Admiral of the Chinese Navy of the Ming Emperor Yung-Lo of China
:Kenneth T. Tellis
This is the story of Chinese Admiral Zheng He (or his Chinese title of Cheng Ho), his birth name being Ma Sanbao, and his Muslim name of Hajji Mahmud, who traveled the China Seas, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, long before the time of the European or Arab explorers and colonizers.
Hajji Mahmud was born in 1371 in Kunyang (now Jinning) in the province of Yunan, in southwest China, near Laos. His background was ethnic Hui; the Hui people were Chinese Muslims of Mongol-Turkic background. The name he was given at birth was Ma Sanbao, though he was still raised a Muslim. In the year 1382, the army of the 1st Ming Emperor Hung Wu was sent to expel the Mongol people from that region. The army conquered Yunnan, and killed off, or tortured most of the Mongol-Turkic Hui people. Zheng He became their prisoner at age 11, and was also tortured by them, but survived the ordeal. In 1385, three years after his capture, he was chosen for service at the Ming Court, and as was the custom of the time he was castrated. As part of his duties Zheng He was assigned to serve prince Zhu Di, who soon began to trust him. Zheng He helped the prince in a bloody three-year-struggle for succession. In this time he served his master, prince Zhu Di well, and did many brave deeds during the battle of Zhenggluba, near Beijing, thus he earned the name Zheng He. When Zhu Di became Yung-lo the 3rd Ming Emperor of China, Zheng He became his chief advisor.
Admiral Zheng He was outfitted with a fleet of 70 ships and some 30,000 men, which he used in his voyages of exploration, discovery, trade and diplomacy. His many sea voyages took him to Sumatra, Java, Serendeep Ceylon), Malacca, Hindustan (India), Persia (Iran), Arabia, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, Egypt, Moçambique, and other parts of Africa, and the island kingdom of Madagascar. He brought the envoys of 30 kingdoms, including King Alagonakkara of Serendeep (Ceylon), to the Ming Court to pay homage to Yung-lo 3rd Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
On one of his many voyages, Admiral Zheng He landed on the island kingdom of Madagascar and presented the king with brass cannon as a token of amity from the Ming Emperor Yung-lo. The story goes that a western tourist, who was an amateur archaeologist, was on holiday in Republika Malagasy (Madagascar). One day while he was passing by a house on his way to a beach, when he noticed an odd gatepost on the entrance to a house. He then went up to the post and noticed that it was made of brass. It was covered with patina and, the he continued on his way to the beach for a swim. The very next day, the tourist went to same house where the brass cannon was being used as a post for the gateway and approached the owner. He enquired if the owner would sell him the gateway fixture? The owner not being wealthy haggled with the tourist and finally sold him the fixture. The tourist cleaned out the patina on the old brass cannon and found that the inscriptions on it were in Chinese. That it turned out was the brass cannon that Zheng He had presented to the King of Madagascar, in the name of the Ming Emperor Yung-lo of China.
Admiral Zheng He also visited Serendeep (Ceylon). A carved stone tablet was discovered in 1911 on a culvert on Cripps Road in Galle. H.F. Tomalin, a highway-planning engineer, found it and the trilingual inscriptions on it was deciphered with some difficulty.
The tablet dated back to 1411, it commemorated the second visit to Serendeep (Ceylon) by Admiral Zheng He. He had commanded seven voyages in the China Seas and the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433.
In his first voyage to Serendeep in 1406, Admiral Zheng He met with unfriendly local rulers, and cut short his expedition. His fleet then sailed on to Calicut, Hindustan, where it is said that he was impressed by the honesty and business acumen of its traders.
Admiral Zheng He’s next expedition took him to Siam. On his third expedition from China in 1409, Zheng He carried a triangular tablet, which he intended to erect in Serendeep. The date on the tablet corresponds to February 15, 1409; it was inscribed in Nanjing, China, before the fleet left. The Chinese portion of the tablet praises Lord Buddha, and Buddhism. The tablet’s Sinhalese portion offers praise to the god Tenevarai-Nayanar (Shiva), and the Arabic portion offered similar tributes to Allah.
The China of Ma Sinbao (Zheng He) was a very tolerant place. The various religions tolerated each other and there was openness to all faiths. Thus, fanatical Muslim bigots that abound in today’s Islamic world did not influence Ma Sinbao’s life as a Muslim. Actually Zheng He or as he was know in Arabic, Hajji Mahmud saw nothing wrong in offering gifts to Buddhist Temples, Hindu Mandhirs and other places of worship, that were not Muslim. Perhaps, this should be a lesson to the Muslims of today. Because, if Muslims today use Zheng He as an example of tolerance, it would go a long way to helping them come to terms with the fanatics that have taken hold of their religion. Zheng He was an example of Muslim tolerance, in an area that comprised of all the religions of South East Asia and parts of the Middle East. But, as we see Zheng He, was raised in China, a country where religious tolerance was an accepted fact. Thus, there was no place for Islamic fundamentalism to feed hatred against non-Muslims. That was a plus for South East Asia, in a time of turmoil, everywhere else in the world. We can all learn from that era, how to accept other religions, without any preconceived notions, and treat every religion with due respect.
From that expedition to Africa, Zheng He had opened the doors of trade with a people that had not yet met Western Explorers, or Arab Slave traders. With the link cut-off by a change in the system, China went into a phase of isolationism, and closed its doors to outsiders. Today, China has found its way back to the days of Admiral Zheng He, and is now opening trade with many countries in Africa. This is a sign that China is no longer an isolationist power, but a country that wants friendship and trade with all the nations of the world. But, it would do China well, to remember the voyages or trade, friendship and exploration by Admiral Zheng He, something that the Chinese people should be proud of having achieved, and follow in the footsteps of the glorious Admiral Zheng He, and his voyages of exploration and trade the past.
R.P.BenDedek is from Brisbane Australia and is the author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' at http://www.kingscalendar.com His academic articles set forth Apologetics for and results of his discovery of an "artificial chronological scheme" running through the Bible, Josephus, the Damascus Documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Seder Olam Rabbah.
He writes photographic 'Stories from China' and social editorial commentaries, both at KingsCalendar, and as a contributing newspaper columnist. He currently teaches Conversational English in China and in addition to his English Lessons at KingsCalendar, he has created specific sites for Students of English.