1421: The Year China Discovered the World

1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America
Gavin Menzies
Harper Collins
650pp

1421

Occasionally we learn something that alters the way we see the world, that changes our paradigm. As Piaget put it, typically new information adds to and is fit into our schema of the world. However, sometimes new information does not fit the schema. When that happens we can dismiss the new information, decide it is an exception to the rule, or we may, when those strategies do not work, actually alter our schema. 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies was a book that did that for me.

The title of the book is actually a misnomer. It really should be called The Year the Chinese Discovered the World (as some editions—probably those sold outside the US are titled), as the book documents how they sent fleets that went virtually everywhere in the world except Europe.

The author, a retired British nuclear submarine admiral, has amassed an amazing assortment of evidence to support his claims of how they did this.  His telling the story of how and why the Chinese accomplished this feat is a telling of a fascinating journey, both of the Chinese journey, and the journey of his research. He discusses how he, as a non-academic researcher has had to fight the entrenched beliefs and assumption of the academics experts in the field, as his claims undermine much of what has been accepted truths in their fields.

This history was lost because when the fleets returned to China after their several year voyages, China had gone through an internal upheaval that led to a period of isolationism that lasted centuries.

The book is full of amazing discoveries of how many animals, inventions and customs thought to be indigenous to certain places, turn out to have been brought by the Chinese, and historically accepted beliefs of directions of transmission are reversed.

Gavin also explains how the maps of the early European explorers, such as Columbus and others were actually based on copies of the maps the Chinese had made on their voyages. (Spoiler: not only was Columbus not the first non-American to come to the Americas, there were also European colonies well established before his voyages.

I don’t want to repeat here the content of the book and the details that changed my understandings of history. I want to recommend that you read it yourself (or, if you are like me, listen to it as an audiobook. there is also a PBS video based on the book).

I hope you read this fascinating book, both because it is just a fascinating story, but also because it may change the way you understand history. What other assumptions or paradigms might you or I hold that turn out not to be true?

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