Ah, another wondrous map. This is from Gavin Menzies’ 2002 book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World.” I looked forward to reading this book when it came out, even going so far as to reserve a copy at the library, something I’ve done like twice in my life. I have an interest in history, especially alternate history, and a book that purported to show that the Chinese had engaged in world exploration before Columbus had to be something. I mean, the Chinese routinely discovered all sorts of things a thousand years before the west, so the idea that Chinese explorers might have discovered America before Columbus wasn’t too far fetched.
So I get the book, open it up, and see the map above printed in the inside cover. This map purports to show the voyages of several Chinese exploration fleets around 1421. Oh my, those Chinese admirals really got around. I couldn’t help but notice the voyage highlighted in red. Yes, according to Gavin Menzies, a 15th century Chinese fleet sailed along the north coast of Greenland and Russia. I was a little dismayed, to say the least. This is pretty much the same as claiming the Chinese landed a man on the Moon in 1421. Greenland wasn’t circumnavigated until the early 20th century for God’s sake. The vast majority of modern ships couldn’t safely navigate that route, let alone medieval wooden hulled Chinese junks.
Sigh. I read the book anyhow. Well, skimmed the book. Lots of pictures, lots of footnotes. Lots of evidence supporting Mr Menzies’ theory. Or what he claimed was evidence. Most of it sounded pretty suspicious. Like his claim that Chinese stone anchors had been found off the coast of California. True enough, they have. What he fails to mention is that every one ever found was made out of native California rock, and were thus made and used by well documented nineteenth century Chinese/American fishermen, not 15th century explorers from China. In fact there are web sites devoted to chronicling the endless sloppy scholarship and just plain errors in Mr Menzies’ book: 1421exposed.
All in all it is clear that Mr Menzies came up with his hypothesis, and then diligently searched for evidence that supports it. And his standards for “evidence” were laughably low. Is Mr Menzies serious, or is he laughing all the way to the bank? I don’t know, the human capacity for self-deception seems almost as unlimited as the human capacity for greed, so it could go either way. And either way, the damage has been done. This is the sort of thing that legitimizes the most outlandish claims, and muddies the waters of historical research to no end. And obscures the many very real and well documented accomplishments of the Chinese people. Zheng He was already one of the great navigators in history, now he’s going to be most remembered for voyages he didn’t take?
On the one hand I suppose getting upset about stuff like this is pointless, but as in my railing against the history channel, this sort of thing really lowers the general level of public education and understanding. And frankly, the general level of public understanding about science and history is abysmal. So of course it’s no wonder that politicians and pundits are able to make the most absurd claims about history and the world…and huge numbers of people take them at face value. It annoys me that in this day of almost limitless potential to expand human knowledge and understanding, instead it seems like we are entering an age of almost limitless expansion of ignorance and false beliefs. Sigh.
This situation is so out of control that fake maps purporting to support Mr Menzies’ theory have shown up in the antiquities trade. So we’ve got a fake map based on false history. Two layers of deception, impressive in a demented sort of way. And we can add another layer of nonsense. People have even tried to use the above map as proof that the world was much warmer in the early 1400s in order to refute claims made about global warming. I mean, I have no problems with people trying to refute global warming, but citing a book that is considered nonsense by all serious scholars and archaeologists is not a tactic I would use in a scientific debate.
Still, I suppose it could be worse. Someone could write a book claiming the ancient Chinese explored the Moon as well. No one has done that yet (I expect royalties if anyone runs with this idea) but they have come close. Yes, in 1968 one Erich von Däniken wrote a book titled Chariots of the Gods wherein claims are made that Earth was repeatedly visited by aliens. While a theory like this shouldn’t pass the laugh test, it instead is an amazingly popular book and has inspired all sorts of nonsense. On the plus side it inspired things like the movie and TV show Stargate. And tomorrow’s post.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, is a low resolution modified copy of the original, and is central to illustrating the post. And worst of all, it’s use here does not interfere with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image, though I suppose I wish it did. Credit and copyright: Gavin Menzies. Sigh. Again.)