Voyages of Zheng He

I’ve just read a great article in this months National Geographic about the Chinese Admiral who sailed to countries such as Indonesia, India and Africa over a period of 30 odd years.

Does anyone know why he never attempted to sail eastwards towards the Americas?

Was it lack of ships/boats coming from the east that suggested to them that there was nothing to discover in that direction ?

Yeah, I would guess that there was just no indication that there was anything to his East worth looking for.

When sailing from China to Indonesia, India or Africa, you can follow the coastline. To sail into open ocean with no knowledge that there’s any land beyond is a different kind of venture entirely.

Keep in mind that his voyages weren’t so much for “discovery”, but for reaching desitnations already well known from standard trade routes. His voyages were part of an effort to establish Chinese supremacy (at least thru trade if not thru rule) throught the known world.

At least one person thinks they did explore the Americas.

Well, I think there was a strong element of discovery in his voyages as well. I did a bit of reading on Zheng He a week or so ago when the “Why didn’t anyone else ‘discover’ Australia” thread was current. There’s at least some speculation that a portion of Zheng He’s fleet did, in fact, touch down in New Zealand and Australia, but, as usual, they didn’t leave much behind to prove it.

The real problem is that immediately after Zheng He’s era, the Chinese entered into a centuries long policy of isolationism and the records of the explorations were either disregarded, lost, or deliberately destroyed.

The Chinese did have a sizeable disadvantage in exploring the New World in that they are starting off considerably further away than the Europeans. Either they head off into the blue nothingness of the Pacific or they have to round Cape Horn and head west across the Atlantic, which means a sea voyage that’s already taxing the technology of the mid-1400’s.

Gavin Menzies has written a book on the subject. He is of the opinion that the Chinese did make it to America, landing in some of the Islands off Florida and possibly Rhode Island.

It is called “1421: The Year China Discovered the World”.

Here’s a link to an article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2349929.stm

There was also a program on TV about it. I forget if it was Discover or Nature or something like them. It was interesting in that the Chinese scholars claim that the fleet did not go to America, although is was easily capable of doing so. A previous article in NAtioal Geographic pointed out hat the fleet, had over 400 ship 8 times the size of Columbus’s flagship.

His facts are a little better than Velikovsky’s. In other words, although maybe he doesn’t wear the full tinfoil hat, he keeps a little peice of it under his regular one. :eek:

PBS. And the title is VERY misleading, as they pretty much debunk his claim about America.

What’s wrong with going north and following the coast until you cross the Bering Strait? It is admittedly very cold, but there are very cold regions of China as well.

I don’t think he’s that out of touch. Just a gut who invested so much time, money and energy into a theory that he wants soooo baaaad for it to be true. He knows he’s teetering on the brink of either being a well-respected historian or a conspiracy-type crank.

And I certainly don’t see what the big deal is. No on disputes that the Chinese fleet was far superior to anything in Europe and that they could have easily reached America. To me, that’s the amaziing part. Whether they did or not is immaterial.

Two holes in his argument: He claims that the peoples of much of the Americas look Chinese and have DNA that links back to China. And he goes on to ackowledge the connection of landbridge connecting the continents up around Alaska during the ice age. Hmmm, wonder how that DNA cold have goten there?..

Thne there are the Chinese maps. They all indicate a flat world UNTIL they interacted with the Europeans later in the century.

Agreed. See above.

Correct. For me, the problem with this theory and other theories about other pre-Columbus explorations of the Americas is the “so what?” factor. Even if one is extremely generous and grants that the Chinese, Africans, Phoenicians, Romans, Irish, Welsh, or some other sea-going culture all “discovered” America long before Columbus did, such a “discovery” ended up being a dead-end historically. They all had considerably less impact than the Vikings who we do know made a failed atttempt to colonize Newfoundland (i.e., “Vineland”) sometime around 1000 only to have their discovery fade into obscurity. Even though he wasn’t the first, Columbus still gets almost all the credit because the Americas stayed “discovered” after his voyages and–for better or worse–it marked the beginning of continuous cultural, economic, and biological contact and exchange between the “Old World” and the “New World.”

