1421 : the year China discovered America

by Gavin Menzies

Paper Book, 2003



Call number

G322 .M455 2003


New York, NY : W. Morrow, c2003.


"On 8 February 1421 the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, 500 foot long junks made from the finest teak and mahogany, were led by Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was "to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas" and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. Their journey would last over two years and circle the entire globe. When they returned Zhu Di had fallen from power and China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world it had so recently embraced. The great ships rotted at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America 70 years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They has also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia 350 years before Cook and solved the problem of longitude 300 years before the Europeans. Gavin Menzies has spent 15 years tracing the astonishing voyages of the Chinese fleet. In this historical detective story, he shares the account of his discoveries and the incontrovertible evidence to support them. His narrative brings together ancient maps, precise navigational knowledge, astronomy and the surviving accounts by Chinese explorers and the later European navigators. It brings to light the artefacts and inscribed standing stones left behind by the Emperor's fleet, the evidence of sunken junks along its route and the ornate votive offerings left by the Chinese sailors wherever they landed, in thanks to Shao Lin, goddess of the sea." -- BOOK JACKET.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lorax
This was a fascinating but frustrating book. Menzies argues that between 1421, when a large fleet set out from China to explore the world, and 1423 when they returned to a much-changed society (where their logs were destroyed and further exploration halted) the fleet discovered just about every bit of land on the globe. (The subtitle of the original British edition is "The Year China Discovered The World", rather than "...America" as in the US edition. It's a telling change in more ways than one -- making the focus more narrow is not only intended to attract US audiences, but singles out the most controversial elements, since the claims that the Chinese explored Australia and rounded the Cape of Good Hope long before Europeans are more solid than the claim that they also explored the Americas).

Menzies' passionate belief in his own thesis is evident and unfortunate; I suspect a decent fraction of what he claims is probably true, though not even close to all of it, and his credulous enthusiasm casts everything into doubt. He commits the cardinal sin of seeking evidence to PROVE his hypothesis, not to TEST it.

Take the case of Australia, for instance. I can certainly believe, based on maps, archeological findings, and other evidence discussed in the book that Chinese ships reached at least the northern parts of Australia long before Europeans, and there are what look like easy routes down the coast of Southeast Asia then via Indonesia. Menzies, however, needs to tie Australia into the grand scheme of exploration he lays out, so he posits a mind-boggling crossing of the Southern Ocean from Cape Horn, which substantially weakens the overall argument.

Similar inclusions of other laughably weak 'evidence' (he even dredges up the Vinland map), and internal inconsistencies (he argues that rising sea levels have covered land in the Caribbean (using laughably bad extrapolations for the amount of rise, assuming that the post-industrial rate of sea level rise can be extrapolated back for three hundred years before humans started producing lots of carbon dioxide) but that a warm period and the resulting lower ice levels made a circumnavigation of Greenland possible, apparently without even recognizing the conflict) make me doubt even the evidence I'd otherwise be willing to believe in other sections of the book.

Over-reliance on secondary sources, and failure to even discuss, much less rule out, alternative hypotheses is another major weakness. Here the case of South America is a good example. Menzies claims that several crops native only to the Americas were in Asia prior to
European contact with the Americas, which would be extremely strong evidence if it were adequately demonstrated. That's a big "if", though, and his claims are that Magellan found maize in the Philippines and that cochineal (a type of dye originating in Mexico and the southwestern US) was in China prior to Columbus. Unfortunately he fails to show that maize could not have reached the Philippines overland from Europe between Columbus and Magellan, and his source for the claim about cochineal is a book from the 1970s -- hardly an adequate primary source. His description of a Chinese method for determining longitude (feasible only from land when spending a reasonably long time) is feasible but utterly un-footnoted; is it documented, or the product of wishful thinking? These obvious weaknesses again make the stronger points -- a wrecked junk built in approximately 1410 found near the Philippines with metates (corn grinding stones from the Americas) in its hold, and DNA markers found only in China and in parts of the Yucatan in Mexico -- less believable
purely by association. Finally, some of the "evidence" in the section on the Americas has a faint whiff of racism, suggesting that the Native Americans could not possibly have developed complicated lacquer processes, or even observed the supernova of 1054, on their own, and utterly neglecting the Polynesians as a method of spreading plants and animals around the Pacific basin.

