Early 17th-century Chinese woodblock print, thought to represent Zheng He's ships

1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies.

Originally posted at Language Log reproduced here with permission

The thesis of 1421 is that in the years 1421-1423 a Chinese fleet commanded by admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the globe, along the way visiting the Americas and Australia. That this expedition took place is a matter of record, well known to historians. You can read about it in Louise Levathes’ book When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433. It is undisputed that the Chinese reached as far as East Africa. What is new and controversial is whether they reached West Africa, the Americas, Antarctica, and Australia. Either way, it would make a great movie.

Reviews have been mixed. The New York Times was critical, as were The Asian Review of Books and Publisher’s Weekly, but other publications, such as the Salt Lake Tribune, Science News, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Asian Reporter have been positive. Nonetheless, 1421 has been a major commercial success. Published in January, 2003 in hardcover by HarperCollins, a major publisher, it immediately reached the New York Times best-seller list. The paperback edition is currently number 23 in the paperback non-fiction category. It has been translated into a dozen languages. Menzies spoke at the National Press Club, the Asia Society, and Stanford University. A documentary is reported to be forthcoming. According to Library Journal, nearly 50 companies bid for the television rights. The book has its own website, with an exotic Tuvalu top-level domain, which is supposed to provide detailed documentation for the claims made in the book as well as additional evidence turned up after publication.

The focus of the book is on pre-Columbian maps that allegedly show places that could not have been known to Europeans at the time. According to Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine commander, the information could only have come from Chinese maps. Most historians evidently don’t find his argument convincing. In addition, he cites a variety of other sorts of evidence, some of it linguistic, which is what I’ll comment on.

The first linguistic point raised in the book (p. 104) concerns an inscription found in the Cape Verde islands off the West coast of Africa, which Menzies attributes to Zheng He. Unable to identify the writing system, he wonders whether it is an Indian writing system and faxes a query to the Bank of India, which informs him that it is Malayalam. Unfamiliar with Malayalam, he asks where it was spoken and whether it was in use in the 15th century. According to Menzies, the Bank of India responded as follows:

Yes, it had been in common use since the ninth century. It has largely ceased to be spoken today, though it is still used in a few outlying coastal districts on the Malabar coast.

In fact, Malayalam is spoken by over 35 million people. It doesn’t seem likely that the Bank of India was unaware of the principal language of Kerala State, one of the national languages specified in Schedule Eight of the Constitution of India. Maybe they were pulling Menzies’ leg, or maybe he just can’t get his facts straight. Whatever the problem may have been, this exemplifies his peculiar approach to research and the failure of his publisher to perform the most elementary fact checking. It’s not like this is obscure information known only to specialists, available only at secret annual cabals. If you want basic information about a language, such as where it is spoken and by how many people, all you have to do is check the Ethnologue. If you don’t know to do that, a Google search for “Malayalam language” produces 185,000 hits. For those without internet access, Malayalam will be found in any encyclopaedia.

Assuming that there is an inscription in Malayalam in the Cape Verde Islands, what does this tell us about Zheng He’s voyage? Is there evidence that it dates to the 1420s? Whenever it was made, isn’t the most likely hypothesis that an Indian made it? The content of the inscription might shed light on this, but although much is made of the writing system, we never find out what it says!

Moving on, at p. 226 we read:

Until the late nineteenth century, villagers in a mountain village of Peru spoke Chinese.

Even if this is true, this hardly demonstrates pre-Columbian contact between China and Peru. These Chinese-speakers could be the result of immigration to Peru in the nearly four-hundred years since the Spanish conquest.

Menzies continues:

There is also linguistic evidence of Chinese visits to South America. A sailing ship is chamban in Colombia, sampan in China; a raft, balsa in South America and palso in China; a log raft, jangada in Brazil, ziangada in Tamil.

We aren’t told which of the 98 languages of Colombia, the 234 languages of Brazil, or the roughly 700 of South America as a whole, these words come from. In any case, isolated similarities like these are meaningless; it is easy to find a few words similar in sound and meaning in any two languages. At least two of the three examples here are wrong. You’d think that a Royal Navy man would know that a sampan is not a sailing ship; it is a small boat usually propelled by two oars. There is no Chinese word palso meaning “raft”; no Chinese syllable ends in /l/. And even if the pair of words for “log raft” are correct and their resemblance is not accidental, how would this prove contact between China and Brazil? Menzies is apparently assuming that the only way a Tamil word could get to Brazil is via Zheng He’s fleet, and that it is likely that Brazilians would borrow a word for something with which they were no doubt already familiar from the tiny minority of Tamil speakers who might have accompanied the Chinese fleet.

[Update (2004/02/03): Kevin Ryan has pointed out that the Tamil form ziangada is also spurious. It is phonologically impossible since Tamil has no [z] sound and since the retroflex approximant sometimes romanized (Tamil ழ) cannot appear in initial position. When I asked them about this form, Dravidianist Harold Schiffman agreed with Ryan, and Tamil scholar and native speaker Vasu Renganathan said that he knew no such word.]

Menzies gives further evidence of contact between China and the New World on p. 414: ‘ ‘

Like the Waldseemüller chart, another map of Vancouver Island, called ‘colonie chinois’ by its Venetian cartographer, Antonio Zatta, was published before Vancouver or Cook ‘discovered’ the island. The Squamish Indians there have more than forty words in common with Chinese, including tsil (wet), also tsil in Chinese; chi (wood), which is chin in Chinese; and tsu (grandmother), which is etsu.

