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An ancient map that strongly suggests Chinese were first round the world


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http://www.economist.com/books/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5381851

China beat Columbus to it, perhaps

Jan 12th 2006

From The Economist print edition

An ancient map that strongly suggests Chinese seamen were first round the world

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THE brave seamen whose great voyages of exploration opened up the world are iconic figures in European history. Columbus found the New World in 1492; Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1488; and Magellan set off to circumnavigate the world in 1519. However, there is one difficulty with this confident assertion of European mastery: it may not be true.

It seems more likely that the world and all its continents were discovered by a Chinese admiral named Zheng He, whose fleets roamed the oceans between 1405 and 1435. His exploits, which are well documented in Chinese historical records, were written about in a book which appeared in China around 1418 called “The Marvellous Visions of the Star Raft”.

Next week, in Beijing and London, fresh and dramatic evidence is to be revealed to bolster Zheng He's case. It is a copy, made in 1763, of a map, dated 1418, which contains notes that substantially match the descriptions in the book. “It will revolutionise our thinking about 15th-century world history,” says Gunnar Thompson, a student of ancient maps and early explorers.

The map (shown above) will be unveiled in Beijing on January 16th and at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich a day later. Six Chinese characters in the upper right-hand corner of the map say this is a “general chart of the integrated world”. In the lower left-hand corner is a note that says the chart was drawn by Mo Yi Tong, imitating a world chart made in 1418 which showed the barbarians paying tribute to the Ming emperor, Zhu Di. The copyist distinguishes what he took from the original from what he added himself.

The map was bought for about $500 from a small Shanghai dealer in 2001 by Liu Gang, one of the most eminent commercial lawyers in China, who collects maps and paintings. Mr Liu says he knew it was significant, but thought it might be a modern fake. He showed his acquisition to five experienced collectors, who agreed that the traces of vermin on the bamboo paper it is written on, and the de-pigmentation of ink and colours, indicated that the map was more than 100 years old.

Mr Liu was unsure of its meaning, and asked specialists in ancient Chinese history for their advice, but none, he says, was forthcoming. Then, last autumn, he read “1421: The Year China Discovered the World”, a book written in 2003 by Gavin Menzies, in which the author makes the controversial claim that Zheng He circumnavigated the world, discovering America on the way. Mr Menzies, who is a former submariner in the Royal Navy and a merchant banker, is an amateur historian and his theory met with little approval from professionals. But it struck a chord: his book became a bestseller and his 1421 website is very popular. In any event, his arguments convinced Mr Liu that his map was a relic of Zheng He's earlier voyages.

The detail on the copy of the map is remarkable. The outlines of Africa, Europe and the Americas are instantly recognisable. It shows the Nile with two sources. The north-west passage appears to be free of ice. But the inaccuracies, also, are glaring. California is shown as an island; the British Isles do not appear at all. The distance from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean is ten times greater than it ought to be. Australia is in the wrong place (though cartographers no longer doubt that Australia and New Zealand were discovered by Chinese seamen centuries before Captain Cook arrived on the scene).

The commentary on the map, which seems to have been drawn from the original, is written in clear Chinese characters which can still be easily read. Of the west coast of America, the map says: “The skin of the race in this area is black-red, and feathers are wrapped around their heads and waists.” Of the Australians, it reports: “The skin of the aborigine is also black. All of them are naked and wearing bone articles around their waists.”

But this remarkable precision, rather than the errors, is what critics of the Menzies theory are likely to use to question the authenticity of the 1418 map. Mr Menzies and his followers are naturally extremely keen to establish that the 1763 copy is not a forgery and that it faithfully represents the 1418 original. This would lend weighty support to their thesis: that China had indeed discovered America by (if not actually in) 1421. Mass spectrography analysis to date the copied map is under way at Waikato University in New Zealand, and the results will be announced in February. But even if affirmative, this analysis is of limited importance since it can do no more than date the copyist's paper and inks.

Five academic experts on ancient charts note that the 1418 map puts together information that was available piecemeal in China from earlier nautical maps, going back to the 13th century and Kublai Khan, who was no mean explorer himself. They believe it is authentic.

The map makes good estimates of the latitude and longitude of much of the world, and recognises that the earth is round. “The Chinese were almost certainly aware of longitude before Zheng He set sail,” says Robert Cribbs of California State University. They certainly assumed the world was round. “The format of the map is totally consistent with the level of knowledge that we should expect of royal Chinese geographers following the voyages of Zheng He,” says Mr Thompson.

Moreover, some of the errors in the 1418 map soon turned up in European maps, the most striking being California drawn as an island. The Portuguese are aware of a world map drawn before 1420 by a cartographer named Albertin di Virga, which showed Africa and the Americas. Since no Portuguese seamen had yet discovered those places, the most obvious source for the information seems to be European copies of Chinese maps.

