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Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Laksamana Cheng Ho (Zheng He): 1/08

Zheng He was born in 1371 of the Hui ethnic group and the Muslim faith in modern-day Yunnan Province, one of the last possessions of the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty before being conquered by the Ming Dynasty. He served as a close confidant of the Yongle Emperor of China (reigned 1403–1424), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Zheng He's ancestors include a general for Genghis Khan.

According to his biography in the History of Ming, he was originally named Ma Sanbao , and came from Kunyang, present day Jinning, Yunnan Province. Zheng belonged to the Semu caste which practiced Islam and were comprised of diverse Turco-Persian groups who entered China. He was a sixth generation descendant of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a famous Khwarezmian Yuan governor of Yunnan Province from Bukhara in modern day Uzbekistan. His family name "Ma" came from Shams al-Din's fifth son Masuh (Mansour). Both his father Mir Tekin and grandfather Charameddin had traveled on the hajj to Mecca. Their travels contributed much to the young boy's education. In 1381, following the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, a Ming army was dispatched to Yunnan to put down the Mongol rebel Basalawarmi. Zheng He, then only a young boy of eleven years, was taken captive by that army and castrated, thus becoming a eunuch. He soon became a servant at the Imperial court.

The name was given by the Yongle emperor for meritorious service in his coup against the Jianwen Emperor. He studied at Nanjing Taixue (The Imperial Central College).Zheng He travelled to Mecca, though he did not perform the pilgrimage itself.

At the beginning of the 1380s, his tomb was renovated in a more Islamic style, although he himself was buried at sea. The government of the People's Republic of China uses him as a model to integrate the Muslim minority into the Chinese nation. He himself was a living example of religious tolerance, perhaps even syncretism. The Galle Trilingual Inscription set up by Zheng He around 1410 in Sri Lanka records the offerings he made at a Buddhist mountain temple.In around 1431, he set up a commemorative pillar at the temple of the Taoist goddess Tian Fei, the Celestial Spouse, in Fujian province, to whom he and his sailors prayed for safety at sea. This pillar records his veneration for the goddess and his belief in her divine protection, as well as a few details about his voyages. Visitors to the Jinghaisi in Nanjing are reminded of the donations Zheng He made to this non-Muslim area.

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