1421 - The Year China Discovered the World, by Gavin Menzies

Arie Hashbia translated the book into Hebrew, and the Hebrew translation was published at 2007 by Korim (1995) LTD. The original was published by Bantam Dell Pub Group (2003), ISBN-10: 0553815229.

The book provides a fascinating account about world discoveries made by Chinese sailors before Columbus and his colleagues.

“Discoverer” - a legal term

It is often overlooked that the European usage of the term “discoverer” is in legal context, rather than being a statement of fact. This is much like assigning a patent to someone, who has the rights over an invention, rather than to the true inventor.

In practically all cases, lands discovered by “discoverers” were already populated by native humans. Those natives are presumably descendants of the original and true discoverers, whose accounts were lost to history.

To be a legal discoverer, one usually needed to be sponsored by a king, bring with him ships, and know how to negotiate agreements with the natives. Even Europeans like Leif Ericson, who discovered new lands without having been sponsored by a king, are not regarded as official discoverers.

Therefore, the claim that China discovered the world does not really contradict the claim that certain Europeans are “discoverers” of certain parts of the world.

Criticism about the book

The ideas given by the book are hotly disputed, and I am sure that the dispute is abetted by some oversights and shortcomings of the book, even though in general it respects the scientific method. The following details some problems, which I found in a single reading of the book.

Missing content

  • There are no details about the trip in the northeast passage (north of Siberia).
  • The Chinese seem to have discovered Australia well before 1421. Yet there is no account about the time and circumstances of the original Australian discovery.
  • There are no more details about hypotheses why the Chinese were not in regular contact with the 15th century Europeans.

Superfluous content

  • Relatively much space was devoted to the early explorations of the Portuguese (like the hypothetical pre-Colombus Antillean islands settlement).

Style comments

Note: the style comments apply to the Hebrew translation of the book, which I actually read. The original English version of the book may be free of those style problems.

  • Refers to Portuguese as Portugals.
  • There is no index.
  • The book is missing modern maps, which mark all the islands, rivers and geographical places mentioned in the trip accounts. Those maps would have provided some contextual information. There are some maps, which show sites of archeological findings, but they do not have names.

Methodology

In spite of the general respect to the scientific method exhibited by the book, there are some methodological shortcomings.

  • The work ought to have been done as a Ph.D. thesis with the help of an advisor. There are several statements, which were not adequately supported by fact, and which reveal that the work was not done with help of an academic advisor. In other cases, lack of cooperation with authorities was mentioned as a reason for failure to obtain some crucial evidence. A Ph.D. student would have found it easier to get cooperation than an autodidect investigator.
  • Page 444 in the Hebrew version mentions a New York Times article, which criticized the book. However, the Hebrew edition of the book failed to reproduce the major critical points and their refutation by the author. So it was not intellectually courageous.
  • There was mention of plants brought by the Chinese from some areas of the world to other areas. However, it was not explained how do we know that a plant came from territory A to territory B, rather than vice versa.

Follow-on Work

Answers to the following questions would have expanded the book’s scope, so they are suitable for follow-on work.

  • Put the 1421-1423 trips in the context of a larger epic of Chinese explorations of the world - Chinese Sea, Isles of Spices, Australia/New Zealand; and then Africa, Americas, Europe?
  • The history of Indonesia and the isles of spices could be interesting reading at its own right (including account of islamization of the area).
  • Could the Chinese know about America even before 1421?
  • Did the Chinese perform any preliminary research to find the regime of winds and sea currents, so that they’ll know that they’ll eventually return? Such a research could have been performed by floating bottles in the waters.

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2 Comments »

Comment by alli
2008-03-02 13:21:02

give me proof that the aboriginals did discover australia….

give me proof that the chinese did discover australia

the “facts” remain to be seen

reguard less of what anyone has said

 
Comment by Omer Zak
2008-03-02 13:46:50

You are barking at the wrong tree.
I am not the book’s author. You should direct your questions to the book’s author.
The blog article, on which you commented, is a review of the book.
Furthermore, this review includes also criticism about the book.

 
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