Incidentally, the matter of “biological exchange” brings me to another reason why I doubt the Chinese (or other cultures besides the Norse) made contact with the Americas before Columbus: disease. I haven’t read the book so maybe it’s explained but if the Chinese explored the Americas as extensively as theorized, wouldn’t they also have spread around some “Old World” germs and then picked up some “New World” germs to take back home? When Columbus landed, it didn’t take long before a whole host of newly-introduced diseases started wreaking havoc on the Native American population (as syphilis started doing likewise among the “Old World” population, although it’s supposed American origin is now disputed). Wouldn’t mass epidemics have broken out in the areas where the Chinese were alleged to have been?

Right. From the POV of the time, learned people know Earth is round, but they believe that Eurasia and Africa is all there is, between China and Europe there’s nothing but ocean. China and SE Asia have things Europe badly wants, so Europeans are highly motivated to get there somehow, and the land routes are now all controlled by hostile powers. Trouble is, the Europeans are not exactly sure of how far East is the Far East. But the potential payoff is huge. So Columbus conveniently “miscalculates” that datum AND and the diameter of the Earth, and tosses in the known fact of inhabitable mid-oceanic islands (Madeira, Azores, Iceland) and the rumors of even further ones, so as to make the pitch that a sailing from Spain to the “Spice Islands” may be technologically feasible, and gets the backing.

The Chinese, at the time, KNOW where the action is: to their South and West. Notice also that the Chinese did NOT attempt to actually conquer the lands they explored or enslave the peoples – at most they set up trading posts in places like Singapore. They were not expansionist, and why would they be? China was pretty self-contained resources-wise, for a 1400s society. Their problem began when on top of being nonexpansionist they turned isolationist.

Any explorations NE of Japan, say of the Aleutians or Alaska, would have brought back to the Forbidden City reports along the lines of the now-classic “Mostly Harmless”. Why sail to Alaska for goods (furs, whales, timber), that you can get so much closer to home on Siberian shores?

Yeah, you’re exactly right. The land following my proposed route doesn’t look at all promising until you hit the rich forests of (South-)Western Canada and Washington state, and it still doesn’t get you much Siberia doesn’t already have.

Is there any direct evidence Columbus conveniently miscalculated the size of the Earth? There is surviving documentation that one of the ancient Greeks calculated the size of the Earth using simple geometry. Either Columbus knew the true figure, or was really sloppy about such things.

Such evidence does survive, in the form of the notes Columbus made in the margins of his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, in an edition produced c.1480. As for when he made these notes, they mention an event in 1488, but also appear to have been produced prior to the first voyage.
He actually made two assumptions in these notes which reinforce each other. First of all, he underestimated the size of the Earth. Appealing to his own experience, he accepts a estimate of the length of a degree in miles at the Equator due to Alfragan. (There are also then various complications here to do with different definitions of a mile.) That gives him a estimate of the circumference of the Earth that’s about a quarter less than that due to Eratosthenes, the ancient Greek you’re referring to.
Then (in fact, it’s earlier in the notes), he made Asia longer than it is in reality. That moves China and Japan closer to the Atlantic coast of Europe.

While both choices of estimate are undoubtedly either conciously or unconciously biased, it could be argued that both correspond to a type of error that wasn’t uncommon at the time. Ptolemy’s estimate of the circumference of the Earth had been about 10% smaller than Eratosthenes’ and his longitude estimates were also all systematically too large. And he was perhaps the most respected authority at the time. Columbus was simply pushing them even further.

The most important of the handwritten notes in the Imago Mundi are handily translated in Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (Heritage, 1963), edited by Samuel Eliot Morison.

Yeah, you’d have to be crazy to do that. Or Polynesian. :slight_smile:

I tend to agree with that, and I’ve made that point in other threads.

The only problem with that is how to claissify the Viking’s discovery. It didn’t make any difference either way (to the Native Americans or to the Europeans), but there is absolutely no doubt that they landed on North American soil long before Columbus.

AND they documented it, and spread the word. But it spread only so far. (There are some theories that Columbus had heard about the Viking discoveries, but :dubious: )

Like I said before- the Vikings get a footnote, or marginalia.

The old Chinese conspiracy theory goes something like this:

Zheng He was a lot less interested in exploration than he was making sure that the previous emperor (who disappeared in a palace fire under rather suspicious circumstances*) was actually dead and not, say, pining for the straits. :slight_smile:

*Said suspicious circumstance being the current emperor storming the Imperial City for fear of being the next in line to get axed.