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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Paperback Books

1421, The Year China Discovered America makes even relatively ancient history shine with the luster of adventure and amazement; The final part of Musicophilia covers both illusive connections and evocations that music brings to minds consumed by melancholia and the healing powers that music can have as the mind deals with loss and sorrow; A pre-Holiday review of three childrens books involving SWW's author Ferida Wolff


By Gavin Menzies 2002

Published by Harper Perennial; paperback, 650 pp

No wonder this book is touted as a bestseller. While it might not be everyone's cup of tea, it makes even relatively ancient history shine with the luster of adventure and amazement.

The fact that Menzies was a navigator in his career with the Royal Navy makes his assessments of the methods and maps of the 15th c. not only acceptable, but to a layperson, gospel. Few others would have been qualified to evaluate ancient maps, make the needed comparisons with modern ones, and explain how the Chinese navigators managed their incredible voyages.

The research involved with producing this encyclopedic narrative of reconstructed events is reminiscent of the days before the Internet. Menzies traveled and read and spoke to people all over the world as he assembled his arguments. The last 150 pages are the appendices, bibliography, and other notes that show his sources, explain the astronomical calculations and a little about how celestial navigation works, plus an index. A doctoral dissertation would not be much more carefully annotated.

Remarkably, as much of the written records succeeding emperors destroyed as much as they could find, both narrative and maps, when the power changed hands. Only fortunate accidents reconstructed enough documentary evidence to prove the incredible extent of the Chinese exploration of the world. This exploration was mostly unknown at the time, even to them, and entirely unknown to Europe.

Add intriguing facts as the dispersion of domestic fowl and unique architecture, linguistic and DNA traces that prove not only discovery, but at least brief colonization and the story gains credibility as it gains momentum.

Imagine junks (those broad-beamed vessels rigged with many square sails and equipped with huge rudders) so large that they could accommodate the personnel (including concubines), farm animals and pot-grown vegetables and fruits, and support both technical and medical infrastructure to sustain an entire fleet of vessels with crews that numbered in the many hundreds. The number and size of the ships, those sailing in them, the scale of the endeavors of these fleets, commanded by eunuchs who were the Emperor's most trusted henchmen, absolutely boggles the mind.

When parts of these fleets were wrecked in storms, they left behind not only archaeological evidence of their existence in unexpected places (like the Bahamas), but also verbal records. The Maori, Mexicans, and Cubans have stories that were passed to Europeans years later of men garbed like Chinese sailors and women wearing pantaloons like the concubines who must have landed and settled on their shores.

The projects that resulted in these astonishing accomplishments began with a determination to show the imperial strength of China, and to acquire treasure from the entire globe. The treasure fleets returned with envoys and plants as well as gold and gems. The thirst for further influence and domination led to more voyages, and the junks sailed ever farther from their starting points on the Asian mainland.

There is far too much information included to provide a prcis here. For lovers of adventure, techno-fiction, history, naval chronicles, this is a narrative that should not be missed. The black- and-white and color illustrations add greatly to the text, especially where they clarify confusing concepts, such as how the Chinese were able to navigate before longitude was available for their calculations south of the part of the world that permits a view of the North Star.

1421, The Year China Discovered America is a fascinating book, a tour de force of investigative journalism and history. Highly recommended.

Joan L. Cannon

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©2008 Joan L. Cannon for

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