January 18, 2006

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The history of Chinese fakes (Updated)

Henry Ford said history is bunk, but far better is when fake history is debunked. The Economist, amongst others, hails an alleged 1763 map as a replica of an 1418 Chinese map of the world, proclaiming China beat Columbus to it, perhaps. The hedging in the headline isn't as noticeable in the article proper.

So using the power of the blogosphere, you click over to academic historian Jonathan Dresner's exposition of the problems with the map. That leads you to historian Geoff Wade (from NUS) rebuttal of the Economist article. Finally you click over to Hemlock (as you do daily) and find another piece ripping apart the validity of the map (reproduced below the jump).

Amazing what you can learn.

Update (18/1)

An astute observation by Peter Gordon in The Standard:

If Zheng He really did visit the Americas, it was a historical dead-end. This is, of course, the really interesting question: exactly why did China turn its back on its explorations, leaving the field to the Europeans? The net result was a long, slow decline in China's relative position in the world from which it is only now recovering.

It may still be, however, that some bright spark in China might see the map as a justification for demanding tribute from the United States, that it send large sums of money each year to build up central government coffers.

Except that America is already doing that.


Hemlock on the map:

The antiquary in me is intrigued. If an 18th Century Chinese map of the world really is – at its creator claimed – a copy of one from 1418, it would add serious weight to the theory that Admiral Zheng He/Cheng Ho’s fleet visited America before Columbus, and went round the rest of the world too.

Which is more probable?
1. The eunuch not only sailed to India, the Middle East and East Africa in 1421-23, which no-one doubts, but circumnavigated the globe via the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn a century before Magellan and also dropped in on Europe, Australia and Antarctica.
2. The mapmaker was lying – he had copied a more recent, Western-influenced work.

The first theory has gained popularity thanks to the book 1421 – The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies, whose beliefs rest on the spacemen-built-the-pyramids sort of evidence much loved by fans of pseudoscience. Menzies has been debunked as junk history. Other supposed evidence of Chinese exploration, like reports of Chinese DNA among Maoris or peanuts and tomato seeds in ancient imperial tombs, has never come to anything.

Viewing the chart, the words that come to my mind are‘17th Century’ and ‘gwailo’. Whoever put together the original outline knew the world was round and could place geographical features more or less correctly in terms of longitude and latitude and therefore in scale. The Jesuits introduced serious mappaemundi to China from 1600 and had their work criticized and even banned for showing the middle kingdom as anything other than a vast area surrounded by small and adoring tributary barbarian states. Up to that time (and later), all known Chinese world maps were wildly inaccurate. Portugal was described in one as a place south of Java that traded in small children as food. Another divided the distant world into lands of small men, large men, etc.

In the West, the great voyages of discovery from the late 15th century onward ignited interest in “capturing the world as a single ordered image.” But Zheng He's earlier--and in some ways much more impressive--sea voyages had no such effect in China; in fact, they were a source of embarrassment. And whereas the possession and display of a world map or globe from the Renaissance onward in Europe signified that the owner was “a knowledgeable and worldwise citizen,” it meant no such thing in imperial China. Thus, until forced to reconsider their craft by new political and cultural priorities, Chinese mapmakers generally made the choice to depict the world not so much in terms of how it “actually” was, but rather in terms of how they wanted it to be.
Richard J. Smith , Rice University

While even The Economist is taking this “fresh and dramatic evidence” seriously, China’s historical officialdom is bemused. Beijing appreciates Cheng Ho’s ability to stir feelings of national pride, and they especially like the idea of him zipping through the Spratly and Paracel Islands, thus providing incontrovertible historical evidence that the South China Sea is an integral part of the motherland. Claiming America would be pushing it.

posted by Simon on 01.18.06 at 11:34 AM in the China history, education & culture category.


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I have two questions

1) Is this revisionism?
2) Would the US ever accept that it's history (at least the columbus bit) is wrong?

