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1421: The Year China Discovered America by…
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1421: The Year China Discovered America

by Gavin Menzies

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You might have that certain relative in your family who is affable enough, but has some really weird ideas that he loves to go on about. For the sake of this review, let's call him "Uncle Gavin." Uncle Gavin is harmless, and charms your friends, but he has one pet topic that you try to steer him away from. Before you know it, he's started asking your friends who they think discovered the world and after a short time, the friend's nods and smiles go from sincerely interested to polite to barely hanging on, and they're looking around desperately for someone to rescue them from this conversation.

Uncle Gavin wrote this book. His premise sounds interesting, and perhaps sane, if far-fetched: he claims that the Chinese sailed essentially the entire world in 1421-23 and made maps of such voyages that were later used to guide the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who "discovered" America and other parts of the world. Why this has been a hidden fact for so long: the Chinese burned nearly every record of the voyages, stopped exploration, and basically forgot about the whole thing over the centuries. Why Uncle Gavin is the only person to have figured this out: he used to captain submarines and therefore knows how ocean currents work and can read a nautical chart. I'll let that sink in for a moment.

In any case, I was willing to go along with him at first, but it became apparent pretty quickly that things were spiraling out of control. I rarely make notes on audio books, but I found myself frantically scribbling things down when I was listening to this one. Things like:

"Just because Verrazzano compared some lighter-skinned Indians and their manner of dress to the "Eastern" style doesn't mean that they are descended from his [Menzies'] imaginary pregnant concubines that were put ashore from his imaginary overcrowded voyages."

I was going to list more, but as I look at that one, I think it sums up everything. Look, it's an interesting idea that the Chinese could have sent an enormous fleet out to see what there was out there, and that they could have drawn up a map of everything, and then decided to close their borders and give up on the outside world, and that the maps could have ended up in the hands of the European explorers, and that those explorers could have found knick-knacks that were Chinese and people who might have been descended from Chinese people who ended up there long-term one way or another. But if you're going to tell me, Uncle Gavin, that the Chinese took out 40 or 50 ships which were wrecked in various places and stayed and lived there, you're going to have to come up with some physical evidence. Wrecked ships off India, or eastern Africa, or Australia simply do not prove that Chinese people built the Bimini Road in the Caribbean to get their ships on land for repairs or had a settlement on Greenland (I am not kidding. I wish I were kidding.).

If this were half as long and half as crazy, it might be worth a perusal. As it is, run from this book. Read Foucault's Pendulum, which features the same sort of wild connect-the-dots game and also has going for it that it is fiction.

PS - It turns out that Menzies has also published 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. I imagine that he is now deep into the writing of 1468: The Year China Traveled to the Moon and Discovered Life and 1498: The Year China Invented Synthetic Life and Created the Spice Girls. ( )
5 vote ursula | Dec 6, 2014 |
1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies

Did Admiral Zheng He and his fellow admirals, crew and families indeed discover the world before anybody else? Menzies has compiled a lot of evidence to suggest that is exactly what happened. I find his argument persuasive and compelling yet I have reservations.

When I first saw this book on the shelf in the bookstore I was instantly intrigued. I picked it up, started reading the back cover and added it to the stack of books I planned on buying. Once I got home, this was the first book I picked up because I truly wanted to know if the Chinese deserved the credit for discovering the world before the “official” discoverers.

I have always found it hard to believe that Columbus gathered together his ships, received the blessings of the Spanish monarchs, and set forth blindly westward looking to find India on a gut feeling. The truth, as I have suspected all along, was that Columbus somehow, somewhere came into possession of a/some navigation charts and knew preciously where he needed to direct his small fleet.

The biggest problem that I have with this book and its argument is that there is very little original evidence available to concretely state that Chinese found the world. There is a plethora of circumstantial evidence to suggest that what the Chinese accomplished resulted in later explorers “finding” the world. It is like saying that Paracelsus is the father of modern chemistry; sure Paracelsus contributed significantly to the early understanding of chemical properties but to suggest he was the father is chemistry is stretching just a little too far.

I know it is easy to make these types of suggestions about how different parts of the world seem to have close similarities. Take the pyramids for example; we find pyramids in Central America, China, Middle East, and Egypt. They are all a little different from each other yet we understand that they are pyramids and the reason for their development. I choke this up to the same stage of development and exploration in each of these different areas at the appropriate times in each area, not to the Chinese influencing the local civilizations development.

Menzies had done a remarkable job joining all the dots together to make a great story. I would never use this as a class course book but for entertainment value, I give it high marks.

Happy Reading, ( )
  jcprowe | Sep 18, 2014 |
Bought at the Foreign Language Bookstore in Shanghai, 120RMB.
  Susanna.Dilliott | Apr 23, 2014 |
Yeah, right. I was underwhelmed. ( )
  bke | Mar 30, 2014 |
The author's thesis is that when the Europeans "discovered" the New World and the Pacific, they were following in the footsteps of the Chinese. From 1421-23 huge Chinese fleets circumnavigated the globe, leaving settlements, transporting plants and animals from one part of the world to another, learning how to determine longitude and constructing detailed and accurate charts.



The book is the story of this retired British submarine commander's painstaking -- one might say obsessed -- reconstruction of these fleets and the accumulation of evidence, including archaeological, DNA, and folklore. Apparently the legends of the treasure cities of South American refer to Chinese settlements.



I'm not able to evaluate all the evidence, but I think one thing is clear: the Europeans did not sail into "terra incognita," but had seen or had in their possession accurate maps showing where they were going. At the very least, the role of China in the discovery and charting of the world must be evaluated and taken into account. A great read.
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
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This book is dedicated to my beloved wife Marcella, who has travelled with me on the journeys related in this book and through life.
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On 2 February 1421, China dwarfed every nation on earth.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 006054094X, Paperback)

On March 8, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen set sail from China. Its mission was "to proceed all the way to the ends of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas" and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony.

When it returned in October 1423, the emperor had fallen, leaving China in political and economic chaos. The great ships were left to rot at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost in China's long, self-imposed isolation that followed was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America seventy years before Columbus and had circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. Also concealed was how the Chinese colonized America before the Europeans and transplanted in America and other countries the principal economic crops that have fed and clothed the world.

Unveiling incontrovertible evidence of these astonishing voyages, 1421 rewrites our understanding of history. Our knowledge of world exploration as it has been commonly accepted for centuries must now be reconceived due to this landmark work of historical investigation.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:29:50 -0400)

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On March 8, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen set sail from China "to the ends of the earth". When it returned in October 1423, the emperor had fallen, leaving China in political and economic chaos. The great ships were left to rot at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost in China's long, self-imposed isolation that followed was the knowledge that the Chinese had reached America seventy years before Columbus and had circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They had colonized America before the Europeans and had transplanted in America and other countries the principal economic crops that have fed and clothed the world.… (more)

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