Monthly Archives: March 2012

Book: 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance

The new iPad adverts look remarkably similar to these photoshopped pictures of me holding books. The ink on my paperback has 4x the number of pixels as a Retina display. The paper is wonderfully responsive to two-handed multi-touch, has infinite battery-life, and supports bookmarking, annotation and sharing. Despite the new iPad out today, there will always be a market for real books. 🙂

Scrapbook of an obsessive historian threaded with a wildly outlandish thesis and bookended by a convincing introduction and conclusion. I’m in.
368 + 32 more pages, ★★★★

The introduction is speedy. We’re whisked through the prequel’s thesis (1421) and the incredible (and widely-accepted) story of Emperor Yongle (written 永樂, pronounced “Yong-ler”). The thesis of 1434 is wild: that China started the Renaissance, invented the helicopter, and settled on New Zealand, becoming Maoris.

1434 is very different from its prequel, 1421. First, the writing style is different. Whereas 1421 was a well-paced historical narrative, 1434 is a more like a fascinatingly-annotated scrapbook. It’s loaded with excerpts from different ages and languages, some italicized, some capitalized, and others indented in a smaller font. Abundant sources are glued together with commentary and original research.

Second, 1434 is so brave that it borders on “wildly outlandish”. Apart from the book’s highly provocative thesis―that a Chinese fleet sparked the Renaissance in Italy—author Gavin Menzies calculates that Admiral Zheng He had up to 2020 ships in his fleet. The museum at the Ming Tombs, Beijing, however, tells us that Zheng He had only 60 ships in his fleet.

The most controversial twist hits us on page 170. While telling us that the Chinese gave Leonardo da Vinci absolutely everything that he invented, we’re told that:

“[Joseph] Needham describes a number of examples of rotating blades being used for flight, often in the form of flying cars” — 1434, page 170

Whoa! Flying cars in 15th century China? Let’s check the footnotes. Unfortunately, I’m led on a wild goose chase through the references before finally being led to to an ancient picture of a Chinese man wearing a parachute. I want proof of flying cars being built in China before Leonardo da Vinci designed (or “copied”) them.

It goes on… On page 222, the author claims that the ships of Admiral Zheng He (who we know to be an introverted, pacifist, castrated muslim) were actually armed to the teeth. They brought (get ready)…

  • Flamethrowers (“incinerates the opposition”)
  • Poison grenades
  • Chemical mortars
  • Feces mortars
  • Iron shrapnel bombs (“cuts men to pieces”)
  • Sea mines (“to protect his ships”)
  • and Rocket batteries (“to terrify [his enemies]”)
Incredible. Widely-accepted history is listed on page 226, which describes the “bamboo fire kites”, and other gunpowder-based inventions that were, and still are, used ceremonially and as toys. Chinese students have told me that the ancient Chinese invented gunpowder but never used it for the purpose of warfare. This issue (and the issue of flying cars) is yet to be explained.

More incredible facts follow:

  • Zheng He took Yongle Dadian (a giant collection of encyclopaedias) with him on his voyage. The library would have required half a ship-deck.
  • In the 14th century, Guo Shoujing calculated the lunar month to be 29.530593 days. This is accurate to 0.000001 months (or 2.55 seconds).
  • Columbus had detailed maps of the Americas before he set sail. They were copied from Chinese maps.
  • A Chinese gave the Europeans the printing press, which helped spread information about the plague quicker than the plague.
  • A Chinese fleet was destroyed by a comet and the resulting tsunami off South Island, New Zealand in the early 15th century. While some ships were slammed against the cliffs by 403 m.p.h. winds, some sailors swam ashore, planted rice paddies and settled there. They would later become known as Maoris.

I love China so I want everything in 1434 to be true. If you love China, you’ll love this book regardless of whether you believe it to be true. Even though 1434 approaches my threshold of believability in many places, “incredible” doesn’t necessarily mean “false”. I believe it.

I respect Gavin Menzies as an explorer, as a writer and as a historian. And as an optimist, I’m thinking that Gavin Menzies’ work is as understated, as controversial and as ahead of its time as the ancient China he describes. I believe 1434 and I believe that this theory will catch on. If the 1434 theory were a penny stock, I’d put a grand on it today. Good read. ★★★★

Book: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Schumpeter)

Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
Intellectual hundredweight. Medicine for avid intellectual Marxists. Since I'm neither Marxist nor intellectual, reading this book made me feel like a tourist.

Heavy. Like swimming through treacle.
442 pages, ★★★★

Schumpeter begins this book with an intelligent analysis of Karl Marx to grip Marxist readers. In the book’s later chapters, he analyses the logical flaws of socialism only implicitly, allowing Marxists to criticise their own position.

Schumpeter flatters Marx for predicting the rise of private “big businesses”. He also explains Marx’s simplistic two-class ideology by calling it the only means of achieving Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” goal. Schumpeter explains that a revolution’s success can only be measured if the heir to the throne (such as “the proletariat”) is clearly-defined; and if rule were to be given to some nebulous group such as the “middle class”, chaos would result (before the old ruling class settles back in). In musing about global uprising, Marx had no choice but (wrongly) to divide society in two.

