? Exciting and 'Nu' | Main | Heroism and "national self-interest" ?

January 07, 2003

The Chinese "discovery" of America

THE CHINESE DISCOVERED AMERICA, claims Gavin Menzies. This "mishmash of off-base conclusions drawn from amateurish research" was worth a half-million pound (about US$800,000) advance to Bantam/Transworld. I wonder what they would advance for a book about the Chinese discovery of Canada? Rather less, I suspect. I cannot comment on Menzies' claims directly as I have no intention of reading his book. Chinese treasure fleets of the fifteenth-century seem to have travelled as far as east Africa before this brief Chinese age of discovery was reversed by imperial policy. If some equivalent endeavour was launched to the Americas it has left no substantial evidence and, more important in my view, had no consequence.

I have been surprised at a particular reaction I recieve when my archaeology teaching turns up in conversation. I have been assured alien intervention was necessary to build a variety of pyramids around the world, unrecorded flight was necessary for buidling Tibetan lamaseries and the Olmec civilization of mesoamerica was engaged in trade with ancient Egypt. Perhaps the Olmec were Africans... no wait, they were Chinese! And what's with the penis-size comparison of Chinese and European sea-going vessels? I am baffled by these claims not because they can be dismissed with rudimentary logic and basic understanding of the culture and history of the peoples they concern. In fact, I am pleasantly surprised whenever archaeological orthodoxy is overturned by evidence (such as the discounted notion of the Maya as peace-loving priests of time). What baffles me is what emotional or intellectual investment could lead people to bother me so fervently with claims that are obviously nonsensical.

Do they think these fantastic stories are more interesting than history and archaeology proper? Or do they think archeological science is too difficult or time consuming to master? And what possible difference does it make to contemporary life if the Olmec and the Egyptians engaged in trade? I know I would find the latter case interesting... but I suspect if I started holding forth on Olmec trade and economics eyes would glaze over. It doesn't help that anthropology and archaeology as disciplines distance themselves from popular conceptions of romance and adventure for fear these may be complicit in historic or contemporary exploitation.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 7, 2003 06:20 PM


i have to agree with you after reading the book, it's full of rubbish,but some fact about the fleet do have ground such as the existence of the fleet, it's very well known in chinese culture of Zheng He, many chinese in south east asia prey and do food offering to him, before they go to sea.
Proof his arrival can be trace to aprovince called Kampot in Cambodia, there are still descendents of his fleet still living there.

(how i know this, i was from Kampot and part of his descendents)

Posted by: calvin at August 26, 2004 02:52 AM