Menzies does not give the other 37 putatively similar words in Chinese and Squamish, nor does he cite sources for the Chinese and Squamish words. The fact that he is wrong about where the Squamish live (their territory is on the mainland of British Columbia, just north of the city of Vancouver, not on Vancouver Island) does not give confidence in his data. In any case, the examples that he does provide are dubious. Not one of the three words claimed to be Chinese is identifiable as Chinese.

The additional evidence to be found on the website isn’t any better. Here’s a doozy:

Linguistic groups – The Chinese, Basque and Navajo languages all belong to the Dene-Caucasian language group. Could this be coincidence, or could the fact that Zheng He’s fleets visited all of these areas have resulted in such a linguistic distribution?

To begin with, the hypothesis that Basque, the North Caucasian languages, the Sino-Tibetan languages (which include Chinese), and the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit languages (which include Navajo), form a language family is not generally accepted by historical linguists. The evidence for it is very weak. But supposing they do, what could Menzies be arguing here? Does he think that Navajo and the other AET languages are the descendants of Chinese brought to North America in the 15th century? To anyone familiar with both Chinese and Athabskan, it is extremely implausible that Chinese could have been so transformed in only a few hundred years, or could have differentiated into more than forty diverse languages ranging from the Southwestern United States to Alaska. And where do Basque and North Caucasian fit in? Does he really think that Basque and the North Caucasian languages only reached their current locations in the 1420s?

Here’s one more gem from the web site:

American Indian names which are Chinese (Martin Tai)
Columbus’ arrival: met Indians = Yin dian (people from Yin [China])
Pizarro: Inca = Yin ka (people who live in Yin)
Vancouver: Inuit = Yin uit (people originating in Yin)

Here again it takes some effort to work out exactly what argument he intends to make. It seems to go like this:

  • /yin/ is a Chinese word meaning “China”
  • Several native American peoples call themselves by names containing /yin/
  • These peoples would have adopted as their own name the Chinese visitors’ name for themselves

To begin with, I am unable to identify /yin/ as a Chinese word meaning “Chinese”. The closest I can come is /yen/, the old name for the Beijing area. But surely people from all over China identified themselves as coming from China, not Beijing. Second, Menzies offers no account of the second part of each word, the residue after removing (y)in. None of the three make sense as Chinese. Third, it seems highly unlikely that people would adopt as their own ethnonym the name of foreign visitors. Finally, there are problems with each of the individual examples:

  • The word Indian is not the term by which the people first encountered by Columbus, the Taino, called themselves. It is a term that the Spanish applied to the inhabitants of the Americas, which they initially believed to be part of Asia.
  • The Inca did not call themselves Inka. In their language, Quechua, inka means “ruler, person of royal lineage”.
  • As for Inuit, this is the plural of inuk. The /k/ is an inherent part of the word. Here is an extract from the entry in the Comparative Eskimo Dictionary With Aleut Cognates by Michael Fortescue, Steven Jacobson, and Larry Kaplan published in 1994 by the Alaska Native Language Center, p. 137:
PE [proto-Eskimoan] iŋu or inu ‘human being’ … this base, the orginal Eskimo ethnonym, is everywhere attested also in the senses ‘resident spirit’, ‘core of boil’ and ‘chick in egg’; cf. also perhaps Aleut iŋisxi-X ‘owner’, …Menzies’ decomposition into /yin/ and /uit/ is incorrect.

The linguistic “evidence” in 1421 is a joke. It’s sad that a major publisher obviously didn’t do even the most elementary fact-checking or have the manuscript read by people competent to evaluate it, but it is worse that such nonsense has become a best-seller and is soon to be made into a documentary. What I want to know is, are the purveyors of this tripe incompetent? Or do they simply not care about the truth of their “non-fiction”?

[Update (2004/02/03): David Nash has brought two recent news items to my attention. There is a skeptical piece by Ken Ringle in the Washington Post of 12 January 2004 (p. C01). It reports that Menzies defended his work by pointing to the fact that:

…last October, Chinese President Hu Jintao told the Australian Parliament in Canberra that Ming Dynasty explorers had discovered Australia in the 1420s.

[update (2004/02/06): Courtesy of David Nash, here is the relevant passage from President Hu’s address on Friday, 24 October 2003 to the Joint Meeting of the House and Senate of the Australian Parliament, as recorded in the Hansard at page 21,697, available here and here [PDF file].

Though located in different hemispheres and separated by high seas, the people of China and Australia enjoy a friendly exchange that dates back centuries. The Chinese people have all along cherished amicable feelings about the Australian people. Back in the 1420s, the expeditionary fleets of China’s Ming dynasty reached Australian shores. For centuries, the Chinese sailed across vast seas and settled down in what was called ‘the southern land’, or today’s Australia.]

A politician’s endorsement doesn’t carry any weight in my book. Indeed, I think that this is rather disturbing. A Chinese invasion of Australia does not seem imminent, but this exemplifies the sort of real world trouble that claims like this can cause. It’s best that they be based on real evidence. It is also worth pointing out that even if Zheng He visited Australia in the 1420s, he couldn’t have “discovered” it; Australia had already been inhabited for at least forty thousand years.

The Contra Costa Times of 25 January 2004 reports that Menzies will not be going ahead with a dig to find a purported Chinese junk in Glenn County, California due to the insistence of one of the three landowners involved that he receive all television revenues that may result from the dig. The article contains a skeptical statement by Chico State University archaeologist Greg White.]