In short, I leave this book wishing someone less eager would write one, or for a thoughtful but not axe-grinding rebuttal -- I suspect there's something there, am reasonably sure it's not as much as Menzies claims, but wish I knew where to draw the line. Hopefully the DNA testing and further searches for wrecked Chinese ships will help answer these questions; I can only wish Menzies had waited until more of these solid forms of evidence were in before publishing the book, rather than constantly telling us to check his website for details (which are still lacking; if anything, the website has a higher ratio of hype to content than the book).
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LibraryThing member ursula
You might have that certain relative in your family who is affable enough, but has some really weird ideas that he loves to go on about. For the sake of this review, let's call him "Uncle Gavin." Uncle Gavin is harmless, and charms your friends, but he has one pet topic that you try to steer him away from. Before you know it, he's started asking your friends who they think discovered the world and after a short time, the friend's nods and smiles go from sincerely interested to polite to barely hanging on, and they're looking around desperately for someone to rescue them from this conversation.

Uncle Gavin wrote this book. His premise sounds interesting, and perhaps sane, if far-fetched: he claims that the Chinese sailed essentially the entire world in 1421-23 and made maps of such voyages that were later used to guide the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who "discovered" America and other parts of the world. Why this has been a hidden fact for so long: the Chinese burned nearly every record of the voyages, stopped exploration, and basically forgot about the whole thing over the centuries. Why Uncle Gavin is the only person to have figured this out: he used to captain submarines and therefore knows how ocean currents work and can read a nautical chart. I'll let that sink in for a moment.

In any case, I was willing to go along with him at first, but it became apparent pretty quickly that things were spiraling out of control. I rarely make notes on audio books, but I found myself frantically scribbling things down when I was listening to this one. Things like:

"Just because Verrazzano compared some lighter-skinned Indians and their manner of dress to the "Eastern" style doesn't mean that they are descended from his [Menzies'] imaginary pregnant concubines that were put ashore from his imaginary overcrowded voyages."

I was going to list more, but as I look at that one, I think it sums up everything. Look, it's an interesting idea that the Chinese could have sent an enormous fleet out to see what there was out there, and that they could have drawn up a map of everything, and then decided to close their borders and give up on the outside world, and that the maps could have ended up in the hands of the European explorers, and that those explorers could have found knick-knacks that were Chinese and people who might have been descended from Chinese people who ended up there long-term one way or another. But if you're going to tell me, Uncle Gavin, that the Chinese took out 40 or 50 ships which were wrecked in various places and stayed and lived there, you're going to have to come up with some physical evidence. Wrecked ships off India, or eastern Africa, or Australia simply do not prove that Chinese people built the Bimini Road in the Caribbean to get their ships on land for repairs or had a settlement on Greenland (I am not kidding. I wish I were kidding.).

If this were half as long and half as crazy, it might be worth a perusal. As it is, run from this book. Read Foucault's Pendulum, which features the same sort of wild connect-the-dots game and also has going for it that it is fiction.

PS - It turns out that Menzies has also published 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. I imagine that he is now deep into the writing of 1468: The Year China Traveled to the Moon and Discovered Life and 1498: The Year China Invented Synthetic Life and Created the Spice Girls.
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LibraryThing member zugnush
Just awful. If you believe everything you read this book will fill your head with nonsense. If you have a skeptical bone in your body the authors giant leaps of faith and proofs based on the flimsiest of evidence will drive you completely nuts. Such a pity because there is obviously a great untold piece of history in there somewhere.… (more)
LibraryThing member publiusdb
It's rare that I would waste space blasting a book. Life is short and time is a scarce resource. I'd rather just drop a book unworthy of finishing and move on to a new one. This time, though, I think 1421 merits further explanation because of the sensational success it has experienced worldwide.

