Did China discover the new world in 1421?

I just read a letter to the NY Times Book Review that mentioned a book by someone named Gavin Menzies and claims that Menzies “argues convincingly” that a Chinese fleet circumnavigated the world, made maps of the new world…and that Columbus would have seen these maps. He also claims that they left “colonies and artifacts”. This is an extraordinary claim. Is there any actual evidence?

I don’t know about China, but its well known that the vikings built settlements in what is now eastern Canada.

Short answer is not really, long answer follows.

It’s been a long time since I read it but I think all Menzies’ key pieces of evidence are very circumstantial and debateable (the less polite might say fanciful). Menzies makes a lot of the Piri Reis map compiled by an Ottoman Admiral in 1513. It has parts which look like the east coast of South America and perhaps part of Antarctica. Menzies argues that this was sourced from a now lost Chinese map produced during the circumnavigation but doesn’t explain why the west coast of South America is missing. The more likely explanation is that Piri Reis used Spanish or Portuguese charts in his depiction of South America, which at that stage only showed the Eastern seaboard.

He also refers a lot to physical evidence of a dubious nature, old (pre 20th century) reports of strange shipwrecks in Australia (see the Mahogany Ship for example) and New Zealand, weird geological formations and artifacts like the Tamil bell in New Zealand. At every turn Menzies ascribes these to his Chinese fleet(s) activities but nearly all of them seem to have more mundane explanations (that bell remains a puzzle though, although Menzies doesn’t convincingly explain why an artifact from South India would be transported to New Zealand by a Chinese fleet in 1421).

Complicating matters is that there was a massive wave of Chinese exploration in the early 15the century under Admiral Zheng He. But those voyages went west (ie towards Africa) rather than East (towards the Americas) and are well documented. Menzies has basically invented a complementary Eastwards fleet and concocted it’s adventures based on the flimsiest of evidence.

Menzies makes a good case, but there are some holes in it. Most obvious to me is that, in order for the Chinese to travel the course he claims they took, they had to return by the Northwest Passage. He tries to say that for some reason, the ice had receded somewhat in that period, but that’s hard to accept. I think, though, that at least a handful of his speculations are solid enough for further study.

No. Gavin Menzies discovered how to sell pseudohistory by making mad claims with no evidence. See here, as well as myriad sources elsewhere, about why that book should be treated as historical fiction at best.

I don’t agree with the whole theory, but it is not impossible some ships of Zheng He did go to America.

The Tamil Bell is interesting, but if anything it would suggest early Portugese contact. Or it could just have been brought by an earlier missionary who used it as a doorstop and then traded it for a pig: it’s intriguing, but in isolation as an artifact, it’s not proof or even evidence of anything.

Indeed, and that’s Menzies’ entire method - he takes ambiguous ‘evidence’ and shoe horns it into his farfetched theory.

If so, why didn’t the Chinese leave then-exclusively Eurasian diseases, such as smallpox, in the Americas?

*"***Did China discover the new world in 1421?"


Thanks for the replies. It is pretty much what I expected.