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Master mariner's genealogy comes to light
23/6/2005 17:34

To commemorate the 600-year anniversary of the first ocean-going voyage of Zheng He, several books are rolling off the presses of local publishing houses here.

One book, a replica of the original genealogy of Zheng He (1371-1435), is expected to draw great interest among historians and scholars.

It reveals, for the first time to the world, this extraordinary mariner's family history.

It also tells how Zheng, an imperial eunuch of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) adopted the son of his elder brother, as was customary at the time.

As a result, some 350 Muslims, now scattered in Yunnan Province in the south and Jiangsu Province in the east, as well as Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, can proudly claim lineage to Zheng.

The stories of his voyages are the stuff of legend. From 1405 to 1433, he commanded huge fleets of Chinese junks in their seven journeys to Xi Yang, or the Western Seas what we now know as the Indian Ocean to explore the great region stretching to Africa. Some historians, including Gavin Menzies, a retired British Royal Navy officer, believe Zheng's fleets even sailed to the Americas.

Despite Zheng's achievements, official Ming historic annals devoted only 30 characters to Zheng's family background.

And the first inkling about who Zheng's father was, emerged in the early part of the last century when a tomb he had built for his father, Ma Hazhi, in Kunyang County no more than 30 kilometres south of Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan was discovered.

On the tombstone, Zheng had had inscribed a brief history of his own family. His father, whose original name was Milijin, was a descendent of a Mongolian prince of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). A devote Muslim, he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and thus earned the title of Hazhi. Thereafter, Zheng's father took the name of Ma Hazhi.

Zheng was born in Kunyang three years after the Ming Dynasty took over the rule of the country from the Mongol empire and given the name Ma He.

Six centuries ago, Kunyang served as the largest fishing and transportation port on the southwest bank of the Dianchi Lake, which then had a circumference of 250 kilometres. The port handled half of the lake's transported goods.

Growing up by the lake and the port, young Ma He learned to swim and sail at an early age.

When he was 12, the Ming army swept into Yunnan to eradicate the last vestiges of Mongol resistance. He was castrated along with all the other pre-pubescent boys they rounded up. The fates, however, had an extraordinary destiny in store for Ma He.

He was assigned to serve Zhu Di, who later went on to become emperor, and who gave him the name Zheng He.

Zheng's bravery and intelligence won the trust of Zhu Di, who promoted him to the ranks of imperial officialdom.

After he completed his third ocean-going voyage (1409-1411), Zheng He returned to his birthplace Kunyang as a hero and a high-ranking court official. He not only had tomb built for his father, but also adopted a son of his elder brother a common practice among eunuchs and so began the record of his family genealogy, on what later historians have confirmed to be the special paper used only in the Ming imperial palace.

Its first page, as people can discern from the replica, is a printed painting of the local Yue (Moon) Mountain, the tomb inscription for Zheng He's father, details of his navigations and his contribution to the building of a mosque in Nanjing.

To commemorate the 600-year anniversary of the first ocean-going voyage of Zheng He, several books are rolling off the presses of local publishing houses here.


Zheng's adopted son had two sons, one of whom remained in Yunnan, while the other migrated to Nanjing.

Through the more than 400 years or so through down to the late 19th century, the descendents maintained a record of their family tree.

As the Zheng family in Yunnan gradually declined, the book of genealogy ended up stored among the pass-me-down books in the family's old house.

Zheng Yunliang, 62, and an 18th generation descendant, told the Yunnan Daily newspaper a story passed down to him about a provincial civil affairs official called Li Hongxiang in the 1930s who was rewriting local history at that time, and heard that a Zheng family genealogical record existed.

Zheng Yunliang, a former military man, worked with a major iron and steel company in Kunming before retirement.

According to him, Li Hongxiang had conducted research far and wide and visited the homes of Zheng family members in 1936. With their help, he tracked down the hand-written family genealogy, which he later took to Kunming to be authenticated by a local historian named Yuan Jiagu and his student, later a professor of history, Li Shihou (1909-1985).

In 1937, Li Shihou had the hand-written document photographed, before arranging for its return to the Zheng family.

In the turbulent decades which followed, the original was lost. But Li Shihou kept a full set of developed prints, even though the original films and related materials were destroyed during a wartime Japanese air raid on Kunming.

Li Shihou, who after 1949 worked as an historian with the provincial records office, later made more than 200 copies of books from the prints.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), when many things associated with old China, in particular the imperial dynasties, were sought out and destroyed, Li Shihou, turned over most of the paintings and ancient books he had kept as personal artefacts, including most of the copies of the Zheng family genealogy.

But despite the risks involved, he secretly kept back dozens of copies and the prints, which he wrapped in plastic and hid in a pile of ashes.

Once the idealogical despotism of the period subsided and China opened up to the outside world again, Li was able to retrieve the historic gems. In 1982, Zheng Yunliang visited him and obtained a copy of his family history.

In 1983, Zheng Yunliang, Li Shihou and another Zheng descendant from Nanjing, joined a national forum for the study of Zheng He's historic voyages.

Li displayed the original photographic record of Zheng He's family genealogy. After authenticating it, historians worked together to fill in some of the faded blanks, restoring some missing pieces to an extraordinary document.

 Source: Xinhua