Chinese reach America in 1421?

I browsed through a bookstore today and found a book in the history section that was apparently about the Cheng Ho (Zheng Ho?) fleets sent out by the Chinese Emperor in the 13th century.

Judging from the dust jacket description, the book claims these fleets reached America and Antarctica and circumnavigated the globe well before Europeans did.

Is this true/false/controversial due to insufficient evidence/whacko/whatever?

The book you’re referring to is probably this one by Gavin Menzies.

Menzies has gotten a lot of publicity, but his theories aren’t taken seriously by any reputable historian. From what I’ve read, Mr. Menzies’ assertions fall into two categories:

  1. Sheer speculation without a shred of evidence.
  2. Stuff that serious historians (but few others) have known for a long time.

There is no doubt that, long before Columbus, China had a mighty fleet, and that Chinese sailors had explored and charted much of the Pacific. Given enough time and enough resources, such sailors might eventually have found the Americas or Antarctica… but there’s no compelling evidence to suggest that they did. And in any event, China dismantled most of its fleet, in one of its periodic outbreaks of xenophobia and isolationism.

If Menzies had merely written a book showing how advanced the Chinese navy once was, NOBODY would have argued with him. The Chinese navy WAS far larger and more technologically advanced than any other navy in the world, in the early 15th century. And if he’d merely argued that Chinese sailors COULD have reached the Americas, he wouldn’t be regarded as a kook. But he goes off the dep end, arguing not only that the Chinese discovered America first but that Columbus (and other Europeans) KNEW about China’s feats, and essentially “ripped off” their research and accomplishments.

That’s what moves him from the “eccentric” category to the “nut job” category.

In the quasi-mythical realm of pre-Columbian travellers, there is an account of a party of Buddhist monks from China who may have made their way to North America.

A site and cite can be found here.

This new book seems to present a different voyage – not Hoei-Shin (who was written up in Boland’s book They All Discovered America. Since Menzies seems to claim that the Newport Tower in Newport , RI was built by these guys, I have to be skeptical – excavations about 25-35 years ago indicated a colonial america date for the tower, and recent dating of the mortar coincides with that. If this is the calibre of Menzies’ work, I’m impressed but by no means convinced.

Zheng He seems to have made it all the way to Somalia, but probably no farther. Interestingly, Nova concludes that the Chinese fleet actually traded for the famous giraffe in Bangladesh, but procured other animals such as a zebra in Africa itself.

I’ve actually met and spoken with Louise Levathes, author of When China Ruled the Seas. When I spoke with her six years ago, she was confident that a definitive answer about the seaworthiness of the Chinese fleet would be forthcoming in the near future. (hint-hint) I suppose we’ll just have to wait for her next book.

While stories about pre-Columbian European/Asian/African voyages to North and South America are interesting, there is one factor they can’t overcome: even if any or all of them are true, they are all dead ends in terms of historical impact. Columbus was not the first to establish contact with the cultures of the Western Hemisphere–it’s fairly well established that the Norse were. However, he was the first to establish–for better or worse–continual contact and exchange between European and Native American cultures. More importantly, his voyage marked the beginning of European awareness of a world that existed beyond their continent. Even the Vikings, who abandoned their colonies after a relatively short time, at best only contributed a few foggy legends to what Europeans knew about the world at that time.

The nail in the coffin for me is that these cultures could supposedly interact without exchanging diseases like the plague and syphillis, and without exchanging crops like rice or wheat (which they would have brought with them as dried seed) for corn and potatoes. The record’s pretty clear that China got those crops after Columbus brought them back to Eurasia. Same for the diseases: Indians wouldn’t have died off like they did if there’d been any real contact with a massive Chinese fleet 100 years before.

tomyoung, do you think Chinese of that period had the same mix of diseases Europeans ~200 years later did? I wouldn’t really know where to research that, and I’d like to hear some informed speculation (or proof from the Doper with a time machine :D).

The study of ancient diseases is very problematic, and might not help you much…
One strange disease anomaly concerns syphillis- a disease which for a long time was believed to have started in America and transferred to Europe- in the opposite direction to most such infections.

From this link

So it is possible that the infection crossed the Atlantic three hundred years before Columbus…
or , as the link points out, the more likely possibility is that earlier cases of syphilis in Europe were not detected by archaeologists.

I haven’t read this book, but have read several reviews. The author seems to be very sloppy, and has no evidence that other scholars accept as proof. It’s very clear that the Chinese COULD have reached the New World fairly easily had they not given up on exploration. The Norse landing in Canada is the ONLY pre-Columbian Old World landing in the New that is accepted by historians. There’s really no doubt about that. And as someone said earlier, even if the Chinese did get here, it didn’t amount to anything.

A vital point that too many people ignore. Columbus’ accomplishment wasn’t that he discovered America; it was that after Columbus did it, America stayed discovered.

well, I don’t really know about epidemiological history. I was under the impression that syphillus’s history was uncontested. But this is about a Chinese voyage in the 1400s, right? How did syph get to Eurasia earlier than that? In any event, the pre-columbus boosters still don’t explain the absence of crop exchange, which is a fairly glaring problem.

Syphilis’s history is very much contested. See (for example):

The only clear-cut physical evidence about syphilus comes from skeletons, and even that is subject to interpretation (see the second link.) Written evidence on disease is only of limited use, since descriptions of symptoms are often vague or contradictory.

read the book: 1421 by Gavin Menzies

there should be a page on the web about the book, too.

I’ve read it, and yes, very very interesting.
I doubt that Western Europe will ever admit this, as they’ve always claimed all credit for exploring and mapping the world…

I think the Chinese, and not just any Chinese, but eunuchs!
did it.

Zheng-He’s voyages have always been recognized and acknowledged ( since they’ve been known - ironically of course, it was Ming burecrats that tried to supress knowledge of them ). Indeed there has always been speculation about what might have happened if the Ming had not turned their back on an aggressive naval program ( i.e. possibly pre-empting Portuguese dominance in the Indian Ocean ).

However some of Menzies’ claims seem to go way beyond this and be based on very flimsy evidence. There are quite a few logical flaws that would seem to put the kibosh on his most outre claims ( this based on interviews with him and criticisms I have read, as well as my own analysis - I admit I gave up on checking out the book after doing a bit of research on his claims and the general response to them by the history community ).

  • Tamerlane

Have there been any science fiction books, of the “what if?” variety, taking as a premise Chinese exploration and colonization of the Americas?

“Journey to Fusang” by William Sanders. The Arabs conquered all of Europe except the British isles and the New World was colonized by the Arabs and Chinese. An entertaining book.

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. The Black Death in the 14th century kills off practically all Europeans. The Muslims take over Europe. Meanwhile, the Chinese discover America across the Pacific Ocean, and Muslims in Central Asia develop modern science and technology. This book is the grandest achievement in “what if” speculative fiction I’ve ever seen.