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China discovers everything circa 1420

The Economist reports on an 18th century copy of a map originally made in the early 15th century that shows "that the world and all its continents were discovered by a Chinese admiral named Zheng He." All this is, somehow, related to the book 1421: The Year China Discovered America. I guess we’ll hear more. This is the Economist’s last paragraph:

"The consequences of the discovery of this map could be considerable. If it does indeed prove to be the first map of the world, ’the history of New World discovery will have to be rewritten,’ claims Mr Menzies. How much does this matter? Showing that the world was first explored by Chinese rather than European seamen would be a major piece of historical revisionism. But there is more to history than that. It is no less interesting that the Chinese, having discovered the extent of the world, did not exploit it, politically or commercially. After all, Columbus’s discovery of America led to exploitation and then development by Europeans which, 500 years later, made the United States more powerful than China had ever been."

Discussions - 13 Comments

I read 1421. It was excellent.

Excellent if you’re into historical fiction, perhaps, but professional historians have soundly debunked Menzies’ work. See this review, for example, from the Journal of World History.

The map looked totally phony to me. There was far too much detail (Antarctic, East and West sides of America, the Yucatan pennisula, Greenland, the Beaufort Sea) for it to be believable, especially for explorations made without a decent clock for measuring longitude. When the Economist pontificates, "It seems more likely that the world and all its continents were discovered by a Chinese admiral named Zheng He." then that merely illustrates the continuing descent of that once intelligent mag into the slough of inanity where wallow its competitors.

Even if one rejects the Zinn take on history - and I certainly do - that Columbus and his fellow European explorers were cold-blooded killers and exploiters, it still strikes me as quite odd to refer to him (them) as "discoverers" when clearly, other people were already here. Isn’t it obvious that someone arrived in the Americas before either the Europeans OR the Chinese?

Here’s the definition of "discover":

1. To notice or learn, especially by making an effort: got home and discovered that the furnace wasn’t working.

2.a. To be the first, or the first of one’s group or kind, to find, learn of, or observe.

2.b. To learn about for the first time in one’s experience: discovered a new restaurant on the west side.

3. To learn something about: discovered him to be an impostor; discovered the brake to be defective.

4. To identify (a person) as a potentially prominent performer: a movie star who was discovered in a drugstore by a producer.

According to none of these variants is it necessary to have been the absolute first person to have found something in order to have "discovered" it.

That’s interesting to see the definitions John, thank you. Of those given, I think only the latter half of definition 2A would apply to Columbus’s landing in the New World. I hope, but I’m not confident, that American students understand that when it is said that "Columbus discovered America" there really is, or should be, an implied "- or was the first among Europeans & Africans to discover it." Strikes me as an important distinction to make.

This is part of an ongoing revision of World history. A better example of this than the contentious 1421 is Abu Lughod’s "Before European Hegemony." Her point is that the west "reached out" to the east much, much later than the east reached out to the west. Europe was a very junior partner in a world system of trade and cultural exchange which reached from China to the Levant and Byzantium. Obviously the trade system was encouraged by some governments, interfered with by others, and waxed and waned in strength, but the narrative of European discovery should be modified by a careful examination of China and the near east before the sixteenth century. Lughod’s book is harder to read and much less splashy than 1421, but it deserves to be read and re-read, even if you do not share all of her ideas.

I think this is interesting, because if China was so much more advanced than the europeans, what prevented them from branching out... In other words why was it Europe and not China that colonized/discovered the new world?

