Jason Pettus's Reviews > 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance

1434 by Gavin Menzies
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's review
Jul 28, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: contemporary, history, nonfiction, far-asia, npr-worthy
Read in July, 2008

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

We Westerners are of course familiar with the historical period known as the Renaissance; taking place between the 1300s and 1600s, it's the period when Europeans finally crawled out of their Dark-Age hole, rediscovered such ancient Greek concepts as science and philosophy, and started doing such things for the first time as sailing to the far corners of the planet. But did you know that China as well went through its own brief Renaissance at the same time, actually sailing around the planet on a regular basis a full 50 years before the Europeans started doing so, and that it was the maps and tips these Chinese gave to the Europeans that allowed the great figures from the "Age of Discovery" to make their voyages in the first place? Well, okay, so not everyone completely agrees with this theory; but it's the surprisingly strong one being espoused in the books 1421: The Year China Discovered America and 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, both of them by a retired British naval commander named Gavin Menzies, a hobbyist scholar who just happened to start stumbling across more and more evidence during his studies to support the theory mentioned above. See, the whole thing is problematic, because the Chinese actually went through a major period of isolationism right after this brief period of world-traveling, specifically as a overreaction to Ghengis Khan and his Mongol Hoard, which had actually held and ruled China all the way up to the beginning of the 1400s, or in other words the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in that country.

According to well-known history, the Chinese were so set on turning inwards at this point, they actually destroyed most of their own records regarding their globetrotting sea voyages from this period, just so no one else would be tempted to make such trips again; according to Menzies, he has slowly been putting the pieces back together through shreds of evidence in other countries, stone markers and rescued scrolls and the like, revealing that the Ming Dynasty's own period of global seafaring was actually much larger than any of us have ever realized, a systematic series of successes that would've virtually guaranteed China's eventual world domination, if they had simply stuck with it instead of embarking on a four-hundred-year period of profound isolationism like they actually did. It's certainly an intriguing theory, and Menzies does a pretty credible job backing it up; these are giant thick books we're talking about (over a thousand pages altogether), just chock-full of evidence both direct and circumstantial. Combine this, then, with Menzies' tech-savvy prose concerning the problems of map-drawing and chart-creating in that period, which is why certain documents from that period need to be widened or narrowed in Photoshop before they'll actually line up with real coastlines; it's just one of the dozens of little issues and problems with all this old evidence, he argues, that prevented it from being all added together by anyone else before now. (See, one of the things Menzies did while in the navy was actually sail the ancient Chinese routes talked about in these books; he therefore has an expert's understanding on what these routes must've been like for the original Chinese sailors, and can thus explain the inconsistencies in the maps and charts they left behind.)

These were great reads, books that really crank the gears of the mind into action (why, just the descriptions of a glittering, wealthy Southeast Asia in the 1400s is worth the cover price alone); I'll warn you, though, that these are denser books than the usual airport and beach reads, not exactly academic in complexity but definitely stories you need to pay careful attention to while reading. That said, they both get a big recommendation from me, especially for the growing amount of people in the western half of the world who are becoming more and more curious these days about the mysterious history of the eastern half.

Out of 10: 9.3
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message 4: by Harvee (last edited Jul 18, 2009 11:56AM) (new)

Harvee I guess Heather Terrell based her recent historical novel, THE MAP THIEF, on the same premise - that the Europeans got their information from a map of the New World that originally came from the Chinese. Interesting book! http://bookbirddog.blogspot.com/searc... (scroll down to the Map Thief review)

message 3: by Ray (new)

Ray Yes, how popular it is today to credit everything under the sun to the mighty and noble Chinese! A few decades ago, everything in America was the result of African influences. I guess when the Chinese landed in Italy, the poor paisanos had fields of wild wheat and did not know what to do with it. The oh so wise Chinese told them, "make noodles!" And now we have spaghetti! Walla! Good grief.

message 2: by Badger (new)

Badger I just finished reading 1421. One thing I don't get about the thesis of 1434 is I thought the Chinese stopped world voyages after 1423. How did they go to Italy in 1434 then?

Peter Unfortunately for Menzies, No canal between the Red Sea and the nile in the 15th century. For the truth about Admiral Zheng He without Menzies fantasies, read the below article. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm...

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