A Mongolian Muslim who was castrated as a boy became one of the most intrepid explorers in history.
As China prepares to celebrate the 600th anniversary of his first voyage, Clifford Coonan in Beijing tells the extraordinary story of Admiral Zheng He Standing seven feet tall, Admiral Zheng He towered over his crew at the prow of his legendary treasure ship.
The rehabilitation of Zheng He's reputation began in the early part of the last century, and by the 1930s he worked his way into school textbooks as a national hero.
The country has been gripped with Zheng He fever since the 600th anniversary of the first of his fantastic voyages.
The boat will also travel to countries along the ancient Maritime Silk Route explored by early Chinese sailors, its builders said.
A problem with building replicas of the treasure ship and other vessels in Zheng He's fleet is that no one really knows what the ships looked like.
"Unlike many latter-day European counterparts, which sailed across the great oceans to conquer other nations by force, the Chinese fleet brought to those foreign lands tea, chinaware, silk and craftsmanship.
They gave the rest of the world peace and civilisation and never occupied any foreign land, an achievement symbolising the ancient kingdom's sincerity to increase exchanges with other nations," ran an editorial in the state-run China Daily last month.
As the Singapore-based historian Geoff Wade has pointed out, the Ming dynasty was involved in numerous expansionary campaigns, including the invasion of Vietnam and dispatching fleets around south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean to implement a "pax Ming" across the seas of the region.The sailors were helped by technological advances such as the compass, or "south pointing spoon", fore and aft sails, and airtight compartments in the hull.Boat-builders in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province in eastern China, have just completed a replica of one of the ships in the fleet, 200ft long and 46 ft wide.The next step for the boat builders working at the Nanjing Treasure Boat Heritage Park is to embark on their most ambitious project to date - a replica of the treasure ship itself.Work begins this month and should be completed in 2008, when the replica boat is expected to sail as an "image envoy" in the aquatic events in the 2008 Olympic Games.