1421 1434

EDITORIAL, 20 Feb 2009

#51 | Johan Galtung

In 1421 the Chinese traveled to America – more than 70 years ahead of the event used by the West to celebrate itself: Columbus “discovering” America and taking the Watling Island in the Bahamas in possession for Spain 12 October 1492.

“These remarkable Chinese admirals rounded the Cape of Good Hope sixty-six years before Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, passed through the Strait of Magellan ninety-eight years before Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, surveyed Australia three hundred years before Captain James Cook in 1771, Antarctica and the Arctic four centuries before the first Europeans Amundsen Roald in 1911 and R. E. Peary in 1909, and America seventy years before Columbus.

“The great admirals Zheng He, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing deserve to be remembered and celebrated too, for they were the first, the bravest and most daring of all. Those who followed them, no matter how great their achievements, were sailing in their wake.”

Thus ends the major part of the remarkable book 1421 by Gavin Menzies (New York: Harper, 2008); a book badly needed to detoxify our Western bias in world view and history. “On March 8, 1421 the largest fleet the world had ever seen, 160 ships, some with 150 meters, the Spanish ships could fit on the deck, set sail from China to proceed all the way to the ends of the world to collect tributes from the barbarians beyond the seas.”

They did not, but some of the many Chinese settled in 20 places on a map with the voyages of the four admirals (He was the overall head), and still live there, from Hudson bay to New Zealand, bringing their crafts, customs and language, plants and animals with their DNA, making it possible to track this major transplantation. And yet it took a submarine commander with a passion for ancient maps, travelling the seas, to unearth, unwater and connect the numerous deep facts and artifacts.

The basic point is not who “discovered” what first; they had been sighted by human eyes before first some Chinese and then some Iberians cast their eyes on them. The Chinese did not “take in possession” or “discovered”, but disseminated principal economic crops. But why was their arrival prior to Europeans so unknown?

Partly because “when the fleet returned home in October 1423, the emperor had fallen, leaving China in political and economic chaos. The great ships were left to rot at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost in the long, self-imposed isolation that followed – -“.

However, already in 1434 (the follow-up book) China sent envoys to barbarian Europe (like Venezia, Genova) sharing knowledge of mathematics and things a Leonardo da  Vinci (1452-1519) could make good use of for genius qualification, not to mention some maps that came equally handy when a Columbus should qualify as genius navigator. Maybe the European renaissance was a byproduct of Chinese voyages – -?

And partly because Europeans who used their maps, like Vasco da Gama, were swindlers who preferred to present themselves as “discoverers” because according to Roman Law res communis, res nullius, what is owned by everybody is owned by nobody, then to be possessed by whoever first casts his eye upon the unowned claiming it. For instance for Spain.  Swindlers and imperialists.

I remember myself admiring in 1958 the lacquer craft in Uruapan, one of the 22 villages around the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico where bishop Quiroga had distributed crafts. Chinese lacquer, Chinese craftsmen. And there are elders among Navajo Indians in New Mexico who to this day understand Chinese.

Thor Heyerdahl, arguing that Incas had sailed from Peru to Tahiti and onwards, has been proven wrong. Chinese presence on both sides of the Pacific explain DNA similarities very well.

If the amazing amount of facts put together by Menzies stand up against an army of historians with vested interests, history has to be cleansed of Western bias. We have been prepared for the shock, however, by Joseph Needham, one of the star intellectuals of last century (he died in 1995 at the age of 94) and his great Science and Civilization in China (see also Simon Winchester, The Man Who Loved China, New York: Harper).

China was so far ahead in so many fields that the explanation for lagging behind must be in China itself. But the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty was certainly accelerated by English gunboats and opium; and the surge of China–not only growth but massive distribution–under the Communist dynasty was certainly attempted stopped by the West till the temptation to make money got the upper hand, understanding nothing, attributing to China Western imperial motives.

Why had the books to be written by an English submarine captain and not by the Chinese themselves? Why didn’t they do what Westerners would have done, We Did It, We Were First? I don’t know, but maybe the Chinese don’t care? Admiral He is well known, but holding Barbaria in such low esteem major feats outside China come second to inner Chinese careers? Whoever leaves the Middle Kingdom for Barbaria does so at the risk of oblivion? How about the Chinese leaving for Africa and those leaving for the West to imbibe barbarian science and civilization? An interlude?

The Chinese came, saw, did not conquer, many stayed. Unlike the West no empire, no sucking tentacles. Also unlike the West they learnt, and preserved much of it. Like a Marco Polo, who may never have been to China, they must have told exotic stories. But no major synthesis emerged. However, the center of the world now moves toward China. Maybe the world needs a second 1421 spreading Chinese civilization? Maybe around 2021? For more global visions?

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Feb 2009.

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