Books: That Sinking Feeling ; Did Medieval Chinese Sailors Really Span the Globe? T H Barrett Takes Issue with Junk History
Barrett, T H, The Independent (London, England)
1421: the Year China Discovered the World
GAVIN MENZIES, who turned to nautical history after a successful career as a submarine commander, is a born optimist. Most academics are convinced pessimists. True, they do not normally face being blown up or drowned - even if they must become reconciled to seeing their pay and conditions slip behind other professions. What teaches them never to look on the bright side is the experience of rigorous research, in which the last, oddly shaped piece in the jigsaw always turns out to be the bomb that blows the picture apart. Menzies, by contrast, seems to be working with infinitely elastic pieces, which naturally fit together to create a picture on a far grander scale than any academic will recognise.
"What is wrong with this picture?" might provide a fitting title for the enterprise. Its ostensible theme is the early 15th-century voyages of the Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He, who sailed the Indian Ocean with a retinue of tens of thousands at least as far as the east coast of Africa. It is possible that by this stage the Chinese had some awareness of Australia - they had been trading with Timor for 150 years or more - and sporadic contacts across the Pacific. The technological capabilities of the Chinese are not in doubt, and far flimsier craft had already been used to colonise Madagascar across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia, and Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand across the Pacific.
Despite this, we may rest assured that in 1421 the fleets under Zheng He's command did not circumnavigate the globe, did not explore the Atlantic from Arctic to Antarctic, and did not plant colonies around the Pacific rim, in the Caribbean, or in Massachusetts. Menzies has only reached these conclusions by ignoring five basic principles of research.
First, like a good commander, he has not questioned the overall strategy implied by his big picture. True, the Chinese emperor may have held a conception of empire closer to that of the Mongols, who he helped to eject from China, than to most of his successors. But this had already involved him in attempting to conquer the remnant of their regime in Mongolia and also the Vietnamese: tough opponents on both northern and southern borders. Even before the cancellation of Zheng He's further voyages he was retrenching on frontier defence, and while the Indian Ocean voyages probably paid for themselves in prestige and profits, there would have been no point in risking ships and men in the attempt to chart the world beyond trade routes known to Arabs, Tamils and Malays - on whose information the Chinese relied.
Border troubles aside, there was plenty to do at home. We know that when the voyages were cancelled, his army of 10,000, an important element in the fleet's strike force, was kept busy being redeployed as construction workers, so that the southern capital of Nanjing expanded to match the glories of Beijing. That fact undermines completely Menzies' account of the handful of survivors from a decimated fleet, struggling home from the ends of the earth. …