Zheng He was born in 1371 in the Yunnan province of China. His birth name was Ma He.
Ma He’s father worked as an official in the Mongolian Empire, but the family were from a Muslim area of central Asia. Both his father and grandfather made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Just before Ma He was born, the Mongolian Empire started being forced out of China and a new Chinese ruling family began the Ming dynasty.
When Ma He was 10, the Ming army took over Yunnan and killed all the Mongol government, including Ma He’s father.
The army captured Ma He and gave him to Emperor Hongwu’s fourth son, Prince Zhu Di, to be a household servant.
Prince Zhu Di was only 11 years older than Ma He and they spent a lot of time together. Ma He was one of the prince’s closest advisors.
He became a very skilled fighter and leader, helping Zhu Di to forcefully take the throne in 1402, after Emperor Hongwu died.
Zhu Di named himself Emperor Yongle, meaning lasting happiness. Ma He was given the position of leader of the palace servants and Emperor Yongle changed his name to Zheng He.
Zheng was the name of Yongle’s favourite horse, so this was an honour.
Emperor Yongle was extremely ambitious. He built a new palace in Beijing, made the Great Wall of China longer, and tried to conquer Vietnam and Japan.
He also wanted to control all the trade around China and in the Indian Ocean.
Zheng He was ordered to supervise construction of 3,500 ships and then command them.
These ships were the largest ever built, measuring about 120 m long and 50 m wide – as big as a football pitch! The ships were called junks.
The first of Zheng He’s voyages went from the South China Sea to Calicut in southern India, and back again.
It lasted from 1405 to 1407. The emperor wanted to show the power of China and get respect. Zheng He traded with Indian towns along the way and created diplomatic relations.
On the way back, pirates bombarded Zheng He’s ships but were captured. The pirate leader submitted to Zheng He hoping to escape but Zheng He’s army killed the pirates and took the leader back to China.
Zheng He did another five voyages for Emperor Yongle before he died in 1424. These included going to Persia and east Africa.
Zheng He brought back giraffes, zebras, camels and many other exotic Arab and African things that China had never seen before.
He also travelled home with diplomats who wanted to meet with Emperor Yongle.Zheng He died at sea on the way home from his seventh journey in 1443.
He spent most of this voyage having inscriptions written on stones, so that his life and deeds would be remembered. These stones were put at a port on the Yangtze River after he died.