Zheng He was born in 1371 of the Hui ethnic group and the Muslim faith in modern-day Yunnan Province, one of the last possessions of the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty before being conquered by the Ming Dynasty. He served as a close confidant of the Yongle Emperor of China (reigned 1403–1424), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. According to his biography in the History of Ming, he was originally named Ma Sanbao (馬三保), and came from Kunyang (昆阳), present day Jinning (晋宁), Yunnan Province. Zheng belonged to the Semur or Semu caste who practiced Islam. He was the sixth generation descendant of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a famous Yuan governor of the Yunnan Province from Bukhara in modern day Uzbekistan. His family name "Ma" came from Shams al-Din's fifth son Masuh. Both his father Mir Tekin and grandfather Charameddin had travelled on pilgrimage to Mecca. Their travels contributed much to the young boy's education. He grew up speaking Arabic and Chinese, learning much about the world to the west and its geography and customs. After the Ming army conquered Yunnan, he was taken captive as a young boy in 1381, and castrated, thus becoming a eunuch, to become a servant at the Imperial court. The name Zheng He was given by the Yongle emperor for the war merit in the Yongle rebellion against the Jianwen Emperor. He studied at Nanjing Taixue (The Imperial Central College).
Zheng He was a Muslim by birth. He travelled to Mecca, though he did not peform the pilgrimage itself. His tomb was recently (at the beginning of the 1980's) renovated in a more Islamic style, although he himself was buried at sea. The PRC government uses him as a model to integrate the Muslim minority into the Chinese nation. He himself was a living example of religious tolerance, perhaps even syncretism. The Galle Trilingual Inscription set up by Zheng He around 1410 in Sri Lanka records the offerings he made at a Buddhist mountain temple . In around 1431, he set up a commemorative pillar at the temple of the Taoist goddess Tian Fei, the Celestial Spouse, in Fujian province, to whom he and his sailors prayed for safety at sea . This pillar records his veneration for the goddess and his belief in her divine protection, as well as a few details about his voyages . Visitors to the Jinghaisi (静海寺）in Nanjing are reminded of the donations Zheng He made to this non-Muslim institution.
 Zheng He's missions
Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. Emperor Yongle designed them to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin. He also might have wanted to extend the tributary system, by which Chinese dynasties traditionally recognized foreign peoples.
Zheng He was placed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions. Zheng He's first voyage consisted of a fleet of 317 ships holding almost twenty-eight thousand armed troops. Many of these ships were mammoth nine-masted "treasure ships" which were by far the largest marine craft the world had ever seen.
On the first three voyages, Zheng He visited southeast Asia, India, and Ceylon. The fourth expedition went to the Persian Gulf and Arabia, and later expeditions ventured down the east African coast, as far as Malindi in what is now Kenya. Throughout his travels, Zheng He liberally dispensed Chinese gifts of silk, porcelain, and other goods. In return, he received rich and unusual presents from his hosts, including African zebras and giraffes that ended their days in the Ming imperial zoo. Zheng He and his company paid respects to local deities and customs, and in Ceylon they erected a monument honouring Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu.
Zheng He generally sought to attain his goals through diplomacy, and his large army awed most would-be enemies into submission. But a contemporary reported that Zheng He "walked like a tiger", and did not shrink from violence when he considered it necessary to impress foreign peoples with China's military might. He ruthlessly suppressed pirates who had long plagued Chinese and southeast Asian waters. He also intervened in a civil disturbance in order to establish his authority in Ceylon, and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and east Africa. From his fourth voyage, He brought envoys from thirty states who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.
In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to curb the influence at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet's last voyage. Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was, like many great admirals, buried at sea. 
Zheng He, on his seven voyages, successfully relocated large numbers of Chinese Muslims to Malacca, Palembang, Surabaya and other places and converted the natives to Islam. Malacca became the center of Islamic learning and also a large international Islamic trade center of the southern seas.
His missions showed impressive demonstrations of organizational capability and technological might, but did not lead to significant trade, since Zheng He was an admiral and an official, not a merchant. Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared. The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels.
