The guesthouse I’m staying at in Bishkek has a large pile of random paperbacks left by travelers, and today I was flipping through Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (London: Bantam Books, 2003). It is Menzies’ thesis that the great fleet launched by the Chinese emperor Zhu Di on 8 March 1421 reached North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s initially an interesting conjecture, but as the book goes on the author seems increasingly megalomaniac. By the end, he is blasting the ‘historians and academics’ for dismissing his work, and sighting evidence of Chinese influence in everything, suggesting even that the Chinese knew of the whole world before 1421. The author makes use of some linguistic arguments, which prove risible.
Linguistics provide further evidence. The people of the Eten and Monsefu villages in the Lambayeque province of Peru can understand Chinese but not each other’s patois, despite living only three miles apart. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century inspector employed by the government of California to survey the native population, found linguistic evidence of a Chinese-speaking colony in the state.
The first assertion, on the Peruvian village, is not sourced at all. The second, however, carries the following bibliographic citation: Stephen Powers, ‘Aborigines of California: An Indo-Chinese Study’ in Atlantic, Vol. 33, 1874, and Stephen Powers, Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. 3, Department of the Interior, Washington DC, 1877.
In the Postscript of the paperback edition, where he includes all information sent in by readers after initial publication of his thesis, things just get progressively wackier.
Several years ago, long before my book was published, Jerry Warsing came to the conclusion that a huge Chinese fleet under the command of Admiral Zheng He encountered a severe storm off South Africa and was blown north-westwards to the Atlantic coast of North America. His evidence, which has taken years to assemble, is wide-ranging and fascinating. Jerry believes up to two hundred ships were wrecked on the coast between Floria and Newport, Virginia; separated by the storm, they landed in small numbers at different places. Because of the close similarity between the Ming dynasty spoken language and the language of earlier Chinese who had come across the Bering Straits, they were able to understand the local people and assimilate.
So Chinese, of whom there is little evidence in northeastern Russia let alone North America, spread across the Pacific and all the way to the shores of the Atlantic, continuing to speak a language mutually intelligible with Middle Chinese yet leaving no trace on local Native American languages? Ridiculous. And then there’s:
When the first Europeans arrived in New Zealand they came across an array of plants foreign to the island. The most common was Chenopodium album, introduced from North America, where it had been used by native peoples to make cakes since time immemorial. Captain Cook discovered it in 1769. The second is marsh cress, Rorippa palustris, identified by the French expedition of 1826–9 aboard L’Astrobole. Again, this was used by the Navajo — who have Chinese DNA, and whose elders to this day understand Chinese — as a ritual eyewash.
I’d sooner believe that Lithuanians can understand Vedic incantations than that Navajo elders could get anything of Chinese. For what it’s worth, Menzies even cites Nancy Yaw Davis’ popular book arguing that Zuni is Japanese.
One of the the last mention of linguistics in the book comes in an attempt to tie Peruvian place names to Chinese. If you have even the slightest training in Chinese (and I was unable to ascertain whether the author can, in fact, speak any of the language himself), you’ll immediately recognize how unsound these connections are:
In northern Peru, mainly in the Ancash province, there are 95 geographical names which are Chinese words and have no significance in Quechua, Aymara or any of the other dialects of northern Peru (examples follow). There are also 130 geographical names in Peru which correspond to names in China. The very name ‘Peru’ means ‘white mist’ in Chinese — the white mist which cloaks the coast many days each year. The name given to Chile (Ch-Li) was pre-Spanish (= ‘dependent territory’) in Chinese.
|Cha-Wan (La Pampa)
||Land prepared for sowing
||To harden metals
|Chamtan (San Gregorio)
||Covered in sand
||Ready for combustion (viz. coal-mine)
||Red (i.e. red earth)
|Chanchan (area between Moche and Viru Rivers)
If the linguistic evidence used in the book is so suspect, the data from other fields is doubtlessly suspect as well. In his zeal to shoehorn everything into support for his theory, and in his reliance upon the shoddy research of yesteryear, Menzies might just be the Erich von Däniken of our time, and Chinese ethnocentric cranks are undoubtedly happy about their British useful idiot.