I'm not saying, not even by a long shot, that this map is real (it's as fake as my 99 cent copy of Lord of the Rings), but even if China could produce the original map, on Carbon dateable material, made with carbon dateable ink, and accompanied by who knows what else that would be indesputable to modern science, is there even a remote chance that America would accept it as being genuine?

posted by: ACB on 01.18.06 at 05:12 AM [permalink]

One of the giveaways is that the Zheng He's ships have a golden M on the sails

posted by: da on 01.18.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

Re: ABC's comment. 1. History is always subject to revisionism.
2. Why wouldn't "America" accept it as real if it was proven to be so beyond a scientific doubt? Few, if any, Americans have no problem with the fact that the Norse predated Columbus's discovery, for instance.
Many of us are more educated and open-minded than you may suspect.
Of course, I have to admit that there are also the boneheads in the US who think the world is 6,000 years old and that it was created in 6 days...I don't think they'd be comfortable with a Chinese Columbus.

posted by: Justin on 01.18.06 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

why does it matter, even if the map is true, zheng he is just someone between the nativs american and the white.
either judge by the first discoverer (native american) or the current occupiers (mainly whites, and more recent immigrant), zhenghe's alleged trip bears no implication whether it is incorporated by the US textbook or not.
it is no different than a bird fly by without laying egg or even some dropping.

posted by: sun bin on 01.18.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]

I am with Sun Bin on this one. China's rise today has very little to do indeed with Zheng He or indeed any other notables of the Ming dynasty.

Please make the Zheng He issue go away! Why does everyone think this is so important, even if the proof is there that he globetrotted (which he didn't?)

I would like everyone to read an excellent book - the Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Muslim traveler that visited much of the known old world, which at that time, a great deal of it was under Islamic influence. A fascinating book. travelling by land and sea, in total distance he must have covered the world.

posted by: HK Dave on 01.18.06 at 05:58 PM [permalink]


My comment comes because, in my experience, America tends to intensly dislike any attempts at revisionism, no matter how justified.

I hold up the example of 'Native Americans' (indians, or whatever you like to call them). American history records them as coming over on land bridges from Asia around the end of the ice age, yet there is indisputable scientific evidence (including Carbon 14 dating and forensic reconstructions) that non Asians were present in the US long before the end of the ice age.

During the 90s, they dug up a skeleton of a non-Asian human male in a river, it carbon dated back to significantly earlier than any known Asian-Indian remains and did not match up to the facial or genetic structure of any known native American tribes of Asian decent. A Revelation in history? No.

Federal authoriteis confiscated the body and presented it to a local native American tribe for berial, despite it pre-dating them by thousends of years and having no genetic relationship to them.

Similarly, there is pretty good evidence to show that George Washington had a number of black children with a servent, yet most of their decendents are denied official recognition despite DNA evidence.

The list goes on.

No offense, but American hisotry is full of events where it should have been revised, but it wasn't and those who tried to revise it were denounced.

I just can't see Columbus day being scrapped for Zheng day.

Imagine that, America celebrating a Chinese eunec, it'd never happen in a millien years.

posted by: ACB on 01.19.06 at 05:10 PM [permalink]

opps, maybe I should add that the argument wasn't whether native Americans are not decended from Asians who crossed over on a land bridge near the end of the ice age, but whether or not they were the first human settlers in America.

I think that the earliest accepted date in Us books is 13,000 years ago, but the true (revisionist) date is 16,000 years ago.

posted by: ACB on 01.19.06 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Don't forget he was a Muslim, too. Makes it even more unlikely.

posted by: Simon on 01.19.06 at 05:15 PM [permalink]

ACB, your point is irrelevent and seems to betray an irrational disdain for the US.

First off, most people don't give a damn about Columbus day in the US, except that it gives them a day off from school. Furthermore, the historical perception of Columbus in the US has been in a steady state of revision.

But regardless of whether a Chinese guy set foot on the Americas, Columbus would still be the guy who brought that knowledge back to Europe, which led the way to the European exploration and colonies that ultimately drastically changed the continent and led to the creation of the US.

It's like, if you could prove that some guy invented a silicon chip in his barn in 1824 and then buried it, it wouldn't really change the significance of its development in the 20th century.

posted by: Andrew on 01.27.06 at 08:32 PM [permalink]

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