The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance
By Gavin Menzies,
Harper Collins, 367pp
Reviewed: 6 September 2008
The publishing industry takes some responsibility for distinguishing fact from fiction, since readers are encouraged to believe that there is a difference between books classified Fiction and those classified Non-Fiction.
Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code has been read by thousands as a true and hidden history of cosmic significance, but Brown and his publishers walked a careful line not to claim it was more than fiction. In Gavin Menzies’ two works 1431 – The Year China Discovered America, and now 1434 – The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance, readers are being sold, as non-fiction, works that mix facts and wild speculation with an abandon that would embarrass the better historical novelists. They are best compared to factoid speculation of the “aliens taught us everything” genre, similar to Erik von Danikens’s Chariots of the Gods series.
It is well documented that a large Chinese merchant fleet visited India in 1433-34, and that part of the Chinese fleet continued westward as far as the Persian Gulf trade terminus of Hormuz. It followed trade routes developed and maintained for centuries by Arab maritime trading societies. The Chinese fleets drew heavily on Arab seafaring knowledge and navigation technology, and employed experienced non-Chinese mariners in significant numbers.
The Chinese Admiral Zheng He was himself a Muslim as well as a eunuch – two useful attributes for negotiating trade and diplomatic cooperation from the Muslim-ruled states and trading ports along the route via Malacca, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, India and the Gulf.
The Chinese records tell us that Zheng He died before reaching Hormuz and command passed to another admiral, Hong Bao, who completed the trade mission and returned to China with a rich fleet in 1434.
Gavin Menzies asserts that Zheng He’s commission from the Ming Emperor Yong Le was not merely to engage in trade (in Imperial protocol described as gifts and tributes), but rather to bring enlightenment to the Western barbarians and to endow them with sufficient Chinese wisdom that they would flock to Beijing to recognize China’s global supremacy.
He suggests that Zheng He’s fleet carried copies of Yong Le’s state encyclopedia consisting of 11,000 books taking up 600 yards of shelf space, crammed with state of the art Chinese technology and wisdom and containing “more intellectual knowledge than any university in the world at that time”. In his scenario, Admiral Zheng He did not die off Hormuz, but sailed on right around Africa, crossed the Atlantic, and settled in North Carolina where he died.
Meanwhile another part of the fleet fulfilled the Emperor’s instruction to civilise the barbarians by sailing up the Red Sea, through a canal to the Nile, and across the Mediterranean to Venice. His fleet bore encyclopedic gifts, ample translators, and apparently some thousands of slave girls who, on reaching the Adriatic Sea, would elope with sailors and populate Croatia.
From Venice, a Chinese Ambassador from the fleet traveled to Florence where he met with Pope Eugenius IV (in political exile from Rome)and presented him with knowledge of navigation, astronomy, agriculture, engineering, silk manufacture and most importantly a world globe portraying in considerable detail all the continents so far not known in Europe,. This, according to Menzies, was the “spark” that ignited the European Renaissance, industrial development, and period of European world colonisation.
Since there is absolutely no evidence of any magnificent Chinese fleet sailing to Italy and igniting the Renaissance, in 1434 or in any other year throughout history, Menzies supports his thesis with attenuated chains of inference. The technique is to identify a key figure such as Leonardo da Vinci, a German mapmaker or a significant mathematician, and then fossick for any links or relationships that could possibly trace back to Florence, the Pope and the Chinese Ambassador. On the slimmest of evidence or most unreliable documentation, he will say on one page that a certain connection “could” have happened. On the next page the link has become “would” have happened, and by the next chapter the far-fetched possibility is quoted as a factual assumption to underpin some even more far-fetched argument.
Along the way, all other possible sources of knowledge and inspiration are discounted or ignored. In particular, he writes as if the centuries of material and intellectual commerce across land and sea Silk Routes linking China with the Mediterranean, and the treasury of classical scientific learning preserved in Arabic scholarship, are of no account.
