Chinese Columbus: Fact or Fiction?

  By Poirot
  Category: East Asia: China
Chinese Fleet
Chinese Fleet
A crowd of whale-like vessels, each with tall columns of earthly red sails and complex compartments that lodge hundreds of men, floats calmly on the ocean waves, defying the swelling tides that would have swallowed up lesser creatures.  A large, broad faced mariner, dressed in a sliver dragon robe and wrapped in a black cloak, stands firmly atop the nearest ship, his eyes gazing at the seagulls disappearing on the horizon.

The mariner’s name is Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim admiral who navigated the Indian Ocean almost a century before Vasco de Gama.  The vignette above belonged to one of many promotional posters at the Singapore Tourism Board’s 600th anniversary celebration of Zheng He’s voyages.

As a part of the 600th anniversary celebration, the Singapore Tourism Board invited Gavin Menzies, author of the New York Times bestseller 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, to open an exhibition and hold discussions about his book.  In his controversial book, Menzies claims that, prior to Columbus and Magellan, Zheng He’s men already circumnavigated the globe, discovered America, and set up colonies in areas such as Australia, the Caribbean Sea, and Massachusetts.   Menzies’ theory ignited an ongoing debate about Zheng He, a figure who, until recently, has been relatively unknown outside of East Asia.  

A powerful eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty in China, Zheng He led seven voyages to the Indian Ocean starting from 1405 at the request of Emperor Yongle, on the pretext of finding the emperor’s nephew, a rival to the throne rumored to have escaped to sea.   Zheng He’s expeditions also aimed to expand the Ming Empire’s influence overseas and establish an alternative trade route in place of the Silk Road, which fell under the control of Tamerlane.  Commanding a fleet amounting to as much as 28,000 men and 300 ships, a size unrivalled until World War I, the admiral exacted tribute from local rulers along the Southern Pacific coast and the Indian Ocean.  Zheng He brought exotic gifts like giraffes back to the imperial court, and erected monuments in places as far as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, East Timor, and Madagascar.

Yet, despite seven ambitious expeditions, Zheng He failed to leave a lasting mark in the history of maritime exploration.  The voyages emptied imperial coffers, and as a result, brought forth complaints from influential court officials.  After the death of Emperor Yongle, the succeeding emperors discontinued the expeditions, and forbade overseas trade.  Years later, court officials even burnt documents of the voyages and destroyed the gigantic junks that once ruled the seas.  By the time Portuguese ships roamed the Indian Ocean, remnants of Zheng He’s magnificent fleet had all but vanished completely.  

Gavin Menzies, however, disagrees, claiming that the story of Zheng He’s seven voyages did not simply end with inconsequential stints on the Indian Ocean.  A former submarine commander of the British Royal Navy and an amateur historian, Menzies spent years retracing historical maritime routes and gathering evidence that Zheng He’s men journeyed beyond the Indian Ocean.  Menzies attempts to rewrite history, citing a variety sources, including wrecked junks along the North American coast, the Fra Mauro map of 1459, verbal accounts of rice plantations on the Amazon, Chinese drawings of armadillos dating to 1430, and linguistic similarities between the Chinese and natives of Peru.  The author asserts that between the years 1421 and 1423, smaller fleets commanded by four of Zheng He’s lieutenants sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope and circumnavigated the globe, setting up small colonies along the way.  If Menzies’ claims are true, then all existing history textbooks may need significant revisions.

Menzies’ revision of history has met severe criticism, especially among scholars and historians.  Some, like Geoff Wade of the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, dismiss Menzies as a dangerous charlatan.  Wade points out that most of Menzies’ sources are either twisted interpretations of existing records or skillful fabrications, designed to fool the public.  Wade also asserts that 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is a work of pure fiction, used by publishers as a marketing tool, and strongly opposed the Singapore Tourism Board’s invitation of Menzies to its 600th anniversary celebration of Zheng He’s voyages.  In Wade’s words, “Singapore’s citizens and its visitors deserve better than this.”

