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1421: The Year China Discovered the World


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Did anybody watch the PBS special “1421: When China discovered the World” last week?

The special is divided into two one-hour episodes. The first half was aired last Wednesday. But the second half is not scheduled yet due to the airing of Democratic Convention by PBS this week.

This special revolves on the book written by Gavin Menzies: “1421: The Year China discovered the World” – which hypothesized that Zheng He’s maritime voyages in early Ming went as far as America.

I just watched the last 15 minutes of the episode. Mr. Menzies suggested some interesting theories:

(1) From DNA test, the people in Greenland, Chile and Aleutian Islands have recently acquired Chinese genes. Most likely some of Zheng’s entourage must have left some descendants there.

(2) In Zheng’s report to the imperial court after his voyages, he wrote that he had been to “30-something countries”. Mr. Menzies said that since the Chinese character “ten” and “thousand” differs in one stroke at the top, the current sculptured script must have been eroded and “ten” should be “thousand”. In other words, General Zheng must have been circling around the world in early 15th century and traveled to over 3,000 countries.

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I was thinking of buying the book when I first saw it, but chose not to because the material in the book can be just Gavin's hypothesis, instead of valid scientific evidence.

Another question is who conducted the DNA tests. It is possible that the Chinese genes found in those people could have been passed on by immigrants who came way after the time of Zheng He. Just a wild thought. But no one would want to immigrate to Greenland or the Aleutians. :D

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(2) In Zheng’s report to the imperial court after his voyages, he wrote that he had been to “30-something countries”. Mr. Menzies said that since the Chinese character “ten” and “thousand” differs in one stroke at the top, the current sculptured script must have been eroded and “ten” should be “thousand”. In other words, General Zheng must have been circling around the world in early 15th century and traveled to over 3,000 countries.

this is a joke.

1, chinese used a different set of writing for numbers if it concerns official documents(壹贰叁肆伍陆柒捌玖拾, 佰, 仟, 萬). this was invented and made popular during zhu yuanzhang's time(the first ming emperor) to curb corruption, how could zhenghe be so careless to miss out 拾 and 仟?

2, even if zhenghe is careless he used the simplified forms, from strokes sequence we knew that one would never mixed up ten and thousand cos the missing part for thousand according to mr menzies, is the first stroke for that word. zhenghe wouldnt have missed the first stroke and carry on with the next. would anyone missed out the first stroke in "T" and turned it into an "I" ?

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  • 1 month later...
woodcutter

I just finished this book, and I really have no idea whether it is absolute nonsense or not. The evidence for Zhenghe's fleet circumnavigating the world is certainly copious, laid out in a vast index at the back of the book. Much of it is pretty convincing, though you have to endure a lot of material in which Menzies claims his years as a submarine captain gives him special map-understanding powers. The academics have torn into it (and some of their criticisms are no doubt correct) but since Menzies is not in the club, they would, wouldn't they?

Menzies talks at length of Chinese DNA and Chinese animals and artifacts in the new world, and at one point entertains the notion that maybe individual small craft took them there. He doesn't think so, but on the basis of the Kon-tiki expedition, surely seafarers from all kinds of ancient countries went to all kinds of places?

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  • 10 months later...

The Post Offices in Mainland, HK and Macau have simultaneously issued stamps on June 28 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the maritime voyages launched by General Zheng He.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The current issue of National Geographic Magazine also has an article about China's great armada and the seven maritime expeditions launched by General Zheng He:

http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0507/feature2/multimedia.html

Interestingly the article noted that General Zheng was a Moslem non-Han captured by Ming army and being forced to be castrated.

How could a non-Han Moslem enunch-turned-general be so loyal to the Ming court?

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How could a non-Han Moslem enunch-turned-general be so loyal to the Ming court?

I also had a chance to browse through this National Geographic article while shopping at a bookstore.

Zheng helped Yongle consolidate his power after he was castrated. Zhu Yuanzhang and Yongle entrusted a lot of power to their eunuchs to a far greater extent than previous dynasties. Eunuchs were given the power to brief the emperor as well as run the Eastern Depot (Ming secret police). They had a lot of prestige during Ming. Often they were given more powers than scholar-officials. So Yongle's favorable attitude towards eunuchs in general created an opportunity for Zheng to show his colors and devotion. In return Yongle rewarded Zheng for his service. This made it natural for Zheng to be loyal to the Ming court.

