Were there any Chinese expeditions to explore the world? If not, why not?

Were there any Chinese expeditions to explore the world? If not, why not?

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It occurred to me today that all essential historical exploration was done by the Europeans, who discovered the Americas and mapped most of the world.

This got me wondering about Eastern civilization. They knew about Europe, since we had the long Silk Road land route, so they knew there was much more to the far west along land. But did they ever wonder what was beyond the ocean to the east? Did the Japanese, Chinese, or other civilizations of that region ever send voyages out into the Pacific? Or were they very inward focused?

In terms of Chinese naval explorers in general, Zheng He springs to mind. He was one of China's primary explorers in the Indian Ocean and beyond in the 14th and 15th centuries. Around this time, the Europeans had been venturing eastward. Zheng He went westward to the "Western Oceans", going to India and the Middle East by sea in an attempt to show China's naval power. He made seven expeditions, going as far as western Africa. He did not go eastward, as far as I know, but he was directed to see what lay to the west. Zheng He was not the first Chinese explorer to go west, but he was one of the most famous, and his voyages took place at much the same time as some early European voyages, which is notable.

To answer your primary question about Chinese exploration in the east, though, Xu Fu made several voyages to the Pacific Ocean for the Qin Dynasty, in 219 B.C. His job was to find the legendary islands of Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou, supposedly far to the east, to find the elixir of life for the emperor. He was not a sailor but a monk. During his first attempt, he completely failed after a voyage of several years. He never returned from his second voyage, and little is known about him. There are various theories as to where he ended up, but there is little to no evidence to back any of them up.

I recommend reading Ian Morris' book Why The West Rules - For Now. He discusses this topic in a few chapters.

Although Ming Dynasty China had ships which could cross the Pacific and sail around the entire world, the government ministers chose not to. (The Ming Emperor was 12 years old at the time, so the government mandarins would have been making the decisions, similar to the constitutional monarchies of today although there was no elected Parliament). Sending ships across the world would have put massive amounts of men and money at risk, and what is the upside? All the resources the country needed were either in the territory it controlled or could be acquired through overland trade routes. Sending expeditions to faraway lands was a high risk, low return venture, to borrow an investment phrase. Finally, consider that crossing the Pacific is way longer than crossing the Atlantic.

Contrast this to the Atlantic facing nations of Western Europe. Resources were more contested, given the fact that Europe of the time was fragmented into many nations and they were at war with each other for most of the time. A western European nation state was in control of a smaller amount of land than the imperial Chinese dynasties and could not muster the same resources. Therefore, sending ships across the world had a much higher potential for a big payday. They had to do it, there was no choice. Even living in Britain today, go to the grocery store and look at how much stuff on the shelves comes from other countries. Also, see my earlier comment regarding how the Atlantic is a lot smaller than the Pacific.

Western Europe was the ideal place to sail around the world, it is in the centre of the half of the earth which has the most land. See this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_and_water_hemispheres

Finally some food for thought: Ian Morris mentions that the monarchies in Britain and the Netherlands were weaker than the Spanish one. This meant that the businessmen and merchants in northwest Europe had more of an incentive to finance overseas trade whereas Spain used seafaring trade voyages to enrich the government.

Well, firstly, the initial global-scale contact with China over the oceans was by the Arabs, not the Europeans. That's why many countries in southeast Asia are Muslim and have Arabic ruling dynasties. When the Europeans finally arrived that had to fight the Arabs first to establish bases.

Long-range exploration is very expensive and the kind of ships required need to very tough and resilient. Both European and Arab ships used ribbed construction and wrought iron nails and bolts. This gave them the strength to sail long distances in rough seas. Chinese junks were constructed with wood-only mortise-and-tenon technology which was not strong enough for extended ocean journeys. The Romans used mortise and tenon technology also and were unable to undertake long ocean voyages for exactly the same reason.

A secondary issue, neglected even by experts, is the role of steel in ship maintenance. An important innovation by both Arabs and Age-of-Exploration sailors was the use of a ship's carpenter. Armed with steel tools and wrought iron fittings (such as butterflies, bands and nails) a ship carpenter can repair many of the common breakdowns a ship will experience during a long voyage. More primitive Roman and Chinese expeditions would have to return to a civilized port to make these sorts of repairs. Having advanced on-board tooling was an important factor in allowing ships to stay at sea thousands of mile from home and keep sailing.

Laslo Montgomery's excellent podcast The China History Podcast has loads on foreign relations even a 3 part series on Zheng He

He traveled to parts of Western Asia and Africa starting in 1405. Unfortunately there is no transcript of the podcast but it goes into detail as to his travels. You can also search google for Zheng He and there is loads to be found on him.

Zheng He

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Zheng He, Wade-Giles romanization Cheng Ho, original name Ma Sanbao, later Ma He, (born c. 1371, Kunyang, near Kunming, Yunnan province, China—died 1433, Calicut [now Kozhikode], India), admiral and diplomat who helped extend the maritime and commercial influence of China throughout the regions bordering the Indian Ocean. He commanded seven naval expeditions almost a century before the Portuguese reached India by sailing around the southern tip of Africa.

What was Zheng He best known for?

Zheng He was the best known of the Yongle emperor’s diplomatic agents. His voyages had the effect of extending China’s political sway over maritime Asia for half a century. In their wake, Chinese emigration increased, resulting in Chinese colonization in Southeast Asia and the accompanying tributary trade, which lasted until the 19th century.

Where was Zheng He raised?

He was raised in Yunnan, China. In 1381 Yunnan was reconquered by Ming dynasty forces, and he was captured, castrated, and sent into the army. By 1390, under the command of the prince of Yan, he had distinguished himself as a junior officer—skilled in war and diplomacy and having made influential friends at court.

How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America

In 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002), aspires to rewrite world history on a grand scale and throws into doubt the generally accepted age of America. He maintains that four Chinese fleets, comprising twenty-five to thirty ships and at least 7,000 persons each, visited every part of the world except Europe between 1421 and 1423. Trained by Zheng He, the famous eunuch-admiral, Chinese captains carried out the orders of Zhu Di (r. 1402–1424), the third Ming emperor, to map coastlines, settle new territories, and establish a global maritime empire.

According to Menzies, proof of the passage of the Ming fleets to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Polynesia is overwhelming and indisputable. His “index of supporting evidence” (pp. 429–462) includes thousands of items from the fields of archaeology, cartography, astronomy, and anthropology his footnotes and bibliography include publications in Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, Arabic, and Hebrew.

Menzies claims that Chinese mariners explored the islands of Cape Verde, the Azores, the Bahamas, and the Falklands they established colonies in Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, California, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island they introduced horses to the Americas, rice to California, chickens to South America, coffee to Puerto Rico, South American sloths to Australia, sea otters to New Zealand, and maize to the Philippines. In addition, Chinese seamen toured the temples and palaces of the Maya center of Palenque in Mexico, hunted walruses and smelted copper in Greenland, mined for lead and saltpeter in northern Australia, and established trading posts for diamonds along the Amazon and its tributaries.

Inasmuch as Menzies believes that he has collected a veritable mountain of evidence, he is not disheartened by skepticism about some of his astonishing assertions. As he told People Magazine (24 February 2003) after 1421 hit the New York Times bestseller list, “[t]here’s not one chance in a hundred million that I’m wrong!” He regards his investigation as an ongoing project: a website (www.1421.tv) provides yet more evidence, further revelations will appear in the forthcoming paperback edition, and a team of researchers currently is assisting him in combing medieval Spanish and Portuguese documents for added proof of his contentions. 1421, he informs the reader, will be published in more than sixteen countries, a PBS series is in production, and television rights have been sold around the world.

Menzies is contemptuous of professional historians who ignore evidence of Chinese influence in the Americas, “presumably because it contradicts the accepted wisdom on which not a few careers have been based” (p. 232). He explains that he has uncovered information that has eluded many eminent historians of China, even though it was right before their eyes, “only because I knew how to interpret the extraordinary maps and charts that reveal the course and the extent of the voyages of the great Chinese fleets between 1421 and 1423” (pp. 11–12). A former submarine commander in the British Royal Navy, he has sailed in the wake of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and James Cook, hence he recognizes that those mariners, who navigated with copies of Chinese maps in hand, were themselves merely sailing in the backwash of Zheng He’s fleets (pp. 9, 12).

