We have been taught the European history of brave explorations. Columbus followed an Italian map and, braving the knowledge of a flat world, sailed to the New World in 1492. Recently it was found that the Vikings had colonized Greenland and the New World when it was much newer.
Bartholomew Diaz sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 and Magellan went around the world with a fleet in 1519. His feat is immortalized in the Straits of Magellan that have been so named for nearly 500 years. Grammar school stuff. First or second grade, wasn’t it, that we had to learn of the feat of Columbus near Columbus Day and memorize the date.
In March, 2003 however, Gavin Menzies published his book, 1421: The Year China Discovered The World. Menzies based some of his theory on the copy (1783) of a map originally made in 1418 which shows a the globe based on Admiral Zheng He’s voyages in the early 1400s (1405-1435) and which were described in a book, The Marvelous Visions of the Star Raft by Fei Xin, a Chinese official who accompanied the Admiral on his voyages.
Liu Gang, a wealthy collector of ancient maps and manuscripts in China, bought the 18th century copy of the 1418 map and has helped to spur Menzies’ research into the travels of the Chinese explorer. From his article about the 1418 map found on the increasingly popular website, 1421, Liu writes:
Born in a family of humble scholars in the Kunshan district of Suzhou prefecture of China, Fei Xin joined military service and was chosen to accompany Zheng He during four voyages to the Western Oceans (the Chinese historians believe that they should be referred to the Pacific and Indian Oceans), which respectively made during the period of 1409-1411, 1412-1414, 1416-1418 and 1431-1433. After his return from the fourth voyage he started to write a book describing the various peoples and local customs he saw in the barbarian countries or learned from others. His writing was completed in 1436 and title of the work was “The Marvelous Visions of the Star Raft” (“Xingcha Shenglan” in Chinese). The description in the book about the court of Bangla (Bengal) is an important source to reconstruct the history of medieval Bengal.
Liu’s introductory description to the map begins:
In the spring of 2001, I purchased an original old world map in Chinese, which is finely illustrated on a bamboo paper (59.6cm x 41.7cm) with ink and colors. In the upper right-hand corner of the map, there are six Chinese characters, which means “general chart of the integrated world”. The statement written by the mapmaker on the lower-left corner of the map says that “(this chart is) drawn by Mo Yi Tong, a subject (of Qing Dynasty) in mid-autumn of the year of Qianlong Gui Wei (1763) by imitating a world chart made in the sixteenth year of Ming Yongle (1418) showing the barbarians paying tribute (to Ming Dynasty)”. A plat of Chinese compass is also drawn in the upper middle of the map. In addition to the said Chinese characters and illustration, there is an important note written on the upper left-hand corner saying, “The descriptions without red circle are not the notes of the original chart (i.e. 1418 general chart of the integrated world)”. Such note means that the descriptions with red circle are the original notes on the world chart drawn in 1418 showing the barbarians paying tribute
Liu lists the notes marked with red circles on the map which describe facts of the world that show the Chinese had visited many points of the globe including the New World. These are:
The note on the region of Alaska says, “The people living in this area are similar to Qidan and Mongols, who feed on fish.” It is clear that the note talks about Eskimo.
The note on western America states, “The skin of the race in this area is black-red, and the feathers are wrapped around their heads and waists. They are anthropophagous people.” This note relates to Indians in North America Continent.
There are two notes on South America, which respectively are “There are cities there built with huge stones, and called as the stone cities”, and “The people there believes in the religion called as ‘Balaka’, human being is used as sacrificial victim, and people pay obeisance to fire”. The first note here is relevant with the Inca Empire, since the cities of the Inca Empire were usually built on mountain or plateau with huge stones. The second note relates to the ancient Peru. One of the native cultures in the ancient Peru was named as “Paracas”.
The note recorded on Australia says, “The skin of the aborigine is also black. All of them are naked and wearing bone articles around their waists. Those people also have anthropophagous habitude. ”
The note on North Africa is, “There is a huge city here built with stones, the dimension of stones can be compared to those used by tomb of Qin Dynasty Emperor.”
The note on South Africa states, “The skin of people here is like black lacquer. Their teeth are white, their lips are red and their hairs are curled. ”
Liu Gang can be emailed directly.
It is noted that both Gavin Menzies and Liu Gang are non-professional historians. Menzies is an ex-Royal Navy submariner and amateur historian. The academic establishment was not overly impressed with his book, but it has hit a receptive chord with the public and become a best seller. The author’s website is a popular surfing spot.
There are still questions of the authenticity of the theory and the map as well as the 1763 copy. Still, five experts in charts “note that the 1418 map puts together information that was available piecemeal in China from earlier nautical maps, going back to the 13th century and Kublai Khan, who was no mean explorer himself…” according to an article in The Economist recently. It goes on to say that the map
… makes good estimates of the latitude and longitude of much of the world, and recognises that the earth is round. “The Chinese were almost certainly aware of longitude before Zheng He set sail,” says Robert Cribbs of California State University. They certainly assumed the world was round. “The format of the map is totally consistent with the level of knowledge that we should expect of royal Chinese geographers following the voyages of Zheng He,” says Mr Thompson.
If we are convinced or are ready to consider the authenticity of the map and the voyages, there are some fascinating questions about their history, our history, and the basic cultural differences of East and West.
The myths and beliefs we Westerners have been given will have to be changed. It means the East was ahead of the West not just in meditation and culture but also in those tough, outward explorations that the West has built its progressive and aggressive myths upon. There is also the question of the differences in cultures that might explain why the Chinese would have explored the world and then gone home. The Europeans, after all, followed exploration with exploitation (and violent domination) and development, which, after half a millennium, made the West (and the US as its symbol) more powerful — for the moment — than the ancient Chinese civilization had ever been.
There would also be the sometimes fun “what if?” scenarios. What if China had stayed to develop the New World? What if Columbus had discovered a new continent and gone home with little interest in returning? What motivates conquest and pushes explorers? What motivates conquest, exploitation and dominance? Where does all this leave China — and the USA?
Another thread worthy of exploration is the place of non-professional historians in discovering the history of the world. Or the place of collectors in spurring questions and research. I have always been impressed with the person who discovered that ulcers usually stem from bacteria and can therefore be treated with antibiotics. He was an engineer and found acceptance difficult in the medical community.
The Friends of Admiral Zheng He website provides a drawing (above) comparing the flagship of the Admiral’s fleet of junks and the less advanced Santa Maria of Christopher Columbus’ fleet. The Friends describe themselves as:
…a group of enthusiasts who wants to promote the awareness of the life and deeds of Admiral Zheng He, the great Asian navigator of the 15th Century, who made seven epic voyages from China to as far as Africa. “The Friends” is a forum for the interchange of information about the Admiral. It serves to be a dissemination point for research findings and a repository of reference material on Zheng He studies. “The Friends” also provides information regarding upcoming events to celebrate the 600 Anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage in 1405. “The Friends” operates the Zheng He Museum, which serves as a meeting place for enthusiasts to exchange views, over cups of ‘Pu Erh’ tea.
To continue watching this fascinating topic and keep up with the on-going controversy, surf over to Friends of Admiral Zheng He, the International Zheng He Society, and the 1421 website.
Zheng He’s integrated map of the world, 1418, owned by Liu Gang, was unveiled for all to see on 16th January 2006. This momentous event took place at the Bookworm Club, Chaoyang District, Beijing.
For interested organizations, Gavin Menzies is available for interview and speaking engagements by contacting Sophie Ransom or Steven Williams at Midas Public Relations at 020 7 584 7474 or by email.Powered by Sidelines