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November 8, 2009

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Controversy on the high seas

AUTHOR Gavin Menzies' theory that the Chinese discovered the New World decades before European explorers has drawn mostly scorn from historians. Nancy Zhang reports on the seagoing tale. In person and on paper, author Gavin Menzies is a riveting storyteller.

With light blue eyes reminiscent of the sea, this former British submarine captain tells of ancient Chinese maritime maps, secret Portuguese voyages, and mysterious references in the diaries of famous explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus.

Twenty years of seafaring experience is written into his white haired form, and into his books. In 2002 Menzies published the international best-seller "1421: The Year China Discovered the World."

The book proposed a revolutionary theory that Admiral Zheng He set sail from China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and that his fleet discovered America decades before Columbus.

Despite reader popularity, the book's sensational claims got him into trouble with the academic world. Last year with his second book "1434," Menzies again caused waves with a theory that it was the Chinese who sparked the Renaissance.

"I was just really lucky to hit upon a true story. All these theories already existed amongst some historians, it's just that they were sidelined and didn't have a good publisher," he told Shanghai Daily on a recent visit here for a talk at Concordia International School Shanghai.

Looking frail for his 70 years, the polite Englishman is an unlikely historical upstart. Menzies left school at 15 with no academic qualifications and had no experience in writing books or historical research. He only began writing as a hobby after retiring from the British Navy in 1970.

His first attempt at writing sprawled over 10 years and a proliferation of subjects, unrelated to discovering continents.

The China connection began in the 1930s when Menzies' father, also a submarine captain, was stationed at the port city of Weihai in Shandong Province. He brought his family, including then three-week-old Gavin, to live there for two years.

Even after returning to London, they had a Chinese "amah" or housekeeper for five years who taught Chinese to Menzies.

As an adult, traces of China all but disappeared from Menzies' life, and he is unsure what influence remained from this early contact. But half a century later in 1990, he returned to China for a holiday.

It was in Beijing that he became obsessed with the year 1421. While standing in awe of the Forbidden City, a tour guide mentioned that the palace was finished in this year and that the then Ming emperor hosted a lavish banquet.

Most tourists would have forgotten this bit of trivia, but Menzies promptly decided to devote himself to researching the differences between Ming China and Medieval England.

"I compared the inauguration of the Forbidden City to the wedding of Henry V and Catherine of Valois. I found that China had 26,000 guests and 10 courses eaten off magnificent plates. England had 600 guests and were too poor to have plates - they had one course of dried fish eaten off a piece of bread."

But his first attempt at a book was not a success. While writing about the year 1421, a coincidence linking China, the year and his maritime experiences completely changed his focus.

While doing research, Menzies came upon a map in the University of Minnesota library. The Pizzigano Map was made in 1424, before Columbus' voyages in the 1490s. Yet when Menzies saw it, a cluster of islands immediately caught the navy veteran's eye.

"Here were the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe, some 70 years before they were meant to have been discovered. I thought this was staggering."

Menzies suddenly had a compelling theory and the seeds for "1421." He rewrote everything and began traveling the globe to gather what he saw as mounting evidence that China discovered the New World before the Europeans.

He found more maps with unexplained information, such as those of the secret Portuguese voyages that showed the whole world.

His wife provided hundreds of thousands of pounds for his research, and the final version of "1421" was finished in just two years.

But neither he nor his publisher knew it would sell so well, or garner so much backlash.

Historian Robert Finlay in the "Journal of World History" criticized Menzies for his "reckless manner of dealing with evidence" that led him to propose hypotheses "without a shred of proof." He further added that "textbooks on that history need not be rewritten."

"I was amazed at the vitriol of the academic response. Historians won't publish something like this because it crosses too many disciplines. They're mainly interested in what other historians think and don't like to upset each other's patch," Menzies countered.

For Menzies the best counter argument is the continued popularity of the books, which sell in the thousands every time criticism is renewed. He is unreservedly proud of the commercial success of the books, counting on people power to discount critics.

"All these people would not believe me if it were not true. They're not stupid."

His second book, "1434," uses the power of his readers to counter criticism. Connecting his readers across the world via his Website, he says new evidence is pouring in every day. His North London home has been transformed into an office employing four graduates to sort through the research.

One controversial map published in Menzies' second book was found by a Chinese reader. According to Menzies, lawyer Liu Gang did not realize what he had in the map until he read a Chinese version of "1421" by chance in late 2005.

The 18th-century map is claimed to be a copy of a 1418 map which shows the Americas.

"When he wrote about it to Chinese historians, they ignored him," said Menzies.

But when asked if he has opened up history for wider participation, Menzies is evasive, preferring to give credit to others, especially non-mainstream academics who support his theory. He defines his office and Website as, "a center of world historical exploration."

On the subject of the book's reception in China, the picture also becomes murky. One would expect it to be popular, but Menzies says the theories also go against the mainstream here.

On top of this, piracy issues mean he has no accurate reports of book sales in this country, though a recent CCTV documentary on the book was well received.

The greatest pleasure that success has given him, he says, is being able to repay his wife for the money she loaned on blind faith on his hunches and adventures.

But instead of sitting back on his laurels and retiring, he is continuing to delve into this controversy.

"For my next step I plan to go back even further in history, where there's more evidence of large-scale Chinese settlers. There is even evidence of an unknown European civilization that found America before the Chinese - but that's another story for another day."


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