Menzies intends his work for the general reader, and his style is vigorous, clear, and informal. Most strikingly, he makes his own search for evidence of the Ming fleets the narrative framework for recounting their achievements. He describes his frustrations and triumphs as he travels everywhere following “an elusive trail of evidence,” sometimes discouraged but never defeated (p. 83). He also brings his narrative to life by recounting his own experiences in places visited by the fleets of Zheng He, including savoring rum toddies and roast lobster on Guadeloupe beaches, braving the dangers of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and rounding the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic. The underlying message of these frequent vignettes is that the author’s astonishing conclusions are validated by the unique personal experience he brings to his research as well as by his transparent account of how he struggled toward those conclusions. This approach makes for a lively, engaging work that surely will attract many readers who otherwise would never open a 500-page tome on Chinese maritime enterprise and European exploration.

The good news conveyed by 1421 is that there are big bucks in world history: Menzies received an advance of £500,000 ($825,000) from his British publisher, whose initial printing runs to 100,000 copies. The bad news is that reaping such largesse evidently requires producing a book as outrageous as 1421. Menzies flouts the basic rules of both historical study and elementary logic. He misrepresents the scholarship of others, and he frequently fails to cite those from whom he borrows. [1] He misconstrues Chinese imperial policy, especially as seen in the expeditions of Zheng He, and his extensive discussion of Western cartography reads like a parody of scholarship. His allegations regarding Nicolò di Conti (c. 1385–1469), the only figure in 1421 who links the Ming voyages with European events, are the stuff of historical fiction, the product of an obstinate misrepresentation of sources. The author’s misunderstanding of the technology of Zheng He’s ships impels him to depict voyages no captain would attempt and no mariner could survive, including a 4,000-mile excursion along the Arctic circle and circumnavigation of the Pacific after having already sailed more than 42,000 miles from China to West Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines (pp. 199–209, 311). [2]

Portraying himself as an innocent abroad, forthrightly seeking truths the academic establishment has disregarded or suppressed, Menzies in fact is less an “unlettered Ishmael” than a Captain Ahab, gripped by a mania to bend everything to his purposes. His White Whale is Eurocentric historiography, which celebrates Columbus (a thief and fraud, pp. 382–383) and Vasco da Gama (a terrorist, p. 406) without realizing they merely aped the epic deeds of the Chinese. More generally, Menzies, in an unacknowledged echo of Joseph Needham, laments that China did not become “mistress of the world,” with Confucian harmony and Buddhist benevolence uniting humankind. Instead, the cruel, barbaric West, secretly and fraudulently capitalizing on Chinese achievements, imposed its dominion around the globe (pp. 405–406).[3]

The wounded leviathan of Eurocentricism no doubt deserves another harpoon, but 1421 is too leaky a vessel to deliver it. Examination of the book’s central claims reveals they are uniformly without substance: first, that the 1421–1423 voyages Menzies describes could not have taken place second, that Conti played no role in transmitting knowledge of Chinese exploration to European cartographers and third, that all Menzies’s evidence for the presence of the Chinese fleets abroad is baseless.

1421 concentrates on what Menzies terms “the missing years” of the sixth voyage of Zheng He, that is, the two and a half years between March 1421 and October 1423, during which the fleets of Zheng He supposedly roamed the globe. Menzies is not interested in the well-known, much-studied voyages of Zheng He, and he ignores the extensive literature on them. [4] He dispenses with six of the seven expeditions (between 1405 and 1433) in one page (pp. 54–55). He singles out the sixth voyage because it was the only one in which Zheng He returned to China early, leaving his subordinate eunuch-captains to carry out their mission of returning tribute envoys to their kingdoms. This circumstance offers Menzies a window of opportunity to imagine that the armada left the Indian Ocean to seek new lands in the Atlantic and Pacific. Since he claims that the mariners sailed about 40,000 miles in their world-girdling odysseys, two and a half years is just barely enough time for them to journey such a vast distance while also charting coasts, mining ore, meeting alien peoples, and founding colonies.

In addition, Menzies feels free to speculate about “missing years” because of a presumed dearth of sources. He casually dismisses the principal source of information on Zheng He’s voyages, Ma Huan’s Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan [The overall survey of the ocean’s shores], by declaring that its author, an official translator on the staff of Zheng He in 1421, “left the treasure fleets at Calicut” (a port on the Malabar coast in southwestern India), hence he did not take part in the global exploration (p. 87). Menzies provides no evidence for his assertion, which, in any case, mistakes the nature of Ma’s account. The author sailed on three of the Ming expeditions, and his book is a protoethnographic survey of the places visited by the fleets over several decades, not “diaries” (p. 229) of his participation in a specific voyage.[5] He incorporated information on countries he did not visit, and he apparently continued making revisions to his book until it was published about thirty years after the last expedition. Menzies does not address the awkward question of why Ma, a stickler for detail and an aficionado of novelties, never mentions the wondrous excursion of his comrades to the Americas and Australia.

Throughout 1421, Menzies places great emphasis on imperial officials in 1477 destroying many of the documents regarding the Ming expeditions in order to prevent a renewal of the project. In a manner of speaking, the author sails the ships of Zheng He through that supposed evidentiary void. There are plentiful surviving documents on the expeditions, however, that prove there were no “missing years.” The sources indicate that an imperial order for the sixth voyage was issued in March 1421, although the flotilla did not leave China until the turn of the year. It reached Sumatra around July 1422, after many stops in Southeast Asia Zheng He returned home to Nanjing by September 1422, leaving his subordinates to sail on to thirty-six ports in Ceylon, India (both Bengal and the Malabar coast), the Persian Gulf, and East Africa. The last of the squadrons returned to China on 8 October 1423, having completed their journey of some 11,000 miles in the expected time, about one year and three months after departing Sumatra.[6] Thus there are no “missing years” for the Ming fleets, no time for even a portion of the extraordinary exploits narrated in 1421.

Even taking Menzies’s account at face value, however, it is farfetched. The author asserts that Zheng He arrived home in November 1421 and that his captains completed their errands in the Indian Ocean in July of the same year, a mere three months after departing Sumatra. After rendezvousing at Sofala (across from Mozambique on the East African coast), they doubled the Cape of Good Hope in August and headed north to the Cape Verde Islands, reaching them in late September a month later, they made landfall off the Orinoco River in Brazil, and by November they were approaching Cape Horn in the South Atlantic (pp. 83, 99–100, 113–116). In other words, Menzies proposes that Zheng He’s captains completed a voyage of some 17,000 miles in mainly unknown seas in seven months, including dozens of stops in the Indian Ocean, while Zheng He took the same amount of time to journey about 3,500 miles from Sumatra to Nanjing. 12
By this account, then, Zheng He sailed sluggishly but his captains made spectacularly rapid progress. Menzies claims that the average speed of Zheng He’s vessels over their seven voyages in the Indian Ocean was 4. 8 knots (or 132 miles per day) (p. 100). Menzies has no basis for this estimate since an average speed can be calculated only for the 1431–1433 expedition, for which a detailed itinerary survives. Naturally, speeds differed considerably, depending on the time of year and the passage being traversed. In the seventh voyage, distances covered varied from a high of 106 miles per day (3.8 knots) to a low of 37.5 miles per day (1.4 knots), with an average of 69 miles per day (or 2.5 knots).[7] Menzies assumes, however, that his undocumented estimate of 4.8 knots for the Indian Ocean voyages holds as well for the global cruises of the Ming fleets.[8] His calculation helps him narrowly fit the agenda of the fleets into the alleged “missing years”: having doubled the time the junks actually were away from China (from fifteen months to thirty), he also hurries the ships along by granting them an average speed 52 percent higher than what they generally achieved in the steady, familiar monsoon winds of the southern seas. On its own terms, then, Menzies’s scenario is highly implausible. Taking into account the surviving evidence for the timetable of the sixth expedition, it is impossible.

