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1421: The Year China Discovered America – Gavin Menzies

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History is a fuzzy subject.

The one real, inescapable truth that comes out of any serious assessment of history is, realistically, how little you actually know about the in’s and outs of events, societies and people.

When you dig through dusty, moldy and sometimes starkly biased historical documentation or try to comprehend the social intricacies of an era by perusing a handful of broken pot shards, post holes and chipped foundation stones, you are, in essence, piecing together a barely legible puzzle, with incomplete pieces and an uncertain understanding of just what the hell a puzzle actually is…

I preface this review with the above remarks because I am very aware of how damnedly difficult history and archaeology can be as a subject and in Gavin Menzies’ book 1421, I’m sorry to note the author has overreached his subject. He has shot for the moon, and fallen sadly well-short.

1421 outlines Menzies’ theories regarding the exploits of Emperor Zhu Di’s famous five Admirals (Zheng He, Yang Qing, Zhou Man, Hong Bao and Zhou Wen) who, under Imperial command, set sail in five massive fleets of sea-going junks in 1421 to “proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas”. Menzies attempts to trace the routes of the five fleets, drawing on what little written historical record exists (the fleet records were destroyed by Zhu Di’s somewhat xenophobic successor), a number of early maps and charts, and a huge pile of unfortunately highly subjective and circumstantial evidence.

Menzies traces the five fleets literally around the globe, touching on literally every continent and region including North, Central and South America (both east and west coasts), the Caribbean, Africa (which, actually does have evidence of Chinese contact on the east coast at any rate as the region was well-travelled by Arab voyagers who, among other destinations, regularly plied their trade with China), Russia, Greenland, Australia, and Antarctica.

While some of the work that Menzies assembles crys out for a more scholarly and searching examination (namely his persistant claims to have uncovered evidence on a number of charts for Chinese contact with Australia and the U.S.’s west coast, and his evidence that the Chinese had developed significant navigational advances well in advance of Europe) the majority of his assumptions are built on a succession of loose guesses and highly circumstantial and subjective evidence. Indeed, towards the end of the book (when a Chinese fleet has landed almost everywhere it is possible to discover except for Europe), Menzies seems almost frantic to buttress his arguments. In Menzies’ hands, the fall of every sparrow is attributable to the five fleets.

Despite the highly questionable conclusions, 1421 does offer several highly commendable points – it brings to light an era of Chinese history and discovery that hitherto has been sadly under-examined by historians and raises a number of questions regarding the reach of the intrepid voyage of the Five Fleets. The author’s passion and excitement for his subject is clearly evident in his writing and although it overreaches, it’s nice to see someone shooting for the moon once in a while…

Incidentally, the book was titled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World everywhere except in the United States where, as shown above, it was entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America. I know that U.S. publishers routinely tweak titles to make them more applicable and appealing to U.S. markets but puh-leeze…Doesn’t it seem a trifle ridiculous and condescending to think that we would only care to read it if it was about us? Next thing you know they’ll be changing the titles of the Harry Potter books because people don’t know what a Philosopher’s Stone is….oh…wait a minute….they did change that one too. Oh. Sorry.

For more on 1421, check out the author’s website (it includes still more evidence not included in the book).

Find out more about the famous Piri Reis Map (cited in the book several times) here, here and here. You can also find the Kandigo map, and the Pizzigano Chart from the James Ford Bell Library (which has some excellent additional materials well worth a look (such as this)).

Always wanted to learn more about Chinese history? (Try here as well). or you could just watch this….it’s not history, but it’s damn fine cinema.

Stop by BookLinker today for more reviews! Some links would also be appreciated! Thanks for reading!

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About Deano

  • http://www.art8848.net/blog.html Chinaboy

    Good article, I am fan into China art stuff

  • xiaolil

    I only wonder– why is everyone so hell-bent on not giving the Chinese credit? It seems like more energy is being given to disproving and arguing with some of the points; what if we all entertained notions a little more objectively and without this continued bias concerning the Great White Europeans? You know, Rome *did* fall…

  • http://elfrederick.blogspot.com E L Frederick

    Well the vikings found North America before the Chinese did.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Sounds like a great subject for a fictionalization of some kind, along the lines of a made-for-TV or mini-series.

    Oh well, so much for serious history…

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Deano

    As I mentioned in the post, it is fabulous that Menzies is actually looking at this period and outlning some of the discoveries that have come out of the Chinese voyages, the problem is that much of the case he is attempting to build is built on flimsy conjecture rather than hard evidence, Dead White Europeans aside…

    Build a solid case based on documentation, archaeology and evidence that demonstrates some of the multiple Chinese landings around the world and I’ll be pleased as punch, but don’t feed me supposition, conjecture and wishful thinking and claim it as proof.

  • http://shorno.net sonia

    well its certainly true that presenting anything as historical fact is always going to be flawed in some way or the other. still i find the reaction to this particular thesis tainted with a lot of ‘nah that couldn’t be..’ just cos.

    ah but they discovered tea so why not america!

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    To me it’s beyond question that China’s fleets could have discovered America. As to whether or not they actually did, I’m as skeptical as anyone, but China in 1421 had all the resources needed to create a world-spanning empire that would have dominated human history for many centuries afterward. Instead, it was Europeans who did this.

    To me that raises the most interesting question. What factors led European societies to dominate the world for centuries? Why did China, arguably the most powerful state in the world at that time, make vital mistakes that left it centuries behind the rest of the world? Jared Diamond has one answer, which he defends quite well in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Others have different answers.

    Some would argue the United States is making a mistake similar to China’s mistake of the 1400s. Americ’a mistake began when our program of vigorous exploration ended after putting men on the moon before the Soviets. Unless we revive that spirit of exploration, they argue, the future will belong to others, and America will become a footnote in history books. This motivates the work of Robert Zubrin and many others.

  • jason

    for more infomation on the work of gavin menzies see ABC Four Corners report Jun History 1421exposed.com