Zheng He (or Cheng Ho in older sources), the most important figure in Chinese maritime history, was born of non-Chinese Mongol parents and raised in the mountainous Yunnan province. His name was initially Ma He, and like his parents he was a Muslim throughout his life. When the Chinese army overthrew the Mongols in 1382, initiating the Ming dynasty, he was captured, castrated, and assigned to the court of Zhu Di (or Chu Ti), Prince of Yan. He was a physically and intellectually impressive man and was renamed Zheng He after distinguishing himself in the battle of Zhenglunba, near Beijing. When Zhu Di became emperor in 1402, Zheng He was one of his chief aids.
The emperor appointed him to oversee the building of a fleet suitable for long ocean voyages, its nucleus consisting of over 60 large junks. As commander of this fleet, Zheng He led seven expeditions into the Indian Ocean from Nanjing between 1405 and 1433, constituting the most important phase of maritime exploration in Chinese history. The purpose of the venture appears to have been a combination of exploration, trade, diplomacy, and a desire for prestige. The expeditions were described in the official history of the Ming dynasty, though details are scant. A military compendium, "Treatise on armament technology", compiled in 1628, includes schematic sailing charts showing Zheng He's routes, as well as navigational diagrams. One of the charts shows the route from China to Hormuz, the Red Sea and Africa, but no measurements can be taken from any of them. The documents indicate that the fleet used star positions, the elevation of the north celestial pole and magnetic bearings for navigation, and estimated the distances sailed by the number of watches.
The first four expeditions explored mainly present Indonesia and reached as far westward as the Malabar Coast of (south-western) India. The fifth (1417-1419), sixth (1421-1422) and perhaps the seventh (1431-1433), explored the east coast of the African continent at least as far south as Zanzibar, visiting Malindi and the Horn of Africa. Ambassadors were exchanged with the Swahili kingdoms, and African goods, including some live animals, taken back to China. An unanswered question is whether during the first of these expeditions some ships reached southern Africa and perhaps sailed on to the Atlantic ocean.
Zheng He may have died during the return leg of his last voyage and may be buried on the Malabar Coast. Another tradition holds that he died at Nanjing two years after his return.