Menzies’s evidence for the role of Conti in transmitting Chinese geographical knowledge to European cartographers is even flimsier than his argument for “missing years.” A native of Venice, Conti lived in Asia for some thirty-five years, and when he returned to Europe around 1441, he sought absolution from Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431–1447) for having converted to Islam. As instructed by the pope, Conti told the story of his travels to the humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), who incorporated it into his De Varietate Fortunae, completed in 1448. His account was widely read, for Conti provided the best source of information on the East, especially India and Southeast Asia, that Europe had received since Marco Polo’s Travels (c. 1298).[9]

Conti is essential to Menzies’s argument since he represents the sole vehicle by which Chinese geographical knowledge reached the West. Much of 1421 is devoted to interpreting European maps in the light of that knowledge, and without Conti as “the crucial link” in the chain of evidence, the central thesis of the book collapses (p. 93).

To establish the relevance of Conti, Menzies splices into one quotation a passage from Poggio and another from Pero Tafur (c. 1410–c. 1484), a Spaniard who met Conti at Mt. Sinai (Egypt) in 1437, when the Venetian was planning to return home (p. 85).[10] Poggio refers to large Indian ships, with five sails, many masts, and hull compartments. Since only Chinese ships possessed the latter, it is generally assumed that Conti actually described Chinese vessels, evidently without knowing their origins.11 Tafur writes of ships “like very large houses” [como casas muy grandes], with ten or more sails and large cisterns of water inside, that delivered cargo to Mecca.12 Neither Poggio nor Tafur refer to Calicut in connection with the large ships, to Chinese vessels visiting India, or to the fleet of Zheng He neither chronicler provides a date for Conti’s stay in Calicut. Still, Menzies takes for granted that Conti was in Calicut in 1421 when the Ming armada anchored there, and since both Conti and Ma Huan describe similar scenes in Calicut, Menzies surmises that Conti must have met the Chinese chronicler in that port (p. 86).

Based on these presumptions, Menzies creates an incredible scenario: he declares that Conti boarded Zheng He’s junks for their voyages to the Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, Patagonia, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Mexico. Moreover, after the fleet returned to Southeast Asia and China in late 1423, Conti dashed home to Venice, where in 1424 he was “debriefed” by the Infante Dom Pedro of Portugal (d. 1449), older brother of Prince Henry (1394–1460), the so-called “Navigator,” and where Conti handed over copies of Chinese charts produced during the great voyage (pp. 351–354, 435).[13] Those charts, Menzies asserts, formed the basis for all subsequent European maps that showed lands across the Atlantic, including, inter alia, the Pizzigano map (1424), the (disputed) Vinland map (1420–1440?), the Cantino planisphere (1502), and the Waldseemüller maps (1507, 1513). Furthermore, Conti’s information prompted Prince Henry to secretly dispatch settlers to Puerto Rico in 1431, where (Menzies suggests) they perhaps found evidence of a previous Chinese colony (p. 359). European copies of Ming charts also explain Columbus’s ambition to voyage across the Ocean Sea, Magellan’s conviction that he could sail around South America, and Cook’s alleged “discovery” of Australia.

Even though “The Travels of Nicolò di Conti” is silent about the global journey of the Venetian—one wonders why he kept that thrilling news from Poggio—Menzies repeatedly claims the document proves that Conti “sailed with the Chinese fleet from India to Australia and China.”[14] Thus with no more warrant than a passing mention by Poggio and Tafur of large ships in the Indian Ocean, Menzies concocts a scenario in which Conti tours the world on Zheng He’s junks, collecting information that transforms European cartography and inspires European overseas expansion. In a book bloated with extravagant arguments, Menzies’s assertions regarding Poggio’s well-known text stand out for their obdurate distortion of evidence.

Menzies’s claims regarding the fleet’s “missing years” and Conti’s global cruise clearly cannot be sustained. The author’s proof for the presence of the Ming argosy in new lands also lacks substance. In his first two chapters (pp. 19–75), he lays the groundwork for his claims when describing Zheng He’s fleet before its departure from Nanjing. Although the portrait lacks any documentation, it provides the foundation for virtually all the evidence Menzies later cites for Chinese exploration. His depiction, then, does not represent mere scene setting aimed at engaging the reader—a rhetorical tactic that perhaps does not call for footnotes—but assumptions read back into the narrative itself. In effect, the author stocks the ships on their exodus from China with the very items that will confirm that the mariners reached their far-flung destinations.[15]

Thus while no evidence survives of the garb worn by Zheng He’s sailors, Menzies describes them as wearing long white robes because legends and folklore from Australia and the New World speak of visits from white-robed aliens.[16] Although sources are silent on the presence of women in the fleet, Menzies assumes that many prostitutes were aboard because the colonies supposedly founded during the voyages required Chinese mates for the men.17 In like fashion, he infers that many coops of Asiatic chickens were loaded on the junks (as “valuable presents for foreign dignitaries,” p. 42) because the presence of chickens in the New World is a central part of his proof of the passage of the Ming fleets.18 Since Central American natives used chicken entrails for divination, Menzies presumes they were “indoctrinated” in the practice by the fowl-bearing colonists of Zheng He (pp. 225, 420).

There is no evidence for masons and stone carvers in Zheng He’s flotilla, but Menzies believes they were aboard because no one else could have carved the numerous stone markers supposedly left behind by the fleets in the Cape Verde Islands and other landing spots, and they must have built the “pyramids” and astronomical “observation platforms” found just about everywhere else.19 The latter, Menzies claims, were needed by Chinese astronomers, indispensable passengers in the fleet since they had to carry out the (undocumented) imperial command to detect “guiding stars” in order to “correctly locate the new territories” (pp. 28–29). Teak was not used in building Zheng He’s fleets, as sources supposedly consulted by Menzies make clear, yet he regards any appearance of teak in marine excavations as marking the presence of the Ming vessels.20 It is highly unlikely that the Chinese junks (or any ships at any time) carried specially carved stones for ballast, as Menzies imagines, yet he elaborately describes how the mariners built a slipway to refloat grounded junks at Bimini in the Bahamas, the evidence for which is “tongued and grooved” rectangular rocks found underwater there—ballast, the author declares, from the Ming ships (pp. 63, 265–277).[21]

Zheng He’s armada almost certainly included some horses used by the admiral and other high commanders. Menzies claims, however, that thousands of horses were transported, many being used to stock the Americas and to explore the interior of Australia. At sea for months at a time, the mariners allegedly nourished the horses with boiled, mashed rice and with water distilled from seawater, “using paraffin wax or seal blubber for fuel” (p. 67). Although Needham states that there is no evidence that the Chinese knew how to desalinate seawater, Menzies asserts that a ship wrecked off the Oregon coast is reported to have carried paraffin wax, hence he regards the rumor as implicit verification of his contentions about both desalination and hordes of junk-journeying steeds.[22]

The seamen, prostitutes, and eunuchs were kept in fresh fish at sea by “trained otters, working in pairs to herd shoals into the nets …” (p. 39). These marvelous creatures, alas, remain unheralded in any document, but since some wild ones “have been seen swimming in the fjords of South Island” (New Zealand), Menzies infers that their forbears must have jumped Zheng He’s ships there (pp. 173, 185). Chinese sharpeis must have sailed with the Ming flotilla because an animal resembling the dog appears in a Mexican painting discovered in the nineteenth century (pp. 42, 223). One audacious sharpei, Menzies proposes, absconded from the junks in the Falklands and mated with an indigenous fox, giving birth to a now-extinct animal called a war-rah—DNA results, the author promises, will be posted on the website (p. 135).

