Top critical review
13 of 15 people found this helpful
on February 15, 2006
I am of two minds about this book by Gavin Menzies. I find it absolutely fascinating to read some of the speculations and interpretations that he puts on different maps and findings. I find it credible to believe that Chinese fleets of the early 1400s would be trading in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, making regular journeys to places as far as Africa, and perhaps reaching the Pacific Coasts of North and South America a few times.
However, I don't know what to think of such issues as Puerto Rico not only having been discovered by Chinese Fleets, but that based on this information, the Portuguese would have colonised areas in the Caribbean a generation prior to Columbus' journey - there seems no credible reason why Prince Henry the Navigator, being given such acclaim in history as he has been, would not also be credited with discovery of the New World if in fact he and his companions had found a passage across the Atlantic and discovered islands there.
Menzies is a good writer. I enjoyed reading the text very much. His description of the history of imperial China in the generation of the 1421 fleet is very engaging. The description of the politics and culture of China of the early Ming dynasty is good. The building of the Forbidden City, the repair of the Great Wall, and the dredging and expansion of the Great Canal are all projects from this period. It is also well known in historical circles that the period from 1400 to the 1430s was a time of exploration, with Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch in the court of the emperor, in charge of seven different fleets that reached Africa, Japan, and many islands of the South Pacific. These were documented and maintained as part of the ongoing record of Chinese history - why they would be selective to edit out the parts about the Americas, Greenland, and Antarctica becomes a bit speculative.
Likewise, his description of medieval Europe in the generations before and of the great voyages of discovery is also very interesting. He describes some of the political forces driving both exploration and colonisation - again, however, things fall a bit short. Why would the Portuguese, already settled in the Caribbean, agree to a division of the world by the Pope that would cut them out of that territory (particularly when the fact that they had a presence in Brazil was part of why they were permitted in the division to maintain their colonies there)?
Menzie's evidence comes from maps, from archaeological finds, and from literary and documentary pieces. However, one of the pitfalls here is that most every piece of evidence presented is subject to multiple interpretations. Menzie's claims as a navigator and expert in chart-reading do bear up under scrutiny, but this does mean that his interpretations are necessarily correct. There are those who brand his interpretations and conclusions as outlandish - I would opt more for the word 'hopeful' here, in that he does believe that what he has discovered is true on the whole, and this hopefulness leads in a particular hermeneutical direction.
Accoring to one commentator, 'Menzies' hypothesis and his theory accomplishes what many Zheng He scholars and academicians failed to do: that is to create a wide awareness on the subject matter; and forced a critical rethink, including some reevaluations on the extent, the success and the failures of the Ming Imperial Treasure Fleet.' The real benefit of a book such as this one is that it causes conversation and research into history among those who might not otherwise be so inclined. The worrisome part is that it might not be conducted in such as way as to be able to separate fact from fiction.
Menzies does maintain a website dedicated to further researches and refinements in his theory. Thus far, few major academics and historians have signed on as believers of this theory, but there are some - Sir John Elliott, in the Department of Modern History at Oxford is perhaps the most notable.
So, one is left at this - history is not an exact science much of the time, but it isn't a complete fiction or completely subjective dependent upon the whims of those who believe what they will believe, either. It is true that China was more advanced that Europe in many ways at this time, and that the Chinese did command larger fleets than the Europeans at this point in time. However, Menzies' conclusions here are based on interpretation that rests on the shifting sands of myth, legend, and documents with variable ideas of accuracy. Menzies is passionate in his writing, but so far has failed to be convincing. I will strive to maintain an open mind; I will continue to accept the more 'canonical' reading of history that has a stronger pedigree, but will follow the developments of Menzies' theory in the coming decades with interest.
I would give this three-and-one-half stars given the option.