I just finished reading 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies. The thesis of the book is that in the years from 1421 through 1424, a Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He voyaged across the globe and discovered all seven continents – all seventy years before Columbus. Interestingly a Google search of 1421 China returns Menzies’ site as the number one site and returns a site called Debunking Gavin Menzies second. Clearly, controversy surrounds Menzies thesis.
The evidence in favor of the Chinese voyage is certainly interesting. Much of the evidence comes in the form of old maps containing coastlines that had not been explored by Europeans at the time of their drawing. In addition, Menzies presents evidence of apparent Chinese shipwrecks, Chinese artifacts, and Chinese populations (colonies) throughout the world.
Unfortunately, the style of the writing leaves much to be desired. Many of the book’s conclusions could better be described as stretches. Some are certainly plausible, but Menzies is not as careful as he could be about making his cases. Menzies really wants to believe his thesis so he presents his evidence in a way to make it fit – this comes through in the writing. The other convenient aspects of the thesis is that no written record exists of the Chinese voyage. The Chinese apparently destroyed all evidence of the voyage as they fell into self-imposed isolation, the fleets apparently did not visit Europe, and the Portuguese who apparently inherited the Chinese maps did not mention them directly in their writing. All in all Menzies book is certainly an interesting story, but one that I would prefer to see presented much more rigorously, and with more corroborating evidence.
Leaving aside some of the shaky evidence, this story highlights the importance of political stability to human accomplishment. If all the Chinese actually accomplished all that Menzies claims, they were hundreds of years ahead of the Europeans. That within a few hundred years, China was actually conquered by those same Europeans shows just how fleeting their accomplishments were. Interesting to contemplate when viewing history on a scale of centuries, but hard to appreciate in our fast paced daily lives.