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. ★★★★

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