Did China circumnavigate the globe before Magellan?
March 4, 2002 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Did China circumnavigate the globe before Magellan?

"When explorer Christopher Columbus landed in America in 1492, he was 72 years behind a Chinese expeditionary force, which had already made its way to the area. And although Captain James Cook was credited with discovering Australia for the British Empire in 1770, the Chinese had mapped the island continent 337 years earlier."

All this was accomplished by a castrated eunuch named Zheng He.

What do you think?
posted by AsiaInsider (33 comments total)
Surely we didn't even DISCOVER china until like 1750 right??
posted by Settle at 5:48 PM on March 4, 2002

are there uncastrated eunuchs?
posted by quonsar at 5:53 PM on March 4, 2002

Surely we didn't even DISCOVER china until like 1750 right??

Don't forget about Marco Polo. That part of the story makes sense at least (maps could have got to Europe from China).
posted by Gaz at 5:55 PM on March 4, 2002

Good link. I want to follow this story.
posted by bingo at 5:58 PM on March 4, 2002

(Score: 5, Funny) Settle said: Surely we didn't even DISCOVER china until like 1750 right??

That made my day.
posted by wackybrit at 6:00 PM on March 4, 2002

Settle: Who invented gunpowder, paper & spaghetti? Did they need discovering?
posted by dash_slot- at 6:10 PM on March 4, 2002

...and don't forget rickshaws, chop sticks, and Chinese laundries. They also invented dragons, the fortune cookie, mah jong, and the Chinese language.
posted by Postroad at 6:24 PM on March 4, 2002

Getting back on-topic, the fact that the Chinese were big-time explorers in the 15th century is quite well-known. It seems they stopped because the idea of using trade to make money either didn't occur to them or was rejected for cultural reasons. Apparently the best evidence of a Chinese landing in Australia is Darwin in 1432, but I can't seem to discover any details...
posted by Gaz at 6:30 PM on March 4, 2002

I thought the Japanese invented the Chinese language? :-)

I've hear this before and think it likely. But then again I also think it likely that the Basques and Vikings had been going to North America (certainly the Newfoundland area) for ages.

It doesn't invalidate the achievement of Columbus, surely we must've learnt from the computing industry that it's not who invents but who popularises a concept or discovery that's really important to most people.
posted by nedrichards at 6:33 PM on March 4, 2002

so that's what all those basques are doing in idaho!
posted by kliuless at 6:42 PM on March 4, 2002

'Zheng He.'
is this Cheng Ho (pin-yan?) {quik goggle} yep. An anchor found in frisco bay or near san diego was supposed to have been chinese in origin. This chart could be the empirical evidence some have been looking for. "rejected for cultural reasons" yes and for political reasons. the Ming dynasty suffered from terrible factionalism and corruption.
posted by clavdivs at 6:55 PM on March 4, 2002

dash_slot, the article specifically says that the European explorers were using maps made during this Chinese voyage. That's why the time of contact with China is relevant.
posted by bingo at 6:56 PM on March 4, 2002

Hello, Leif Ericsson reached the New World before either of them, and Columbus never landed in America.

Settle: Funny. Do you think China has a "Marco Polo Day" to celebrate when they were discovered.
posted by bobo123 at 6:58 PM on March 4, 2002

wha? my point is that we (?) discovering them (?) is a very colonial way of looking at it. Geddit? It seems like they (?) discovered America, not the other way round.
posted by dash_slot- at 7:05 PM on March 4, 2002

...one might argue that the early "native americans" actually discovered the Americas, quite a long time before China was even a political entity. Call me crazy, but all this "who discovered what for whom" stuff is entirely irrelevant.

Besides which, it's well established in the historical canon that I discovered China, and that North America was wrought from my lowest left rib. South America, by contrast, was created from my hair.
posted by aramaic at 7:09 PM on March 4, 2002

I think we can all agree that "discovery" is an historical concept, and not something that serious scholars use to imply that a) the people there didn't know where they were, or b) other prior interests in the area hadn't occurred. By historical standards Columbus's discovery for Europeans of the West Indies, which is certainly a part of the Americas (bobo), was economically and politically significant, whereas the Viking voyages (and I am speaking here as a 50% Swede) were largely insignificant to the Scandinavian polities and the only colony (in Greenland) eventually failed due to lack of support. Whereas the Columbian exploration era led to colonization and permanent settlement and economic linkage to Europe. And the Viking explorations were themselves much more significant than the use by Basques and others of the fishing resources of the Grand Banks, since they had scant interest in the shoreline and anything beyond.

That said, this is a very interesting discovery -- whoops, there's that word again! (Gosh, what a nasty little imperialist am I.) I think he may well have very good evidence of an Australian exploration, but I think the circumnavigation part, from what's said here, is a little sketchier in the evidence department. Certainly there was cross-pollination of maps and the trading routes around Africa were well known to Europeans at this point as well as Arabs and indigenous African populations. That such maps could have made their way to China is not surprising. Presumably the geographer has answers to these questions.

Had China not turned inward after these events history might have been very different.
posted by dhartung at 7:49 PM on March 4, 2002

My favorite out-of context quote from this thread - clavdivs: "Cheng Ho (pin-yan?) {quik goggle} yep".