If Zheng had lived in any other dynasty, he would not have the opportunity to take on a role considered to be of great prestige. The fact that he was forced to be castrated and become a eunuch, rather than become an official through the civil service exams, shows Ming's preference for 'power of the gun' and the loss of prestige the scholarly suffered during the first two reigns.

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  • 2 weeks later...
f'yor-fei

Menzies book contains a lot of speculation and wild theories, all of which sound interesting, but very frustrating as you don't know the quality or quantity of data he is basing his ideas on. Some of it may turn out to be insightful, but without archaeological evidence, most of it seems to be fanciful dreams.

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Has anybody been to those Zheng He temples in Malaysia and Indonesia?

Most of these temples encircled a huge water well that Zheng's navy drilled when they landed there (edible water looks like the biggest constraint for maritime trip during that period).

The weird thing is that all these temples are built in Buddhist/Taoist architectural style. But Zheng He was a Moslem. He even traveled to Mecca to pay pilmirage during his 7th voyage.

So why were temples with Zheng's stature built ?

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I don't know how the Zheng He temples in Malaysia and Indonesia look like, but the Muslim 礼拜寺/清真寺 looked very much like the average 寺,观,庙. Muslims have very different architectures around the world, it doesn't need to have a dome shaped like an onion. Basically all you need is a minaret and a mihrab pointing to the ka'aba, and that's it. Also isn't Indonesia and Malaysia Muslim sultanates then, and quite predominantly Muslim today as well? I would guess there are still many descendants from Zheng He's fleet in those nations, and since both were Muslims, they decided to honour him by building temples, much like we honour our ancestors by building a 庙.

-Shìbó :mrgreen:

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  • 1 month later...
Long Zhiren

Another book is available on this issue: Levathes, Louise. "When China Ruled the Seas" 1996. It summarizes some history of other Chinese naval explorations earlier than Zheng He.

It's not expensive, but checking it out from the library is probably a better deal than buying it.

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  • 2 weeks later...

...split from http://www.chinese-forums.com/showthread.php?p=48536#post48536

Despite the grandeur of the voyages, they did not bring a single territory directly under the control of the Ming empire. Neither did they establish communication links with peoples from the locales that Zheng He's ships reached.

Another possible motive behind Yongle's launching of the voyages was that by launching an expedition on such a grand scale, he could validate his legitimacy to the throne and justify his usurpation of the throne from Zhu Yunwen.

I do believe though that had Yongle's successor Xuande continued China's maritime expeditions, China's fate during the 19th century could have been much different. Why? Right when Xuande discontinued the voyages, the Europeans were in the process of launching their own voyages towards the East around the south coast of Africa.

Since Xuande stopped the voyages, China began to drift into isolation and maintained a closed-door, xenophobic attitude towards outsiders during Ming. A continuation of the voyages would have exposed China to outside ideas and thinking, as well as gradually build up a navy to counteract the growing maritime influence of the Europeans in the same period.

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Long Zhiren

bhchao,

"Possible motives for the voyages..."

You are, of course, aware of the recorded motives for the voyages correct? Levathes paints a picture of an insecure Yongle who was worried that Zhu Yunwen was hiding somewhere else on the planet. Considering the scale of the corruption in just the nationwide shipbuilding schemes, it's believable. The construction of the armadas was quite an accomplishment but at quite a cost.

"Since Xuande stopped the voyages, China began to drift into isolation and maintained a closed-door, xenophobic attitude towards outsiders during Ming."

Levathes makes the isolation, closed-door attitudes just consequences of outdated Confucius ideas. When Confucius was around, the rest of the world had little to offer other than barbarians. When the 15th century voyages occured, the rest of the world still had little to offer. Europe's 15th century fur and wine trades would never justify the expense of such voyages. Zheng He's voyages did little to modify an already prevalent attitude towards the rest of the world and couldn't shift the Ming's priorities.

