Tuesday, February 12, 2008

China and the West 1: 1421

Did I mention that I've been reading about China?

And did you know that the Western Hemisphere - North America and all that lot - were contacted by a massive Ming Chinese flotilla more than seventy years before Columbus?


Okay, back up...what's got me thinking about this was the New Year's storms in China.

One of the most "themes" of the stories was the widespread underdevelopment of the country and hardship of the Chinese people.

(I add that since we're such morons that the news media usually doesn't simply state the facts - they package it into bite-size chunks to prefit what they believe is our mental landscape. So for, say, a China story there's always teeming hordes(TM) of ordinary Chinese people (since we all know China is jammed with humans) amid smoky industrial-revolution machinery (since China makes everything from plastic toys to tower cranes in dire, Upton-Sinclairish misery) and scenes of wretched, biblical poverty - remember "Eat your vegetables, dear, there are people starving in China..?" I do.)
So conventional wisdom is that much of China is poor: real Victorian poor, starving-children poor, Third World poor. We Westerners accept this in the same way that we accept the idea that there's nothing odd about Americans adopting Chinese orphans. Try and think about that in reverse...difficult, isn't it, the notion of wealthy Chinese leaving LAX with little Americans while desperate Angelinos sell native crafts - hip-hop T-shirts, bootleg 50Cent DVDs - in the street outside?

So let me break off for a moment to talk about this "China discovers America" thing. The book I read is called "1421: the year China discovered America" by someone named Menzies. He's got a website and everything.

The crux of Menzies' biscuit is that a Ming treasure fleet led by this guy, the Rambo of eunuchs Zheng He, circumnavigated the globe in the first quarter of the 15th Century. This notion has actually been named: the "1421 Hypothesis".

In the book "1421" Menzies writes breezily (it's a quick read, for history), does well enough describing the adventures that a 1420s Chinese expedition could have had and lays out some pretty fantastic claims for Chinese landings on much of the globe - except, crucially, Europe. Fun reading, and a thought-stirring idea.
Unfortunately, Menzies' work turns out to be a tissue of poorly supported assertions, outright deceptions or mistakes. No historian of any weight, Chinese or Western, accepts his ideas. Even I went through a lot of head-shaking and lip-pursing: naah, that couldn't have happened, we'd have found the wrecks and they're not there. Uhuh...this doesn't sound right...

The facts appear to dismiss the "1421 Hypothesis" out of hand. So, no, the Western Hemisphere - North America and all that lot - was NOT contacted by a massive Ming Chinese flotilla more than seventy years before Columbus?And yet...

...when you really think about it...it should have been true.

IMO that's what makes the 1421 Hypothesis so attractive - China should have been the civilization that spread globally after the 15th Century. Think about this - consider the relative conditions of Western Europe and Imperial China in 1000AD. The Europeans are a menagerie of illiterate military states squabbling over the corpse of the Roman Empire - the time is called "The Dark Ages" for a reason - while in China the Song Dynasty bubbles along with printing, a civil service, organized armies and navies, art, music, poetry...

Four hundred years later, who would you have picked to be the dominant world culture: the fatheads still burning heretics at the stake, just beginning their emergence from the long medieval sleep, or the sophisticates of Ming China, with their literature, art and science? While not as fecund as the Song, Ming science certainly kept pace with the West, including astronomy, agriculture and black-powder armaments.

Jared Diamond talks about why the Europeans ended up with all the "cargo"; but China had much the same advantages Jared argues for in 1492: a huge reserve of disease-resistant people, metals technology, domesticated crops and anmals, advanced military techniques.


What happened? Why do we speak English and eat beef and wheat bread, not Mandarin, pork and rice? Why don't news stories talk about the problems facing impoverished American peasants? Why doesn't China bestride the world like a colossus? Why isn't some Chinese husband and father writing this because of his fascination with the America of his adopted American daughter's world - instead of the other way around?

Some thoughts on this tonight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two reasons immediately come to mind. First off the Chinese were very insular, and had very little curiosity about the doings of "barbarians". Second, they already controlled a large part of Asia and had extensive trade.
Unlike the Europeans in their cramped, resource poor countries, with their preachers saying "go forth and convert the heathen", the Chinese thought they already were in a heavenly kingdom, so why interrupt their study of the Tao to travel among smelly barbarians?

Of course I could be totally out to lunch, but it seems to fit what I know.

Big Daddy