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Did the Chinese beat Columbus to America?
Zheng Jian

Comparison of Adm. Zheng’s Ships with Columbus’ Santa Maria

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According to a book recently released in the United States, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies, Columbus was about 70 years behind the Chinese. The author, a retired Royal Navy submarine commander and historian became fascinated with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City during a trip to China with his wife.

This led to years of research on the Chinese Emperor Zhu Di. In the course of this, he learned about a Portuguese map from 1424 that depicted Caribbean islands. Subsequently he found other pre-Columbian charts of this and other regions that had come from the Chinese. His book draws on 14 years of research in more than 100 countries that he says were visited by the great Chinese Admiral Zheng. He marshals evidence from linguistic, map-making, anthropological, and biological sources, as well as his own navigational experience.

In 1421, China dwarfed every other nation. The Emperor, Zhu Di, was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, who had led the revolt that overthrew the Mongols to become the first Ming Emperor. His vision included discovering and charting the entire world and bringing it into Confucian and Buddhist harmony through trade and diplomacy. And serving him was one of the greatest admirals the world has ever known. Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch who served in Zhu Di’s household and who had become one of his closest advisors.

A stone inscription at the Palace of the Celestial Spouse at Chiang-su and Liu Shia-Chang -- dated 1431 -- says: "We, Zheng He and his companions [including Admirals Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Qing], at the beginning of Zhu Di's reign received the Imperial Commission as envoys to the barbarians. Up until now seven voyages have taken place and, each time, we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels. We have...reached countries of the Western Regions, more than three thousand countries in all. We have...beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away, hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, whilst our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing those savage waves."

In the official history of the Ming Dynasty it is recorded that Zheng led excursions to Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, Philippines, Ceylon, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, Somalia, and Mogadishu. As a clear demonstration of his travel to Africa, he brought giraffes and lions back to China as souvenirs. The official history also mentioned "Franca" (the term to describe today's France and Portugal) and Holland. The Hollanders were described as tall people with red hair and beard, long nose, and deep eye sockets. If he did meet with the Europeans in their native countries, then the only way would be to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope before the Suez Canal was a throughway. Menzies indicates that he has found sunken ships of Zheng He's fleet in the Carribeans, as well as maps of the area from Zheng’s time.

The whole fleet for Zheng's expedition to the Western lands consisted of more than 300 ships manned by over 28,000 people. In the seven major expeditions Admiral Zheng made over three decades, he built a total of 1,622 ships. Each of the 62 flag ships of the expeditionary fleet were roughly 450 feet long and 190 feet wide, holding a crew of 1,000. Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria was 75 feet by 25 feet.

Alas, only a handful of ships and men returned to their home port in the fall of 1423. And they found that China had changed. Zhu Di was dying, a broken man, and the mandarins who now ran the country were busily dismantling the apparatus for a worldwide empire that he had assembled. China was entering its long night of isolation from the outside world. The admirals were dismissed, their ships were broken up or just deserted, and untold numbers of maps, charts, and chronicles were destroyed. This serves as yet another example of a Chinese regime that tried to change history by trying to erase it. But now, bit by bit, evidence for these astounding exploits is being uncovered and we can celebrate their bravery and skill.

There are those who are skeptical of Menzies’ work, citing slipshod scholarship and loose standards of proof. But it is certain that this book, and the swirl of public interest around it, will stimulate new research on his findings and, in the process, vastly increase the world’s appreciation for the greatness of Chinese culture.

It is tempting to contemplate what the world would have been like if the Chinese presence in the new world had "taken" permanently back then like the subsequent visits by the Europeans. If the Americas, or whatever they would have been called, had been allied with a Chinese sphere of influence, history might have been very different.

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