In 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002), Gavin Menzies aspires to rewrite world history on a grand scale. He maintains that four Chinese fleets, comprising twenty-five to thirty ships and at least 7,000 persons each, visited every part of the world except Europe between 1421 and 1423. Trained by Zheng He, the famous eunuch-admiral, Chinese captains carried out the orders of Zhu Di (r. 1402-1424), the third Ming emperor, to map coastlines, settle new territories, and establish a global maritime empire. According to Menzies, proof of the passage of the Ming fleets to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Polynesia is overwhelming and indisputable. His "index of supporting evidence" (pp. 429-462) includes thousands of items from the fields of archaeology, cartography, astronomy, and anthropology; his footnotes and bibliography include publications in Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, Arabic, and Hebrew.Read the whole thing, if you have access to a print or electronic version of the journal. It'll be well worth your trouble.
Menzies claims that Chinese mariners explored the islands of Cape Verde, the Azores, the Bahamas, and the Falklands; they established colonies in Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, California, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island; they introduced horses to the Americas, rice to California, chickens to South America, coffee to Puerto Rico, South American sloths to Australia, sea otters to New Zealand, and maize to the Philippines. In addition, Chinese seamen toured the temples and palaces of the Maya center of Palenque in Mexico, hunted walruses and smelted copper in Greenland, mined for lead and saltpeter in northern Australia, and established trading posts or diamonds along the Amazon and its tributaries....
The good news conveyed by 1421 is that there are big bucks in world history: Menzies received an advance of £500,000 ($825,000) from his British publisher, whose initial printing runs to 100,000 copies. The bad news is that reaping such largesse evidently requires producing a book as outrageous as 1421. Menzies flouts the basic rules of both historical study and elementary logic. He misrepresents the scholarship of others, and he frequently fails to cite those from whom he borrows. He misconstrues Chinese imperial policy, especially as seen in the expeditions of Zheng He, and his extensive discussion of Western cartography reads like a parody of scholarship. His allegations regarding Nicolò di Conti (c. 1385-1469), the only figure in 1421 who links the Ming voyages with European events, are the stuff of historical fiction, the product of an obstinate misrepresentation of sources. The author's misunderstanding of the technology of Zheng He's ships impels him to depict voyages no captain would attempt and no mariner could survive, including a 4,000-mile excursion along the Arctic circle and circumnavigation of the Pacific after having already sailed more than 42,000 miles from China to West Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines (pp. 199-209, 311).
Portraying himself as an innocent abroad, forthrightly seeking truths the academic establishment has disregarded or suppressed, Menzies in fact is less an "unlettered Ishmael" than a Captain Ahab, gripped by a mania to bend everything to his purposes. His White Whale is Eurocentric historiography, which celebrates Columbus (a thief and fraud, pp. 382-383) and Vasco da Gama (a terrorist, p. 406) without realizing they merely aped the epic deeds of the Chinese. More generally, Menzies, in an unacknowledged echo of Joseph Needham, laments that China did not become "mistress of the world," with Confucian harmony and Buddhist benevolence uniting humankind. Instead, the cruel, barbaric West, secretly and fraudulently capitalizing on Chinese achievements, imposed its dominion around the globe (pp. 405-406).
The wounded leviathan of Eurocentricism no doubt deserves another harpoon, but 1421 is too leaky a vessel to deliver it. Examination of the book's central claims reveals they are uniformly without substance: first, that the 1421-1423 voyages Menzies describes could not have taken place; second, that Conti played no role in transmitting knowledge of Chinese exploration to European cartographers; and third, that all Menzies's evidence for the presence of the Chinese fleets abroad is baseless.
24 July 2004
Finlay's Wry Review of Menzies
It's easy enough to poke fun at academics, but every once in a while an academic will strike back in a style that is both academically appropriate and wonderfully entertaining for educated lay audiences to read. A mighty fine specimen of this genre is the review article by Carter Finlay entitled "How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America" (Journal of World History 15:229-242).