But this is certainly not a unanimous view among the experts, with many of the fiercest critics in China itself. Wang Tai-Peng, a scholarly journalist in Vancouver who does not doubt that the Chinese explored the world early in the 15th century (he has written about a visit by Chinese ambassadors to Florence in 1433), doubts whether Zheng He's ships landed in North America. Mr Wang also claims that Zheng He's navigation maps were drawn in a totally different Chinese map-making tradition. “Until the 1418 map is scientifically authenticated, we still have to take it with a grain of salt,” he says.

Most forgeries are driven by a commercial imperative, especially when the market for ancient maps is booming, as it is now. The Library of Congress recently paid $10m for a copy of a 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemuller, a German cartographer. But Mr Liu says he is not a seller: “The map is part of my life,” he claims.

The consequences of the discovery of this map could be considerable. If it does indeed prove to be the first map of the world, “the history of New World discovery will have to be rewritten,” claims Mr Menzies. How much does this matter? Showing that the world was first explored by Chinese rather than European seamen would be a major piece of historical revisionism. But there is more to history than that. It is no less interesting that the Chinese, having discovered the extent of the world, did not exploit it, politically or commercially. After all, Columbus's discovery of America led to exploitation and then development by Europeans which, 500 years later, made the United States more powerful than China had ever been.

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Yeah but whether they were the first or not is largely irrelevant. Like many other Chinese discoveries/inventions (gunpowder, the printing press etc), history tells us that they did nothing about it.

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It seems more likely that the world and all its continents were discovered by a Chinese admiral named Zheng He, whose fleets roamed the oceans between 1405 and 1435. His exploits, which are well documented in Chinese historical records, were written about in a book which appeared in China around 1418 called “The Marvellous Visions of the Star Raft”.

"more likely"

So glad The Econimist has hired some historians to do their reporting. Perhaps they could fill us in on the "well documented ... Chinese historical records" that corroborate the "more likely."

Experiment for social scientists/economists: Watch the amazon rank of the Menzies book to see if the reporting on the map gives a blip.

Experiment for economist readers: Watch the letters from readers section in the next couple editions and read the letters from the writer's historian colleagues.

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Far from strongly suggesting anything of the sort, the map and Gavin Menzies' book have been ridiculed by historians almost everywhere.

The Economist is the only publication which seems to take it seriously. You just gotta trust an article which claims that

many of the fiercest critics [are] in China itself

then the only one they can find to quote turns out to be from Vancouver, which wasn't in China the last time I looked.

For a critic who is in China, click here, or here if you are in China.

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Yeah but whether they were the first or not is largely irrelevant. Like many other Chinese discoveries/inventions (gunpowder, the printing press etc), history tells us that they did nothing about it.

I don't see how it's "irrelevant."

If (a big if no doubt) this map is genuine, then it would confirm how Europeans were able to discover many parts of the New World and Australia/New Zealand with existing maps when they haven't been there earlier. It would give Chinese partial credit for these European expeditions. This is sort of like science, where one early discovery leads to huge breakthroughs in all areas; it would be wrong to discredit or play down these early discoveries just because they weren't followed through by the same people, don't you think? :nono

Chinese did nothing with the printing press? Please review your history. :roll: The Chinese were the world's largest and busiest publisher until the industrial age.

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If (a big if no doubt) this map is genuine, then it would confirm how Europeans were able to discover many parts of the New World and Australia/New Zealand with existing maps when they haven't been there earlier. It would give Chinese partial credit for these European expeditions.

I disagree. Even if the map is genuine, there is no evidence to support that it was then subsequently used by Europeans to discover these parts of the world. Europeans were able to discover many parts of the New World/Australia/New Zealand through exploration, and a desire to see what was out there, and more often than not a desire to find wealth and power by conquering new lands.

If European explorers were using this map, then why was Colombus trying to get to India when he would have known that there was a big hunk of land mass in the way. Even if you disregard this and still assume Europeans were using information based off this map, then given the amount of greed that was evident when conquering and plundering the New World, why did it take them another 3 centuries to find Australia. Any evidence (no matter how remote) of the existence of yet another undiscovered land would have prompted exploration and expeditions. History demonstrates that when Europeans found a new place, they went there, and they went there en-masse to try and conquer and exploit it before any other nation could.

So, by irrelevant, I mean even if it's real, it doesn't change history, it doesn't change the way we live today, and it doesn't lend the Chinese any credit for the later discoveries of new lands by the Europeans. If the Chinese had this map, they certainly didn't do anything with it.

