Zheng He; eunuch, admiral, explorer – was one of the most remarkable figures of the Ming Dynasty. Sometimes when I look at ancient history I can’t shake the question “what if”. What if Zheng He had been allowed to continue his voyages, what if Zheng He had found the Americas?
Zheng He wasn’t even Chinese; born a Muslim Mongol in a remote province of central Asia; Ma He was captured by the Chinese in 1382. His name changed to Zheng He when he was castrated at the age of ten and sent as a eunuch to the court of Zhu Di. For the next 20 years Zheng served Zhu Di, eventually becoming his strategist in battles with the Mongols. In 1402 Zhu Di became Emperor – the greatest age in Chinese history unfolded. Zhu Di built the Forbidden City,widened the “grand canal” to accommodate well over a thousand ships a day, and constructed China’s “treasure fleet”. Under the direction of Zheng He the first voyage sailed in 1405. Almost a century before Columbus stumbled upon America, Zheng He and his treasure fleet had sailed to Arabia, Africa, and India.
Fate has a way of shaping history – in 1424 Zhu Di died. China that followed didn’t see the world as Zhu Di and Zheng He did; by 1433 the treasure fleet had been destroyed – every last ship burned, along with a law that forbade construction of ships with more than one mast.
I can’t help but ponder what might have been if Zheng He had been left to his own devices. It makes me ask – what might historians say about us a thousand years from now. Fate has a way of shaping history.