Zheng He: a true ficcione for Mark Young

Although he is still worshipped as a god by some Chinese, many others among us have already forgotten Grand Admiral Zheng He. Ma Ho, of the religion of the Heavenly Square, as it is called by the Chinese after the great stone Ka’ba at Mecca, was born in 1371 in Yunnan Province into a family from Central Asia who came to China with the Mongols; both his father and his father’s father had made the haj to Mecca. Only ten years old, Ma Ho was captured along with other children by the Chinese army, and at age thirteen castrated and placed as a servant in the household of the Chinese Emperor's fourth son, Prince Zhu Di.

It was Zhu Di who renamed him Zheng He after the eunuch's horse was killed in battle outside a place called Zhenglunba. Zheng He was also known as San Bao, the Three Jewel Eunuch, or, more properly, the Three Jewels of Pious Ejaculation. He was tall – some say seven feet tall – dark, curly haired, strong, with a voice like a bell ringing: for it is the case that those who are castrated at an early age do not stop growing as the rest of us do but, as if in compensation for the loss of their generative powers, increase in their own selves instead of in those who are to follow.

Zhu Di became Emperor in 1402, and the next year appointed Zheng He Grand Admiral and ordered him to oversee the construction of a Treasure Fleet to explore the seas surrounding China. These fleets were enormous, consisting of as many as 300 ships with 30,000 people aboard. The ships themselves weighed up to 500 tons, with twelve masts and many more sails. People could live on them for entire voyages without meeting their colleagues. They had gardens on board, growing ginger, fruit and vegetables. There were private apartments for merchants and their families and slaves, and also doctors, accountants, interpreters, scholars, holy men, astrologers and prostitutes. Some ships carried only horses; it was in one of these that a giraffe was brought back from Africa. Fifes, drums and lanterns were used to send messages from ship to ship. Star plates carved in ebony showed the navigators which sea path to follow, and they would scoop up material from the sea floor to learn what kind of bottom they were sailing over. When there was no wind, the ships were rowed slowly along.

The treasure ships were called by the Chinese Star Rafts, for they thought if a ship sailed far enough into the west, it would leave the earth, reach the Milky Way and come to a starry city where a maiden sat spinning; this maiden was to them Vega in the constellation Lyra. In the same way, if they went the other direction, into the east, they would again leave the earth and travel among the stars until they reached another city, where lived a scholar who sat at his table writing down the future on a great scroll of paper; this was Antares in Scorpio, also known as the Heart of the Dragon to the Chinese, and Kalb al 'Akrab, the Heart of the Scorpion, to the Arabs.

Although he was a Muslim, Zheng He did not neglect the goddess Tianfei, the celestial spouse, whose image he set up in many places on shore, including some in Luca Antara itself; her achievements – quelling hurricanes and saving fleets – were recorded assiduously with the Bureau of Sacrificial Worship. In this way Zheng He, and his senior captains, all, like him, eunuchs, sailed to India, Africa and Arabia in the west, and to Luca Antara in the east. From Africa they took ivory, ambergris and rhinoceros horn, from Arabia myrrh, frankincense and dates, from Ceylon cinnamon and rubies, and from India gold, silver and other precious stones; in Luca Antara, they found metals too rare to have a name. And for all of these things they traded porcelain and silks.

It was Ma Huan, also a Muslim, who chronicled Zheng He’s voyages, up to and including the Grand Admiral’s death in Calicut in March, 1433, as preparations were made to return home from his seventh voyage. His body was taken back to China and interred along with his testicles, kept, as was customary, in a sealed pouch carried since castration always on a belt at his waist. His epitaph was inscribed on a column in Dragon River Pass, at the mouth of the Yangtze from which all seven of his voyages departed: Our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing the savage waves.

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