2008: The Chinese odyssey


Forget all you learnt about Columbus. It was the Chinese who discovered America.

And no, it is not China making the claim.

The Menzies were in Beijing to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary but Gavin went home with more than souvenirs and photographs. The retired British Royal navy submarine captain returned to London with the foundation for a book that would rewrite world history.

As they toured, his guide was getting exasperated, unable to answer his questions.

"Why were the Forbidden Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall near Beijing all completed in 1421?" he asked.

"Because the emperor wanted it!" wasn't good enough, though his persistence did move her. There's something he should know, she added. That year, the emperor moved his capital to Beijing, and threw a banquet for guests from all over the world.

Now, Gavin Menzies was really intrigued.

"This was an astonishing revelation to me because I had been in the British Navy for 20 years, and I didn't know that China had a navy 600 years ago capable of bringing people from all around the world back to China."

That was how Gavin Menzies came to write the book "1421: The Year China Discovered the World", and the rest, one might add, is history.

1434 by gavin menzies

Almost two decades later, the countdown clock on Beijing's Tiananmen Square beamed. Two days more to the Olympic Games. It had been dubbed China's debutante ball, and the world's media were all in attendance.

Outside the main stadium, two Britons were arrested with a "Free Tibet" banner. Elsewhere in a hotel meeting room, one of their compatriots was telling a small group that had gathered, that China inspired the great leap forward for Western civilisation – the Renaissance.

This was an audacious claim, but his presentation was meticulous. Menzies introduced his second book "1434: The Year A Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance", and those listening realised this white-haired gent might be onto something.

With global interest focused on China, there is no better time than 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, to release a controversial book about world history involving the Asian giant. But she is not the only country to bask in international attention. This is also the year of Spanish sporting triumphs.

In July, 65,000 Spaniards gathered on Madrid's Plaza de Colón to greet the unexpectedly victorious national football team on their return from the Euro 2008 final. Coach Luis Aragones and his players were Spain's heroes and their place in Spanish hearts that day matched the namesake of the plaza they stood on. The square was originally known as Plaza de Santiago but even the patron saint that watched over this Catholic nation, James, had to make way in 1893 for Cristóbal Colón.

It is not only the Spanish who hold him dear. The rest of the world know him as Christopher Columbus, the Italian who discovered the Americas in 1492 for Spain. And after a first knock at his credentials in "1421", Menzies was going to take another swing at Columbus's pedestal.

"1434" cites a log entry made by Columbus on October 4, 1492, as he approached the Caribbean on the mission under the king of Spain:

"I should steer west south west to go there [that is, to reach the islands he is seeking] and in the spheres I have seen and in the drawings of Mappae Mundi it is in this region." (words in brackets added by Menzies)

Columbus had seen a map showing him islands in the Caribbean he is credited as "discovering". In "1434", Menzies traces this roadmap back to a controversial Chinese map that surfaced in China in 2001.

Liu Gang had stumbled upon it in a Shanghai bookstore. The map had an inscription stating that it was a Qing dynasty replica of another from the earlier Ming period. A world map created in the middle of the 18th century was nothing spectacular, but if it was indeed a copy of a 1418 Chinese map as indicated, then the Americas had been "discovered" and produced cartographically before Columbus.

This is just one of the sacred cows that Menzies slayed in "1434". Others include how Leonardo da Vinci's inventions resemble devices created by the Chinese illustrated in books printed centuries before, and that the first Chinese book was printed in 1247, more than a century before the Europeans. According to him, the Chinese imparted their knowledge to the Westerners.

"To make those claims which are fundamental, I think one is forced to have a lot of detailed reasoning so I don't see there was much choice really, but to put in a whole lot and on our website there is four times as much," says Menzies.

Readers of "1421" will find Menzies made "1434" more technical and less narrative.

"If I hadn't, people would say this is just facetious and dismiss it out of hand. The academics who want to dismiss it have got to get into it in pretty substantial detail."

A quick search online throws up many sites and forums dismissing "1421", but Menzies points out there are also academics who support him. A list of them runs to almost three pages in the acknowledgements section of "1434".

Menzies sees his version of events as true history, and it is being explored in liberal studies classes in universities in China, the US and Europe.

If these books on Ming China's mastery had come from a Chinese, they would have been dismissed as nationalistic propaganda. The same song from the mouth of a foreigner sounds different.

Menzies is not the first author to sing of China's pre-Columbus exploration of the world Louise Levathes, a former National Geographic writer, made the same claim in a 1997 book, "When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433". But with the opportune moment, a catchier title, a decade's experience leading a Royal Navy submarine crew during the Cold War and an expertise in naval navigation on his side, Menzies is giving this tune a more resounding voice internationally.

"1434" is surely not the authoritative last word on the matter, and history is not ready to be re-written as yet. Still this Olympic year, as the world watches China emerge as the proverbial phoenix so highly regarded in her native mythology, the book accomplishes the same thing Chinese director Zhang Yimou did with the stunning opening ceremony.

"1434" lets the world glimpse the greatness in the centuries-old ashes from which China has risen.


* An online discussion and a more in-depth exploration of the themes in "1421" and "1434" can be found at Menzies's next book is to be tentatively titled "1446: The Year China Abandoned her American Colonies".

First Published: 
November 2008


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dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

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