CHINA discovered the world in 1421, so writes Gavin Menzies, a retired naval officer-cum-historian in his book, with the same title.
It is easy to dismiss an outrageous article on the Internet. After all, it is on the Internet, "anyone can write anything", be it a single post on a forum or a several thousand word article. But it would take a lot of scrutiny or reputation for a source on the Internet to become credible.
What about a book? In 1421, Menzies asserts, that the ancient fleets of a historically well-known Chinese Admiral Zheng He had gone all the way to America (instead of what conventional history states that he and his fleet stopped at Africa), over half a century before Christopher Columbus.
He also claimed that the fleet sailed around the globe, a full hundred years before Ferdinand Magellan.
The claims, the hypothesis, he calls, fly in the face of modern knowledge. It was one of those books that has supporters claiming it would rewrite history.
These claims were packed into paperback. It has a nice looking cover, whose back contained the usual extractions of positive notes from reviews, such as "Exhaustively researched... an intriguing and highly persuasive thesis, told with passion and energy" and sold casually among other bestselling books.
Certainly, the persuasive flow of the words in 1421 would make you believe that at one point, China had sponsored a fleet that had touched every part of the world. Menzies sells you a strong possibility, alongside maps, figures and an extensive list of material that were referenced in its bibliography which was said to be gathered over 15 years of research.
International academics have already disputed Menzies' work. In a joint statement issued by a number of his detractors, who were scientists, historians and naval officers, they write that "the Menzies' myth of global voyage is founded on his creative interpretation of the world's system of ocean currents while his so-called evidence is contrived by deliberate distortion and misquotations."
In 2003, Peter Gordan, who reviewed the book for the Asian Review of Books, wrote that "Even when Menzies claims to have seen the evidence, he does not reproduce it. In one telling passage, he tells of his discovery of an inscription in Cape Verde in an unrecognisable script. Does he send it to the British Museum? A university? No. Noting that it looks like scripts on Indian banknotes, he sends it to the Bank of India, which pronounces that it looks like Malayalam. Well, good: so it should be decipherable. Are we provided with a translation? No. Is the inscription reproduced in the book? No."
Menzies of course, defends himself, writing "Understandably, some English-speaking historians have been very upset. If I had spent my life writing about how Columbus discovered America I would have been furious if some outsider had found the chart Columbus used that showed him the way to the Americas. Having made allowances for that, it surprises me how badly the critics have handled their opposition."
However, I'm not writing to contest or support Menzies.
He had a wonderful story to tell, and I encourage those who want to explore China's extensive history to come to their own conclusions after reading the book.
What I am trying to point out is that people can forget that while anyone can write anything on the Internet, anyone who has a good story to sell and a publisher willing to sell that story, can publish anything.
Books, especially such as this one which is marketed as historical research instead of fiction, can have dangerous, liberal interpretation of facts that one need to be careful of when reading.
It is fortunate that in this day and age, in order to access how experts and other members of the public view information is just literally a click of a button away.
If it wasn't for that ability in this day and age, I think I myself, with my lack of knowledge in astronavigation, ocean currents and sailing, would have been swept away by Menzies' narrative and would be arguing with friends and colleagues (casually, not academically) about how China threw away an opportunity to rule the world in 1421.
Instead, it helped me keep perspective, to realise the necessity of more evidence instead of falling in love with the narrative.
Keeping an open mind while reading new theories, new evidences and new ideas is critical to the extension of knowledge.
However, keeping that mind open, after reading all the new material, is just as essential.
The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Brunei Times.
The Brunei Times
Thursday, May 3, 2012
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