1421: The Year China Discovered America - Gavin Mendies

I first came across this book back when I was working at Waldenbooks; it appeared to be another one of these "What you learned in school was wrong" stories, this one making the claim that China had discovered America some 70 years before Columbus set sail. I finally got around to reading it; it's a hefty book and I ended checking it out of the library three times before I finished. It turns out it's not just about sailing to America—Mendies claims that between 1421 and 1423, China's treasure fleets visited not only North America, but South America, Australia, Africa, Greenland, Antarctica ... basically, everywhere but Europe.

The obvious question is: well, why didn't anyone know about this already? The first answer, which Mendies spends a lot of time explaining, is that after these travels, China withdrew from the world. Domestic troubles caused the Emperor to abandon his lofty goals of expansion and exploration; records of the travels were destroyed, colonies were forgotten. Mendies' hypotheses are based on his own knowledge of sailing, mapmaking, ocean currents and winds. Each time he made a conjecture about where the fleets might have gone, he made evidence-seeking trips.

The other answer is, lots of people already knew—but for some reason, the answer didn't leave academia. Referring to the notes and bibliography at the back of 1421, I discovered that others had written books about Chinese explorers, with titles such as China's Discovery of Africa (1949), The Chinese Discovery of Australia (1961), and even the similarly-titled Gods from the Far East: How the Chinese Discovered America (1972). He cites countless publications with various sorts of evidence: Asiatic chickens in the Americas, local folktales of men in long robes with honey-colored skin arriving in boats like houses, standing stones with indecipherable inscriptions found when Europeans first arrived. Mendies' is perhaps the first book to be marketed to the masses; it's intended for armchair historians (but with a sizeable appendix for those wanting an outline of his arguments and evidence). He includes enough history to set the scene but leaves out the less interesting parts.

Some of the evidence is less convincing than others; Mendies seems to think each piece is incontrovertible proof. However, when put together, the sheer volume of evidence is overwhelming: whether Mendies got the story exactly right or if he's off here and there, he's convinced me that somebody had done a lot of travelling before the Europeans got around to it. He submitted his findings to the Royal Geographical Society; I'm interested now in finding out how the academic community has responded to his book—is this a noteworthy discovery or a theory along the lines of aliens building the pyramids?

The book is fairly easy to get into and isn't a difficult read. However, Mendies does have a tendency to jump backwards and forward in time; those who are accustomed to history being laid out in chronological order may get a bit lost in the shuffling. He also repeats himself, especially when making his overarching claim about China's travels. By the end you're wondering, How many more times is he going to bring up those Asiatic chickens? And then, every so often, he throws in random tidbits about his own travels while in the Royal Navy—inevitably involving rum.

The paperback version, out now, is supposed to be updated, and he has a website as well, where he continues to report new findings.

Fed to jonathan's brain | January 08, 2004