Simply put, 1421 is junk history posing as "real history." Gavin Menzies has spun a fantastical and interesting tale out of the very real events surrounding the massive Chinese treasure fleets of 1421. His thesis--that the Chinese discovered the New World in the 1420s, mapped it, and that it was their maps that European explorers used when sailing for the New World (including, he argues, Columbus).

Built by a Ming emperor to gather in tribute from the ends of the Earth, the fleet was one of the last acts of imperial hubris. Shortly after it set sail, the emperor died. His son, in replacing his father's policies, had the fleets destroyed upon their return, along with records gathered during the voyage. Starting with that sparse introduction, Menzies proceeds to gather bits and pieces of evidence stretching from China itself to the Indian subcontinent, from the Congo to Patagonia and beyond, and levies the evidence to tell a tale of the massive Chinese fleet charting the New World the greater part of a century before Columbus set sail in 1492.

It is an extremely interesting and, if it were true, a ground breaking discovery and thesis. Perhaps it is true. But likely, it is not.

As I started reading it, the first question that came to mind for me was this: in the almost six centuries since these events happened, why has no one else suggested that the Chinese arrived first? Menzies explanation is that historians generally lack the skill set necessary to uncover the truth, a skill set that he has as a former captain in the British Navy. Unlike most historians, Menzies argues, he can read a chart, understand what he's looking at, and glean from these 15th century charts things that no historian would otherwise notice.

Yeah. It's a little bit of a stretch. I would be surprised to find that no historian has ever had the skill set to learn maritime charts and understand how to read them (heck, Theodore Roosevelt when only an undergraduate student at Harvard, researched and wrote a book of naval strategy -- "The Naval War of 1812"--that became a classic and a text book used by both the US and British navies for decades after it was published). That being said, I gave Menzies the benefit of the doubt. I've long been intrigued with China and its history, and I think I wanted to believe that history as we have been taught might not be true. How interesting would it be for America to have been discovered by the Chinese?

As I read, though, red flags continued to pop up. Out of only sparse details, Menzies would assert "conclusive proof" that his theories were finding relevance. Finally, over two hundred pages in, I decided to check into what critical review might have said about his methods and evidence. I reasoned that if Menzies is correct, or even has a good theory, then the academic community would support his findings with further research. I went to the internet.

Critical acclaim was anything but what I found. In addition to finding entire sites dedicated to debunking Menzies myths, I also found that historical lectures had been given explaining and demonstrating that what Menzies proposed was just that--a proposal. Be it even true, the evidence was not there, not was the reasoning clearly logical.

For example:

--Menzies claims that Chinese anchors have been found off of the coast of California, but fails to document them.
--1421 says that Chinese DNA is found in North America natives, but fails to account for the influx of Chinese immigrants in the 17th century.
--Menzies finds what he claims are chickens unique to Asia living in Peru, but fails to note that Peru exported millions of tons of silver to China and brought back silk and porcelain (and presumably other things, like, for example, chickens) throughout the heyday of the Spanish during the 16th through 17th centuries.

And that's just to start.

Historian Kirstin A. Seaver says, in disecting claims about the Chinese in Vinland:

"The study of history is likely to reward anyone willing to undertake it in a quest for better understanding of who they are, how they became what they are, and what they might hope to become. The manufacture of a history that never existed rewards only those who make money by deceiving the public."

