The Great Voyages of Zheng He

Written and illustrated by Demi



Ma Ze was born in 1371. Ma was born into a Muslim family whose ancestors came from Persia and fought with the Mongols and Genghis Khan. Ma’s father was  a general who told his son of his pilgrimage to Mecca and his military battles. But he was killed in battle when Ma was only ten so Ma was taken to be raised in the imperial palace. Ma was a brilliant scholar who appeared to be skilled at everything he tried to do. Like his father, Ma enjoyed adventure, but he especially loved the sea. When Prince Zhu Di became emperor in 1402, he spread his empire and the power of the Ming Dynasty. He expanded the borders of the Forbidden City of Beijing and strengthened the Great Wall against his enemies. He built a large army and made Ma, who was now known as Zheng Ma,  Admiral of the Navy. One year later Ma had built 525 ships, ten times the number of ships that Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama possessed, and a navy consisting of more than 30,000 sailors.

Zheng Ma set sail with a new more accurate compass, better maps and a good knowledge of astronomy. He journeyed south to Java and Sumatra reaching out to the people with a policy of peace and religious tolerance. Ma destroyed the Cantonese pirate fleet let by Chen Zuyi which resulted in free trade. Eventually thirty foreign  states would  pay tribute and acknowledge the supremacy of China. Emperor Zhu was so pleased that he ordered another voyage in 1407. When Ma found civil war between the Muslims and Buddhists, he proclaimed religious freedom for all. This was unheard of in the time of the Inquisition and Crusades. Subsequent voyages added precious metals, porcelain and more exotic animals to China as a result of forays into the Arabian peninsula and Africa. In 1417 there were so many exotic animals that the emperor built the first zoo to house them all. He was especially fond of his pet giraffe. By 1421 China could rightly be called the first world superpower. Unfortunately, later near the end of that year, lightning struck three imperial buildings creating a conflagration that killed thousands of people. Then a drought caused a grain shortage. When Zhu Gaozhi ascended the throne, he retreated within his borders and ended outside exploration. Ma was relieved of his duties, the ships rotted, and the navy disbanded.

Later in 1425 Zhu Zhangji came into power. He wanted to reestablish trade. In 1431 Ma was again put in charge of the fleet. This was the largest of all voyages. Ma made it a successful peacekeeping mission, but he died suddenly at the age of 62. No man could replace the knowledge and vision of Zheng Ma.  He envisioned a world of peace, intellectual growth, and religious tolerance in a time of war, ignorance and religious strife.

The book is beautifully illustrated by the award winning artist Demi. Adults and children eight and over will appreciate the adventure story and learning about a part of Chinese history and culture that is not widely known. This is a well written, informative and fascinating book for parents and teachers to add to their collection.