On-topic: Wasn't there a semi-famous arabic man who 'discovered' much of the far east in the 10th century? I seem to remember such a tale. Also, i seem to recall learning that China had many 'first' inventions, but much of it was lost to history, only to be rediscovered again from scratch by others later.
posted by kokogiak at 9:52 PM on March 4, 2002

It will be interesting to see how China reacts to this, given their increasingly nationalistic bent.
posted by homunculus at 10:37 PM on March 4, 2002

Hmm... so should we rethink the name "America" -- and give the Chinese some respect? A few possible alternatives:
  • Ameri-chi
  • Tiananmerica
  • Amerikungfu
posted by blackholebrain at 11:11 PM on March 4, 2002

Gaz: my sister the other day emailed me this link about how Marco Polo never did go to China. Who knows? (I do know one thing: he never sent me a postcard if he did get there.)
posted by LeLiLo at 11:18 PM on March 4, 2002

It looks like an interesting story to follow. I got interested and tried to look up Gavin Menzies on the net. The only reference that I could find of him on Google was a small news item in BBC that said
An amateur historian is about to turn conventional history on its head with a claim that Christopher Columbus was 72 years too late when he sailed the Ocean Blue in 1492.Gavin Menzies tells the Telegraph America had already been discovered by a Chinese explorer by the name of Zheng He.

The Telegraph is not exactly my favourite source of news.
The only reference to Gavin Menzies that I could find on the RGS site is on some kind of a Thank you to donors.

That is not to say that he doesnt have an interesting discovery on his hands. It is quite possible that he toiled in anonymity for a long time to find conclusive proof of this. Also, RGS appears to publish only next 10 days events on its site. But I would feel better about the story if I could find other references to it.
posted by justlooking at 11:39 PM on March 4, 2002

kokogiak: you probably mean al-Masudi, known as the Arab Herodotus for his geographies and histories. But he only traveled as far as the Indus valley, it would seem from modern sources.

Along the same lines there are suggestive ideas about Muslim penetration of the Americas prior to Columbus. It wouldn't have been impossible for the odd ship to get blown back across the southern passage and there may have been scattered Muslims and blacks in the Americas. That article, though, has many suspect speculations, especially the idea that towns in the upper Midwest derived their names (like Mecca) from the prehistorical period.
posted by dhartung at 11:58 PM on March 4, 2002

> Did China circumnavigate the globe before Magellan?

Not unless plate tectonics are a lot wackier than I had imagined.

But the Chinese (or some subset of them) may have gone for a long sail a long time ago.
posted by pracowity at 12:03 AM on March 5, 2002

I think we can all agree that the Ming dynasty sucked. Allthough the Great Wall is kinda cool
posted by delmoi at 1:11 AM on March 5, 2002

Oh, wasn't Zheng He a muslim himself? Or was that some other dude?
posted by delmoi at 1:12 AM on March 5, 2002

wha? my point is that we (?) discovering them (?) is a very colonial way of looking at it. Geddit? It seems like they (?) discovered America, not the other way round.

Ya think maybe there's humour involved somewhere?
posted by vbfg at 1:16 AM on March 5, 2002

yes, the great castrated (as opposed to chemically suppressed) Eunuch was a muslim (i think) and only part Chinese. The Chinese, as opposed to the land mass of China, did tend to wander and trade far and wide in the old days.

Another bit of news is that much of what we would term the Chinese, are not ethnically Han Chinese but could be Mongol, Turkic, Tibetan, Malay or even Indian depending on where in imperial China you were from.
posted by AsiaInsider at 2:06 AM on March 5, 2002

Eco's Serendipities is a good primer for anyone interested in this subject.
posted by the cuban at 5:37 AM on March 5, 2002

I think one of the things that could start to solidify in this is that older societies and even ancient civilizations travelled more widely than we generally assume. There is considerable evidence that there were many vectors of contact worldwide going back centuries, as opposed to the received wisdom that each group was insular and kept to its own area. That idea doesn't fit with the evidence that's building - but the alternative doesn't fit with the colonial-era model, in which contact was colonial and quite brutal, so the concept has been discounted.
posted by mikel at 7:31 AM on March 5, 2002

vbfg: "Ya think maybe there's humour involved somewhere?"


( ....checks who's the comment from...Settle..)

Nah. Not intentionally, anyways.
posted by dash_slot- at 8:13 AM on March 5, 2002

So you're saying that North American natives discovered some Chinese people on a boat 337 years before they discovered a bunch of Spaniards and Portuguese on other boats? Cool.
posted by luriete at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2002

This guy is a choad smoker if he thinks Toscanelli's charts and the Piri Reis' map came from a Chinese expedition in the 1420s. It could be that the Chinese and Europeans used the same maps with a far older common origin however.
posted by euphorb at 12:02 PM on March 5, 2002

a bunch of Spaniards and Portuguese on other boats

Yeah, right. Back in 1494 the Portuguese and Spaniards simply divided the whole world in two, in the Tordesillas Treaty. The Pope ratified it in 1506. Them were the days, before those bastard Brits gained the upper hand. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:09 PM on March 5, 2002

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