Menzies also goes beyond his portrait of Zheng He’s armada in Nanjing to point to evidence deriving from its global adventures. He suggests that the Chinese captured a few giant South American sloths (or mylodons) in Patagonia. This deduction arises from the author’s notion that a “dog-headed man” depicted on the Piri Reis map of 1513 —which, of course, Menzies regards as based upon a copy of a Chinese map from Conti’s collection—is in fact a mylodon, an animal (he assumes) that Zheng He’s captains desired for the emperor’s zoo (pp. 118–119). He further supposes that one of the sloths aroused itself enough to escape Chinese incarceration in Australia because a stone carving near Brisbane (he thinks) looks something like the Patagonian beast (p. 185).

It is impossible to keep track of how many self-confirming assumptions are at work in such citations of alleged evidence. Piling supposition upon supposition, Menzies never considers a question that he does not beg: every argument in 1421 springs from the fallacy of petitio principii. The author’s “trail of evidence” is actually a feedback loop that makes no distinction between premise and proof, conjecture and confirmation, bizarre guess and proven fact.

Thus just as Menzies describes the junks as supplied with all the paraphernalia that will prove they sailed where he contends, he also reconstructs the routes of the voyages by treating European maps, supposedly based on Conti’s cache, as the by-product of those very voyages. This inevitably leads to some curious conclusions. Since the Waldseemüller map of 1507 seems to show an open sea passage between the Arctic Circle and Eurasia from the Barents Sea to the Bering Straits, a distance of more than 4,000 miles, Menzies concludes that the route was surveyed by a Ming fleet taking a shortcut home after its exploration of Greenland, boldly going where no eunuch had gone before (p. 311). The author, however, does not discuss this epic voyage except to observe that the Waldseemüller map proves it took place.

Similarly, since Menzies believes that the Chinese first navigated around South America and that the Piri Reis map is proof of that achievement, he declares that the map does not show a landlocked Atlantic, with an eastward extension of the Americas linking up with the peninsula of Southeast Asia, but, rather, “what appears to be ice connecting the tip of South America to Antartica” (p. 116). Rivaling his mistreatment of Poggio’s “Travels,” Menzies makes this claim even though his own reproductions of the Piri Reis chart patently contradict it (pp. 117, 122, and color illustration). Not only that, Piri Reis himself states the contrary, for he noted on his map that Spanish and Portuguese explorers “have found out that coasts encircle this sea [that is, the Atlantic], which has thus taken the form of a lake ….”[23] Menzies does not think it necessary to inform his readers of this evidence.

Unfortunately, this reckless manner of dealing with evidence is typical of 1421, vitiating all its extraordinary claims: the voyages it describes never took place, Chinese information never reached Prince Henry and Columbus, and there is no evidence of the Ming fleets in newly discovered lands. The fundamental assumption of the book—that Zhu Di dispatched the Ming fleets because he had a “grand plan,” a vision of charting the world and creating a maritime empire spanning the oceans (pp. 19–43)—is simply asserted by Menzies without a shred of proof. It represents the author’s own grandiosity projected back onto the emperor, providing the latter with an ambition commensurate with the global events that Menzies presumes 1421 uniquely has revealed, an account that provides evidence “to overturn the longaccepted history of the Western world” (p. 400). It is clear, however, that textbooks on that history need not be rewritten. The reasoning of 1421 is inexorably circular, its evidence spurious, its research derisory, its borrowings unacknowledged, its citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous.

Still, it may have some pedagogical value in world history courses. Assigning selections from the book to high-schoolers and undergraduates, it might serve as an outstanding example of how not to (re)write world history. Instructors seeking to provide some light relief to a sometimes heavy-going subject also could encourage students to vie with one another in nominating the most peculiar or amusing passage in the book. A top contender surely would be the notion that the Ming mariners transported to the Americas “millions of tiny glass beads the size of those used by the Chinese as a sex aid,” intended to be stitched into the skin around the head of the penis to increase the pleasure of one’s spouse (p. 227).24 Indeed, if the eunuch-captains of Zheng He’s fleets tried to indoctrinate the peoples they encountered in this exotic practice, it is little wonder that all the fabled Chinese colonies in the New World floundered and faded in the years between 1421 and 1492.

1 For example, although Judith A. Carney (Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas [Cambridge, Mass: 2000]) regards rice as part of the Columbian Exchange and argues that sub-Saharan Africans were the principal agents in bringing rice cultivation to the Americas after 1492, Menzies cites her in support of the notion that Zheng He’s mariners introduced the grain to the New World (pp. 206, 506, n. 4). He also appropriates a quotation from a Chinese novel discussed by J. J. L. Duyvendak (“Desultory notes on the Hsi-Yang Chi,”T’oung Pao 42 [1954]: 26–35) to declare that Persian pottery given to Zheng He actually was “eggshell-thin” porcelain made by the Maya of Mexico (pp. 162, 214). Menzies continues this practice in the paperback edition (2002) of his book. He credits the present writer with providing him with evidence that da Gama reported a Chinese “fleet of 800 sail” in India at the time of Zheng He (pp. 512, 547, 552). This assertion is based on a publication—not correctly cited by Menzies—that makes no such claim about a da Gama report, a Chinese fleet, or an armada of 800 ships. See Robert Finlay, “The Treasure-Ships of Zheng He: Chinese Maritime Imperialism in the Age of Discovery,” Terrae Incognitae: The Journal for the History of Discoveries 23 (1991) 1–12.

2 There is no space here to discuss how Menzies’s characterization of Zheng He’s vessels as lumbering, broad-beamed tubs equipped with square-rigged sails—and therefore “constrained to sail before the wind” (pp. 64, 65, 96, 109, 161, 163, 181, 209, 240)—is integral to his claim that he can track the global course of the voyages by focusing on prevailing winds and currents (see p. 83). As Needham makes clear, however, Chinese ships employed a balanced lug-sail, a highly aerodynamic device that allows a ship to make headway at 45° to windward (compared to 34° for a modern yacht) (Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, pt. 3, pp. 594–599) see also Christian J. Buys and Sheli O. Smith, “Chinese Batten Lug Sails,” The Mariner’s Mirror 66 (1980): 233–246. Despite its relevance to his argument, Menzies apparently did not consult any of the literature that has corrected earlier, exaggerated estimates of the dimensions of Zheng He’s vessels. See especially Richard A. Gould, Archaeology and the Social History of the Ship (Cambridge, U.K.:2000), pp. 193–198 André Wegener Sleeswyk, “The Liao and the Displacement of Ships in the Ming Navy,” The Mariner’s Mirror 82 (1996): 3–13Richard Barker, “The Size of the ‘Treasure Ships’ and Other Chinese Vessels,” The Mariners’ Mirror 75 (1989): 273–275Donald H. Keith and Christian J. Buys, “New light on Medieval Chinese seagoing ship construction,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 10 (1981): 119–32.

3 On the same theme shaping Needham’s view of the achievements of Chinese civilization in general and the fleets of Zheng He in particular, see Robert Finlay, “China, the West, and World History in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China,”Journal of World History 11 (2000): 265–303.While Menzies cites Needham a number of times, he fails to do so on a number of matters, including on contrasts between China and Europe as reflected in the voyages of Zheng He and those of Europeans (pp. 33, 40), the scientific motives for the Ming voyages (p. 40), and Europeans illegitimately wresting trade from Asians (p. 376). On these topics, see Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, pt. 3: Civil Engineering and Nautics (Cambridge, U.K.:1971), pp. 389, 499, 514–517, 522, 533–534.

4 Menzies did not consult the outstanding work on the voyages: Zheng He xia xiyang yangzi liao huibian [Collected sources on Zheng He’s voyages], ed. Zheng Hesheng and Zheng Yijun, 2 vols. (Jinan, 1980–1983). Much of the material in these volumes is compiled from the Ming shi [History of the Ming dynasty]. Menzies refers to the Ming shias a source that proves his contentions (p. 438), but he cites nothing from that massive work. Nor does he cite any of the essays in two major collections: Zhenghe yanjiu zilao xuanbian [Selected essays on Zheng He], ed. Research Association of Chinese Navigational History (Beijing:1985) and Zhenghe xia xiyang lunwenji [Essays on Zheng He’s voyages], ed. Research Association of Chinese Navigational History (Beijing:1985). I would like to thank Professor Jin Jiang of Vassar College for her assistance in dealing with Chinese-language materials.

