I’m about halfway through 1421: The Year that China Discovered the World, and finding it heavy going. The problem isn’t the writing so much as the way that author Gavin Menzies develops his argument, piling speculation on speculation, leaping to conclusions and drawing everything into his main theory until alarms sound in my head and I become irritated by the obsessional nature of his ideas.
Menzies starts with the known facts that a massive fleet set off from China in 1421, and that, while it was away, a reaction against exploration and trade occured in China, putting an end to such voyages and suppressing all their discoveries. From there, however, he quickly expands into conjecture, imagining a giant flotilla of ships that, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, divided into three separate fleets.
One of these fleets, he suggests, sailed into Antarctica to take sightings to aid navigation in the southern hemisphere, then returned home via the west side of Australia. Another travelled up South America, crossed the Pacific, returned to travel down the west coast of North and Central America, then explored New Zealand and Australia’s east coast. The third headed north to the Atlantic, circumnavigated Greenland, and returned home around the northern coast of Asia. On the way, these fleets supposedly mapped the coastlines they were passing, and left traces in the form of observation platforms, wrecks, animals, and small colonies.
The only trouble is, absolutely no record of these journeys exist. We know that the fleet sailed, and was charged with exploration, but that is all. At best, Menzies is forced to argue from such second or third hand evidence as European maps that show coastlines before any European had reached them. At worst, he argues from currents and winds that the ships must have taken the courses he suggests. Never mind that some elements, such as the circumnaviations of Greenland and Asia are wildly implausible, or that none of these voyages ever steered towards Europe, which was at least vaguely known to the Chinese of the time.
Moreover, all this travelling is supposed to have occurred in two or three years. Given that Magellan and Drake’s circumnavigations took about three or four years, it is just barely possible that the Chinese fleets could have managed their own in the time alloted, but, when you consider the difficulty of keeping hundreds of vessels together and the slowness of charting coastlines, the time scale becomes unworkable – even for a straightforward circumnavigation, let alone the endless criss-crossings and detours that Menzies suggests. These are all difficulties that Menzies, for all his repeated claims of unique expertise because of his service in the British navy, utterly fails to take into account.
Yet, despite these difficulties, Menzie plows on. His method is to suggest a movement, then to find evidence that might suggest a Chinese presence in the place he suggests. An old map, a burial marker, an account of a strange wreck – it doesn’t matter. Anything that can be made to support his ideas, sometimes with a little twisting, is pressed into service. Alternative explanations don’t matter, not even the possibility that the signs of Chinese influence might have come at some other time. He never argues from the evidence; rather, he finds the evidence to fit his theory, then shoehorns it into place without any regard for other possibilities.
Very quickly, the tone becomes reminiscent of books like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, in which everything everywhere is explained in terms of a single all-embracing, far-fetched theory. Menzies’ theory may be more reasonable than von Däniken’s, but only barely. It still has the same stink of monomania lingering about it – unsurprisingly, since Menzies has apparently spent over fifteen years on it.
Menzies’ theory may have the benefit of introducing North Americans and Europeans to the glories of Chinese culture. One of the few things that he is right about is that, in the fifteenth century, the Chinese were probably the most advanced civilization in the world, and that’s a fact that few people seem to realize today.
Yet I find myself wishing that he would have cast his book in the form of a novel rather than as an apparently serious attempt at speculation. If he had, then he might have performed the same service without leaving the unhealthy air of obsession about his work.