Zheng He’s journeys matched the risks taken by the boldest entrepreneurs—and the payoff set a high bar for six centuries of risk takers to follow.

Zheng He (born around 1371, died 1433), a Muslim from southwestern China’s Yunnan province, was captured by the Emperor’s troops as a boy and pressed into Prince Zhu Di’s corps of eunuch servants in the 14th Century. When the Prince became Emperor, he charged Zheng He with building a trading fleet to make China an imperial economic power. The servant-turned-admiral built the vaunted ‘Treasure Fleets’, comprising dozens of ships and tens of thousands of sailors, and led them in trade missions across south Asia and as far west as Africa and the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. In seven voyages from 1405 to 1433, Zheng He spread China’s goods across the world and returned with treasures for the Ming Dynasty. Along the way, Zheng He battled pirates and established trading centres in cities like Calicut, India, during a brief era of Chinese naval dominance.