Did the Chinese reach America before Columbus?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Hey, Jane. Do you remember a couple of podcasts ago when we talked about Rosie the Riveter?

Jane McGrath: I do.

Candace Gibson: And the topic of revisionist history came up.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And how people had misinterpreted what Rosie was.

Candace Gibson: And the great thing about revisionist history is that you have the freedom to go back and correct these misconceptions about the past as long as you're doing it in a scholarly, authentic, and well-researched sort of way.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: And to my knowledge, one of the most constantly revised stories is the discovery - if you can even call it that. Even that word has been revised, of American. And I know when I was little I was taught, "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He wanted to everyone that the world around us was not flat." And he may very well have done that. But I also learned that he found America. And then I learned later that that's not exactly the truth.

Jane McGrath: That's right. People jump on that story a lot saying that he didn't discover it. There were plenty of people there, obviously, so you can't use the word discover.

Candace Gibson: It's a very egotistical thing to do, to say that just because you're from a different civilization and you're imposing your laws and culture on another land, that you've discovered it.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: You haven't really. You've visited.

Jane McGrath: It's very Eurocentric, which a lot of people in past 50 years or so are really jumping on. They want to take the emphasis away from Europe and be like, "We should have a worldly perspective on things.

Candace Gibson: So Columbus, just because you had cuter breeches than some of the explorers out there, doesn't mean you get to claim America. And we know for a very true fact that people from Asia came over to America long before Columbus - we're talking some 10,000 years ago when they crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia into what is now modern day Alaska.

Jane McGrath: And they think that's how it was originally populated.

Candace Gibson: Right. But there's a scholar named Gavin Menzies who wrote a book back in 2003 called 1421: The Year China Discovered America.

Jane McGrath: And this caused a huge splash. First of all, it was hugely popular. It got the bestseller list and everything like that. But it wasn't well received by the so-called respected historians.

Candace Gibson: We're talking anthropologists, archeologists, historians - and what's more, linguists. All these people who would be very involved in studying the way that a culture attaches itself to a land and the way that people interact and how trade occurs. All these different pieces of evidence, tangible and non-tangible that would prove a culture had been assimilated into another.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And according to Menzies' theory, we should emphasize that the Chinese actually arrived in America, explored it, about seven decades before Columbus even set foot there. And the story goes that this Chinese admiral, Zhang Hee - it's well known that his guy went on extensive trips and he explored a lot of the world. But it's not accepted that he actually went all the way to America. Menzies claims that he in fact did. And we should mention that this guy, in his own, was a great explorer. He had these Chinese ships called junks and they were gargantuan. They dwarfed the ships that Columbus actually sailed on.

Candace Gibson: And he was part of the Ming Dynasty. And he had a 28,000-person fleet.

Jane McGrath: Right. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: So the ships had to be pretty big to accommodate all of those sailors. And just like sailors from the Western hemisphere had their own thoughts and theories about the sea and their mythical colony of Atlantis, these Chinese sailors had their own ideas about the sea and exploration, too. And one of the things they believed in was Fusang. Fusang was this legendary land analogous to Atlantis. And then a couple of years ago, a Baptist missionary named Dr. Hendon M. Harris found a map of what he thinks was Fusang. And he noted that it looked a whole lot like North America. And what's more, the map noted all of these geographic and topographic likenesses between North America and Fusang. It even showed something like the Grand Canyon, and people started to wonder, "How would the Chinese have such and intricate knowledge of North America if they hadn't been there?"

Jane McGrath: That's right. And Harris tried to write about this and advertise it to people to make it known, and not a lot of people jumped on board with his ideas until Menzies came along and he really loved it. And actually Menzies is an amateur historian. He really has naval experience. He was in the British Royal Navy, and that's the experience that he calls upon to claim that he can make these interpretations. He claims that he can read these maps better than normal historians can. He can read the maps and charts. And there was another map called the 1418 map, I believe, that shows oceans and seven continents accurately. And they believe that this proved beyond a doubt that the Chinese knew much more than we thought they did.

Candace Gibson: And I think that this 1418 map even shows formations like the Potomac River exactly where they're supposed to be.

Jane McGrath: That's shocking.

Candace Gibson: And the continents are the right size and they're in the right locations. And Menzies is claiming that not only did the Chinese explore the world first, but also the Europeans used Chinese maps to guide them to the New World. Go figure.

Jane McGrath: That's bothering a lot of historians, that he's making these claims. Because they base their law of studying on things that Menzies is calling all falsehoods. So Menzies is pointing at this and saying, "Hey, I know I'm getting a lot of critics. But look at what their stake in it is."

Candace Gibson: One of the problems of the 1418 map the critics have pointed out is that China, as far as it's depicted on the map, is sort of a mess. It has a blobbish shape. It's not true to form, and it's not emphasized and delineated as clearly as it should be. If the Chinese in fact drew this map of the world, you would think that - if they had made this discovery - they would've put a lot of emphasis on their own land. But they didn't.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, you'd think if they knew anything, they would know that very well. And also, another point that critics point to is that the map is based on the fact that the world is round. And historians are pretty confident that the Chinese did know this at that time.