5 See Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores [1433], edited by J. V. G. Mills and translated by Feng Ch’engchün (Cambridge, U.K.:1970), pp. 34–44.

6 On dates for the voyages, see Zheng He xia xiyang yangzi liao huibian, 2: 926–30 Haraprasad Ray, Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations (New Delhi:1993), pp. 37–44. Duyvendak’s fundamental essay,”The true dates of the Chinese maritime expeditions in the early fifteenth century,” T’oung Pao 34 (1938): 341–412, is cited by Menzies (p. 82), but he ignores it in his reconstruction of the sixth voyage.

7 On measuring distances traveled by Zheng He’s junks, see Zhou Juseng, Zheng He hanglu gao [The routes of Zheng He’s voyages] (Tapei:1959), pp. 97–101. On distances covered during the seventh voyage, see Ma Huan, Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan, pp. 26–27, 308, n. 14. Based upon a debatable interpretation of Chinese nautical watches, Needham comes up with an average speed between 6 knots (166 miles per day) and 10 knots (276 miles per day), estimates far higher than any speed achieved on the seventh voyage and implausible in their own right (Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, pt. 3, p. 564, n. e).

8 This leads to some unlikely assertions. Thus Menzies proposes that one Ming squadron, at 4.8 knots, made a round-trip Pacific voyage of 16,000 miles in only four months, including time spent establishing colonies along the western coast of America (p. 199). From 1565 to 1815, however, the average duration of a voyage from Manila to Acapulco by Spanish galleons was close to six months, with four months for that leg of the round-trip journey alone being regarded as a rapid crossing (William Lytle Schurtz, The Manila Galleon [New York:1939], p. 263).

9 See “The Travels of Nicolò Conti … as related by Poggio Bracciolini in his work entitled Historia de varietate fortunae, Lib. IV,” in India in the Fifteenth Century, ed. and trans. R. H. Major (London:1857), pp. 3–39. On Conti, see the biographical note in Pero Tafur, Andanças e viajes de un hidalgo español, ed. Marcos Jiménez de la Espada (reprint, Barcelona: 1982), pp. 412–415. On reception of Conti’s story, see Waldemar Sensburg, “Poggio Bracciolini und Nicolo de’ Conti in ihrer Bedeutung für di Geografie des Rennaisse-Zeitalters,” Mitteilungen der K. K. Geographischen Gesellschaft in Wien 49 (1906): 261. Polo’s and Conti’s accounts of Asia sometimes were published together, as in a 1502 Lisbon edition (Henry Vignaud, Toscanelli and Columbus: The Letter and Chart of Toscanelli [London:1902], p. 24, n. 4).

10 Menzies does not cite Tafur’s account itself and it does not appear in his bibliography. He takes his quotations from Richard Hall’s Empires of the Monsoon: A History of the Indian Ocean and Its Invaders (New York, 1996, p. 124), which, however, does not conflate the two statements.

11 Mills, Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan, p. 66 Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, pt. 3, p. 452, note b. Sensburg (“Poggio Bracciolini und Nicolo de’ Conti,” pp. 304–307) speculates that Conti did not actually visit China, although he displays some knowledge of Chinese customs.

12 “The Travels of Nicolò Conti,” p. 27 Tafur, Andanças e viajes de un hidalgo español, p. 108. See also Pero Tafur, Travels and Adventures, 1435–1439, trans. and ed. Malcom Letts (New York:1926). For comparison of Conti’s information in Poggio and Tafur, see Joan-Paul Rubiés, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625 (Cambridge, U.K.:2000), pp. 118–123.

13 According to Menzies, because Conti was a religious renegade in 1424, he traveled incognito and did not reveal his identity until his interview by Poggio some two decades later (p. 352). Not only is there no evidence for this, it is clear from Tafur’s account that Conti was in Egypt as late as 1437 (Andanças e viajes de un hidalgo español, p. 99).

14 Menzies, pp. 435, 93, 114, 192, 353–354, 369, 389. In his appendix, Menzies characterizes Poggio’s account of Conti in “The Travels” as follows: “Describes Chinese fleet passing through Indian Ocean and his passage to Australia and China” (p. 448).

15 It would be tedious to deal with all the items in the fleet mentioned by Menzies, which also includes mirrors, roses, jade, seeds, citrus fruits, coconuts, red tunics, pantaloons, mining engineers, Hindu savants, and Buddhist religious figures. The items omitted from the following discussion, however, have the same status in Menzies’s narrative as those that are included that is, the author assumes they were aboard the fleet in Nanjing because evidence for them supposedly has been found in areas overseas where he believes the fleets ventured. Porcelain is a different case, for it certainly was carried on Zheng He’s ships, and Menzies makes much of that consideration (pp. 73, 195, 203, 208, 227, 275, 451, 453) but trade in the ceramic was so extensive and of such long standing that its appearance in places such as East Africa and the Philippines cannot be used as evidence for the presence of Zheng He’s fleets. See Robert Finlay, “The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History,”Journal of World History 9 (1998): 141–187, especially 158–165.

16 Menzies, pp. 163–164, 167, 177, 190, 207, 276–277, 285, 322, 414–415, 445.

17 Menzies, pp. 67–69, 281, 285, 296. Supposedly recruited from Canton brothels, the women are described as “beautiful concubines” who were well-educated, talented, and regarded sex as “a sanctified act” (p. 67). Oddly, the author devotes more discussion to their presumed sexual activity than he does to the other six expeditions of Zheng He.

18 Menzies, pp. 123, 124–126, 162, 209, 223–224, 232, 378, 395, 403.

19 On presumed “observational platforms” and the like, see Menzies, pp. 103, 105–106, 163, 172, 173, 175, 185–186, 191, 270, 324–325, 401, 437, 440, 453–455. Inscribed steles actually associated with Zheng He were carved in China before departure of the fleet, as with one erected in Ceylon in 1411 (see Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, pt. 3, p. 523).

20 Menzies cites Li Zhaoxiang’s Longquan chuan chang zhi [Record of the shipbuilding yards on the Dragon River] (1553) and Needham on the subject of Zheng He’s ships. Both discuss the woods used in constructing the junks—cedar, chestnut, fir, camphor, and elm—and do not mention teak. See Longquan chuan chang zhi, 5:7 Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, pt. 3, pp. 411, 414. On teak as evidence of Zheng He’s vessels, see Menzies, pp. 154, 172–173, 201, 227, 309, 459.

21 Menzies states that the large stones were carved in Nanjing to lock together as ballast so the ships would not be damaged in a heavy storm (p. 273). There is no evidence that the Chinese ever employed this labor-intensive technique. Rather, loose and flexible materials, such as rock salt, cowrie shells, metal ingots, porcelain, gravel, sand, and timber typically were used as ballast, for they could be loaded and removed relatively easily, and they could be sold at the end of a voyage when the bilge was cleaned.


He claims they indicate ancient people from Asia were present in the Americas around 1,300BC – nearly 2,800 years before Columbus's ships stumbled across the New World by reaching the Caribbean in 1492.


Trade was taking place between East Asia and the New World hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the area in 1492.

Archaeologists have made the suggestion following the discovery of a series of bronze artefacts found at the 'Rising Whale' site in Cape Espenberg, Alaska.

They found what they believe to be a bronze and leather buckle and a bronze whistle, dating to around A.D. 600.

Bronze-working had not been developed at this time in Alaska, and researchers instead believe the artefacts were created in China, Korea or Yakutia.

'We're seeing the interactions, indirect as they are, with these so-called "high civilisations" of China, Korea or Yakutia,' Owen Mason, a research associate at the University of Colorado.

Researchers believe those who lived at the Rising Whale site may be part of what scientists call the 'Birnirk' culture.

This is a group of people who lived on both sides of the Bering Strait and used skin boats and harpoons to hunt whales, LiveScience reports.

