Review of 1421, the Year China Discovered America (2023)

“On March 8, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from it’s base in China. These ships, huge junks nearly five hundred feet long and built from the finest teak… Their mission was ‘to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas’.”—1421, the Year China Discovered America

This is a review of a non-gaming book and is intended to open up possibilities for gamers. This is not to be an in-depth analysis of Menzies work, research or conclusions. Such an effort would be beyond the scope of this discussion an inappropriate for this forum.

“My [Menzies] claims about the Chinese voyages in the ‘missing years’ from 1421 to 1423 rest on the authenticity of the Kangnido, Piri Reis, Jean Rotz, Cantino, Waldseemuller and Pizzigano charts.”—1421, the Year China Discovered America

The Chinese empire was quite old Even by the 15th century. China was unquestionably the most powerful political and economic entity on Earth at a time when most European nations consisted of an increasingly inbred noble class and peasants who sat around in ditches sticking berries up their noses.

In China, a revolution cast from power the Mongolian dynasty and a peasant, Zhu Yuanzang, became the first emperor of the Ming dynasty during the 14th century. He worked though most of his reign to secure his position and extend the authority of the empire at the expense of the Mongols.

By 1387, Zhu Yuanzang forces had wrenched from China the last vestiges of Mongol power. However, the emperor was aging. Like many aging emperors, he was becoming increasingly paranoid and targeted perceived enemies. This paranoia brought him around to target the military apparatus that had supported him in his three decades war.

After the death of his heir apparent, Zhu Yuanzang appointed a grandson as heir. Seizing advantage of the reaction to this decision and the resentment of Zhu Yuanzang by the civil government and military authorities, Zhu Yuanzang’s fourth son, Zhu Di, began a revolution that would see him become emperor.

Zhu Di had the imperial shipyards doubled in size and commissioned the building of 1,600 ships – including massive, nine-masted treasure ships. He also moved the imperial capital to Beijing, which increased that city’s size and scope. He also built a Forbidden City, restored the Great Wall and had built a canal from the sea to Beijing.

Zhu Di’s arguably greatest accomplishment was to restore China’s position as a trading empire. His diplomats spent years working with foreign dignitaries from Korea to Japan to Siam to Arabia and down the coast of Africa. This region held a number of nations of various size and power. China openly traded with them all. The most successful method employed was to “trade” large quantities of Chinese ceramics, spices and silks to other nations in such a way as to place the other nation into debt with the Middle Kingdom. This made the kings, lords, sultans and so forth more cooperative than they might have been otherwise.

However, while they were aware of Europe, the Chinese forces had yet to sail around the Cape of Good Hope of Africa or north around Siberia. As a result, China had not established direct trade with the European powers. All trade with Europe from China had to go through the central Asian nations or around the Arabian peninsula. At the time, Zhu Di decided those nations of pink-colored, incestuous-nobled, berries-in-the-nose peasants (e.g. Europe) were a low priority.

However, rulers, heads of state, ambassadors and lords from nations with whom the Chinese did trade all visited the Middle Kingdom and paid homage to Zhu Di as the most powerful man on Earth. On February 2, 1421 these visiting dignitaries witnessed the formal inauguration of the new capital. Then the great fleets of the empire set sail, to take the various dignitaries and ambassadors to their homes.

While the fleets were away, lightening burned down the Emperor’s palace and destroyed the Forbidden City. The fires also killed Zhu Di’s favorite concubine. He also suffered a series of minor strokes. The Emperor, the mandarins and the Chinese people believed these events to be omens and that the forces of the heavens were set against Zhu Di's goals. As a result of these events, Zhu Di lost his nerve to overcome the opposition of the mandarins and continue the missions of exploration.

He died in 1423 and the mandarins – who loathed nearly everything Zhu Di ever did – were able to exert a considerable influence over his son. All foreign trade and contact was sharply cut off. The government abandoned the ships of the fleet and many captains and admirals were stripped of rank. Scientific study – and at that time the Chinese empire was essentially centuries in advance over nearly every other nation on the planet – was abandoned. The mandarins destroyed records of the fleet’s journeys. So China, which had once had global dominion with in its grasp, now stared with rapt fascination at its naval or centuries until gun ships of those pink-colored, incestuous-nobled, berries-in-the-nose peasants (e.g Europe) forced them to open their ports.

This much is all a matter or historical record.

“Instead of the cultured Chinese, instructed to ‘treat distant people with kindness,’ it was the cruel, almost barbaric, Christians who were the colonizers. Francisco Pizarro gained Peru from the Incans by massacring five thousand Indians in cold blood. Today he would be considered a war criminal.”—1421, the Year China Discovered America

Menzies assertion is that after dropping off the various dignitaries and ambassadors the fleets parted ways on missions of exploration. This trip would devour lives, ships, last two years but would also see the Chinese fleet circumnavigate the globe and travel to places Europeans would “discover” only centuries later.