While Schumpeter acknowledges the end of capitalism and the onset of socialism, he says (famously), “If a doctor predicts that his patient will die presently, this does not mean that he desires it.” According to Schumpeter, socialism will arrive not by a revolution but by evolution, in which socialist governments are elected democratically with increasing frequency.

This was a very heavy read. It muses over stuff. Here are some highlights:

p47: Schumpeter tells us that big businesses take advantage of a country’s contempt for the rest of the world when advocating protectionist policies. Such policies always prioritize profits for that business over the interests of the country being protected.

p69: Schumpeter criticizes the buying up of patents as investments or to stifle competitors because to prevent the use of technology is invariably a hinderance to human development, and this is morally unjust.

p118: We learn that in the absence of continued innovation, capitalism becomes atrophic and yields to socialism. In other words, capitalism requires growth. This reminded me of Tim Jackson’s poorly-written, CO2-obsessed book, Prosperity Without Growth. Tim Jackson made ridiculous assumptions, extrapolated economic data ad absurdum then drew ridiculous conclusions (for example, that by 2050, a thriving human economy will be primarily concerned with removing CO2 from the atmosphere). Shortly after this outrageous book was published, the environmental quango he headed was cut by the coalition government. Hooray!

p188: the discipline of workers in a capitalist economy was created and handed down by feudal society. Schumpeter tells us that all progress is a result of disciplined, authoritarian training undergone in the past. It follows that socialism would fail unless it fosters more discipline than the capitalist society it replaces (see my review of On Revolution).

On page 136, he talks about higher education. He makes three points:

  1. Higher education is an ineffective means of creating supply. Higher education will lead to sector-specific unemployment.
  2. For the same reason, higher education will lead to unsatisfactory conditions of employment (e.g. white collar workers earning less than manual laborers)
  3. And then there’s my favorite quote from the whole book (pages 136-137),

[Higher education] may crease unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.His failure to do so may be due either to lack of natural ability—perfectly compatible with passing academic tests—or to inadequate teaching; and both cases will, absolutely and relatively, occur more frequently as ever larger numbers are drafted into higher education and the required amount of teaching increases irrespective of how many teachers and scholars nature chooses to turn out. The results of neglecting this and of acting on the theory that schools, colleges and universities are just a matter of money, are too obvious to insist upon.

One last point of interest: on page 235,

“[ignorance] persists even in the face of the meritorious efforts that are being made to go beyond presenting information and to teach the use of it by means of lecture, classes, discussion groups. Results are not zero. But they are small. People cannot be carried up the ladder.

Everyone will find something of interest in this book. But I couldn’t follow everything. Reading Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy is like walking into a cinema then realizing that the film’s in a language that you don’t speak very well. Fans of politick with a lot of time on their hands will enjoy reading this book the most. And by reading this, I learned that I’m neither of those things. Well-written. ★★★★

Book: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why

Original Pirate Material, just $2. If I had read an authentic edition of this book, I might have taken its thesis a bit more seriously. Instead, I look at this pirate edition and laugh.

Simplistic and unscientific. But it’s fun to read and a great conversation piece.
288 pages, ★★★★★

Richard Nisbett’s previous work had been criticized for having an overt Western bias. He admits this in the introduction. The Geography of Thought was, in part, an attempt to repair the author’s image. This book is essentially a collection of ways in which “Easterners” are the exact opposite of “Westerners”. Cultural differences are exaggerated ad absurdum, while both sides are treated with great respect.

Despite this, The Geography of Thought suffers from classic mistake of “Oppositism“, where the author falls for the erroneous assumption that every aspect of life in the East must be the exact opposite of that in the West because, well… “East” is the opposite of “West” in the dictionary.

According to this book, Westerners are individualistic, narrow-minded, focussed, racist (in favor of Caucasians) and scared of contradiction. Easterners think in groups, are broad-minded, holistic, racist (in favor of Caucasians) and embrace contradiction.

There are experiments, statistics, and pictures that help portray East and West as laughably diametric opposites. Having lived in China for several years, I testify that China is neither Western nor the opposite of Western. It’s something else entirely. To compare China with the West is helpful (and entertaining), but it’s a very simplistic philosophical approach.

Another weakness is that the book’s definitions of “East” and “West” keeps changing. At the start of the book, “East” refers to ethnically Chinese college students in the United States, and “West” refers to their ethnically European counterparts. But in the rest of the book, “East” refers to either Korea, Japan, Thailand or some unspecified part of China; while “West” invariably refers to the United States.

This book is really wrong. But it’s polite, respectful, exposes the weaknesses of the scientific method )(unknowingly) and, most importantly, is really fun to read. It will spark some lively discussion. But in 50 years’ time, when China rules the world, we will look back on this book as satire; just as a book from 100 years ago that describes Europe and America as diametric opposites would likely be looked upon with ridicule today. ★★★★★

Book: The Grapes of Wrath

I love Photoshop CS5! I used it to delete the background from this photograph. The new Content-Aware Fill function is, I quote, magic.