As for my other comment, yes, China did things with the printing press, just like they did things with gunpowder. My point was that they didn't capitalise and develop these things to their full potential. Sure the printing press was used in China, but in the west it brought about the widespread dissemination of knowledge, literacy to the masses, and ultimately changed the course of history in a significant way.

The chinese printing press did none of these things (or only did them on a small scale) which is why it is Gutenberg rather than a Chinese inventor who is hailed as the father of printing.

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Many Australian explorers used Chinese maps to explore Australia and New Zealand.

One of the points in the article was that the Chinese map showed California as an island, and lots of later European maps also showed California as an island, this suggests some sort of copying and exchange. Of course, all this is under assumption that the map is genuine. Big assumption.

So, by irrelevant, I mean even if it's real, it doesn't change history, it doesn't change the way we live today, and it doesn't lend the Chinese any credit for the later discoveries of new lands by the Europeans. If the Chinese had this map, they certainly didn't do anything with it.

If the Chinese made this map at the supposed time, and it can be confirmed that European explorers were vaguely aware of this map or had seen it (as suggestive in California is an island example), then it would logically give the Chinese credit for later discoveries and it would change how history is written. It doesn't matter whether the Chinese did anything with it or not, if the Europeans used parts of the information obtained in the map, then the Chinese automatically deserve credit. That's how discovery and science works. It's called proper crediting, one discovery/advance leads to another.

So I still don't see how you can say it's irrelevant, you seem to have merely rephrased yourself, but there is no new argument.

My point was that they didn't capitalise and develop these things to their full potential. Sure the printing press was used in China' date=' but in the west it brought about the widespread dissemination of knowledge, literacy to the masses, and ultimately changed the course of history in a significant way.

The chinese printing press did none of these things (or only did them on a small scale) which is why it is Gutenberg rather than a Chinese inventor who is hailed as the father of printing.[/quote']

I don't know what you are talking about.

Chinese literacy pre-Industrial age was very high, equal to European literacy at the time, even given the difficulty of printing Chinese text (due to Chinese characters making the movable type useless). Not many Chinese people know who Gutenberg is either, nor do they hail Gutenberg as the father of printing, the reason you know Gutenberg is that you are operating within the environment of Western civilization, so that point was rather superfluous.

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Many Australian explorers used Chinese maps to explore Australia and New Zealand.

Would you care to be more precise about this? I've not really looked into the matter, but being Australian I do have a reasonable understanding of Australian history, and would be interested in reading more about this. Do you have a reference where I can read up on this?

That's how discovery and science works. It's called proper crediting, one discovery/advance leads to another.

Yes, and taking credit where credit is not due is also seen as frowned upon by the scientific community.

It's almost as if the Chinese cannot bear to have something great being discovered by non-Chinese and somehow feel a need a need to tie everything back to having its origins somehow related to China/Chinese culture, regardless of how flimsy the evidence is.

I agree with you that it is important to give credit where credit is due, I just don't think that this is the case for this situation. If I'm wrong I will happily eat my words, but it requires firstly that the map is authenticated as genuine, and secondly that European explorers knew of it - which in my opinion is unlikely for reasons I listed in my post above.

Not many Chinese people know who Gutenberg is either, nor do they hail Gutenberg as the father of printing

Here, you might want to read your own comments regarding credit where credit is due, seeing as almost all the books or printed literature that anyone reads today is printed on European style printing presses rather than Chinese style ones. The lack of recognition of Gutenberg amongst the Chinese population can be more accurately accredited to 1) the poor education system in China and 2) mis-placed nationalism in not wanting to give up one of the 4 great Chinese inventions to someone else.

As for Chinese literacy, it wasn't until the early 20th century with the introduction of Vernacular Chinese (as opposed to Classical Chinese) that literacy rates started to rise dramatically. Prior to this, literacy was largely confined to those who had been educated in Classical Chinese i.e. only a very small portion of the population. Literacy rates in Western countries, however, were climbing well before this thanks initially to the widespread adoption of the printing press, followed by the later industrialisation of the printing press in the early 19th century.

The increase in Chinese literacy rates can also be attributed to the use of European style printing presses, which is what people were using to print the new style Vernacular Chinese literature. These presses also used movable type to print Chinese characters, so it's not so much Chinese characters being the problem, but rather the type of press being used.

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So I still don't see how you can say it's irrelevant, you seem to have merely rephrased yourself, but there is no new argument.

My argument was that I believe Europeans weren't making use of this map, or of the knowledge from it (see the points I made about European nations intent on conquering all they found). So yes I was just rephrasing, but also pointing out why I think the Chinese still don't get credit - hence the irrelevance of the map.

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There's discussion at Chinahistoryforum.com on this which is worth reading here. That discussion also links to this, which I haven't had time to read but I think it's worth looking at.

