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World Explorers: Zheng He

5 minutes

(female narrator) Nearly 100 years before European sailors crossed the Atlantic, the Chinese servant, Zheng He, assembled the largest fleet of ships ever seen and set out to explore the world. So given the scale of is historic achievement, why is so little known about Zheng He today?

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Zheng He. A map zooms in on China.

Zheng He was born with the name Ma He, in the Yunnan Province of China, in 1371. He was Muslim, and his father and grandfather were important leaders of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, but shortly after his birth, power shifted in China and was taken over by a new dynasty--the Ming. Ming soldiers captured the young Ma He and handed him as a servant to the emperor's son.

(Describer) Zhu Di.

Court life during the Ming dynasty was filled with music, poetry, painting, and calligraphy. Ma He helped organize elaborate events, such as hunts and military displays, serving the prince well and becoming one of his closest advisors. The prince, about to become emperor, gave his servant a new name-- Zheng He. The new emperor wanted to establish far-reaching trade routes, collect taxes from distant territories that none had visited before, and demonstrate the power of the Chinese empire to all the world. He instructed Zheng He to build a fleet unlike any seen before and to venture out as his envoy. Zheng He oversaw the assembly of a massive fleet of 317 ships, including 62 enormous treasure ships measuring more than 400 feet long. Some ships carried horses and troops, others carried fresh water and supplies. Twenty-eight thousand soldiers, scholars, diplomats, and builders were involved. Zheng He's first voyage lasted from 1405 to 1407. He traveled west to many towns and ports in India, trading and establishing diplomatic relations. He and his crew even captured a notorious criminal, Chen Zuyi, one of the most feared pirates of Southeast Asia, and brought him to China for trial. Word of the fleet and Zheng He's heroism spread as he sailed on six more voyages. In 1413, he traveled to the Arabian Peninsula and around the Horn of Africa. Along the way, he visited more than 25 countries and returned to China with exotic creatures, like giraffes and camels, that few in China had seen. His voyages solidified Chinese trade and political dominance, from Northeastern China to Southeastern Africa, even bringing foreign diplomats to meet with the Chinese emperor. But, by the mid-1400s, China had spent an enormous sum on military battles and massive building projects, like the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. Zheng He's expeditions were viewed as extravagant and wasteful, especially by elite scholars of the philosopher Confucius, who felt China should isolate itself from outside influence. By imperial decree, the great navy was dismantled and the construction of new ships was forbidden. This doctrine was so forceful that the details of Zheng He's expeditions were removed from the official imperial record. Even his death, on his seventh and final mission, was largely missing from accounts of the time. Over 28 years, Zheng He had traveled more than 31,000 miles and visited over 30 countries in South Asia and Africa. His fleets were larger and grander than any other in the history of sea exploration. Not until Britain's Grand Fleet of World War I would such an impressive fleet again be assembled. Yet, to this day, Zheng He remains an elusive figure in history. His accomplishments and contributions were nearly forgotten in China for hundreds of years. He was barely known to the Western world. His explorations may have been powered by an emperor's vanity, but they resulted in the spread of Islam and Chinese colonization throughout vast areas of Southeast Asia. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Zheng He. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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Commanding a fleet of over 300 ships, it is surprising how little is known today about Chinese explorer Zheng He. Across seven major voyages, he solidified Chinese dominance in trade and exploration. Part of the "World Explorers" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

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Episode 1
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