1421: The Year China Discovered America
by Gavin Menzies
Hardcover, US edition: New York: Morrow, 2003. ISBN 0-06-053763-9
Trade paperback, US edition, revised: New York: Perennial, 2004. ISBN 0-06-054094-X
As I read 1421, I was struck by how closely it resembled Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. They're both highly ambitious books that promise to turn history on its head, talk about plants and animals and the archaeological record, are full of world maps with arrows on them, and made it to The New York Times bestseller list. But the differences are just as revealing. Diamond is a darling of the literati and won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, while Menzies has racked up a long list of detractors. The original Times review for Guns, Germs, and Steel rather uncritically recounted its arguments, while the review for 1421 seriously questioned its many faults.
As much as this says about the vagaries of book reviews, it also suggests how to popularize history profitably. Make a splash, bring history to life, don't disappoint the reader, and you'll have a best-seller on your hands. The line between fact and fiction is increasingly blurred in the world of Da Vinci Code-style bestsellers.
Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine captain, claims that four separate Chinese fleets under the overall aegis of the great eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed on great voyages of discovery about the year 1421. During these voyages, they discovered the Americas, Antarctica, Oceania, various Pacific islands, and longitude — basically, every continent except Europe. The Zhu Di emperor's death, however, put an end to the great voyages of discovery. China turned her energies inwards, and records of the Zheng He voyages were destroyed. Within a century, though, Europeans picked up the mantle of discovery. These great explorers thus bravely set forth into the (not-quite) unknown, ultimately handing Europe the mantle of world dominance on the back of Chinese maps.
Startling though the claims may be, they are not new. Zheng He's voyages to Africa are well-known and taught in the standard histories, though he is generally considered to have stopped in Africa and never to have reached America. But it’s been a fixture of historical speculation for decades. After all, if Zheng He could precede European sailors to Africa, why could he not make it to America as well? Many on the fringes of history believed that he did. For example, Murray Leinster's 1934 time-travel story "Sidewise in Time" observes without the slightest doubt, "It just happens that the Chinese happened to colonize America first." (orig. Street and Smith Publications, reprinted in Before The Golden Age, ed. Isaac Asimov).
But Menzies is the boldest of the adherents, claiming to prove such speculation as fact. The evidence for this claim is helpfully summarized in an appendix in outline form. Menzies’ quest originated with examination of pre-Columbian European maps showing lands that they should not have been aware of, and through a series of maps he sees the line of transmission from Chinese sources. Why the Chinese? Because only they were advanced enough to have undertaken such a journey. What’s proof that it was the Chinese? Various artifacts left behind in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, and the genealogical imprint of Chinese sailors and concubines left behind in the New World.
It's all very interesting, but hardly conclusive. Menzies traces the voyages chronologically, spreading the evidence out and mixing maps and artifacts with speculation on the routes they took, borne out by his experience as a submarine commander sailing the same seas. Yet he consistently uses terminology such as "the only logical evidence," "incontrovertible," "certain." Clearly his claims are not incontrovertible, considering how many academics have disputed his claims.
Academics tend to be very open to ideas with a sound foundation; history in particular gets turned upside down every once in a while. This casual disregard for any alternative viewpoints is what reminded me of Jared Diamond. I went to a book talk for Collapse, the successor to Guns, Germs, and Steel, and was shocked by how casually he dismissed any objections raised. "That's a good try, but it's completely wrong," he would say, then repeat something from his book that papered over the objection without addressing it. I'd rather an author admit that there could be alternative viewpoints — it suggests humility, a willingness to entertain other points of view, and most importantly, an awareness of the level of evidence necessary to overturn established history.
Also, constantly throughout the book, he refers to his website www.1421.tv, on which, he promises, more incontrovertible evidence will be put up. After reading the book, I went there expecting some voluminous material and some detailed rebuttals of his critics. But it turns out to be just more of the same. Even on the web site, citations are murky. "A professor" says this. Who? "More than 200 experts" in China were consulted, 85% of whom agree and 15% of whom disagree, and "details will be provided to any researcher who requests them." Why not just tell us? Even more questionable are some of the institutions listed as having been consulted on accuracy. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China is doubtlessly filled with history experts, but would one rely on the US State Department to endorse a book on American history?
The postscript to the second edition of the book, which fixes some obvious errors that were criticized in the first edition but doesn't really address the more substantive and general, closes with: "The great bulk of the new evidence that has enabled me to make such startling claims has come from readers of my book. It is you, not historians or academics, who have rewritten history." As dashing as it may seem to be the lone voice of reason in a maddening crowd, ignoring the academic concepts of peer review and standards of proof is a very dangerous attitude to take. Secrecy is essential for some fields such as warfare and technology — generals must keep plans secret from the enemy, and inventors from their competitors. But on the battlefield of ideas, holding back your sources simply generates suspicion about your (un)willingness to engage in discussion.
As shaky as the thesis seems (the book would be better titled "1421: Did China Discover America?" with an all-important question mark), the book is nevertheless rather enjoyable as light reading. Historical detective work is filled with Eureka! moments, and many of Menzies' discoveries are fascinating and probably true (what’s problematic are the conclusions). When he looks at rare maps, or hunts down explanations for strange notation, it gives a vicarious thrill similar to that experienced in Alex Haley's Roots (or the final episode in the second miniseries)), as the author digs through archives to corroborate his oral family history. But while Roots concentrated the detective work in one section, making it easy to separate the plot from the process of discovery, 1421 intersperses them.
