Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) was born in what is now Jinning County, Kunming City of Yunnan Province in 1371, the fourth year of the Hongwu reign period (1368-1398) of the Ming Dynasty. He was originally surnamed Ma, and later was known as San Bao (Three Treasures).
Raised a Muslim, Zheng He started to study the teachings of Islam at an early age. Both Zheng He's father and grandfather had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so were quite familiar with distant lands. Under the influence of his father and grandfather, the young Zheng He developed a consuming curiosity about the outside world. Zheng He's father's direct character and altruistic nature also made a lasting impression on the boy.
Zheng He was captured by Ming Dynasty forces during their military cleansing of the remnants of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in Yunnan, around 1381. He was taken to Nanjing, where he was castrated and entered into imperial service. He was then sent to Beiping (present-day Beijing) to serve in the palace of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, fourth son of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
During Zheng He's time in the palace, his brilliance and loyalty won him Zhu Di's trust. As a result, the prince chose Zheng He to serve as his personal bodyguard during his quest to become emperor. It was during this period that Zheng He's genius and leadership abilities became apparent. For four years, Zheng He fought on the side of Prince Zhu Di, accompanying him on countless campaigns and battles throughout China. Amassing one victory after another, Zheng He was instrumental in Zhu Di's seizure of imperial power.
After Zhu Di ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor (1403-1424), he promoted many of the military and civil officers/officials who had supported him. Among them was the eunuch official Zheng He. In 1404, Zhu Di changed Zheng He's surname from Ma to Zheng as an imperial honor, and elevated him to the position of Grand Eunuch. Zheng He was also subsequently known as the Three Treasures Eunuch.
Zheng He's illustrious career was made possible in part by his unique background. During his time as a trusted intimate of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, he came into extensive contact with the highest echelons of China's ruling class, greatly expanding his horizons and knowledge. Zheng He's honesty and integrity won him full confidence of the Prince Zhu Di. The two often discussed matters of state, which offered Zheng He numerous opportunities to learn about politics, military affairs, and strategy.
The military expertise Zheng He acquired in the field with Zhu Di further developed his abilities. After Zhu Di became emperor, he decided to undertake extensive exploration of the seas to the west of China. In recognition of Zheng He's extraordinary abilities and loyal service, the emperor chose him from among his most trusted advisors as the ideal commander for the great voyages westward.
Zheng He is China's most famous maritime explorer. His extraordinary ability and vision found brilliant expression in the great achievements of his life, including maritime exploration, foreign diplomacy, and military affairs.
Shortly after Zhu Di ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor, he assigned Zheng He to the area of maritime affairs. Zheng He first conducted an exhaustive study of existing nautical charts, celestial navigation, eastern and western almanacs, astronomy and geography, marine sciences, piloting, and shipbuilding and repair.
Between the third year of the Yongle reign period (1405) and the eighth year of the Xuande reign period (1433), Zheng He led seven great western maritime expeditions, traversing the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean into the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and reaching as far west as the east coast of Africa.
There is evidence of Zheng He's visits in over thirty Asian and African countries and regions. These seven voyages, unprecedented in size, organization, navigational technology, and range, demonstrated not only the power and wealth of the Ming Dynasty, but also Zheng He's extraordinary command ability.