If 1421 is true, Menzies has not found the evidence to support it. If it is false, it's junk and a waste of time to read. Further, it perpetuates a falsehood that makes the acquisition of real history--real, boring, dry and factual history--that much harder to grasp.
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LibraryThing member BenKline
Originally it sounded like an interesting book (and for only 1$ at a book fair, why not) and the beginning was a good and interesting and quick read..... ....but then things quickly soured. As you get further in and further in you realize its much more speculation than fact, the pages skip into 10s/20s/30s before you see citations, and it comes down to things like "Well you see I was in a submarine once, so when you look out a periscope... which is what the water level would have been in 1421" and it just goes downhill from there. Around page 250 or so I became more piqued about how he might have ascertained his speculations and others thoughts on this; more so than the constant hammer-over-the-head approach of how he viewed Chinese civilization and their voyages and how pathetic Europe was; so looking up GoodReads and Wikipedia as a start and Google and going from there - you find his main prediction which he used to launch his book was based on a fake map.... and that he wrecked the submarine and was forced to resign thereafter. Needless to say; all credibility is immediately shot right there. I finished the book, but I definitely recommend anyone who reads this to do their own studying and see how much of a crack-pot theorist this man is.… (more)
LibraryThing member ElAlce
A transfixing read. Very well written, combining the author's personal experience with an interesting theory.

But, of course, it's complete malarkey.

Archaeologists pour over the slightest details of ancient burial sites, yet we're expected to believe that great hulking sunken Chinese junks are distributed around the world's coastlines and no one is digging them up!

Real historians are limited in their abilities to write ripping yarns by the need to rely on rigorous research and to avoid conjecture.
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LibraryThing member dboydell
By virtue of having some experience as a submariner, Menzies claims special insight into the routes taken by Chinese junks bent on exploration in the early 15th century. We are asked to believe that no record of these extraordinary discoveries is now available owing to a conspiracy to suppress all documents, markers and relics in China and elsewhere, relating to these voyages. It may be noted that Joseph Needham (see above), who was eager to promote Chinese achievements made no mention of the Chinese early discovery of America, or of the Pope of the day having received a little private tutoring from Chinese seamen.
However, a copy of the so-called Kangnido map - the Chinese/Korean chart dating from 1403, which shows Africa with remarkable accuracy - hangs in the South African National Assembly, the country's houses of parliament. This map embroidered on silk was presented by the government of China to the South African state as an act of friendship. Chinese nationals travel to Cape Town to see it as the original is somewhat fragile and is not open to public inspection.
What likely began as a private obsession by Menzies has grown into a considerable and no doubt lucrative publishing enterprise. I recommend that anyone coming into contact with this book (672pp) save themselves many hours of wasted time by disposing of it immediately
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LibraryThing member sthitha_pragjna
The preposterous claim in the title is backed up insufficiently with a liberal does of conjecture and a few maps and drawings of enormous Chinese junks, which did make it around the Cape of Good Hope. While the conclusions are absurd, one may be entertained or (caveat believer) informed about some facts about these voyages, and wonder about the extent of information known to the Old Worls when Portugese set out on voyages. On the whole, unconvincing.… (more)
LibraryThing member RicDay
A speculative series of claims that the great Admiral Zheng He's fleet explored far more of the world than it probably did. Much of the "evidence" is flimsy at best. The Levathes book on Zheng He's voyages is far better and more reliable.