From what little I have had time to read, and having spoken to a couple of people who were at the press conference / release in Beijing earlier this week, it looks like a nine yuan note. On the other hand, sales of Gavin Menzies book at Amazon seem to have increased somewhat. Draw your own conclusions.

Roddy

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Liang Jieming
Yeah but whether they were the first or not is largely irrelevant. Like many other Chinese discoveries/inventions (gunpowder, the printing press etc), history tells us that they did nothing about it.

Sigh. Sounds like another "they invented it but they needed the west to develop its full potential" and "they developed it but are only modifying an existing western invention" type of no win argument yet again.

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Not quite, I didn't mean to suggest that China can only do things with the help of the west, my meaning was more that China needs to do more to foster and develop innovation and creativity - something it hasn't always done so well, and something that still isn't so prevalent. Something I say based on my experiences from 3 years teaching here in China, where trying to encourage independent thought or creativity can sometimes seem like an uphill battle. It's not about China needing the west, more about China needing to do more to foster innovation.

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Liang Jieming

Fair enough. Conversely, the west needs to learn more about social cohesion and less individuality as far as the greater good for the community is concerned too. They also need to be more accomodating and accepting of other viewpoints and ways of doing things without narrowly believing in one way of doing things. Too many westerners fall into missionary mode and preach holier than thou, right and wrong, true and false, left and right.

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Yeah but whether they were the first or not is largely irrelevant. Like many other Chinese discoveries/inventions (gunpowder, the printing press etc), history tells us that they did nothing about it.

Chinese used the cannon against the Mongol invaders during Southern Song. The Mongols conquered western Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe in a short time; all during Genghis Khan's lifetime. While other places fell swiftly to the Mongols, it took a longer time for the Mongols (until Kublai Khan came to the scene) to subjugate the rest of China because Chinese armies used cannon against them.

Sure the printing press was used in China, but in the west it brought about the widespread dissemination of knowledge, literacy to the masses, and ultimately changed the course of history in a significant way.

The printing press also brought literacy to the masses during the Song dynasty. After the world's first printing press was invented by the Chinese, agricultural production during Song soared because farmers had access to publishing texts that taught them how to utilize efficient methods for growing crops.

Shortly afterwards, the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written in Japan. (around 1015, corresponding to the Northern Song period)

Guttenberg only invented the moveable type.

The secrets of paper-making would not have passed to the West had it not been for the Battle of Talas during the Tang dynasty. Chinese prisoners of war taught the Arabs at Samarkand how to produce paper. This secret then passed from Samarkand to Europe via Middle Eastern traders.

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Robert Temple's "The Genius of China - 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention" is a GREAT easy read on a laundry list of (widely credited and uncredited) Chinese discoveries. It is concise, well-illustrated and contains a wealth of info (although nowhere near comprehensive).

chengh2v.gif

As to whether or not Zheng He himself ever reached America - that may be sketchy. However, there is powerful evidence that Chinese had reached it wellll before the 1400s anyways (aside from the earliest Asiatic/Austronesian Native Americans).

In particular, recent archaeological evidence suggests that (Shang Dynasty) Chinese actually helped found the Olmec civilization in Mexico around 1200 BC! Now, the Olmecs preceded the Maya and were the "mother" culture of Mexico.

What's significant, Xu notes, is that the Olmecs are regarded as the first civilization, the mother culture of the hemisphere, appearing 1,000 years before the Mayans and with no antecedents.

"It seems like those people came out of the sky," says Xu. "Overnight they knew how to use jade, damasks. They had astrology, astronomy." In particular, he said they had artistic motifs on jade bars, called "jade celts," that were used as ritual objects and to identify the rankings of their leaders.

"You cannot find jade celts anywhere else in the world except ancient China and Mesoamerican sites. Nobody else used jade for ritual objects, for burial, especially wrapped up in cinnabar, the red powder, except in these two places."

olmecmen.jpgolmecman5.jpgolmecman4.jpgolmechead2.jpg

Meanwhile, there is also a more speculative link between the Chinese Miao (Southeast Asian Hmong) and the Peruvian Inca based upon some language and traditional dress similarities...

NativeDressSacsaySm.jpg Vs Miao

Really, there's a lot of connections there - even including food. Think about it, both Chinese and Mexicans eat a lot of rice and burritos/fajitas are pretty similar to eggrolls and other Asian "wraps." :) As well as all the aforementioned parallel usage of jade, lacquer, etc...

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Interestingly all the hype that Zheng He's fleet had visited Americas all came from the British press while those who denounce this theory are principally Chinese histoirans (Mainland & Taiwan alike).

Now it seems Chinese historians are very humble.

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