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I Just Can’t Finish 1421

In Books, History on April 26, 2009 at 10:33 am

I rarely put down books. Even if something is not going very well, I want to see if the author can redeem themselves with a good ending. Occasionally this happens. Today, though, I tossed aside 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies.

Menzies’ thesis is that Imperial China’s treasure fleet sailed not only throughout the eastern Pacific and Indian oceans, but also went to the Americas, mapped the coast of Antarctica, sailed around western Africa, established colonies all over the world, and left maps that were put to use by later European explorers. I’d heard of the book before, and was suspicious of it from the outset, but it had been recommended to me enough times that I finally picked up my roommate’s copy. As bad as I feel, I can’t finish it.

My first red flag was that Menzies, early on in the book, talks about how the Yongle Emperor received a collection of heads of state at his new capital in Beijing. He notes the absence of the Europeans, though, because he said that the Europeans were “too primitive.”

Now hold on a second. If the Emperor was willing to entertain guests from, say, Mongolia, a place full of nomads who lived in Yurts, then surely he’d also accept the company of someone from, say, France. Menzies doesn’t for a moment entertain the idea that the Chinese were either ignorant of Europe or unable to establish connections with it. He just takes it for granted that the Europeans were too savage to be invited to Beijing. Sloppy.

His map of the world also shows the Chinese fleet going everywhere except Europe. I find this highly suspicious. The treasure fleet was an entity that was all about extracting tribute from foreign lands, hence the name. If the Chinese were willing to accept tribute from, say Africa (where they famously brought home a giraffe), then they’d probably also want to do the same thing with Europe, which had much more in the way of stuff. So why didn’t they show up in Europe and demand tribute and recognition? Oh yeah- because they probably didn’t know what Europe was or how to get there.

I also found the bits about Chinese foreign colonies to be highly dubious. Wouldn’t we have heard of these before? Shouldn’t someone have fond some pictographs on a rock or something? Really. You’d think that would be a pretty big deal, and someone else would have found something.

Reading the book, though, I felt sort of sorry for Menzies. He obviously has a love for history and things nautical, and seems very much to want to say something interesting. Personally, I find the whole history of the treasure fleet fascinating, and would love to read a more credible history about it.

That story is good enough without making it world-spanning. The Chinese built huge ships, sailed around the Pacific and Indian oceans, and almost bankrupted their empire doing it because the voyages could not pay for themselves. Then, in a fit of reactionary fury, the government banned sailing and went isolationist. That’s an incredible bit of history right there, and I’d love to know the details of it. Menzies, though, reminds me of one of my favorite Douglas Adams quotes: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?”

I want to learn more about the garden, but Menzies is just looking for fairies.

  1. Okay, the pedant who had to take way too many archaeology credits in college feels the need to point out a couple of things. I don’t doubt that Menzies makes some specious arguments and I’m sure I would find myself in the same boat were I to pick up a copy, but I just can’t help myself. It’s not very often that I get to use the information I gleaned from any of my archaeology classes or from the only history class I took, Foundations of Eastern Civilization. Please humor me.

    1) Even with good documentation and contemporary maps, it took decades for archaeologists to find evidence of actual Scandinavian settlement in Greenland. And those post holes are still disputed! Littoral colonies are particularly difficult to find because coastlines change so frequently. If the colonies didn’t last very long (which seems likely; colonization is a pretty daunting task, what with one bad winter or mild summer creating a famine that would require sympathetic neighbors with established settlements to survive), they wouldn’t have deep middens or similar settlement features that would be easier to find. Well, relatively easier.

    2) I think they met with the Mongols because, despite being big Yurt-dwellers, they had conquered half the world less than 200 years earlier and were still considered a significant threat to the Empire. I would disagree with your assumption that the 15th century Chinese either didn’t know about Europe or they would have wanted to do business with them. Keep in mind, the “Europe” with which they’d had contact was far eastern Europe during the 13th century Mongol conquests. Also, these two points: Genghis Khan had representatives from all religions in his court to advise him, including a Nestorian Christian, who I believe was a European. And, Marco Polo had been out that-a-way about 100 years prior to the Voyage of the Treasure Fleet.

    If you were the Yongle Emperor, how would you see Europe? You’d see a bunch of easily-overrun cabbage farmers at the edge of the earth, living in frozen squalor. Medieval Slavs were mostly nomads or serfs. At least the Mongols had a formidable army, a system of trade and principles of government. I can easily believe that the Chinese were like, “We can have cabbage and freeze to death in the winter here; why go there?”

    c) If you compare eastern Europe to the other places to which they supposedly traveled, it was all sunnier climes.