Other scholars, like T.H. Barrett from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, discredit Menzies as a born optimist.  Although Professor Barrett acknowledges that early 15th century China had the nautical technology to circumnavigate the world, he finds Menzies’ theory unsubstantial.  Barrett criticizes Menzies’ research methodology, pointing out that while writing 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, Menzies dismissed any evidence that may disprove his hypothesis, and relied heavily on English translations of Chinese sources rather than the original texts.  More importantly, Barrett believes Menzies has missed the big picture – that, occupied with Mongol invasions and Vietnamese rebellions, China in the early Ming Dynasty did not have the immediate incentive or the economic resources to finance multiple overseas colonies.  Barrett notes that, by neglecting logic and correct research methods, Menzies “has ended up cast away upon the desolate shores of Alternative History.”

Despite the academic community’s cold reception, Gavin Menzies adheres strongly to his claims, and continues to compile sources supporting his revision of history.  He has organized a team of researchers that examine and filter hundreds of “evidence” gathered via his website,  Since its founding three years ago, Menzies’ website now boosts 13,000 subscribers and 300 experts who contribute to the database.

Menzies’ theory found more support last month, when Liu Gang, a prominent Shanghai lawyer and map collector, announced that he owned a map tracing back to 1418 that contains details of the New World.  The map, which Liu claims to be drawn in 1763 by Mo Yi Tong, has an inscription on one corner saying it imitates another map made in 1418.  Despite noticeable errors in cartography, Liu’s map outlines Europe, Africa, and the Americas with relative precision.   Liu told reporters that he only realized the map’s significance after reading Menzies’ book, and showing his map to five map experts, who all believed that it is genuine.  The map is currently being dated by mass spectrography at Waikato University in New Zealand, and results will come out in February.

To support Menzies’ theory, Liu points out that descriptions on the 1763 map outlined by red rectangles indicate areas Mo Yi Tong copied from the 1418 map.  The description next to South America reads: “The cities here were built with huge stones, therefore called stone cities.”  The rectangle close to Alaska reads: “The people living in this area are similar to Qidan and Mongols, who feed on fish.”  The note next to western America reads: “The skin of the race in this area is black-red, and feather s are wrapped around their heads and waists.”  Liu believes the notes refer to the early Inca Empire, Eskimos, and Native Americans, respectively.

Liu’s map has added fuel to the ongoing controversy over the extent of Zheng He’s voyages.  Although the map does not exactly imply that Zheng He’s men circumnavigated the globe between 1421 and 1423, Menzies fervently supports its authenticity.  On the other hand, many scholars, including Geoff Wade, see the map as a fake.  Wade points out that the descriptions of Europe on the map contain the term “shang di,” a Chinese word for God invented in the 16th century by Jesuits.  Other scholars note that the map seems a bit too modern, employing a projection style not known to China during the 15th century.  More critics contend that even if results of mass spectrography do trace the map back to 1763, Mo Yi Tong could have simply copied every detail from an 18th century European map.

Surprisingly, the harshest critics of both Liu’s map and Menzies’ theory come from China herself.  Much of the Chinese academic community greeted 1421: The Year China Discovered the World with fierce objections.  For example, China’s Zheng He Association dismisses Menzies’ work as absolute nonsense.  Others, like archaeologist Lin Meicun from Peking University, even see the book as science fiction, not historical speculation.

History or mere speculation, the debate over Zheng He’s expeditions will continue to escalate.  More controversial evidence supporting Menzies’ theory will suddenly be “discovered” by amateurs around the world.  More historians will then stand up to challenge the new evidence.

Despite the ongoing disagreement, both scholars and amateurs must work together to keep the topic strictly within academic confines.  The world has seen its share of academic speculations twisted into mass nationalistic propaganda.  It would be unfortunate to see Zheng He’s history become another.  At a time when China is rising as a global power, such propaganda can mislead the nation and cause irreparable damage to the international community.

Gavin Menzies may never fully convince the international community that Zheng He’s men accomplished the feats of Columbus, Magellan, de Gama, and Cook in merely two years.  Nevertheless, he has already done Zheng He a great service, rescuing the admiral from centuries of obscurity.  As a response to Menzies’ book, PBS, BBC, and National Geographic have all produced extensive reports on Zheng He’s expeditions and explored their significance in the history of maritime exploration.  Life Magazine even named the admiral the 14th most influential figure of the second millennium.

Zheng He died during his seventh voyage, and was buried at sea.  For nearly six centuries, his legacy was buried with him.  Now, on the 600th anniversary of his voyages, the spirit of this ancient mariner has finally returned from its long exile.