Chronological accounts do wonders for accounts of history, and Menzies is no exception. He was born in China during the period of Western domination, fondly recalls his Chinese amah, and has great respect for Chinese culture and history. His spectacular (and partly conjectural) description of the ceremonies surrounding the Forbidden City's opening bring to life the majesty, the pageantry, and the far-reaching influence of Imperial China at its peak. The reopening of the silted-up Grand Canal, the repair of the run-down Great Wall — all speak to the massive outlays of manpower and national effort that was made possible by the centralized administration that has characterized China for thousands of years.
His historical detective work and accounts of the Chinese fleet sailings are likewise absorbing. Here is where his credentials are strongest. His Navy background in astronavigation, currents, and wind are used to great effect. His theory of the Chinese discovery of longitude, explained in detail in an appendix, is a absorbing reconstruction of the technologies then available. That it was actually tested during a lunar eclipse make it all the more compelling. His reconstruction of coast lines before global warming has raised the sea to present-day levels is also thought-provoking.
As interesting as individual elements of his book may be, Menzies doesn't really prove that China discovered America. Before hearing of this book I gave no thought to the matter, leaving off at Zheng He's voyages to Africa. When I saw it on The Times' bestseller list, I thought, "Well, it's possible." After reading the book, I still think, "Well, it's possible." But that’s all it is. The book hasn’t really changed my opinion one way or another.
Mainstream Sinologists and professional historians have universally rejected 1421 and the alternative history of Chinese exploration described in it as pseudohistory.What happened in the year 1421? ›
Events of 1421
A small French force surprises and defeats a smaller English force under Thomas, Duke of Clarence, a brother of Henry V of England, in Normandy. May 26 – Mehmed I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire dies and is succeeded by his son Murad II. November 17–19 – St. Elizabeth flood.
Then in 1421 China broke with their traditional history and launched a fleet of merchant ships. The huge fleet of Admiral Zheng He made at least one voyage around the Indian ocean before China again became self focused. In 1433 this exploration suddenly ceased. The emperor banned all merchants from going abroad.Why didn't China explore the world? ›
First, it's hard to say whether, given time, China would have discovered the New World. We do know that after 1433, discovery stopped because the incentive structure as established by government policy did not encourage investment in overseas exploration. It was not only discour- aged, it was forbidden.Did China ever find America? ›
Recently discovered ancient scripts suggest Chinese explorers may have discovered America long before the Europeans arrived there, a report says. It was Christopher Columbus who discovered America but new evidence suggests the Chinese were exploring America at least a thousand years before Christ.Why is Zheng He controversial? ›
Despite leading some of the largest voyages in size and length, Zheng He's voyages are not universally well known. Zheng He's voyages shouldn't be celebrated due to the fact that he didn't discover new places, he wasted Chinese resources, and his voyages lead to the enslavement and oppression of foreign people.When did China discover the world in 1421? ›
On 8 February 1421 the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China.Who has a theory that the Chinese visited North America in 1421? ›
In 2002, retired submarine commander Gavin Menzies presented a lecture in which he claimed a Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He began a series of voyages in 1421 that would ultimately discover the North American continent.Who ruled China in 1421? ›
The Yongle Emperor (2 May 1360 – 12 August 1424), personal name Zhu Di (Chinese: 朱棣; pinyin: Zhū Dì; Wade–Giles: Chu Ti), was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, reigning from 1402 to 1424.Who discovered America first? ›
Explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) is known for his 1492 'discovery' of the 'new world' of the Americas on board his ship Santa Maria.
If Zheng He had discovered America, the ancient civilization which China represented, would have spread over the North and South American continents, in a dynamic process to shape world history and there would be no need for the smaller European kingdoms or for a Christopher Columbus.Who wrote 1421 the year China discovered America? ›
Gavin Menzies (1937-2020) was the bestselling author of 1421: The Year China Discovered America; 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance; and The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History's Greatest Mystery Revealed.When did China learn about America? ›
I have just said that Americans came to China as late as I 784. But two hundred years earlier the Chinese received their first knowledge of the existence of America. The name "America" first appears in Chinese records at the end of the I 6th century, in the official historical Annals of the Ming Dynasty.Which country didn t recognize China? ›
Bhutan is the only UN member state that has never explicitly recognised either the PRC or the ROC. The Republic of China considers itself to be the sole legitimate government of China (including Taiwan), and therefore claims exclusive sovereignty over all territory controlled by the PRC.Why didn't Asia find America first? ›
Firstly, it was easier for Europeans to cross the Atlantic than for Chinese to cross the Pacific. Secondly, Europeans were motivated by the desire to access China's legendary wealth whereas Chinese had no such incentive for exploration.Did Columbus invent America find the error? ›
SOLUTION. The error is in part (B) of the sentence. The use of verb "invent" is incorrect here. Invent is used when something new is made or created by a person.Was America discovered by mistake? ›
He didn't set out looking for a new continent and had no idea that he had when he stumbled upon it. That's an accident by any definition. Columbus set out to discover the sea route to the East Indies and never accomplished his goal!