Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Zheng He's ship compared to Columbus's.


As a newcomer and outsider (my area is South Asia) I am baffled by a discrepancy in the discussions here of Gavin Menzies’ book - Louise Levathes also makes the claim that ancient Chinese sea voyagers reached the Americas and traces connections through cloth-making techniques, symbols and architecture. It seems to me that her claims are as speculative as Menzies yet his strongest critics refer to her book as a good starting point.

Why are the two treated so differently?

Shubh Mathur

Visiting Assistant Professor of History

Richard Stockton College of New Jersey


Ed. note: While the books of Gavin Menzies have been discussed at some length on H-ASIA over the years, I am not sure I recall any discussion of the book noted by Dr. Mathur, although it may be that the earlier publication date simply led to the lack of attention—H-ASIA itself was launched in 1994.  For those unfamiliar with it, the title is:

_When China ruled the seas: the treasure fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433_

New York: Simon & Schuster, ©1994.

ISBN: 0671701584 : 9780671701581


From: Geoff Wade

Recently Dr Shubh Mathur submitted a query to H-Asia asking why Louise Levathes and Gavin Menzies are treated so differently by scholars given that they both posit trans-Pacific links by Chinese mariners.

I wrote to Dr Mathur to obtain details of the Levathes' claims she referred to and she has kindly provided the following:

"In Ch 1, page 25, she mentions Southeast Asians originating in China crossing the Pacific to land in Central and South America.

Ch 1 page 26 - comparing traditions of bark-cloth making from Sulawesi and the central Mexican highlands

Ch 1 page 28 - parallels between Shang arts and bronze figurines in Peru, Olmec jade carving

Ch 1 page 31 - possible Daoist influence on Mayan civilization, similarity between Chinese characters and Mayan glyphs, Chinese and Mayan calendars Endnotes on page 210 refer to what seem to me to be sound sources, including Joseph Needham

Chapter 2, page 40, she refers to Buddhist legends that suggest Buddhist monks reached the Americas in the 5th century AD."

     Levathes is, in these references, of course speculating and such speculation is part of a long-time tradition of "perhaps/might have" claims about possible Chinese voyages to places beyond Asia in the pre-modern period. Such speculation cannot be proven or disproved, but is not intended to deceive.

     The majority of Louise Levathes book "When China ruled the Seas: the Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433 (Simon and Schuster 1994) comprises an account of the early 15th century voyages, led by eunuchs such as Zheng He, to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and the East coast of Africa. During research for the book, Ms Levathes spoke to many scholars in the field and incorporated their ideas into the text.

Her book presents an account which is in accord with all extant sources.

The map included also shows the Ming voyagers reaching only as far as the East coast of Africa, likewise completely in accord with contemporary sources. The epilogue to the book, entitled "A People Called Baijini" which does not directly engage with the main text, suggests the possibility of pre-European Chinese contact with Australia's north coast and Chinese settlements in East Africa in the 10th century. Ms Levathes does present this as speculation. While there are, like in any work, lapses and leaps of faith within Levathes' work, again it must be stressed that there is no apparent intent to deceive.

       Mr Menzies books '1421' and '1434' are in a very different category. Mr Menzies posits Ming voyages which continued to the West coast of Africa, across to the Americas, past Greenland, down to Australia and New Zealand, north to the Arctic and south to near Antarctica. In '1434,' he has the Ming voyagers turn up on the Pope's doorstep in Florence.  He tells us of the specific routes followed, stopping places, observation points established, activities engaged in, settlements built and strategies pursued -- all solely on the basis of his own imagination (and that of his ghost-writer Neil Hanson). To present "evidence" for all these voyages, Mr Menzies lies, fabricates and deceives. There are no Chinese or other sources which support any of these voyages. The creation and distortion of evidence is simply stunning and this is the primary reason Mr Menzies and his works are held in such disdain almost universally. The fact that his publishers were willing to publish the work of Menzies as "non-fiction," thereby intentionally deceiving the public, is a further affront. A selection of the problems, lies, deceits and distortions perpetrated in the Menzies' volumes is presented at the following links:


        Philip Rivers book "1421 Voyages: Fact and Fantasy" (Perak Academy, Ipoh, 2004) also provides a useful study of the navigational impossibilities and "imaginative creativity" of the 1421 claims.

       As media attention waned, Menzies' claims became continuously more ludicrous (or offensive) in order to attract more attention. Unfounded claims of Chinese shipwrecks have evolved into statements that Chinese scholars do not know anything about their past. His claims of global circumnavigation by Chinese mariners in 1421 evolved into assertion of Tang (or Han) dynasty Chinese settlement of New Zealand, and accounts of how the Chinese settlers were eventually killed by invading Maoris.

Other variants have the Maori people being produced as offspring of Chinese courtesans and Melanesian slaves. The harm such intentional fabrication and myth-making can give rise to need not be further described. The press article copied at the base of this email, which was originally reprinted on H-ASIA in 2006, is a clear demonstration of the hate-mongering at which Mr. Menzies now excels. This is a further reason Mr Menzies is considered and treated differently from Ms Levathes.

With best wishes,

Geoff Wade

Asia Research Institute

National University of Singapore


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