Zheng He (Dictionary of World Biography: Middle Ages)
Article abstract: An imperial eunuch, Zheng He commanded the Ming Dynasty’s voyages of exploration in the early fifteenth century, sailing farther than any person in history at that time.
Zheng He was born into a Muslim family surnamed Ma (a Chinese transliteration of Muhammad) at K’un-yang in Central Yunnan, a province in southwest China. Although little is known about his family, it apparently had a tradition of foreign travel and adventure, since both his father and grandfather made the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
Zheng He’s Yunnan was a frontier region heavily populated by non-Chinese ethnic groups (principally Tibeto-Burman). Formerly a loose confederation of tribal states known as Nanchao, Yunnan had been conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century during their invasion of China. The cities of Yunnan had a thin veneer of Chinese culture, but the civilization of the countryside remained essentially non-Chinese.
At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (from 1368 to 1644), Chinese generals campaigned in Yunnan to wrest control of the area from the Mongols. The founder of the Ming, Chu Yüan-chang, also known as Hung-wu, sent about 300,000 troops under the control of a redoubtable commander in chief named Fu Yu-te to subdue the region. In the process, Fu recruited eunuchs, castrated males, into the service of the new dynasty.
Eunuchs were employed at...
(The entire section is 2286 words.)
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