"A continuation of the voyages would have exposed China to outside ideas and thinking, as well as gradually build up a navy to counteract the growing maritime influence of the Europeans in the same period."

Of course.

By the late 16th century, the Ming were ready to go bankrupt repulsing Japanese invasion attempts in Korea.

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  • 2 weeks later...

edit: the following comments refer to 1421: The year China discovered the world by Gavin Menzies

Let me preface my comments by saying that I don't doubt the basic theory of this book: that Chinese mariners sailed to and mapped much of the world in the early fifteenth century. However, I don't think this book represents an accurate account of how the Chinese accomplished this. At best I would say about one-third of the book is well researched history, one-third speculation based on selective use of evidence or evidence of questionable value and finally one-third wild speculation verging on pure fantasy.

The theory certainly has merit. The existence of maps of that predate the expeditions of Europeans provide good proof and at that time Chinese knowledge and technology far exceeded that of Europe at that time.

One of the biggest problems with the book is that the author fails to consider other possible explanations. While the activities of Arab and Portuguese sailors are given some mention, the Indians get scant mention and the Polynesians absolutely none. The author presumes that the Chinese were solely responsible for the introduction of new flora and fauna, particularly agriculturally useful species, across the globe. The Polynesians probably brought many of these plants to the Pacific and possibly the Americas many centuries before the Chinese reached them. Much of the transfer of seed and agricultural knowledge across the Eurasian/African land mass probably occured over millennia by gradual dispersion and would not have depended on a single ship setting sail.

The author constantly refers to indigenous people in the Americas having Chinese DNA without citing any authorative sources for his claim. He also fails to consider the possibility that this DNA could have come from migrations many millennia ago or from Polynesian peoples crossing the Pacific.

The book is poorly edited and the author's lack of in depth knowledge of Chinese history and culture shows through. The basic theory of the book does require a significant reappraisal of the commonly accepted view of history and European expansion across the globe. However, the author will probably not bring about the revolution that he hopes for. The book contains too many holes which will make it easily dismissed by academics.

I do hope some academics will not be put off and will use this book as a starting point for more thorough research. Ideally a team of historians with a knowledge of maritime history and Sinology could put together a better book that would give a more accurate account of how the Chinese really did discover the world.

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Long Zhiren

That sounds worse than even Levathes' book. You'll notice my little comment in message #11. [Levathes is not worth buying.] Just borrow it from the library and put it back after the comic-book level read. :-) It's kind of enlightening nevertheless. Sometimes I wonder in which historical era of China that I'd desire to live via time machine. However, Levathes makes clear that the "Good old days" weren't always so "good." The civil strife and methods of law/order in those times seem way brutal.

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It could be possible that Zheng He's maritime expeditions reached a farther extent than what is shown in today's maps, although this possiblity cannot be confirmed. Court officials who opposed the continuation of the voyages supposedly destroyed many, if not most, of Zheng He's record logs. I think the routes on the maps we see today comes mostly from information that was extracted from Zheng's crew members.

I agree that 1421 is a book full of unproved hypotheses with no real evidence to back them up.

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Why did the armada of Zheng He always take the southern route in all the seven journeys?

Why didn't he take the northern route? Wouldn't there be a chance that Zhu Yunwen sought exile in Ryukyu, Chosun or Nippon?

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Long Zhiren

Menzies book sounds kind of lacking. I'm intrigued and feel that I need to look at it in order to compare it to Levathes'.

bhchao says:

>Court officials who opposed the continuation of the voyages supposedly destroyed many, if not

>most, of Zheng He's record logs.

Levathes has photos of some maps that were used in Zheng He's day. Does Menzies have those too? They are "more functional by design" than "to scale" as most modern maps have it. They remind me of the distorted maps of mockery like "Reagan's view of the world" except that they are precisely functional--key landmarks, dominant currents, number of strokes between points rather than by distance.

Ian_Lee says:

>Why did the armada of Zheng He always take the southern route in all the seven journeys?

>Why didn't he take the northern route? Wouldn't there be a chance that Zhu Yunwen sought

>exile in Ryukyu, Chosun or Nippon?"

Levathes mentions searches in other directions, but not by Zheng He.

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