About the only reason to wade through this massive construction is for the amusement of contemplating what might have happened if Zheng had chosen to round the Cape and sail north, potentially arriving in European waters where Henry the Navigator was trying out his new 75-foot boats at Ceuta, Joan of Arc was rabble rousing and preparing to influence the 100 Years War, the British were fighting the French with picks and staves at Agincourt, and Hieronymus Bosch was worrying about moral failings.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
A very interesting premise, but the evidence becomes more and more suspect the farther away from China the author goes. And for all his talk about navigational skill and maritime experience, the author conveniently neglects to mention that he crashed a destroyer.
LibraryThing member rajaratnam
Confirms what most Asians have always believed - that China was the most technologically advanced 'nation' in the world for centuries, until about 500 years ago. Whilst modern Chinese are said to have lost certain advanced technologies in agriculture, historically the Chinese have benefited mankind in so many areas of knowledge. Since a large part of the author's vast list of source material is in China, there is little value in Western historians asking 'where is the evidence?' The book is a timely move away from the Eurocentric perspective reflecting colonialism, when history was re-interpreted to prove that European man was innately superior to all coloured people. Japan's defeat of Russia a 100 years ago, Japan's temporary control about 50 years ago of territories previously dominated by white people, and Vietnam should have put to rest that quaint belief.… (more)
LibraryThing member ebookguy
Provocative. I will be following some of the global DNA testing that will try and dispute many of Menzies' assumptions. Great read except for the fact he constantly needs to remind us of his service in the navy. any history buff will get a paradigm shift after reading 1421.
LibraryThing member clay.blankenship
This book is totally fascinating. Unfortunately most of it is wild conjecture. The historical background about the Chinese fleets is pretty solid. They traded around the Indian Ocean and its not too farfetched they could have gone to Australia. The case for reaching America is tenuous but still intriguing. The supposed exploration of Greenland is just crazy talk.

By the way recent scholarship points to the Polynesians as responsible for bringing chickens to South America.
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LibraryThing member GoofyOcean110
The more I read, the less I know what to think. I suspect that he may be correct in his thesis- that Chinese sailors arrived at the Americas before Columbus -- but the writing was so enthusiastic that I felt he was trying very hard to convince me, which made me more suspicious.

Part of what makes his overall argument almost convincing is the amount and variety of evidence he brings together. He ties his findings to those other people have made with data of varying levels of corroboration... But I also thought that he often jumped to specific conclusions about evidence I felt was a bit thin -- he may very well be right, but I wasn't yet convinced based solely on the evidence he presented in the text. So while he may be right that Chinese got to Australia and the Americas, I'm not convinced they got everywhere he claims (such New England or Greenland). I'd be very interested to see how this all turns out after rigorous academic research.

Overall, I felt that the book will be (and to some degree has been) useful to spur and synthesize a lot of research in many fields to either corroborate or dispute his claims. As such I think the book could be important. Had it been written more objectively as a synthesis of other folks' research I don't think I would have been as much of a skeptic.

As for the quality of the writing, it's easy to read, has a fairly conversational tone, but Menzies often repeats himself and brings in the same evidence over and over (oh those asiatic hens!) to justify multiple claims, and it often just isn't enough.
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LibraryThing member henrybalzac
An interesting read. I brought it after a trip to China as a way of picking up a bit of Chinese history, and in that respect the book works well. I was less convinced by the driving theory of the discovery of America but it did not detract from the reading experience. Menzies writes well even if you are left with the feeling that he is determined to make the evidence fit the theory rather than the other way round.… (more)
LibraryThing member bvelto
Every reputable historian shredded Menzies and his evidence when this was published. Nothing has changed. For a good example, see the PBS documentary by the same name which allows MEnzies to present his evidence before having historians take it apart. Even the Chinese say his evidence is lacking...
LibraryThing member mrtall
This is a wild book -- in both the positive and negative senses of that word. Menzies presents a full-blown (many would say overblown) theory of a wide-ranging and systematic Chinese exploration of the world in the early 15th century. He's assembled evidence with, shall we say, an open mind, drawing on everything from cartography and DNA analyses to pure hearsay.

I found many points he makes both provocative and plausible, but this is such an aggressive attempt to overturn conventional historical assumptions that it's simply impossible to agree with all of Menzies's conclusions, or even to believe everything he says.

Menzies's style is quite readable, but his frenzied attempts to marshall evidence lead to repetition and a kind of breathlessness common to alternate histories.

Still, I think he's on to something, and this book is well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
Oh dear. I have wasted $29.95. The blurb makes out that this book is history re-written, when in fact it is nonsense. The best part of this book is the proliferation of web-sites pointing out the enormous range of inanities that populate the text. Dreadful.
Partially read December 2007
LibraryThing member TheoClarke
A thoroughly entertaining account of the author's theories that a huge Chinese fleet explored a wider area than is generally accepted and that . Menzies absolute faith in his model and his overt disdain for historians who disagree drive him to disregard the rigours of the scientific or historical method but it lends the book an immediacy that conveys his excitement.

