According to the historical records in China, “Da Shi” (Arabia) was already known to the Chinese during the rule of the Han dynasty when China opened trade into the West.
It was recorded that an envoy, Zhang Qian, (206 BC – 220 CE) took the expedition to Arabia in a caravan.
Besides this, “The Old Tang Dynasty Book” described that envoys were sent by Caliph Othman (644 – 656 CE in the Caliphate Period) to the king of Tang Dynasty, Tang Gao Zong.
The relationship between Arabia and China was further consolidated after Emperor Tang Su Zong won victory from the “An Shi’s Revolt”, in 755 CE, with the help from friendly Muslim countries in Central Asia. Not only were the Muslim troops allowed to stay in China, intermarriages were also permitted and mosques were built for showing appreciation of the Muslims’ contributions. Especially in Southern China, in Guang Zhou where names of the mosques were given by the reigning emperor of China.
During the rule of the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368 CE), the Muslims enjoyed high socio-political status with the implementation of favourable policies.
During the era of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), Muslims were highly regarded for their achievements and faith. The famous article “The 100 Words Used to Praise the Prophet” was personally composed by the Ming Emperor himself. Trade between China and the Arab world was consolidated following the movement of merchants on the Silk Road.
It was during this time that the famous Admiral Zheng He came into History. Zheng He, ( his Muslim name, Ma Sanbao ) was born into a pious Muslim family (Hui Tribe) in Kun Yang (now Jingning county) in Yunnan province in 1371. The village he lived in was named after both his grandfather and father having performed their Haj, the “Haji Ma Village”.
He was instilled with strong Islamic knowledge and lifestyle since childhood.
At the age of 11, Zheng He was captured by the first Ming Emperor Tai Zu after the latter conquered Yunnan province, the last Mongol stronghold. He was then castrated and brought to Nanjing to be a servant to Shu Di, the Emperor’s fourth son.
Fortunately, Zheng He won the favour of his master who then arranged him to be taught by his learned officials and the boy soon became well versed in Confucian and Mencian classics containing fundamental knowledge about traditional Chinese civilisation. He was further trained in military arts, and he later proved his distinguished skill on the battlefield as well.
Admiral Zheng He, also known as Admiral Cheng Ho or his Chinese name, Ma He. “Zheng” was a surname given by the Ming Emperor (Chen Zu, 1402-1424) in appreciation of Zheng He’s contribution to Ming Chen Zu’s Imperial regime.
During the reign of the Emperor Zhu Di in 1402, Zheng He was appointed the position of “Eunuch Overseer of the inner palace”. He was commanded by the Emperor to lead the fleet in search for the deposed Emperor Hui Di who was believed to have fled to one of the nations in the East Oceans (Southeast Asia). Thus the journey of the world maritime expedition was inaugurated. Zheng He’s seven voyages in the “Western Ocean” had made him the greatest navigator of his time, and so had the journey on the maritime silk road reached its height.
His first renowned sea exploration began in 1405 and his final in 1431 when he was at age 60. He set sail with his fleet of 41 – 317 of the best ships, the largest being 440 feet long and 180 feet wide, manned by not less than 27,000 – 30,000 sailors.
Zheng He may not have fulfilled his duty of capturing the deposed Ming Emperor, nevertheless, his explorations were of tremendous benefits to China. His explorations had contributed to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and other nations overseas that marked the great history of China’s advancement at that time. Furthermore, it had pioneered the mass wave of Chinese settlement in Southeast Asia in later part of the 19th century.
Zheng He’s voyages not only promoted trades but also friendship and reciprocal relations between nations. The scale of his exploratory activities was vastly in Southeast Asia, the India Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and along the East African Coast. Envoys from several countries like Java, Melaka, Sumatra and Calicut (Southwestern Coast of India), the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa came to China with the fleet.
Zheng He was a very pious Muslim who committed part of his works in the spreading of Islam in China and also in far off foreign countries. Just to name a few :
1. After his fourth voyage, he requested from the Ming Emperor to allocate funds for the reconstruction of the Ziwu Mosque in Xian and the Sashan Street Mosque in Nanjing. He also restored the mosque which was originally built by Shang Shu Tie Xuan in the year 1384.
2. He invited a great number of Muslims to assist him on his voyages. Amongst them were Muslims scholars, leaders and warriors like Ma Huan, Guo Chongli, Ha San, Sha’ Ban and Pu Heri. They worked as translators and helped built good relationship and friendship especially with Muslim countries visited by Zheng He.