or Zheng Heboth: jŭng´ ho͝o´ [key]
, 1371–c.1433, admiral, diplomat, and explorer during China's Ming
dynasty. At 10 he was captured by Chinese troops in Yunnan, castrated, and sent into the army. He rose in the ranks, became an officer, and in 1404 was named Grand Eunuch by Emperor Yung-lo
. The following year the emperor selected him to lead the first of seven epic expeditions (1405–33) that served to expand Chinese political influence and increase its tribute and trade. Sailing to SE Asia (1405–7), he commanded 62 ships laden with porcelain, lacquer, silk, gems, and other luxury goods. Subsequently commanding treasure fleets ranging from about 50 to more than 100 vessels, some of which were 500 ft (153 m) long, he also later sailed to India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, E Africa, and Egypt. On his fourth voyage (1413–15), Cheng returned with envoys from 30 foreign states who rendered homage to the emperor and sailed home on his sixth voyage (1421–23). Although China returned to an isolationist policy after the emperor's death (1424), Cheng made one last voyage (1431–33). A controversial theory posits that Cheng discovered the New World during his 1420s voyage, some 70 years before Columbus.
See L. Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas (1994); G. Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2003).
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