    ANYWAY… I know those points don’t take away from the overall fairy hunt, which is always irritating. I applaud your setting down a book that you feel is missing the point; it’s the same reason I stopped reading “The War on Faith” or whatever it’s called. God I hate that book. Also, thank you for humoring me.

  2. A few things:

    -I’m also skeptical of the alleged size of the treasure ships. Menzies places them at over 450 feet long, which doesn’t seem impossible, but I sort of wondered if a ship that big would actually work. Has anyone tried building one and seeing how it held up?

    -I would argue that if they only knew about eastern Europe, than they didn’t really know about Europe. Saying that the Chinese and Mongols had “been to Europe” when they had, in fact, only been to Russia and Poland, is sort of like saying that some’s “been to Oregon” when they’ve only been to east of the Cascades. They had technically witnessed it, but not the most relevant part.

    -The stated mission of the Yongle Emperor was to have the entire world paying him tribute. If he were really serious about that, he probably wouldn’t give the French or English a pass because they were “too primitive.”

    -I find the proposition that every single one of the Chinese colonies failed and didn’t leave any kind of substantive remains to be very hard to take. Menzies purports that there were colonies in the Americas, Australia, Asia, and Africa. The idea that the same kind of historical erasure would happen in every instance seems very improbable to me.

    -Menzies also claims that European explorers had access to Chinese charts. This is very improbable. In all likelihood, some mariner would have mentioned a chart like this in a ships log, personal journal, memoir, or something.

    I can’t suffer that many improbabilities. For me, the book cut cut up rather neatly by Occam’s razor.

  3. I read 1421 a few months ago, and though I enjoyed (and finished) the book in the end I came to the realization that it didn’t matter. Gavin’s pursuit of an interesting theory does not change the end game as we know it. The only thing it can do is upbraid an eurocentric bigot. So in thanks to Gavin for a fascinating tale of Chinese adventurers here are a few pro-Menzies comments.

    -The Chinese were aware of the Europeans. There was extensive contact with them through Middle Eastern Trading, and the port of Calicut on India’s Western shore. The Chinese were not isolationist yet, and neither were Europeans. Marco Polo, Nicola Da Conti, and others traveled to the Mid East and the Orient.

    -“too primitive”. If you could imagine a pasty white guy with no exotic/unique gems, minerals, animals, or craftsmanship, to trade what would you think? Compared to the crafsmanship that China was producing at the time, well…Flemish Wool only goes so far. Little reason for China to stretch to Europe for tribute or trade. Very much worth it for Europeans to stretch the other way. Thus Da Gama, and Dias. Also Europeans were slowly emerging from their feces-laden thatch huts into the Renaissance (lead by Florence). Chinese, Inca, and Aztec civilizations were more advanced and enjoying a better standard of living.

    -Tribute: The emperor just bankrupted/starved the country by building a new palace, refitting the Great Wall, and building the Treasure Fleet. With no internal enemies he send the fleet out to get money and display power.

    – Colonies: I don’t think the “colonies” were ever settled with intent. They were out of necessity due the loss of boats on the journey. Also, China isolated itself and burnt the Treasure Fleets upon their return. There would be no subsequent voyages to get the stranded or to reenforce them. These encampents were settled 70 years before Columbus, and over 100 years until Europeans were a significant presence in the new world. With time these settlements would fade into oblivion. We all know about Roanoke. “Colonies” no, “Stranded Enclaves” yes.

    -World Spanning: Gavin primarily works his theory of the Piri Reis map that was charted well before Columbus discovered Hispanoila or Magellan sailed through the straight. This map charted the new world, the northern shore of Asia and Australia well before Europeans started their journey. Thanks to Arab traders the map along with lost Greek texts (with convinient theory notes in the margins) were brought to Europe. Thus started a new age.

    Too often we narrow our minds on what is known and are unable to accept what is probable. Does it matter that China got to the New World before Europe. No, it doesn’t. It’s cool though.

  4. It’s not that I have a problem with Menzies’ theory per se, it’s that he’s not rigorous enough in proving it. It’s simply a matter or extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. Eurocentricism has nothing to do with it.

  5. For a theory that’s a few years old he does a satisfactory start. The postscript in his book gives him more credence than some of the main body of text. I’m sure in a few more years he’ll have a more cohesive theory, and that will be interesting to read. Eurocentricism doesn’t stain your view of his work (I apologize if I inferred if it did), however nationalist pride can affect historical research. The best example I can think of is the Horse Rider Theory, which Asiatic tribes from the Korean region migrated/settled Japan.

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