As Dr. Schramm says: It is no less interesting that the Chinese, having discovered the extent of the world, did not exploit it, politically or commercially. I think it has something to do with Federalist 10/factions/what John Stuart Mill says about the China, or if you want a more modern twist what Jared Diamond postulates in Guns Steel and Germs(what do you think of this book, Dr. Mosier?) Namely that "When that one emperor gave the order to dismantle the shipyards and stop sending out the ships, that order applied to all of China, and China’s tradition of building ocean-going ships was lost because of the decision by one person." meanwhile..."Columbus was an Italian, and he wanted an ocean-going fleet to sail across the Atlantic. Everybody in Italy considered this a stupid idea and wouldn’t support it. So Columbus went to the next country, France, where everybody considered it a stupid idea and wouldn’t support it. So Columbus went to Portugal, where the king of Portugal considered it a stupid idea and wouldn’t support it. So Columbus went across the border to a duke of Spain who considered this stupid. And Columbus then went to another duke of Spain who also considered it a waste of money. On his sixth try Columbus went to the king and queen of Spain, who said this is stupid. Finally, on the seventh try, Columbus went back to the king and queen of Spain, who said, all right, you can have three ships, but they were small ships. Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and, as we all know, discovered the New World, came back, and brought the news to Europe. Cortez and Pizarro followed him and brought back huge quantities of wealth. Within a short time, as a result of Columbus having shown the way, 11 European countries jumped into the colonial game and got into fierce competition with each other. The essence of these events is that Europe was fragmented, so Columbus had many different chances."

Jared Diamond says..."And this suggests that there is an optimal intermediate degree of fragmentation, that a too-unified society is a disadvantage, and a too-fragmented society is also a disadvantage. Instead, innovation proceeds most rapidly in a society with some intermediate degree of fragmentation."

Well, since you asked....

If what you say above were actually Diamond’s ultimate conclusion I’d have no problem with it; but indeed, he’s hardly the first to claim that Europe’s division into competing nation-states was one of the keys to its success.

The problem with Diamond is that he wants to find the single cause that explains everything, including the fact that Europe was fragmented while China was not. He ends up reducing everything to geography, arguing that Europe’s coastlines and climate, its variety of single-cell organisms and multiple domesticable animals (he notes that while the horse can be domesticated, its African relative the zebra cannot be) meant that Europeans were destined to pull ahead of the rest of the world. An interesting read, but in the end unsatisfying.

Given that the Norse "discovered" America at least 400 years prior to this, what’s the big deal? Many dismiss the Norse discovery because it didn’t "change the world." Well, that’s clearly true of this supposed Chinese discovery, too.

Columbus still has bragging rights.

Columbus discovered America. Before Columbus, the Old and New Worlds had no knowledge of each other, the New World was ’covered’ from the Old. Columbus uncovered or if you will, discovered, what had been hidden.

If others found the land earlier, Norse, Chinese, Egyptian, very interesting. It was Columbus’ discovery that matters. The rest are just footnotes.

Of course if the Chinese discovered the americas it would not be all that surprising since they were one of the first people to develop agriculture, and by extention rapid population growth and then government, and of course germs... It is not like someone is arguing that the Bantu discovered America.(altough if anyone in Africa did it would have been them) A better question is: If China discovered the America’s how did the germs they bring with them weaken the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus? It should have had some impact...(therefore there should be some evidence)

As regards the role of climate, geography and starting materials in history I don’t see why everyone is so adverse to recognizing the role of fortune. It is as we wanted to pretend that all peoples started out equal.

You are right about his discussion/distinction between proximate and ultimate cause. But what I think is just as interesting is how living in modernity we deal with sets of circumstances whose ill effects have largely been cancelled out or rendered remote and thus forgotten, for example: geography, climate, the developement of agricultural foods. In other words the answer to Yali’s question might be geography, but the answer to Yali’s plight must of necessity be quite different. Yali is obviously less interested in the preconditions that his ancestors missed out on(somewhat), and more interested in the antecedent conditions that are within his control that can or will lead to prosperity.

If we view Jared Diamond as a historical determinist we must argue that he is unduely cruel to Yali in that there is nothing Yali can do other than join a society that is currently in the lead because its ancestors first developed crops. I don’t think Jared Diamond set out to argue that virtue has no part in history, or that these people are not intelligent.

Indeed his whole premise was that differences in intelligence between races are negligible, that given the right conditions any people could flourish, this seems to me to be correct and optimistic and a decent refutation of a previous post in which people mentioned Montesquieu and David Duke(unfair to Montesquieu) as arguing that democracy was impossible to people in hot climes, including the desert(notably Iraq)....because of the passions that hot climes stir, and some other racist reasons....

Columbus is famous for being the last to discover America. The previous discoveries didn’t stick. His did. His made it unnecessary for anyone else to discover America.

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