain carriers, six-masted troop transports, and sleek five-masted combat vessels. Aboard this huge floating city, Wakeman continued, were "17 imperial eunuch ambassadors and assistant ambassadors; 63 eunuch officials and chamberlains; 95 military directors; 207 brigade and company commanders; three senior ministry secretaries; two masters of ceremony from the Department of State ceremonials; five geomancers; 128 medical personnel; and 26,803 officers, soldiers, cooks, purveyors, clerks, and interpreters."

More important, on a strictly personal level, it was in Wakeman's paper that I learned of a tremendous clash in 1406 between Zheng's ships and Cantonese pirates in the Malacca Strait. The pirates were resoundingly defeated, with most of their booty-laden vessels sent to the bottom — just off Sumatra. The cup! The link between that battle and a looted shipwreck in 1982 was a matter of informed speculation. But after an 11-year search, it was enough for me.

Wakeman's paper brought me to Ma Huan, a self-described "simple woodcutter" who spoke Arabic and served as Zheng He's interpreter. Ma had kept an extensive diary during his years on the Ming fleet. It became my sea chart, the map I followed when I returned to China on a National Geographic assignment in 2004 and began retracing, with far more authority, Zheng He's voyages.

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.