The Greatest Explorer ...
You Never Heard Of

By Frank Viviano
Published: August/September 2013
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.

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