Zheng He’s Early Life
Zheng He was named Ma He when he was first born. He was the second-oldest son of a devout Chinese Muslim family. In fact, his father and grandfather were both called “Hajji,” meaning they had each made a pilgrimage to Mecca, an accomplishment that Ma He was never quite able to achieve, although he came very close near the end of his life. There had been a large movement of Muslims into China when the Mongols first took over and began the Yuan Dynasty. Ma He’s family boasted they were related to an officer who served in Genghis Khan’s army. It is possible that Ma He’s father still served the Mongols, and was in the act of serving them when he died at the age of 62 in 1381. This was the same year that young Ma He was taken prisoner.
Ma He was castrated and put into service as a court eunuch. Because he was castrated at such a young age, he was known as tong jing, or “pure from childhood.” He was placed at Beiping, to serve in the household of the prince of Yan, Zhu Di. The capital of the empire was in Nanjing, and it is a stroke of luck that young Ma He was taken to serve the prince in Beiping rather than the emperor in Nanjing. The emperor was known for not trusting eunuchs, and tried to keep them uneducated and out of important political business. At the prince’s home, however, eunuchs held a variety of positions. They ran the prince’s household affairs, kept confidential matters from being released to the public, guarded the harem, and kept up the rules of custom and etiquette. They were well educated, and allowed to become important advisors.
As a tong jing, it would have been typical for Ma He to grow up very effeminate. This was not the fate of Ma He. His family records indicate that he was “seven feet tall and had a waist about five feet in circumference.” (This is obviously a little off from Western measurement, and probably makes him sound bigger than he really was.) He was also known for being wise in the ways of warfare and personally skilled in battle. Ma He went with his master, the prince of Yan, whenever the prince fought in battle. He proved himself capable in a campaign against the Mongols in the 1390s.
Although Zhu Di was a prince, the son of the current emperor, he was not designated to be the heir to the Dragon Throne (the name of the imperial Chinese throne). Instead, Zhu Yunwen, son of Zhu Yuanzhang’s oldest son, was named heir. Whether Zhu Yunwen began a fight with Zhu Di or whether Zhu Di started a rebellion against him is not known with certainty. What is known is that Zhu Di eventually did take the throne from his nephew, leaving his close friend Ma He in a very favorable and powerful position. This is when Ma He became Zheng He – Zhu Di gave him this new name, which probably came from his service in a battle that occurred near the beginning of the rebellion. After the rebellion, Zhu Yunwen disappeared. Rumors abounded that he was hiding as a monk somewhere in China, or that perhaps some foreign ruler was hiding him overseas.
In 1403, Emperor Zhu Di ordered a huge “treasure fleet” to be built. The treasure fleet was to be a collection of trading ships, warships, and support vessels, carrying treasure to various ports in the Chinese seas and the Indian Ocean. One of the purposes for the creation of the fleet may have been to go out and find Zhu Yunwen. Anyone who was hiding Yunwen would certainly be impressed by the wealth and might of Zhu Di. It was also an excellent time for China to send representatives out into the world at large; Zhu Yuanzhang had had a very isolationist policy that forbade foreign travel and made trading very difficult. This was a way to announce to the world that a new reign was in place, one that encouraged trade. This would no doubt be welcome news to China’s former trading partners, who had suffered economically during the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang.