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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 26 October 2011
Zheng He was a Chinese admiral during the Ming dynasty, and he seems to have gone along the usual trade routes from China to East Africa that had been established long before his birth. Indian Ocean trade is one of the most fascinating aspects of globalisation before the modern era, and there's a joint Oxford-Cambridge multi-year project devoted to studying it, called SEALINKS. Such trade is extremely ancient, and antedates recorded history. Cinnamon, a spice from Indonesia, is recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. How did it get there? Through the routes that Zheng He eventually travelled. Treasure ships containing Arab, Indian, east African, Chinese, and Javanese goods are not so rare, and can be found centuries before the Ming dynasty. The Siren of Cirebon wreck in the Java Sea is a good example of that.

What is unusual about Zheng He is that he travelled the entire route himself, rather than journeying to Sumatera or Java to acquire goods from Africa and India or simply waiting in China for ships from Indonesia, as was the norm. This is an immense journey, although to put it in context, European sailors within the same century travelled much greater distances around Africa. Africa had also been visited and settled from the east thousands of years before Zheng He; the population of Madagascar is the result of a fusion of African and Bornean settlers, for instance. Zheng He's accomplishments weren't, therefore, entirely without precedent, and even within China there had been great explorers as far back as the Han dynasty. Xuanzang, the Tang dynasty monk, was one such explorer, one who fortunately left us with accounts of his travels.

Zheng He nonetheless travelled in a single bound the routes normally traversed by relays of traders, and this is a great achievement - a uniting achievement, one that contributed to the globalisation of our world.

That is the true story of Zheng He.

Menzies, however, presents an almost entirely fictional account, on a par with von Daeniken's ancient astronauts or whatever other pseudo-historical garbage you can name. This book cannot be recommended. That it stands on bookshelves in reputable bookshops as the flagship book on Chinese history, and that it is treated as reasonable by many people, is a travesty. Zheng He's fleets did not visit America, or Australia (although it is certainly true that sailors from Makassar were in contact with Australian peoples before the arrival of Europeans). They did not inspire Cholulan pottery or Aztec civilization. These are simply fictions, I'm afraid, and no real evidence can be found for them. Please do not buy this book, or any of Menzies' other rambling creations. Menzies, by the way, is reputed to be an appalling writer, and this book was, if I recall correctly, written by about 103 separate people, each contributing to reforming a poorly-written general outline by Menzies. That this even exists, and was not turned away as a ridiculous pseudo-scientific vanity project by the publisher, is astounding to me.

I implore you not to buy it.
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49 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on 10 August 2009
The central argument in this book is that huge Chinese fleets charted pretty much the whole world in 1421-3, and their maps guided the European explorers, from Columbus to Cook.

The most interesting and credible material in this book (p. 382-7) is for the most part identical word for word to a 1977 article in the Geographical Journal, Vol 143, No 3, p 451-9. Menzies does not credit the source, mind you. Read the original rather than Menzies corrupted version. You can find it on the web too. Search for Martellus world maps by Arthur Davies. It presents a convincing argument that the Columbus brothers faked a map to dupe the King and Queen of Spain into funding their project to sail west to Asia.

The rest of the book is nonsense. Menzies is not even consistent. For instance, he claims that the 1513 Piri Reis map shows the coast of Patagonia "with great accuracy," providing evidence that the Chinese had charted it before Magellan got there (p. 116). But on p. 377 he says (rightly) that the latitudes of the Orinoco and Amazon deltas on the 1513 Piri Reis map "are precisely correct," which places the Amazon delta on the coast he had identified as Patagonia! The two regions are on opposite ends of South America! Too make his case appear plausible, Menzies only shows a bit of the Piri Reis map, but when you see the whole map it becomes obvious he is placing Patagonia in the tropics! The whole map is in the colour plates between pages 200 and 201, but he does not refer to it.

Menzies reasoning and standards of proof are amazing. For instance he identifies the Satanazes Island on the 1424 Pizzigano map as the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe (p. 246-9), meaning again that the Chinese had charted it. Now Satanazes is rectangular whereas Guadeloupe looks a bit like a butterfly! To explain away the differences Menzies has his Chinese fleet sailing back and forth around one wing of the butterfly without ever catching sight of the other wing! But the rectangle still does not look like a wing (check out p 249). So Menzies has his Chinese hindered by darkness at night or blinding sunlight during the day or some other lame excuse, and in the end he has the nerve to assert that the island was charted accurately! And he does not tell the reader at this stage that he is shrinking Satanazes by a factor of seven, turning it upside down, and dragging it some 4,500 km across the Atlantic, from a place some 1,500 km northwest of Portugal on the Pizzigano map to the Caribbean where Guadeloupe is! I'm not kidding. As with Patagonia, he shows a bit of the map only, so you don't see where or how big Satanazes is. You can find the whole map in the plates between pages 296 and 297, but again he does not refer to it. You can get the map on the web too.

