cover image 1421: The Year China Discovered America

1421: The Year China Discovered America

Gavin Menzies, . . Morrow, $27.95 (576pp) ISBN 978-0-06-053763-0

A former submarine commander in Britain's Royal Navy, Menzies must enjoy doing battle. The amateur historian's lightly footnoted, heavily speculative re-creation of little-known voyages made by Chinese ships in the early 1400s goes far beyond what most experts in and outside of China are willing to assert and will surely set tongues wagging. According to Menzies's brazen but dull account of the Middle Kingdom's exploits at sea, Magellan, Dias, da Gama, Cabral and Cook only "discovered" lands the Chinese had already visited, and they sailed with maps drawn from Chinese charts. Menzies alleges that the Chinese not only discovered America, but also established colonies here long before Columbus set out to sea. Because China burned the records of its historic expeditions led by Zheng He, the famed eunuch admiral and the focus of this account, Menzies is forced to defend his argument by compiling a tedious package of circumstantial evidence that ranges from reasonable to ridiculous. While the book does contain some compelling claims—for example, that the Chinese were able to calculate longitude long before Western explorers—drawn from Menzies's experiences at sea, his overall credibility is undermined by dubious research methods. In just one instance, when confounded by the derivation of cryptic words on a Venetian map, Menzies first consults an expert at crossword puzzles rather than an etymologist. Such an approach to scholarship, along with a promise of more proof to come in the paperback edition, casts a shadow of doubt over Menzies's discoveries. 32 pages of color illus., 27 maps and diagrams. Book-of-the-Month Club alternate. (On sale Jan. 7)

Forecast:Menzies's theory was featured in the New York Times and elsewhere last March after he spoke at the Royal Geographical Society in London (see Book News, Nov. 25, 2002). Controversy surrounding the book should be lively, generating sales. In addition, PBS will air a documentary series in 2004.