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1421: The Year China Discovered America

by: Gavin Menzies

New York NY: William Morrow 2002, $27.95, Hardbound
ISBN: 0060-53763-9

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 22 and 23

Are you ready to believe that the history you learned in grade school was wrong? If so, can you correct it by saying that China beat Columbus when discovering America? Is that a preposterous idea? Not if you read and believe a new book titled: 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Did some boats from Eunich Zhang He’s fleet really beat Christopher by seventy-one years? What are we talking about? If you do not know, then you are out of the loop, so to speak.

Very few of our Chinese friends say it is not so. A larger number agree with the premise of this Gavin Menzies book. Is their national pride ruling reality? Or have they read the next book and really reviewed this issue? We are not experts on history, Chinese or American; we leave you to be the judge.

The British and the American press are skeptical of the Menzies premise, but the author seems unfazed. He is quoted as reciting that, while on an anniversary trip to China he became fascinated with China’s history, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Incidentally, both of them were completed in 1421. In any case, he started to research that period and found some maps. Then he developed his very own hypothesis that China discovered America first. In this process, it is a Portuguese map dated 1424 that depicts islands in the Caribbean and that clinches his thinking.

People like Edward Gargan, who studied Chinese medieval history at Berkeley’s University of California, finds this thinking in the mind of this former British naval submariner sinking fast. He thinks Menzies logical thought processes take on water. The British press, Newsday, and The New York Times agree with Gargan. They question the names of the people Menzies refers to, the map he speaks about, and the ships that managed his discovery.

Two ships, built under Eunich Zheng He, are those that Gavin Menzies believes left most of the others and wandered to what we now call America. Mr. Gargan's review in the New York Times bristles at a book blessed with phrases such as 'I surmise,' '...it certainly seems,' and other cop-out ways to deal with a theory. He faults Menzies for not reading modern or classical Chinese and using others to interpret those languages. He implies that Menzies has not read enough materials written in English. He worries about the fact that sailors on those ships that supposedly made it to America left no mark on the places they visited. He can not imagine them not bringing back a single item from their voyage. He is amazed that they kept no records. He joins those who have carefully read Menzis' five hundred fifty-two pages and are still not convinced.

We wonder if Gavin Menzies is confusing Zhang He's twenty-eight year expeditionary period and seven major voyages and one Chinese article called 'Discovering China's Columbus' with Christopher Columbus himself? Has Menzies never read anything by or about Professor Roderich Ptak, former head of the Sinological Section of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Munich University? Did he not see this professor's Chinese maps detailing the Zhang He voyages? We did share those findings doing this review to try to understand them. Does Menzies not know that the Zhuang He sailors brought back ivory, giraffes, and zebras, among other things; and probably from Africa?

Surely two of the three hundred or so ships could have wandered off. But what happened to them? Did they never come back and never record their trip, never ever? Let's face it, we know that China was not interested in conquering, colonizing, even occupying foreign lands. Is that why they did not report their voyage? Why did Louise Levathes never hear of these trips when she reported on China's ruling the seas from 1405 to 1433?

The author's conjecture seems implausible to us because the Zhang He vessels generally hugged the coastline. It seems improbable because they set out with lots of silk and porcelain and more to be exchanged for rare and precious commodities. What happened and where are these items in the America's? There are eyewitness accounts, official Ming histories, African, Arab, and Indian sources that tell about these trips, yet not one mentions crossing an ocean, not one mentions anything resembling the Americas. Why not? Why is submarine fellow He the only one with this interpretation?

Many Chinese may believe stories about how Zhang He sailed to North America, however, proof is still lacking. Not a shred of evidence exists. Tales get embellished with each telling, is that what convinced Menzies? Did he keep retelling this theory to himself? We are not convinced, even after ploughing through an unbelievably long tome that fails to provide a reasonable bit of convincing info.

However, He does give pause, but for another issue. That is that two years ago, Dr. C. Loring Brace, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, contended that populations that settled around the US-Mexican border and farther south in Latin America could have arrived before Columbus. They may have come from Central China. But Brace is unsure because when he looks at a controversial Kennewick Man skeleton thought to be nine thousand or more years old that was found in the state of Washington, he does not say China, but says that it probably came from Jomon in Japan.

Drs. David Meltzer and Theodore Schurr of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research suggest even earlier migrations of people, some related to present day occupants of East Asia and Siberia. A University of California professor, Dr. Johanna Nichols who studies comparative languages, says that among the one hundred fifty language families in the Americas, there were two major waves of migration from different parts of Asia. She says that simply by studying America's languages.

We do not know who is correct, but do know that more research needs to be done before we can be convinced one way or the other. Therefore, do not throw your history books out until you read the Menzies book about 1421 and the book review by Louise Levathes. Also, check the web for other researchers, particularly ones who attended an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington D.C. in the year 2000. Then. maybe then you can make up your mind. Share anything you find; maybe it will help us make up ours.

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