These are not isolated examples. Throughout the whole book Menzies misrepresents sources and facts, draws illogical conclusions from doubtful evidence, and makes bare assertions based on no evidence. If you want more examples look at an excellent online review, "Gavin's Fantasy Land" by Bill Hartz.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 25 October 2007
Not bad as cartographic history and the main thesis is certainly intriguing, despite some tenuous evidence. Unfortunately this book really loses the plot when it reaches the purported voyage around north Greenland. First we are told that the north pole was much closer in 1421 and the Chinese may well have got there centuries before westerners, but the book is (deliberately?) vague about just which "pole". The goal of modern explorers has almost invariably been the geographic north pole which is in the same place now as it was in 1421; the celestial north pole does precess but not much, while the magnetic north pole shifts a lot. As a former submariner the author really should be more careful. But there's worse, much worse, to come. We are told that strontium 90 in ice cores reveals a warmer climate at the time. RUBBISH! - strontium 90 is an entirely man-made isotope of strontium that first entered into the environment via atomic bomb tests in the 1940's. Of course this "evidence" fails the first hurdle of scientific credibility because there is simply no reference to its source, either in the book or on the 1421 web-site. If strontium 90 is indeed found in those ice cores only two conclusions are possible - either the ice core dating is wrong or somebody in 1421 had the atom bomb! Mr Menzies would no doubt choose the latter !
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 28 August 2011
There has been a vogue in recent years for books devoted to the events of one year - for example, 1066 and 1415; and some of these are very good. This book is not one of those: it is not a detailed account of events, but an overly long exposition of the author's far-fetched pet theory that the Chinese circumnavigated the globe in 1421, a century before Magellan's well-attested voyage. By the way, they did it in outsize junks.

You might think that, if the Chinese had done this, we would have heard about it before now; but the lack of hard evidence does not appear to trouble Mr Menzies. He is content to rely on (1) A Chinese account that a fleet set off to circumnavigate; (2) dubious archaeological and anthropological evidence in several Continents, which appear to suggest that strangers turned up there around the years 1421-3, and some of them stayed on; and (3) his gut feeling, as an ex-submariner, that such a voyage would have been possible.

None of this evidence stands up to scrutiny for a moment; but it satisfies Menzies, who rather takes pride in the fact that he is not a historian, but a sailor, and can therefore see things that mere landlubbers cannot; but one has to ask how much experience as a submariner is worth when it comes to understanding a 500-foot fifteenth century Chinese junk, or for that matter the law of probability.

This book is not really history at all. It is travel-writing, disguised as history. It is also a demonstration of the fact that, in the modern world, it is not necessary for a book to have any merit, for it to become a bestseller.

Stephen Cooper
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 11 February 2010
It's after page 119 that this books goes from a thoughtful and fairly rigorous theory about Chinese exploration and lurches further and further into fantasy.

I think Gavin Menzies has done a real service giving the world a pretty robust idea that Chinese fleets did a huge amount of exploration of the world in the early 15th century. Up until page 119 he even has some solid written evidence of these fleets.

However after 119 he uses his own knowledge of currents combined with a plethora of other sciences he has dipped into to find out what happened next and this is unfortunately where is starts to go wrong. The Piri Reis map is by his own admission an amalgam of many other maps, this makes it a secondary or even tertiary source and yet he pours over it as if Zheng He himself drew it. You cannot dismiss errors and point to the tiniest detail as truth in the same source it is either flawed and needs to be treated with care or solid evidence and can then be examined in forensic detail, never both and yet he breaks that rule.

Then he starts going into genetics, anthropology, farming, art and physics- areas where even the experts all argue about the basics and yet he sweeps it up together and then declares this proves pretty much whatever he wants. Fundamentally there is a difference between what could have happened and what did happen. Saddam COULD have had WMDs but he didn't, the French COULD have won at Waterloo but didn't. The Chinese fleets COULD have done everything Gavin Menzies states but that doesn't mean that they did.

The theory is helped in that the areas explored have little or no indigenous written history so there's no one to counter his theory explicitly. However for his second book on a Chinese fleet kick starting the Renaissance in Italy is beyond absurd, if western Europe found Byzantium exotic and wrote in awe of any of their ambassadors then a Chinese fleet arriving would have gathered more than a few lines in the chronicles.

In short nice idea and at least it stops the Atlantis and aliens theories in their tracks but this is a curiosity that doesn't need 500 pages.

If you liked this there's more historical debate and fun at @HistoryGems on Facebook and Twitter
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 20 December 2008
Fascinating story, but it rapidly became clear as I worked through the book that Menzies is prepared to accept pretty much anything anyone tells him as "evidence". The story starts with the well documented and widely accepted story of Zheng He and the treasure fleets of the early Ming dynasty. These were remarkable vessels and their story, and the large amount of evidence behind it, is ably covered in "When China ruled the seas" by Louise Levathes. The difference between the two authors is that Levathes (mostly) restricts herself to what the evidence supports, while Menzies is happy to accept the flimsiest of conjectures as proof positive.