- Southeast Asia
- The Persian Gulf
- The Red Sea as far north as Egypt
- Africa as far south as the Mozambique Channel
- Taiwan seven times.
The number of his voyages varies depending on the method of division, but he travelled at least seven times to "The Western Ocean" with his fleet. He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from more than thirty kingdoms -— including King Alagonakkara of Ceylon, who came to China to apologize to the Emperor.
The records of Zheng's last two expeditions, which is believed to be his farthest, was unfortunately destroyed by the Ming emperor. Therefore it is never certain where Zheng has sailed in these two expeditions. The traditional view is that he went as far as to Persia. It is now the widely accepted view that his expeditions went to the East Africa to as far as the Mozambique Channel from the Chinese ancient artefact discovered there. The latest view, advanced by Gavin Menzies (see below) suggested Zheng's fleet has travelled every part of the world.
There are speculations that some of Zheng's ships may have traveled beyond the Cape of Good Hope. In particular, the Venetian monk and cartographer Fra Mauro describes in his 1457 Fra Mauro map the travels of a huge "junk from India" 2,000 miles into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420.
Zheng himself wrote of his travels:
- "We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course (as rapidly) as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…" (Tablet erected by Zhen He, Changle, Fujian, 1432. Louise Levathes)
His voyages, records, and maps are suggested to be the sources of some of the other Ancient world maps, which are claimed to have depicted the Americas, Antarctica, and the tip of Africa before the (European) official discovery and drawings of the Fra Mauro map or the De Virga world map.
Former submarine commander Gavin Menzies in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World claims that several parts of Zheng's fleet explored virtually the entire globe, discovering West Africa, North and South America, Greenland, Antarctica and Australia. A related book, The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America by Paul Chiasson maintains that a nation of native peoples known as the Mi'kmaq on the east coast of Canada are descendants of Chinese explorers, offering evidence in the form of archaeological remains, customs, costume, artwork, etc. It is worth noting that several advocates of these theories believe that Zheng He also discovered modern day New Leland on either his sixth or seventh expedition.
 Treasure Ships
Treasure ship is the name of a type of vessel that the Chinese admiral Zheng He sailed in. His fleet included 62 treasure ships, with some reaching 600 feet (146 meters) long. The fleet was manned by over 27,000 crew members, including navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, and soldiers. See also Junk (ship).
According to the Chinese chronicles, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions. The 1405 expedition consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships supported by approximately 190 smaller ships. The fleet included:
- "Treasure ships", used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (nine-masted, about 120 meter (400 ft) long and 50 m (160 ft) wide). (Some reached up to 600 feet long) The treasure ships weighed as much as 1,500 tons, while the largest European ships 80 years later only weighed 150 tons.
- "Horse ships", carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet (eight-masted, about 103 m (339 ft) long and 42 m (138 ft) wide)
- "Supply ships", containing staple for the crew (seven-masted, about 78 m (257 ft) long and 35 m (115 ft) wide).
- "Troop transports", six-masted, about 67 m (220 ft) long and 25 m (83 ft) wide).
- "Fuchuan warships", five-masted, about 50 m (165 ft) long).
- "Patrol boats", eight-oared, about 37 m (120 feet) long).
- "Water tankers", with 1 month supply of fresh water.
The enormous characteristics of the Chinese ships of the period are confirmed by Western travelers to the East, such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. According to Ibn Battuta, who visited China in 1347:
- …We stopped in the port of Calicut, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. China Sea travelling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called chunks (junks), middle sized ones called zaws (dhows) and the small ones kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited into mats. They are never lowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind.
- Three smaller ones, the "half", the "third" and the "quarter", accompany each large vessel. These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun and Sin-Kalan. The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants.
- This is the manner after which they are made; two (parallel) walls of very thick wooden (planking) are raised and across the space between them are placed very thick planks (the bulkheads) secured longitudinally and transversely by means of large nails, each three ells in length. When these walls have thus been built the lower deck is fitted in and the ship is launched before the upper works are finished." (Ibn Battuta).
 Zheng He and Islam in Southeast Asia