One of the books recommended to me for my China trip preparation is 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies. 316 people gave it an average of 3.5 stars on Amazon.
3.5 stars is about right. It was a fun read, but not particularly persuasive.
In 1421, a very fleet set sail from China. Its mission, according to Menzies, was “to proceed all the way to the ends of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas” and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony.
When they returned several years later, China had changed. The emperor was dead and China was in chaos. China turned inwards and the ships were left to decay. Records of the journeys were destroyed.
Menzies believes the ships traveled the entire globe: up and down the coast of the America’s, the Antarctic, the Arctic, everywhere. The evidence, he says, is “incontrovertible.” I think it is circumstantial.
He suggests that the fleets separated at several points and followed the prevailing winds. Then he cites evidence that is hardly conclusive. For example, there is a tower in Rhode Island for which the builder is unknown. Menzies writes that it is on the course of the trade winds and that it has Chinese measurements. What he omits is that the structure has undoubtedly settled over the centuries and there is no way to know what units of measure were used originally. Could it be of Chinese origin? Sure, anything is possible. But it is hardly likely.
So why was this of interest prior to a cleantech mission to China? There are several takeaways:
- China is certainly is and was capable of doing great things.
- China, in many ways, was far more advanced than the West in 1421.
- Important Chinese policy turned very, very quickly at the end of the reign of the emperor and in response to dire internal circumstances.
- China’s trade focus has changed radically and quickly in the past.
This was a fun read. If someone asks me what to read before a trip to China, this won’t make my recommendation list.