1421: The Year China Discovered America

1421 coverBy Gavin Menzies (Harper Perennial 2004)

Review by Craig Dietrich

CAFAM members may know that for several years a book by Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America , has been causing controversy. On January 19, 2003, Ed Gargan reviewed the book in Newsday. Here are a few paragraphs:

Gavin Menzies, a former British Navy submariner turned amateur historian…is convinced that fleets of Chinese ships [separated from one of Zheng He’s famous naval expeditions and] crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the Americas, that their crews established colonies here, erected lighthouses, built factories, swam in the Caribbean and captured long-extinct animals, all in the year 1421. Wonderful stuff, except it never happened.

Menzies has assembled a 552-page Tinker toy assemblage of map-readings, snippets of medieval travel accounts, canned notions of history, and buckets of fantasy, wild guesses and wishful thinking…

And unlike the animals, fruits, artifacts and ambassadors Zheng He brought back to Beijing from his voyages and of which there are detailed records, there are no accounts of a single nut, a lowly brick or an elegant gold vessel returned to the emperor from the Americas, something inconceivable to a Ming mariner. But Menzies cruises along, chapter after chapter, painting pictures of what the Chinese, in his words, ‘must’ have done. …Hobbled by an inability to read either classical or modern Chinese or any European language, Menzies is chained to sparse translations while remaining oblivious to the sources that could have shed light on his task.

As the distinguished Ming historian Hok-Lam Chan has noted, the Yongle emperor undertook seagoing expeditions “to display his power and wealth, to learn about the plans of Timur and other Mongols in western Asia, to extend the tributary system, to satisfy his vanity and greed for glory, and to make use of his eunuch staff.” What the expeditions were not were missions of conquest and colonization…

[Review posted by Professor Donald Clarke on H-ASIA, August 26, 2003]

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