The latest discovery of bronze artefacts backs up earlier evidence for trade between Alaska and other civilisations prior to 1492.

He said: 'These ancient Chinese writings in North America cannot be fake, for the markings are very old as are the style of the scripts.

'As such the findings of this scientific study confirm that ancient Chinese people were exploring and positively interacting with the Native peoples over 2,500 years ago.

'The pattern of the finds suggests more of an expedition than settlement.'

However, his controversial views have been met with scepticism by many experts who point to the lack of archaeological evidence for any ancient Chinese presence in the New World.

Mr Ruskamp is not the first to claim that the Chinese were the first to discover America - retired submarine lieutenant-commander Gavin Menzies claimed a fleet of Chinese ships sailed to North America in 1421, 70 years before Columbus's expedition.

However, Mr Ruskamp believes the contact between the Chinese and Native Americans may have been going on for far longer.

He claims to have identified 84 pictograms which match unique ancient Chinese sites in various locations around the US including New Mexico, California, Oklahoma, Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

He says many of these have been examined by experts on ancient Chinese scripts and they appear to forms of writing that went out of use thousands of years ago.

The pictograms he discovered on the rocks of Albuquerque appear to be an ancient script that was used by the Chinese after the end Shang Dynsasty.

Known as oracle bone pictograms, Mr Ruskamp claims the markings record a ritual sacrificial offering perhaps made to the 3rd Shang dynasty king Da Jia and also a divination of an 'auspicious' 10 day sacred period.

With the help of experts on Neolithic Chinese culture, Mr Ruskamp has deciphered the pictograms (shown in the enhanced image above with the translations) he has discovered at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque and claims they details a sacrificial offering of a dog to the 3rd Shang dynasty king Da Jai

Mr Ruskamp claims to have found evidence of ancient Chinese scripts etched into rocks in New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, as shown in the map above

Mr Ruskamp said: 'Although only half of the symbols found on the large boulder in Albuquerque, New Mexico have been identified and confirmed as Chinese scripts, when the four central pictogram-glyphs of this message - Jie, Da, Quan, and Xian - are read in the traditional Chinese manner from right to left we learn about a respectful man honoring a superior with the sacrificial offering of a dog.

'Notably, the written order of these symbols conforms with the syntax used for documenting ancient Chinese rituals during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, and dog sacrifices were very popular in the second part of the second millennium B.C. in China.'

He says he has also found ancient Chinese scripts for the number five and writing describing a boat upon water, which he found on the shore of Little Lake in California.

Mr Ruskamp also claims the pictograms shown above, which were found carved into rocks in Arizona, also appear to belong to an ancient Chinese script. He believes Chinese explorers were conducting expeditions around North America thousands of years ago and left these markings as evidence of their presence

Mr Ruskamp first discovered ancient Chinese scripts at Petroglyph National Monument (shown above), n Albuquerque, New Mexico, alongside carvings made by Native Americans

Mr Ruskamp says he has also found ancient Chinese scripts for dogs, flowers, and the earth scratched onto the rocks in Petroglyph National Monument.

He also claims to have found a Chinese pictogram of an elephant dating to 500BC in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, suggesting the Asian explorers had spread across much of the US.

Another pictogram found in Grapevine Canyon in Nevada, appears to be an oracle-bone era symbol for teeth dating to 1,300BC.

One ancient message, preserved in Arizona translates as: 'Set apart (for) 10 years together declaring (to) return, (the) journey completed, (to the) house of the Sun (the) journey completed together.'

At the end of this text is an unidentified character that may be the author’s signature.

Mr Ruskamp said: 'Here the intention of the ancient author was more to document an event than to leave a readable message.'

Mr Ruskamp says this cartouche, which forms part of a set found in Arizona, is an ancient Chinese symbol for 'returning together'. He insists weathering on the markings and the age of the script suggest they are not fake

Mr Ruskamp has written a book and an academic paper on the topic, which is currently undergoing peer review.

In it he claims the carvings appear to have undergone significant levels of weathering, known as repatination which indicate they were created long ago and not within the past 150 years.

He says the Shang script disappeared from use around the fall of the Shang empire in 1046BC and were only rediscovered and deciphered in 1899 in China.

Taken together this suggests the carvings are unlikely to be fakes, he insists.

He also points to DNA evidence which has suggested Native Americans and Asian populations share many genetic traits.

He said: 'For centuries, researchers have been debating if, in pre-Columbian times, meaningful exchanges between the indigenous peoples of Asia and the Americas might have taken place.

'Here is "rock solid" epigraphic proof that Asiatic explorers not only reached the Americas, but that they interacted positively with Native North American people, on multiple occasions, long before any European exploration of the continent.'

Mr Ruskamp has also managed to decifer the symbol above as an oracle-bone script for 'Together for Ten Years'. It was found alongside other markings on a rock in Arizona

His views are also beginning to be taken seriously by other academics and they echo some theories put forward by researchers such as Dr Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution, who believed North America was first populated by people from Asia during the last ice age.

According to the Epoch Times, one of Mr Ruskamp's staunchest supporters has been Dr David Keightley, an expert on Neolithic Chinese civilization at the University of California, Berkley.

He has been helping to decipher the scripts found carved into the rocks.

Dr Michael Medrano, chief of the Division of Resource Management for Petroglyph National Monument, has also studied the petroglyphs found by Mr Ruskamp.

He told the Epoch Times: 'These images do not readily appear to be associated with local tribal entities.

Timeline: A Chronology Of the Ming Voyages

First Voyage 1405–1406

Zheng He commanded a fleet of 317 ships, almost 28,000 men, their arms and supplies. The fleet included several massive "treasure ships,"approximately 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. The places the fleet stopped included Champa (central Vietnam) Majapahit on Java and Semudra and Deli on the northern coast of Sumatra. It continued to Ceylon and then to Calicut, known as "the great country of the Western Ocean." Traveling through the Straits of Malacca on its return, the Chinese defeated a pirate chief who had been threatening trading ships in the Straits. Zheng He was not able to find any trace of the deposed Emperor whom some Chinese had thought might have found asylum in Southeast Asia.

Second Voyage 1407–1409

Zheng He did not go on the second voyage which probably returned the Siamese ambassador who had gone to China earlier on his own, and installed a new leader in Calicut. Again the fleet stopped at Champa (central Vietnam) Majapahit on Java and Semudra and Deli on the northern coast of Sumatra Ceylon and Calicut.

Third Voyage 1409–1411

This expedition's special charge concerned Malacca, a port on the Malay peninsula that was gaining importance. Stopping in Malacca, the Chinese recognized Paramesawara as the legitimate ruler of Malacca and gave him a tablet officially declaring that the city was a vassal state of China. Increasing Malacca's power, the Chinese court believed, would establish a balance of power among Siam, Java and Malacca and insure Chinese trading rights through the Straits. After stopping at Semudra, the fleet went to Ceylon where they got involved in a local power struggle among its Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim populations. Luring the Sinhalese troops out of the city, Zheng He and his troops took the capital, captured the ruler and installed a ruler of their own choice in his place. After this voyage many ambassadors from the countries the treasure fleet had visited brought tribute to the Ming court.

Fourth Voyage 1414–15

This voyage headed for Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. The fleet stopped at Champa and Java. At Sumatra, the Chinese captured a pretender to one of the local thrones and sent him back to Nanjing where he was executed. One part of the fleet went to Bengal and brought a giraffe back to the Emperor. (The Chinese believed the giraffe was a magical animal comparable to the unicorn, an auspicious sign and symbol of the righteousness of the Ming reign.) Cheng He and the rest of the fleet continued up the coast of Malay to Ceylon the Maldives ports on the Indian coast and Hormuz. This voyaged marked the height of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.

1415: The Emperor decides to move the Chinese court from Nanjing to Beijing.

1416: Repairs on the Grand Canal are completed.

