Cheng Ho (1371-ca. 1433) was a eunuch in the service of the Ming emperor Yung-lo and commander in chief of the Chinese expeditionary fleet to the South Seas in the early years of the 15th century.
Born into a family named Ma, presumably of Mongol-Arab origin, in central Yünnan Province, Cheng Ho was selected to be castrated by the general in charge of recruiting eunuchs for the court in 1381, when he was about 10. Assigned to the retinue of Chu Ti, who later became emperor, Cheng accompanied him on military campaigns, culminating in the usurpation of the throne by Chu Ti in 1402.
Because of a report that the former emperor Hui-ti had fled overseas, but probably with other good reasons, such as promoting Chinese influence or trade opportunities, Yunglo sent out expeditions overseas under Cheng's command. In a period of 28 years, from 1405 to 1433, Cheng directed seven expeditions and visited no fewer than 37 countries, stretching from Champa in the east to the African coast in the west.
In preparation for these expeditions, some 1,180 ships of various types and measurements were constructed. The size of the fleet varied from voyage to voyage. The first expedition consisted of a 27,800-man crew and 62 large vessels and 255 smaller ones carrying cargoes of silk, embroideries, and other valuable products. Cheng took personal command of each voyage, but he often entrusted his lieutenants to undertake side trips away from the main itinerary. The countries visited ranged from the nearby states, such as Champa, Sumatra, and Java, to the faraway lands to the East, including Arabia and places on the east African coast, such as Mogadishu and Brawa.
The purpose of these trips was to assure foreigners of China's friendliness, extend imperial gifts and greetings to the chiefs of the foreign kingdoms, and report the conditions of these distant lands to the court. But at the same time, Cheng's fleet also managed to annihilate a powerful Chinese pirate, interfere in a Javanese war, and reinstate a legitimate ruler in Ceylon. Yielding loads of exotic native products, the expeditions were often followed by tribute-bearing envoys from across the sea.
Nonetheless, these voyages were criticized by Chinese officials as useless and wasteful of resources. After Yunglo's death in 1424, the expeditions were suspended, and Cheng was made a garrison commander of Nanking. The last voyage (1432-1433) took place under the auspices of Emperor Hsüan-te. Cheng is customarily said to have died in 1435/1436, at the age of 65, but one source holds that he died early in 1433.
Cheng's expeditions, undertaken almost a century before those of Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama, not only strengthened China's influence over its neighbors but also marked a unique achievement in the history of maritime enterprise. A navigational chart attributable to the expeditions has been preserved and translated into English.
Further Reading on Cheng Ho
There is no book-length biography of Cheng in any Western language. A translation of Cheng's biography in the Chinese official history of the Ming dynasty is included in W. P. Groeneveldt, Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca, Compiled from Chinese Sources (1876), which was reprinted in 1960 as Historical Notes on Indonesia and Malaya, Compiled from Chinese Sources. Other scholarly evaluations of Cheng's expeditions include J. J. L. Duyvendak, China's Discovery of Africa (1949); Colin Jack-Hinton, ed., Papers on Early South-east Asian History (1964), which includes an article about Cheng by William Willets; and J. V. G. Mills, trans. and ed., The Overall Survey of the Oceans' Shores (1970). General historical background is in L. Carrington Goodrich, A Short History of the Chinese People (1943; 4th ed. 1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Levathes, Louise, When China ruled the seas: the treasure fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.