by Gavin Menzies
Publisher: William Morrow
Pub. Date: January 2003
If Gavin Menzies is right in the claims made in his new work of speculative history, the entire course of modern civilization could have been changed. Like the famous Bradbury story in which the death of a butterfly affects the development of mankind, things would have been different. With a subtle shift in politics, a greater aggressive nature among the commanders of Chinese exploration fleets, or simply a more profound stubbornness on the part of its crew, much of North America could be a Chinese colony today. Menzies asserts that the massive junks that set forth from a naval base outside Beijing in 1421 "discovered" the continent seventy years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan.
Unfortunately, "1421" would itself have worked better as historical fiction or at best, a speculative account told with less dramatic authority by Menzies, a former submarine captain who dabbles more in cartography than in research and whose keen appreciation for things Chinese has perhaps bent his particular worldview. Menzies claims through rather dodgy historical correlation that not only did the Chinese discover the so-called "new world," but in fact established colonies in the Caribbean, desalinated water and laid the groundwork for more comfortable western names like Columbus and the European explorers.
He also credits much of his expertise to his sea-level view as well as his travels throughout China and the Far East. His modern-day observations are sound and his personal anecdotes are in fact more engaging at times than his descriptions of the long-lost empire. However, it becomes a bit of a schizophrenic experience trying to follow the author's many ideas which are tossed out somewhat randomly and seldom summarized. It's a fat volume at over 400 pages of text alone (never mind nearly 100 pages of badly footnoted appendices), making "1421" a challenge to sift through thoroughly.
Despite these criticisms, as a more incomplete read for the Tom Clancy crowd, "1421" is sure to draw fans of naval warfare. Menzies' descriptions of an exotic flotilla of Chinese ships are thrilling to imagine and the sheer level of technology developed by the Chinese Empire is daunting. At this level, it is a dramatic if immature look at a lost world and an interesting travelogue by a modern-day voyager but it is also a biased elevation of a culture that needs no such assistance. For the open-minded, it's a compelling argument but a nation that built the Great Wall can surely stand on its own merits.