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.
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. ★★★★★