I Just Can’t Finish 1421

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.

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