According to Menzies, one fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope of Africa, sailed across the south Atlantic and explored South American and Antarctica in an effort to fix the position of Canopus and the Southern Cross, which they could then use to aid in navigation while in the southern hemisphere. Along the way this fleet visited Patagonia, may have acquired a mylodon and explored the Straights of “Magellan.” Their trip would further take through Antarctic waters and then to Australia centuries before Captain Cook got to shoot his first Aborigine.

A second fleet explored the Pacific: ultimately, the western coasts of North, Central and South America. This fleet traded with the Pacific coast Maya, worked out how to reproduce lacquer technology with Central Americans and sank a junk in the Sacramento River. This fleet also extensively explored Australia and New Zealand and apparently tried to established copper mining colonies in the Land Down Under. The Chinese were well aware of Australia by this point (having discovered the centuries before) but seldom went there as the Aborigines had little of value to trade.

A third fleet explored the North Atlantic. They lost a number of ships in the Caribbean Sea and founded a colony in what is now Rhode Island. Menzies writes that the ‘Rhode Island Tower,’ a stone-structure who origins are debated, was in fact both a lighthouse and an observatory for the Chinese colony that would eventually integrate with the Native American population due to lack of Imperial support. He also asserts that the “Bimini Road,” those seemingly man-man lines of stone in the waters off of Bimini, was constructed by the Chinese to help them repair their ships, rather than being something left over from Atlantis or created by extraterrestrials.

A fourth fleet explored the Indian Ocean. While this was a region well known to the Chinese, during this trip the fleet apparently was able to resolve old problems of determining longitude, which again is an accomplishment they reached centuries before the Europeans. The Chinese method of the day involved using the lunar eclipse for measurements in a way that not replicated again until the late 20th century.

This exploration was staggeringly costly. More than 50 ships had been lost as had three-quarters of the original 9,000 person crew.

All the fleets mapped everything they could along the way. The mandarins destroyed most but not all of the maps and records from the fleet’s trip. This accounts for some of the maps that have taken on the status of Urban Legends, maps that depict locations but composed before the Europeans ever reached those locations. Some of the maps and records that escaped made their way to Europe and ended up in the hands of Portugal, Spain and the like. As such, Magellan, Columbus and their peers were using maps composed at some point by the Chinese and they already knew where they were going.

“Zhu Di’s master plan to discover and chart the entire world, and bring it into Confucian harmony through trade and foreign policy, could have succeeded, for the whole world now lay at China’s feet…”—1421, the Year China Discovered America

Again, this review is not to debate the merits of Menzies book in terms of accuracy or how well it holds up under examination. Briefly, those maps do exist and the Chinese likely did visit the West Coast of North America before the Europeans. On the other hand, Menzies is forgiving to his own thesis, research methods and evidence standards. It would be a mistake to view the book as a “last word” on the subject matter but it is perhaps a suitable “first word” (e.g. a theory in it’s early stages that needs to be refined).

However, consider it research for possible game.

What would happen if the Empire of Shou-Lung (or Rokugan or where-ever) were to assemble its own treasure fleet and to set forth to explore all of Toril (or Oerth)? What would happen if Oriental Adventure player characters were on one of the ships that participated with that voyage?

What would happen if the player character were hanging around Waterdeep (or Hardby or where-ever) when three-dozen enormous junks sailed into the harbor? What do the player character do when, against orders some nameless NPC fighter opens fire on the junks and those “strange” ships return the fight? What would happen if (provide that battle does not take place, or if it does and a truce is reached) a thousand Oriental Adventure sailors, fighters, mages and clerics wandering around town for a few days?

What would happen if the player characters are in only simple galley, out to sea and far from home, when they encounter those three-dozen mysterious ships? What would happen if, while the fleet is near-by, the player characters have a chance to sign-on, even if they are not Oriental Adventure types? (Apparently, a Venetian sailed with the fleet that rounded the Cape of Good Hope).

The book could also be useful for “Mage: Sorcerer’s Crude” players. What would happen if the players were 15th century mages exploring the World of Darkness, circa 1421, before vampires had drained away the vibrant colors and the Technocracy had littered the world with corpses and McDonalds?

The book also poses nearly endless possibilities for alternate histories. What would have happened if lightening had not burned down the palace and killed Zhu Di favorite concubine and he never lost his nerve? What would have happened if the fleets had landed in Europe? (What happen if the fire had not been natural phenomena but caused by arson by angry, magic wielding mandarins?)

What would happen if…(you fill in the blank)

This non-gamer book offers a number of intriguing possibilities and opens up vistas for those for whom Faerun or the Flanaess is just not enough or for those who wish to ingrate a traditional western fantasy game with Oriental Adventures.

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