Five stars for description. Two stars for the story.
536 pages, ★★★

I’m new to fiction. As a habitual reader of non-fiction, I expect to learn from books. Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath alternates between extremely well-written descriptions of 1930s America (which satisfies my need to ‘learn’ while reading) and a slow story that really doesn’t grip me. I want the descriptions without the story.

Descriptions of the desolate environment (around page 100) and of mechanized farming (around page 300) were an unforgettable history lesson. I’ll remember this book because the 1930s America is describes resonates with late 1950s China, where farmers also endured natural disasters, excessive mechanization, unemployment and famine. Anecdotes in The Grapes of Wrath (such as not having enough money to buy bread) made me, for the first time, sympathetic of towards the United States of America. They’ve not always had it so easy.

Here’s some of my favorite description in The Grapes of Wrath:

Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They ice on rice and beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They couldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny–deport them.

And all the time the farms grew larger and the owners fewer. And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more. And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again, and some grew fierce and were killed or driven from the country. And farms grew larger and the owners fewer.

And the crops changed. Fruit trees took the place of grain fields, and vegetables to feed the world spread out on the bottoms: lettuce, cauliflower, artichokes, potatoes–stoop crops. A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.

And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that one man could not even conceive of them any more, so large that it took batteries of bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss; chemists to test the soil, to replenish; straw bosses to see that the stooping men were moving along the rows as swiftly as the material of their bodies could stand. Then such a farmer really became a storekeeper, and kept a store. He paid the men, and sold them food, and took the money back. And after a while he did not pay the men at all, and saved bookkeeping. “These farms gave food on credit. A man might work and feed himself; and when the work was done, he might find that he owed money to the company. And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.

And then the dispossessed were drawn west–from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless–restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do–to lift , to push, to pull, to pick, to cut p anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.

We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English German. One of our folk in the Revolution an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War—both sides. Americans.

— Chapter 19, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I wanted to read a descriptive, historical account of 1930s America. The Grapes of Wrath certainly provided that, but I would have preferred if it were not interwoven with such a dull story. This book was too long. ★★★

Films I Watched in February 2012

Here’s a list of movies I watched in February 2012, summarised in exactly six words:

  1. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Fast, ridiculous. Deep characterisation for cartoon.
  2. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Spurlock demonstrates No Logo with irony
  3. The Lion King: Just can’t wait to be king!
  4. 转山 (Kora): Youth’s spiritual bike journey to Lhasa
  5. Over the Hedge: Grass animals take brief suburban excursion
  6. Rabbit Hole: Snapshot of family mourning. No story.
  7. Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring: Korean Zen Buddhist scenery. Generations pass.
  8. True Lies: Arnold Schwarznegger in comedy manhunt spoof
  9. The War On Democracy: American puppet dictators tyrannise South America

Book: 1421: The Year China Discovered the World

This book should have been called, "2001: The year Gavin Menzies discovered that China discovered the world"

Original research with enchanting results. Even if 1421’s thesis isn’t true, I want to believe it.
649 pages, ★★★★★

Perfect timing. 1421 is full of local history, which proved useful when accompanying my family around Beijing. Emperor Zhu Di (Yongle) is discussed at length in this book, ordered the capital to be moved from Nanjing to Beijing, and ordered the construction of the famous Forbidden City. His reign oversaw some of China’s greatest historic achievements (e.g. the Beijing—Hangzhou canal, large parts of the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs) as well as some of China’s most incredible feats that were largely forgotten (e.g. exploring the North Pole, the South Pole, India, Africa, the Americas, and Australia).

1421‘s thesis is that Chinese explorers such as Zheng He, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing collectively explored the entire world between 1421 and 1423. See the book’s map below.

Map inside 1421.

Explorers returned to find that the old emperor had died, and the new emperor didn’t appreciate of world exploration (he punished the crews); that there’d been a deadly fire in the Forbidden City (an ominous sign from the Heavens); and that China’s Treasury had been almost bankrupted in various outlandish construction projects (which, thankfully, are still standing). Foreign travel and foreign language learning had been made illegal and China was to remain “closed” for hundreds of years after the explorers returned. Nobody returned as promised to give support to those who had already settled overseas.

Gavin Menzies is extremely confident about the accuracy of his thesis. It was mostly Menzies’ own work, and his evidence is explained extensively in the first (100-odd page) appendix. Among other things, he claims the Chinese built an sundial in the eighth century accurate enough to determine the day of the year, which, once calibrated, could be used on a ship to determine longitude. He also claims that the Chinese constructed 142 furnaces in Greenland to smelt copper to bring back to China. And I believe him.

1421 has attracted mixed reviews on Amazon because some people don’t want to believe it. The American edition was provocatively titled, 1421: The Year China Discovered America and most Americans are unappreciative of anything that erodes their drunk-man superconfidence, especially the idea that a castrated muslim discovered America before Columbus.

The only thing that could make this book better would be if the editor included the Chinese names of people and places to accompany the pinyin and English translations. ★★★★★