Menzies was a highly regarded navigator when he served aboard Her Majesty's submarines and this undoubted skill provides a new and rewarding perspective on the maps derived from the voyages of Zheng He's fleets. This authority is undermined, however, by his reliance on anecdote and in some cases demonstrably mistaken evidence from a very wide palette of academic disciplines. Similarly, he has used some evidence inconsistently: why, for example, are sea level changes only significant when the maps are inaccurate?
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LibraryThing member Freeoperant
Interesting book but very speculative. The author provides very little evidence for hypotheses presented after the first third or so of the book. I would like to find a current book that provides followup evidence on the hypotheses from other researchers.
LibraryThing member bridgitshearth
I loved reading this fascinating account of the Chinese admiral. It's worth reading just for some of the details (trivia such as the dolphins kept in the hold for fishing and the chickens that lay blue eggs--I'd never noticed them in the store in China until I read this book!)

More than anything else, I like the kind of expertise Menzies brings to his research. No, he's not an historian, but he is a navigator of wide experience and deep knowledge. That impacts his study of history giving us his novel perspective. How completely accurate the "history" is, I am in no position to judge. I do wonder how much of the uproar raised among historians arises from that very fact about the author. One must certainly acknowledge his openness to criticism as his website is open to comment and refutation. Anyone who goes against received wisdom, though, opens himself up to egregious attack--"this can't possibly be true" obviates rational discourse.

No doubt, Zheng He must have achieved more, and deserves more lasting and widespread fame, than any other eunuch in history. (I'd love to be corrected if that is wrong!) And I'm happy that this era of opening in Chinese history is now more widely acknowledged. That the Chinese perceived this endeavor in diplomatic terms rather than militaristic/imperialistic ones certainly contrasts to the soon-to-come European exploitation of their colonial empires commencing mere decades after Cheng He's voyages.

What an interesting set of hypothetical scenarios arise when we consider what might have been if the Chinese had not drawn back into such hermetic isolation?
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LibraryThing member boeflak
A terrific read, weakend by the author's tendency to make too great a leap with quite a number of conclusions. When he does so, it's reminiscent of Woody Allen's discourse on logic: "All men are mortal. Socrates was a man. All men are Socrates." Still, there's more than enough mystery and intrigue here to whet the imagination and whet one's appetite to learn more about China's history.… (more)
LibraryThing member kurvanas
Fantastic book. Opens up a whole range of (formerly) taboo discussions over the exploration of the Americas.
LibraryThing member nopressure1
The author argues that a huge Chinese fleet of treasure ships circumnavigated and charted the world years before the first great European voyages of discovery, giving as evidence findings from shipwrecks and ancient maps, to local peoples accounts and their DNA.
LibraryThing member daniel.links
This is a fascinating book, even if you do not accept the argument wholesale.
Firstly, no one disputes that China's seagoing fleet dwarfed anything European in the early 15th century, although it is little mentioned in your average world history book. The story of the Chinese government then turning its back on the sea is one of the classic "what ifs" in history.
This book though seeks to recreate the most impressive of the voyages by the Chinese fleets, and as the author sailed the world in only-just post war submarines when navigation was still done with a sextant his insight on the nautical side is fascinating too.
If anything the weakness of this book is in the author's absolute certainty. Parts of the voyages are far more convincing than others (and radically rewrite history anyway), others are more speculative (not least by the standards of evidence set in, especially, the earlier parts of the book), and I found these less convincing. If they had been presented as possibilities rather than certainties the book as a whole would have sat easier with me. Nonetheless it is thought-provoking and well researched and deserves to be read and judged on its merits.
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Original publication date


Physical description

xix, 552 p.; 25 cm


0060537639 / 9780060537630


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