Fifth Voyage 1417–19

This impressive fleet was to take back home 19 ambassadors who had brought tribute to the Chinese court. While at Quanzhou, Zheng He tried to stop the persecution of Muslims there. The fleet then went to several ports on Champa and Java to Palembang and other ports on Sumatra to Malacca on the Malay peninsula the Maldives, Ceylon and Cochin and Calicut. This time the Chinese attempted to strengthen Cochin to counter the power of Calicut. The fleet explored the Arabian coast from Hormuz to Aden and the east coast of Africa, returning ambassadors from Mogadishu, Brawa, and Malinda and also stopped at Mombasa. The sailors brought the Emperor another giraffe from Africa.

Sixth Voyage 1421–22

Besides taking ambassadors home, this voyage explored more of the coast of Africa. At Semudra the fleet divided and the majority of the ships went to Aden and the coast of Africa while Zheng He returned to China, perhaps so he could participate in the events surrounding the dedication of the Forbidden City in Beijing as the new capital.

1419–23: A costly rebellion erupts in Annam.

1421: Fire destroys much of the Forbidden City. Emperor Zhu Di first invites criticism, but soon he kills those who criticized him.

1422: Emperor Zhu Di plans a military expedition against the Mongols.

1424: Emperor Zhu dies while on military maneuvers in the north.

1424: Zhu Di's eldest son becomes Emperor. He favors his Confucian advisors and hopes to lessen tax burdens on the people caused by expensive military maneuvers, the voyages of the fleet and moving the capital.

1424: The Emperor issues an edict ending all voyages of the treasure ships.

1425–1435: Zhu Zhanji becomes Emperor.

1430: Emperor Zhu Zhanji issues an edict calling for a 7th voyage to inform distant lands of his rule and to urge them to "follow the way of heaven and to watch over the people so that all might enjoy the good fortune of lasting peace." (Levathes, pg. 160—see Sources)

Seventh Voyage 1431–1433

Three hundred ships with approximately 27,500 men embark. Besides ports on Champaand Java, the fleet stops at Palembang, Malacca, Semudra, Ceylon and Calicut. The Chinese urge the Siamese king to stop harassing the kingdom of Malacca. At Calicut, one part of the fleet goes along the east African coast to Malinidi and trade on the Red Sea and several ofthe Chinese sailors may have visited Mecca. Zheng He, who had probably stayed in Calicut, died on the return voyage and was buried at sea.

1436–1449: Zhu Qizhen, the emperor's seven year old son, becomes Emperor. Initially he is controlled by eunuch Wang Zhen.

1449: Wang leads an expedition against the Mongols on the northwest frontier. During this campaign, the Mongols capture the Emperor Zhu Qizhen and hold him prisoner.

1450: Emperor Zhu Qizhen gets free from Mongols and is reinstated as Emperor. Tension and rivalry exist between Confucian scholars and other advisors, particulars the court eunuchs. Emperor Zhu Qizhen faces the urgent question: Should the court resume the voyages or end them?

History of Oceanography

Oceanography may be one of the newest fields of science, but its roots extend back several tens of thousands of years when people began to venture from their coastlines in rafts. These first seafaring explorers, navigators and oceanographers began to pay attention to the ocean in many ways. They observed waves, storms, tides, and currents that carried their rafts in certain directions at different times. They sought fish for food. They realized that although ocean water didn’t look different from river water, it was salty and undrinkable. Their experiences and understanding of the oceans were passed down over thousands of years from generation to generation in myths and legends.

But it wasn’t until about 2,850 years ago (850 BC) that early naturalists and philosophers started trying to make sense of the enormous bodies of water they saw from land. Because people could see only endless ocean from the shoreline, they believed the world was flat. That didn’t keep Columbus and others exploring the oceans in the late 1400s and early 1500s and finally discovering that the world is not flat, but round—a sphere whose surface is nearly 3/4—covered by oceans.

Modern oceanography began as a field of science only a little less than 130 years ago, in the late 19th century, after Americans, British and Europeans launched a few expeditions to explore ocean currents, ocean life, and the seafloor off their coastlines. The first scientific expedition to explore the world’s oceans and seafloor was the Challenger Expedition, from 1872 to 1876, on board the British three-masted warship HMS Challenger.

Why We Explore

Students discuss the meaning of exploration and places they would like to explore. They compare past and present-day explorers&rsquo reasons for exploration to their own.

Earth Science, Oceanography, Geography, Physical Geography

This lists the logos of programs or partners of NG Education which have provided or contributed the content on this page. Partner

1. Define “exploration.”

Ask students how they define “exploration,” writing all ideas on the board. Next, ask: Who do you think of when you hear the word “explorer”? Explain that although explorers like Marco Polo or Christopher Columbus typically come to mind, there are many present-day explorers and anyone can be an explorer. In this activity students will investigate why people explore and consider places they would like to explore.

2. Brainstorm ideas about exploration.

Use a round robin approach to generate students’ ideas about exploration. Group 3-5 students at each table, and have them choose a scribe. Give each group a marker and a sheet of butcher paper with one of these questions on each paper:

  • Why do people explore?
  • What places have you explored? What did you learn?
  • What places would you like to explore in or near your city or town? Why?
  • What places would you like to explore in your home country? Why?
  • What places would you like to explore outside of your country? Why?

At the teacher’s signal, each group brainstorms while the scribe captures the ideas. After two minutes, have students pass their butcher paper in a clockwise direction to the next table. Each group has one student read aloud the question and the ideas from the previous group, and then the group again brainstorms new ideas to add to the previous groups’ ideas, without repeating ideas. Allow each group to add their ideas for each question.

3. Have students mark their favorite ideas.

Give each student ten stickers or markers. Hang the sheets of butcher paper on the walls around the room. Give students five minutes to move around the room to read the questions and ideas on each sheet, marking their two favorite ideas for each question.  As a class, discuss students’ ideas and favorites for “Why do people explore?” and “What places have you explored?” Call out the most-favored places they’d like to explore, and save these lists for a later activity.

4. Analyze past vs. present day exploration

Explain that it is now important to discuss how explorations have changed over time because exploration has continually shaped our world (e.g., spice routes and connecting cultures). Ask students: How might reasons for exploration have changed over time? What ways do you think exploration has shaped our world? (Hint: think about the voyages of past and present-day explorers, how technology has changed, and how commerce has changed).  If students need ideas, allow them to do research online about these questions. Ask them to discuss and write down their ideas in small groups and then share them with the class. Discuss differences and similarities between groups’ ideas. Ask students to save their ideas because they will use them later when they are developing their own “micro-expeditions.”

5. Discuss the difference between exploration and expeditions.

Explain that so far we have focused on exploration, but let’s consider now how exploration might be different from an expedition. Ask: What’s the difference between exploration and an expedition? (With exploration, the goal is simply to find out more about a place. With an expedition, scientists or explorers have some background knowledge but seek evidence, or data, to help in answering specific questions. Expeditions also require substantial planning to ensure they are able to achieve this purpose.) Have students share their ideas with the class. Write down the ideas on butcher paper and keep them for use in Activity #2—Plan and Prepare for an Expedition—to help students keep the characteristics of an expedition clear in their minds.

6. Analyze the reasons behind present-day expeditions.

Have students analyze a present-day expedition. Explain to students that there is a place far from people, barely explored, and full of danger, that needs to be explored now because the risk is that it will soon be lost. There are places about 60 miles from Florida, on the islands called the Bahamas that fit this description—places called “blue holes.” Have students watch the video clip, Islands of Bahamas Blue Hole, to look for reasons why scientists wanted to explore the blue holes there. Have students answer these three questions in a paragraph for each:

  • What is the purpose of this blue holes expedition? What do you think the scientists want to accomplish?
  • Do you think the explorers/scientists on the Blue Holes Expedition would agree with your reasons for exploring from the brainstorming today? Explain. What additional reasons do they have for why they explore?
  • How is the Blue Hole Expedition different than historical explorations? (Hint: think about available technology and scientific advancements as well as purpose.)