The sheer bulk of outright errors, misrepresentations and unsupported assertions is so great that it would be maddening to undertake a full refutation. The hypothesis is clearly attractive but readers should be warned that the author seeks to overwhelm critical reserve with a fire-hose barrage of factoids, logical leaps and unverifiable textual references.
Where references are easily checked, they often fail to support what Menzies claims they prove. He refers frequently to a 1418 Chinese map, that he calls “Zheng He’s map”, showing most of the modern world, including the Americas, as evidence of Chinese pre-Columbian knowledge of the entire globe. This map itself is printed in his book. It is captioned “1418/1763”.
Not a line of the text suggests a date other than 1418, and only by chasing up the source of this map in an external reference can one confirm that the map is a “copy” made in China no earlier than 1763 (by which time its contents were common knowledge to seafarers) and with no safe provenance earlier than the twentieth century. There is no 1418 map.
Similarly, he provides many illustrations of machines from the Ming Dynasty Nong Shu (Book of Agriculture) comparing them with drawings of agricultural machinery by Renaissance Italians, asserting that the Italian designs are derived from the Chinese. In secondary school I was taught to question the bogus logic post hoc ergo propter hoc (this follows that, therefore this was caused by that). Machines built for the same purpose (such as harnessing animal or water power to lift water) and utilizing the same materials are quite likely to have elements in common. Not only is the derivation not proven, but in each case the pictorial resemblances are insignificant compared to evident differences in the engineering applied to the task, which seem to have escaped both Menzies and his editors.
In one example, what is obviously a wooden wheel bucket pump is captioned as “strikingly similar” to an Italian metal-linked chain pump that has little in common beyond the purpose of lifting water and the bullock power. Elsewhere, a photograph of an antique astronomical instrument is captioned “Chinese astronomy was clearly more advanced than European efforts until after the 1434 visit to Florence”. But the instrument, on view to Beijing tourists every day, is one that was cast in 1674 by the Belgian Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest for the Qing Kang Xi Emperor. Centuries before that, the Beijing observatory had been staffed by Muslim astronomers drawing on the recognized superiority of astronomical science developed in Central Asia and the Muslim world.
With some disciplined editorial guidance, Menzies’ enthusiasm for his topic might have produced a more credible account of the exchange of technical and other knowledge between East and West. China has of course made significant contributions, but not in the way Menzies has imagined.
This naïve account largely ignores centuries of dynamic flow of knowledge backwards and forwards between the cultures of the Egypt, Persia, classical Greece and Rome, Byzantium, Baghdad, Damascus, Samarkand, India, the many cultures of East and Southeast Asia, and even little old Europe.
In balance one might ask, for example, whether there is a single mediaeval building in all of China to match the engineering sophistication of any of the top fifty European cathedrals built before 1434? The Egyptians had constructed shipping canal locks almost 2000 years ago, so why would Europe wait to hear about canal locks from China? And the premise that a Ming Emperor would seek to give away the sum total of China’s state knowledge is simply incredible. China has throughout history practiced the most jealous control of information assets as strategic resources.
I’m inclined to blame the editors rather than Menzies himself for nonsense like the “magnificent Chinese fleet to Venice” and for failing to curb many other overstatements, and for neglecting to check even elementary facts and spellings If mediaeval astronomy is so important to the book, why is Ptolemy spelt “Ptolomy” seemingly at random?
Popular speculative history can stimulate interest in serious history, and can usefully challenge the assumptions of our Eurocentric world view. Menzies acknowledges teams of researchers, collaborators and contributors of supportive information, from Croatian DNA-sleuths to discoverers of mediaeval Chinese junks suspended upside down high on the cliffs of New Zealand’s west coast, and many amateur or professional historians of proud Chinese background.
It’s difficult to sort the wheat (and there is some) from so much chaff. Neither the author nor his editors seem to feel any need to do it for us. This book will be a bestseller and many readers will swallow the lot. . Breathless sinocentric sensationalism has been a formula for selling books since Marco Polo. A critical reader may find some entertainment and stimulus in it, but must suspend any expectation of methodical argument.
Richard Thwaites has been reading Chinese history for forty years.