Book Review1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies, William Morrow/HarperCollins, New York, 2003; 552 pages, ISBN 0060537639, hardcover, $27.95. [An expanded paperback edition will soon be available.]
Ancient maps and charts, first-hand accounts of voyages of discovery, sunken ships, inscribed markers and relics -- these are among the data used to argue that the Chinese explored and mapped most of the world before Europeans set sail. A retired commander in the Royal Navy, Mr. Menzies' passion is old maps and charts, and anomalies he found in pre-Columbian European maps sparked his research.
Written like a detective story, the book attempts to reconstruct the voyage undertaken between 1421 and 1423 by an immense Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He, with capital treasure ships 480 feet long and 180 feet wide. His mission in part was to travel to "the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas" (p. 75) and bring them into the Chinese tribute system, and to prospect for minerals, search for useful plants, take astronomical observations, make accurate maps, and determine a way to navigate in the southern hemisphere. 1421 sets out the evidence for the author's reconstruction of the course of this sixth and last great voyage.
How could such a momentous event have been forgotten? Over several centuries the Chinese had built up a large military and trading fleet, and by 1400 were the dominant economic, political, scientific, and maritime power in the lands around the Indian Ocean. Emperor Zhu Di, on taking power in 1402, began a series of formidable projects. He moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, enlarged the Grand Canal to the new capital, built the Forbidden City, repaired the Great Wall, founded a foreign language academy, summoned 2,180 scholars to compile a 4,000-volume encyclopedia to preserve all known literature and knowledge, and initiated a tremendous increase in shipbuilding so as to recreate a trading empire on par with that of the Tang dynasty 500 years before.
On Chinese New Year in 1421 his new capital was inaugurated with international pomp, including envoys from 28 nations and the son and grandson of Tamerlane. But within two years Zhu Di had died a broken man, the country reeling under the economic and social cost of his ambitious programs. Led by the mandarins, his son and grandson repudiated and reversed his policies, and China entered a period of isolationism and xenophobia lasting for centuries. Overseas trade and travel were banned, at one point learning a foreign language or teaching foreigners Chinese was prohibited, and in 1644 all records of the voyages of Zheng He were burnt by the Minister of War as "deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people's eyes and ears." As Mr. Menzies says, their memory was "expunged so completely over the succeeding decades that they might never have existed" (pp. 55, 56). The one remaining monument to Zheng He, a carved stone overlooking the Yangtze estuary, states:
The emperor . . . has ordered us and others at the head of several tens of thousands of officers and imperial troops to journey in more than a hundred ships . . . to treat distant people with kindness . . . We have gone to the western regions . . . altogether more than three thousand countries large and small. We have traversed more than a hundred thousand li [forty thousand nautical miles] of immense water spaces. -- p. 400Most of the book details evidence and arguments for pre-Columbian Chinese exploration of North and South America, Australia, the Pacific, West Africa, and the area around Greenland, Iceland, and northern Siberia, the author concentrating on the voyages of 1421. Several 15th- and 16th-century European maps, shown in beautiful color reproductions, depict lands not yet "discovered" by Europeans. The 1428 world map, as well as subsequent maps held mainly by the Portuguese, also showed the world's major rivers long before the first European set sail. Of particular interest are accounts of the European explorers which mention their use of these maps.
The chronicler on the first European voyage around the tip of Africa in 1482 remarked: "This is the Cape drawn on Fra Mauro's planisphere of 1459" (p. 436). When Magellan's men threatened mutiny on entering the straits that now bear his name, his chronicler reports that "The Captain General said there was another Strait which led out [to the Pacific] saying he knew it well and had seen it in a marine chart of the King of Portugal," and states further that he later showed this chart to a Pacific ruler (pp. 436-7). In the 1770s James Cook also had access to some of these maps, one from the Admiralty. After his ship was damaged on a reef off Australia, as the first European in those waters he sailed straight to the only port in 1,000 miles of coastline, and wrote: "This harbour will do excellently for our purposes although it is not as large as I had been told" (p. 437). When on his return he claimed "to have discovered Australia, the head of the Map Department at the British Admiralty, Captain Dalrymple, wrote a furious protest" (p. 388). Thus the first Europeans not only knew they were not discovering "new" lands, but they had sailed there precisely because accurate maps already in their possession showed the routes and destinations.
Mr. Menzies brings out evidence for longstanding contact among various continents, concentrating on the Chinese component. American turkeys had reached Turkey on the Silk Road before 1492, the chickens found in Central and South America hail from Asia, the first Europeans to arrive in Peru found horses, and at least forty pre-Columbian drawings of horses have been found in central North America. The first Europeans also found
Chinese voyages of 1421-1423 as reconstructed by Mr. Menzies
fields of rice -- a crop foreign to the Americas -- in Mexico and Brazil; cotton with chromosomes common to West Africa grew in the Revillegado Islands; and coconuts brought from the South Pacific grew in Puerto Rico and right across the Isthmus of Darien to the Pacific coast, sugar cane in plantations besides the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, and bananas beside tributaries of the Amazon, where there were also Chinese root crops. Tobacco, sweet potatoes and maize from the same area were exported to south-east Asia and the Pacific. All of these animals and plants confirm that there were seaborne voyages to and from the Americas prior to Columbus. -- pp. 412-13Chinese presence in the Americas is old news to many scholars, for there are "more than a thousand books providing overwhelming evidence of pre-Columbian Chinese journeys to the Americas." But as an expert in the field, George F. Carter, has remarked, "Sinologists and Asiatic art historians are normally struck by the overwhelming, all-pervasive evidence of Chinese influence in Amerindian civilization. Seemingly the Americanists are not aware of the Chinese literature suggesting not only discovery but colonization of America" (p. 232). Indeed, as Mr. Menzies states, "A mountain of evidence -- wrecks, blood groups, architecture, painting, customs, linguistics, clothes, technology, artifacts, dye-stuffs, plants and animals transferred between China and South America -- points to a pervasive Chinese influence the length of the Pacific coast of Central and South America, and inland" (p. 226).
1421 brings facts and anomalies to popular attention in an engaging and absorbing way. It adds to the evidence of such researchers as Thor Hyerdahl, Barry Fell (who in America B.C. and subsequent research detailed evidence of Celtic, Phoenician, and ancient Egyptian presence in North America), and those presenting evidence of an ancient African presence in the Caribbean.
Mainstream American and European scholarship unfortunately still holds tenaciously to enthnocentric ideas -- for example, that no culture could cross the oceans to colonize and trade if Europeans could not -- and to theories established long before current evidence was available. Evidence continues to accumulate rapidly in this field, however, and we can look forward to exciting and perhaps unexpected developments. -- Sarah Belle Dougherty
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)
* Zheng He was a muslim. And The Malay Peninsular was known as Semenanjung Melaka (it was big)