600 years ago one of the greatest human explorers sailed the seas. He was the Chinese Admiral Zheng He who sailed with a massive fleet on seven trading voyages from 1405 to 1433. These voyages were unprecedented in size, organization, navigational technology and financial cost. One fleet was estimated to include some 300 ships to carry his army and goods for trade. The fleets of Zheng He traveled throughout South East Asia, through what is now Indonesia, around India, to the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and down the East Coast of Africa. He visited regions that now encompass over thirty Asian and African nations.
Growing up in the central Asian province of Yunnan, Zheng was swept up into the internal dynastic conflicts and political intrigues of China. He was captured by Ming Dynasty forces as they overthrew the Yuan Dynasty. He was taken from Yunnan to Nanjing, castrated, and eventually entered into the imperial service as a body guard. His leadership skills became apparent to Prince Zhu Di in the struggle for power, and Zheng quickly rose in the ranks. When Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, he raised Zheng He to the position of Grand Eunuch as one of his most trusted advisors. When the Emperor wanted to launch exploration of the seas, Zheng He was the obvious choice to lead the envisioned voyages.
Zheng was born into the Muslim faith, the predominant religion in Yunnan. From childhood he studied Islam. His father and grandfather made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, igniting the curiosity in Zheng for distant lands. As he moved into larger stages, besides his military and navigational studies, Zheng studied other religions, particularly the Confucianism and Buddhism that were major shapers of the Chinese culture. He developed a way of engaged religious tolerance, based on his education, and put into practice as he encountered people of different faiths in his travels. Some might call his approach syncretistic today, though he used his understanding to develop empathetic connections between himself and those he met. In Sri Lanka, also known as Ceylon, he made offerings at a Buddhist mountain temple. In honor of the meeting of the people of differing faiths Zheng and local residents set up a monument honoring Buddha, Allah and Vishnu. In China, Zheng set up a pillar to the Taoist goddess Tian Fei in Jujian province as part of offering prayers for his sailors, drawn from many faiths, to have safety at sea. Despite his openness to learn about and interact collegially with other religions, Zheng with many Chinese Muslim sailors aided the spread of Islam in South East Asia. They would frequent mosques, propagated their faith, and sometimes left communities of Chinese Muslims in Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines.
Zheng died during his last voyage and was probably buried at sea as was traditional for Chinese admirals. There is a huge tomb in China built in Islamic style to honor him, but it stands empty. After his death the Chinese government decided the naval expeditions were not cost effective, and in a few years the major economic focus for China was shifted to building the Great Wall.
Zheng He’s legacy has been a matter of controversy in Asia. China celebrates his travels and presents him as a peaceful diplomat in contrast with the rapaciousness of the colonial powers. While China has minimized his Muslim faith with ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia celebrating Zheng as a hero bridging their lands and cultures, Indonesian Muslims have been suspicious of the Chinese muting of the Admiral’s religion. In an era where the lines of definition and division between religions have been a source of conflict, the interpretation of Zheng’s legacy and identity is a contrast to the more relaxed and syncretistic spirit of his age. Perhaps something in his legacy could help lead the way to a reconciliation of the ethnic and religious rifts in a place like Indonesia.