Conclude the activity by explaining that students will now focus in the next set of activities on the details of conducting an expedition, culminating in implementing their own micro-expeditions. They should keep their ideas from this activity in mind throughout the process to help them develop their plans.

Informal Assessment

Have students summarize in writing their ideas for the questions in Step 4. Check for synthesis of ideas about exploration and a comparison of the class&rsquo ideas with the approach to exploration in the video.

Extending the Learning

Show the short videos A Young Explorer and Why Water Exploration? in which Dr. Kenny Broad talks about why he liked to explore as a kid and where his interest in water exploration came from. Ask: What do you think is his motivation for exploration, past and present?

Students can research present-day explorers on the National Geographic Explorers website. Students can choose an explorer and determine the purpose of their explorations. Discuss whether the featured explorers changed students&rsquo definitions of what it means to explore.

Ponce de Leon in Spain

After the first voyage, Ponce went to Spain to be sure, this time, that he and he alone had royal permission to explore and colonize Florida. He met with King Ferdinand himself, who not only confirmed Ponce’s rights in regards to Florida but also knighted him and gave him a coat of arms: Ponce was the first conquistador so honored. Ponce returned to the New World in 1516, but no sooner had he arrived than word of Ferdinand’s death reached him. Ponce returned to Spain once again to make sure his rights were in order: regent Cardinal Cisneros assured him that they were. Meanwhile, several men made unauthorized visits to Florida, mostly to enslave Indigenous people or look for gold.

Fact Checker: Is Lake Tahoe filled with hundreds of preserved bodies?

A graphic illustration of the bottom of Lake Tahoe from the U.S. Geologic Service Tahoe basin web site looking west toward McKinney Bay just south of Tahoe City, Nev. Between Aug. 6, 1998 and Aug. 13, 1998, the USGS' coastal and marine geology group mapped the floor of Lake Tahoe using acoustic sonar aboard the research vessel "Inland Surveyor." The mapping revealed lake floor sediment patterns, sunken artifacts and photograph-like maps of the bottom of Lake Tahoe. In this illustration the gray areas are land, the black parts unmapped areas and the colors are the lake bed color keyed to show depth and features. (Photo: USGS via AP)

Publication date: Aug. 22, 2011

Lake Tahoe has been a dumping ground for the bodies of Chinese railroad workers and victims of mob killings.

Donald Christopher Windecker's body was recovered and identified this month 17 years after the Reno city planner died in a Tahoe diving accident.

When such stories happen, myths about bodies at Lake Tahoe also resurface. They often relate to the facts that dead bodies tend not to float there and, because of the cold temperatures, they stay preserved longer.

Jennifer Hollander explains why they often don't float. She's a biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"All of our bodies have bacteria that live in them," she said. "They are anaerobic, meaning they thrive without oxygen.

"When we die, our bodies stop breathing and the bacteria kick into gear breaking down our bodies. It's called putrefaction. The bacteria produce gases as waste: carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulfide.

"In warm water, the bacteria will still work just fine, so gases will build up and bodies will float. In cold water, the lower temperatures make them relatively inactive. It doesn't kill them, but they can't grow. They become inactive."

Something else that can break down dead bodies in Lake Tahoe is marine life, which brings to mind the not-tasteful quote from the book "Animal Crossing -- Wild World": "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Give a fish a man, and he'll eat for weeks!"

This was not the case with Windecker, who was covered head to toe in a wet suit with gloves and boots. His body was protected from marine life and subject only to the slow work of cold bacteria.

Bryan Golmitz of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office said Windecker's body was well preserved after 17 years -- "He looked 90 percent like a person, the physical form was there, he was very present."

Tidbit: The submersible that found Windecker's body is 24 x 10 x 10 inches. Think of a box of copier paper. Golmitz says its light shines about two to three feet wide.

Two points apply for our purposes: Bodies in Tahoe tend not to float but they do not stay preserved and are eventually broken down by their own bacteria as well as by marine organisms.

Now for the two myths: Lake Tahoe is a dumping ground for victims of mob hits and Chinese workers.

Both are repeated in numerous places, but both also appear in one message at Snopes.com, the urban myth checking website.

A person who says he was born in Carson City and lived there his whole life writes, regarding the mob dumping bodies, "My grandparents lived in Tahoe for 30+ years, and Grandma would always say that back in Tahoe's hey day when the Rat Pack was running around there, the mafia they were connected to would do the same things to people they wanted to 'get rid of.'"

Lake Tahoe expert and author Mark McLaughlin has his doubts.

He notes that during Frank Sinatra's time at Tahoe in the early 1960s, he and his associates were scrutinized closely by the authorities, making killings and body disposal risky.

Besides, McLaughlin says, the mob was more focused in Southern Nevada and "it's easier to bury a body out in the desert, which precludes the risk of the body washing up on the shore."

He said Tahoe killings could be possible but no one has come forward with even basic details that could be investigated, such as who was killed.

Then there's the story of Chinese laborers. Edited from the Snopes forum:

"My whole life, I have heard rumors that there are a lot of human bodies that have been dumped in Lake Tahoe. The one that sticks out for me is that in Truckee, they had brought in hundreds of Chinese immigrants to build the railroads. When all was said and done, they didn't want to have to deal with paying them and giving them promised citizenship so they took the immigrants out to the middle of the lake and tied them together in big groups and weighed them down and dumped them in.

"So the rumor states that not only are there hundreds of people down there all tied together but they are perfectly preserved because of the cold temperatures. It has been said that some independent filmmaker got ahold of some deep sea diving machine and found where all these people were at and went down to see for himself so he could film a documentary on it. When he came back up, he said he would not film it because the world was not ready to see what the U.S government did to these poor people."

Other versions name the filmmaker as Jacques Cousteau, who is reported to have said "the world is not ready" for what is down there or, alternately, "a stop was quickly put on the mission by some powerful people."

Former Nevada state historian Guy Rocha wrote in 2006 in the Reno Gazette-Journal:

"The truth is that Philippe Cousteau, Jacques' grandson, visited Lake Tahoe in April 2002, but there is no record of Jacques seeing the jewel of the Sierra, much less his being involved in an underwater expedition."

Stephen Drew, retired chief curator for the California State Railroad Museum, says, "I don't believe there is any credence in the rumor you are trying to track down -- in fact, far from it."

He points out that the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 and "Surviving photographic documentation and (Central Pacific Railroad) Chinese payrolls confirm that large numbers of Chinese were still on the CPRR payrolls as successful track workers well into the 1870s."

In other words, if the railroad companies were killing off Chinese workers by the hundreds to avoid paying them, it's unlikely so many would still be working for them after construction was finished.

McLaughlin also finds this rumor preposterous. He points out that the railroads were happy to pay the Chinese laborers because "they were a reliable workforce, so why alienate them? Even if it was just three or four guys you didn't pay, that (news) would ripple through the workforce."

But McLaughlin has another reason for dismissing the rumor.

"If you've got Chinese working on the construction of your railroad up around Truckee near the pass, why take them all the way to Lake Tahoe?" he asked. "Why not take them to Donner Lake, which is much closer? It's deep, it's cold, it's hard to recover a body from."

In "The Godfather 2," a character is killed on Lake Tahoe and dumped overboard. Is that where the rumor comes from?

Chinese immigrants in Truckee were targeted by the 601 vigilante group and the Caucasian League. Fires were set, and the Chinese were told to leave on their own or they would be shipped out in boxcars. Is this railroad link the inspiration for the Tahoe tale of murder?

Hard to tell, but if hundreds of bodies are down there, no one has found them -- despite the huge money-making possibilities from such a historic find.

What Happens to Old Stations?

The Antarctic Treaty states that any country wishing to discontinue their presence in Antarctica must officially remove all structures from their designated territories and return the land to its original conditions. Many of these stations have been well established in Antarctica for many years, making their complete removal extremely expensive and logistically difficult. Instead of permanently closing their doors and tearing down their structures, most countries choose to keep their stations open, but substantially cut their staff back. With only a few other people around to keep you company, winters in Antarctica can be particularly lonely in some of these stations.


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