The actual evidence for Chinese voyages runs out at the eastern coast of Africa and on the Australian coast. But Menzies quite happily extrapolates beyond this. Evidence of Chinese genes and customs in parts of the US? Must have been the treasure fleet (never mind that there have been plenty of other historical contacts). A map purportedly showing the northern coast of Eurasia before it was charted by the Russians? Treasure fleet must have dunnit. A natural rock formation in the Bahamas bearing some visual resemblance to a built structure. Obviously the Chinese made it - based on nothing other than Menzies' claim that the formation has dimensions similar to the largest ships in the fleet.

Menzies is either extremely gullible, or he's taking his audience for a ride on the scale of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail". I wouldn't mind if it were an exhilarating ride, but it's rather long and tedious and just no fun at all. If you want alternative history, can I suggest Harry Turtledove or Michael Moorcock as rather more entertaining?
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2010
If you believe that space aliens founded Mesoamerican civilisation or that all world civilisation stems from the lost city of Atlantis, you'll love this book. The sad thing is this book starts off with an historically factual and interesting story - the voyages of Zheng He under the Ming emperor Zhou Di around the Indian Ocean in the early 15th century. It then moronically extrapolates these voyages to suggest that the Chinese discovered the New World. The first 3 chapters are sort of believable because essentially they are historically based. It's when Zheng He rounds the Cape of Good Hope and starts to cross the Atlantic that it starts to enter la-la land. Like all good conmen, Menzies starts off with the believable and factual and slowly draws us off into fantasy land. The sad thing about all these type of books is that real history is actually more interesting than this clap-trap.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 13 May 2009
As with so many books of this kind, Menzies' saga begins plausibly enough, rooted in real history. As it continues, it becomes gradually more incredible. I don't know whether this is - charitably - because he has a grand vision to which he has garnered any evidence he can or - less charitably - because he dreamt up a money-spinner and perpetrated an intellectual fraud.

Certainly, he's not above economy with the truth. Early editions apparently said that he was born in China, later corrected. His frequent assertions that his naval background gives him special insights are, equally, disingenuous. Many of these relate to ocean currents and prevailing winds which are, of course, easily researched in reference books or on the internet.

At the least, Menzies has followed a course of wild speculation which is unsupported by any substantial evidence. Initially, the idea that a Chinese vessel could have been blown round the Cape of Good Hope is far from implausible. One starts to get slightly uneasy as it sets up stones inscribed in Tamil (why?) in Africa and colonises South America with chickens. Then things start to get really peculiar. We're asked to believe that the Chinese picked up giant sloths (generally agreed to be long extinct) in Patagonia and took them to New Zealand (where needless to say, they have vanished without trace), en route visiting Antarctica and Australia.

If this seems (other than the giant sloths) to be just within the realms of possibility - after all, Australia could be reached quite easily from Indonesia - one's jaw drops when a voyage around the north of Greenland is described.

It looks as though Menzies has trawled the internet for anomaly sites and pressed every possible oddity into service. When we reached the Newport Tower, my reaction was, "Oh, no, not again." In a way it's a pity because there are some real mysteries here: the Piri Reis map, the Janela stone, the Tamil bell and the Korotangi bird. It's just that none of them are really explained by a Ming dynasty voyage, let alone support it. It's also these things that make me doubt the research story that Menzies tells; I don't believe he came upon them as he followed the imaginary voyages of Chinese admirals. I think he found them first.

All that said, it is a quite entertaining read. My favourite line: "I have many happy memories of that beautiful land [NZ] after taking my submarine there at Christmas in 1969", which sounds like a psychedelic camping trip.

1421 has been described as the epitome of "anti-orientalism", the reaction to the "triumph of the West" story, and it is. Menzies finishes with a contemplation of what the world would have been like if it had been opened up by cultured, tolerant Chinese instead of dastardly Europeans. Presumably the same cultured, tolerant Chinese of the middle ages who castrated children and buried the emperor's concubines alive? No people has a monopoly of good or evil.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 14 August 2010
Anyone thinking of buying this book would do well to do a quick search and see what academics and other naval historians have said about it beforehand. As Menzies seems to have almost no support in the academic community that should be bourne in mind.

I gave it an extra star as the first chapter did pique my interest in the Ming Dynasty.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2009
I have a basic principle, to read every book I start from cover to cover before drawing any conclusions. I have read many hundreds of books that way (I didn't count so it could be over a thousand), including quite a few academic volumes.

This book is the exception. The beginning was fun, esp the comparisons of medieval England with the goings on at the contemporary Chinese court. But once Menzies starts into his theory things start to become highly speculative. As with many pseudo science books, a few vague unsupported claims are made upon which the reasoning is founded, the conclusions of which later serve to support the initial assumptions. Reasoning in circles in other words, and not even well done or well written... I couldn't bear it and put the book away after the first half. To date this is the only book that made me do this.

However, I'm sure a lot a lovers of pseudo science will love this. Just beware this book belongs in that category...
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