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Ma Huan

Ma Huan Chinese traveller, was one of the four officials who accompanied Zheng He (Cheng Ho) during his seven voyages into the Indian Ocean (the Chinese called 'Western Ocean') between AD 1405 and 1433. He was a well known figure both in China and elsewhere. Two of his companions wrote travelogues which are known in English translation as The Overall Survey of the Star Raft (1436) by Fei Xin (fei hsin), and Records of Foreign Countries in the Western Ocean (1434) by Gong Zhen (Kung Chen). The latter work is almost identical with Ma Huan's account. The fourth official, Guo Chongli collaborated with Ma Huan in writing their travelogue The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores or The Captivating Views of the Ocean's Shores (1433).

Ma Huan's courtesy title was Zongdao; he was from Guiji, a township of Shaoxing district in Zhejiang, a coastal province. Both Ma and Guo were Muslim. Ma, a common Chinese surname, is also used for Muhammad, but whether Guo is similar to a Muslim surname is not known. Another Chinese Muslim surname 'PU' stands for Abu, Abul, or Abdul.

Zheng He, also a Muslim and generally known as Admiral Zheng He, came from Central Yunnan in South China and had the family name Ma (full name Ma He). Admiral He commanded the huge Chinese fleet that scoured the entire Indian Ocean on seven occasions. Both his grandfather and father, perhaps of Mongol or Arab origin, had performed Hajj. Captured by the Ming army during its campaign against the ruler of Yunnan, he was castrated and assigned to the eunuch service under the third ruler of the Ming dynasty, Yongle. This emperor changed Ma He's surname to Zheng because his (the emperor's) mother also bore the surname Ma, and a commoner was not to have a royal surname.

Zheng earned the confidence of Emperor Yongle, and when the emperor wanted to establish contacts with foreign countries, he selected this trusted aide. Zheng He distinguished himself in many military campaigns. It had also been the custom for the Chinese emperors to entrust all foreign assignments to eunuchs, as they were free from family burdens and other worldly liabilities, and their loyalty was considered to be unquestionable.

Ma Huan does not give any idea about his age, but it is presumed that he was born around 1380 and died after 1451 after his book had been published. He must have received a good education, for his literary expressions bear testimony to his acquaintance with Chinese classics and Buddhist works. He was able to compose poems, although in a simple style. In his youth he learned Persian and/or Arabic, perhaps from a scholar and he thus became a proficient interpreter.

In 1413 he accompanied Zheng He, along with the other interpreter Guo Chongli, on the fourth voyage of 1413-15 which took the fleet for the first time to Hormuz. After that, he went on the voyage during 1421-23 and on the last voyage in 1431-33 when he journeyed to Makka with the mission for the first and last time. During these three voayges the Chinese missions came to Bengal and Ma Huan acquired first hand knowledge about the country. Back in 1416, he had prepared the first draft of his work along with a foreword. This work, titled Yingyai Shenglan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores), was given its final form about 1434-6. His colleague Guo Chongli could print the book only in 1451, as the foreword of that year by the imperial clerk Gu Po testifies.

Of the travelogues by the three officials who went on the voyages Ma Huan's is the most detailed. That is why all later works including the official History of the Ming Dynasty depend heavily on Ma Huan's work for information on foreign countries. His knowledge of Persian (and probably also Arabic), and keen sense of inquiry enriched his descriptions of the countries he visited. As a result, in addition to the topography, travel routes and distances in his account of Bangla (Bang-ge-la), he gives such minute details as the calendar, textiles and woollen products, varieties of wine, crops, marriages and funerals, language, dress and ornaments, currency, merchandise, silk and silk cocoons, dancers and tiger-fighters, and so on. One suspects that during his stay in Bengal he picked up Bangla as well.

Ma Huan appears to be a simple-minded person who loathed violence; he was aghast at the frequency of judicial killings in Java. In his account one can see a travel-writer who had cultivated a spirit of inquiry for novelty. So, in addition to more important matters like distances, travel routes, products, political condition of a foreign country, etc, he also includes folklore and stories such as that of Moses and the Golden Calf at Calicut, as well as descriptions of unusual objects (for a Chinese), viz, jackfruit, rhinoceros, zebra, giraffe, etc. In general, Ma Huan seems to have formed his judgements fairly and without prejudice.

During a century and a half, spread over the early 14th and mid-15th centuries, there were six travellers who wrote considerable accounts- ibn batuta (1326-49), Wang Dayuan (c 1330-50), Fei Xin (1409-33), Ma Huan, Gong Zhen (1413-33) and nicolo de conti (1420-44), leaving out writers like Abdur Razzaq, Nikitin and others. Of these six, four were Chinese travellers, and on the whole, Ma Huan is the best of our Chinese informants. Of the twenty countries described by Ma Huan, Ibn Batuta describes only ten; Fei Xin gives a description of eighteen countries, but his accounts are much shorter, and those of Conti must be considered very poor except in regard to Vijayanagar, a country Ma Huan did not visit. Ma Huan's accounts are superior to those of Ibn Batuta except as regards Sri Lanka, Quilon (Kollam) and the Maldives, better than Fei Xin except as regards Champa and Quilon, and superior to Conti except as regards Quilon. Ma Huan's notes display remarkable richness. [Haraprasad Ray]

See also chinese accounts, medieval.