Zheng He (郑和), the revolutionary and trailblazing Eunuch

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ON THE THREE JEWELS Zheng He may be remembered by many as a great diplomat or admiral, but Zheng was not just an explorer who is revered by many, he was also a court eunuch. In the history of Chinese empires, eunuchs were employed in the palaces as high ranking civil servants who would serve the Emperor and the inner court. They can be voluntarily castrated (yeah, voluntarily impotent) for the purpose of seeking monetary security and a chance at earning a respectable post, or they can also be castrated against their will as a form of punishment.

Zheng was born into a Muslim family whose birth name was Ma He. Ma was a rough translation for Mohammad. Zheng did not choose to be castrated, he was taken in to serve Zhu Di as a eunuch (later known as Emperor Yong Le) after an episode with General Fu Youde at the age of 10. Zheng was an honorary name bestowed onto Zheng He for his accomplishments by Emperor Yongle whom he had grown close to. Zheng was sometimes known as San Bao (三宝), which directly translates into three jewels.This blog post seeks to unravel some possible reasons for the lasting and positive impact Zheng left behind despite being less of a man (physically), despite the poor reputation Eunuchs have in Chinese history, and to reveal some juicy details of this man whom some might have overlooked. Here goes, the Eunuch who sailed the seven seas.

PROMINENT, STRIKING, MEMORABLE

Great impressions always linger for a long time in our memory, anything attractive, or bizarre usually takes our attention or breath away, making a mark in our minds. Zheng did just that, albeit unintentionally. He was said to be extremely tall (7 chi tall) with a loud voice and dark skin which definitely made him stand out among the fair and yellow-skinned Chinese people. He also had a thick waist and huge white teeth that would sparkle against his tan complexion. Who would forget a big and distinguishable guy like him? So prominent, very memorable!

It is arguable that Zheng’s God-given physical features, and close relationship with Yongle landed him in a spiral of grand and admirable legacies, the history of what we might know now as the greatest admiral and eunuch of ancient China.

Seriously, who would entrust fleets of enormous ships and the name of the country to a weak or average looking man? Authority and strength is needed. Additionally, with “a voice as loud as a huge bell”, commanding men and the ships would be a whole load easier!

ZHENG HE WAS CLEAN

Being impotent, eunuchs were employed and trusted in the palace and inner court. With no possibility of having any offspring, they were also believed to be free from greed for power and status. Ironically, eunuchs have always had a bad reputation in the Chinese history, the word eunuch would usually be associated with undesirable traits like greed, corruption, and selfishness. These, are what made Zheng stood out, he was upright, holding incredible achievements to his name, a diamond among the carbon pieces, who would forget?   

There were some eunuchs who were recorded in history to have caused some Emperors their thrones and the death of many officials instead of serving them well. Zhao Gao, a cunning and shrewd eunuch from the Qin dynasty (210 CE) allied with Li Si, a premier of Emperor Qin and murdered Prince Fu Su and General Meng Tian although Prince Fu Su was supposed to take the throne and Meng the post of the prime minister. Due to his greed and disloyalty, Zhao is said to be responsible for the downfall of the Qin dynasty, taking many of his enemies and allies alike down with it.

On the other hand, Zheng was clean of tricks and greed. He remained loyal to Emperor Yongle throughout the latter’s reign, having first led an army to revolt against the Emperor (Zhu Yunwen) which had led to the usurping of throne by Emperor Yongle, and leading seven voyages on the sea, bringing back exotic cultures and leaving the marks of China in many countries. China was very respected and admired in the early Ming dynasty partly due to Zheng’s diplomatic relationships with other countries. Temples and plaques were even erected in some nations in Zheng’s honour. In other words, Zheng was a loyal eunuch and he contributed greatly to the nation’s growth, building international relations and elevating China’s status, thus earning great respect all around. Instead of eyeing the throne or the court like other infamous eunuchs, Zheng willingly fought torrential waves into his late fifties! Unparalleled achievements of Zheng will be elaborated in the following paragraphs.

HIS GREAT EXPEDITIONS

Emperor Yongle commanded the building of a fleet of ships possibly to develop good relations with other countries, he appointed Zheng to be the fleet admiral. With a crew of 27,800 soldiers and sailors and 62 treasure ships, Zheng embarked on his first voyage to Java (Indonesia) by sailing through the Indian Ocean in 1403. On their return to China, they were threatened by one of the most feared pirates, Chen Zuyi who attempted to pillage the fleet. They successfully seized Chen and his associates and brought them back to China. Zheng’s triumph in the first voyage proves that he was a good leader who was very capable and respected as an authoritative figure.

He set sail for two more voyages to places like Siam (Thailand) and Champa. During their third voyage to Ceylon, a chief had planned to attack Zheng’s fleet. Zheng was astute, and his crew conquered the unarmed palace when most of the palace’s soldiers were attacking the fleet.

The fourth voyage was the most pioneering expedition, he went to places as far as Hormuz, India and East Africa. Zheng even brought a giraffe back from Bengal after convincing the ruler to part with it. Zheng is therefore articulate and intelligent, which can make one worthy of a leader, a diplomat. The fifth and sixth voyages followed roughly the same routes. The last voyage was ordered after the death of Emperor Yongle by his grandson. Although Zheng was already frail, he dutifully followed the orders without questions and embarked on the last voyage to ports he had visited before. Zheng later died on board and was buried in sea. Zheng can be greatly remembered by others because of his capability to forge strong international relations and great leadership qualities, he also brought back many intricate gifts and tributes given by ports he had sailed to. Zheng’s revolutionary 7 voyages had helped China’s status and popularity since many leaders managed to engage in trade with Zheng - with China.         

ZHENG-ING ON

It is hard to disagree that Zheng left a lasting legacy and deep impression on many people. Notably, during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic games, there were performances narrating Zheng’s extraordinary voyages, which is evident of the impact he has had on China. Despite being a eunuch, Zheng was a great man with extraordinary achievements, having managed to stay away from corruption and embark on his exceptional expeditions. There are still many magnificent statues of the legendary admiral standing in many parts of the world, being remembered fondly by many generations and beyond.

P.s. Being a eunuch can be awesome, but do not seek to be a eunuch today, treasure your three jewels!