Candace Gibson: So with all of these glaring loopholes in the theory, why on earth would Menzies continue to pursue his studies? And the answer is that there are a lot of strange coincidences going on. There are a lot of Native American folk stories that support the fact that the Chinese were there. I think that even one of the Incan rulers had a legend that he communicated with a Chinese admiral who taught him how to govern his land. We know that the Native Americans had horses, and while for a while historians presumed that the horses came from Europeans, some people presume that they came from the Chinese now. We know that Chinese soldiers used horses very religiously in their cavalry.

Jane McGrath: That's right. The story is that the Spaniards brought horses over the first time to America, giving aside that the horses were actually brought over originally but went extinct thousands of years ago. Now they think - or at least Menzies thinks - that China was actually the first one to bring them over after that.

Candace Gibson: And what's more, in the Pacific Northwest, archeologists have found Chinese coins in eight different places. And somewhe re else in the Midwest, they found a Native American garment that's about 300 years old, as far as they can date it - but it has Chinese beads on it. So people are wondering, "Well, where do these things come from if the Chinese weren't here working with these people?"

Jane McGrath: One of the stories that I find interesting is a different take on a story I was told in history class, which had to do with the Aztec emperor Montezuma. And the story that everyone knows is that Cortez went to meet Montezuma and the emperor mistook him for a god. And that's how Cortez was able to infiltrate. But Menzies actually postulates that Montezuma mistook Cortez for his grandfather returning from the East, as if he were familiar with Eastern people at that time.

Candace Gibson: And so Menzies interpretations certainly seem to hold water. But when you look at the common factors that are missing from the Chinese coming to American for a story, you have to stop and say, "No, that can't possibly be." We know that when the Vikings came, they were there 1,000 years before Columbus came, 70 years before the Chinese would've been there. And we can still see today, even though they're in ruins, the stone outposts that they built. So if the Chinese came, where are the standing artifacts, the ruins, the structures that they would've showed the people how to build and vice versa? And why didn't the Chinese take back things like gold and corn and tomatoes like the European fleets did when they came back to Europe from the New World.

Jane McGrath: That's right. There's no smoking gun that Menzies can point to. And another thing is that some historians - notably Robert Finlay - have pointed out, the Chinese could not have nourished the horses that they supposedly brought over on their ships. Apparently, horses need a certain amount of water, obviously, and they were surrounded by salt water. And they didn't have the desalination processes that would've been appropriate to feed all of these horses.

Candace Gibson: Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. How about that? And actually, one historian in particular, Dr. Jeff White, is so riled up about the glaring inaccuracies and inauthenticity of Menzies account that he's filed a complaint against the UK publishers who published Menzies' book. And he calls it Menzies' "history book." And you can feel the derision just rolling off of that description. He's very upset about it.

Jane McGrath: And he makes some stark claims. He's like, "Oh, look at this map." He claims that one of the maps that Menzies used as evidence is a fake, that it was made for Menzies.

Candace Gibson: Isn't that wild? And we all know how to do that. You roll it in ground coffee and then you burn the edges so it looks authentic and old. Did you ever do that before?

Jane McGrath: That's right. And he actually points to evidence that this map was drawn based on Jesuit maps of the 17th century because it makes the same mistakes, the mistakes that California was an island and etcetera.

Candace Gibson: That China was at the center of the world. And the text was translated into Chinese from Jesuit.

Jane McGrath: Right.

Candace Gibson: So there you go. But if you want to talk about another smoking gun, I guess you could say, to borrow Jane's phrase again - when the Ming Dynasty eventually collapsed, the dynasty that overcame it wanted to bury all evidence that had ever existed from the Ming Dynasty. They wanted to cover up all their accomplishments and everything that they had done because they were establishing a new rule and order.

Jane McGrath: And you could never prove that Menzies is wrong because all of this evidence is destroyed. And critics actually point to Menzies arrogance in this area. Menzies is quoted as saying, "There's not one chance in a million that I'm wrong." And so he's sticking it in the face of these respected historians, that you can understand how upset they can get over this.

Candace Gibson: That's a pretty amazing huberous right there. But whether or not it is true, we may never know. But it is testament to the fact that history isn't a stale and finalized topic of study. It's constantly changing and revisionist history points to that. And that's what's so exciting about it. Not that you can be a amateur historian and go out there and fabricate maps and make up your own theories about who found what first, but that this is a field of study that's open to the new rising young people in the profession.

Jane McGrath: And it's so popular, too. One thing about Menzies fame is that he was able to create a website around it, and people would respond with their own evidence. They were like, "Oh, there's a junk buried off the coast of where I live."

Candace Gibson: Isn't that wild?

Jane McGrath: I know. And People are coming in - and Menzies did write a sequel based on evidence that he got submitted from fans.

Candace Gibson: How about that? And speaking of submitting evidence from fans, if you ever have an idea for one of our history podcasts or have a history question that you want to know, go ahead and email me and Jane at podcast@howstuffworks.com. Just put history in the subject line and we'll be happy to tackle some of your queries. And in the interim, to satisfy your desire to learn more about China and some famous Chinese rulers out there, be sure to check out howstuffworks.com.

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