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Where EAST meets the Northwest

HISTORY MYSTERY. 1421 examines the mystery surrounding the sailing exploits of the legendary Admiral Zheng He and the Ming fleet of treasure junks he commanded for more than 30 years. Pictured are actors portraying Emperor Zhu Di (center) and attendants. 1421 airs Thursday, July 16 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. (Photos courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #27 (July 14, 2009), page 11.

Rewriting history yields bestseller, presents controversial theory

1421: The Year China Discovered America?

Directed by David Wallace

Produced by Paladin InVision

By Pamela Ellgen

They say winners write history books. In the case of the 2002 book 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies, it appears losers rewrite history books. Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus this month presents a two-hour documentary— 1421: The Year China Discovered America? — that puts a question mark on this claim and offers a fascinating look into one of the Ming Dynasty’s most amazing undertakings.

At the start of the 15th century, Emperor Zhu Di commissioned Admiral Zheng He to build and sail a fleet of 200 vessels far beyond China’s shores to enhance its prestige, trade, and diplomacy around the known world. According to Menzies, the emperor’s ambitions also included circumnavigating the globe. This is the beginning of Menzies’ view of history to support his theory that it was China, not European explorers, who "discovered" the New World, namely America.

Fuelling Menzies’ reasoning is a map of the New World drawn before the exploration of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. This seems to indicate someone had "discovered" the area before European explorers. To Menzies, the mystery initially led him to believe it was the Portuguese who had drawn the map. According to the documentary, he eventually abandoned this theory and years of research, drowning his sorrows at a pub in Lisbon.

From his disappointment was born the theory that it was the Chinese who first "discovered" the New World. Menzies supports this theory with a sizable collection of evidence pulled from around the globe. He uses DNA evidence, archeology, original maps, eyewitness accounts, and linguistics to support his hypothesis. Some of his evidence is plausible, such as the inclusion of a map by Fra Mauro suggesting that an Asian ship travelled around the Cape of Good Hope around 1420. But conveniently absent from his sources are the Ming fleet’s logbooks, which were destroyed in the years following their voyages by "jealous Confucian courtiers," according to the piece.

Ultimately, his evidence crumbles under the weight of scrutiny from both Western and Chinese scholars, who might otherwise be sympathetic to Menzies’ claim.

Professor Wang Tianyou of Beijing University says, "To have a new theory, one must have evidence to support it. The evidence can be historical archives or archeological findings. If you have neither, you can’t say your theories are up to the test. Menzies’ conclusion has no evidence."

Nevertheless, Menzies maintains details might be wrong, but "The overall driving thrust of the book is absolutely right."

The show illustrates the fanciful nature of Menzies’ epic rewriting of history while exploring the truth behind the Ming fleet and its heroic admiral, Zheng He. It follows the fleet from its birthplace in Chinese dry docks, where carpenters and blacksmiths from around the country joined forces to create the vessels, to the recruitment of Arab sailors skilled in navigation. Sailing south from China’s eastern shores, the fleet reached as far as Africa. Although this is where the story seems to end in written records, the show presents an enlightening journey through China’s preeminent maritime exploits and sheds light on the fictional accounts that have been added hereto.

1421: The Year China Discovered America? airs July 16 from 2:00 to 4:00am, with a repeat scheduled July 22 from 1:00 to 3:00am, on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus (OPB Plus). For more information, or to verify showtimes, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>.