14 February 2008

Refresher Course

Mr. Menzies keeps talking about all these explorers, and it's been quite some time since I studied them in school. Therefore, I am taking all the European explorers that he mentions in the introduction and putting them in chronological order, with the stuff that they "discovered."

1488 - Bartolomeu Dias (page 33) rounds the Cape of Good Hope (southern Africa)

1498 - Vasco da Gama (page 33) becomes first European to reach India by sea.

1492 - Christopher Columbus (page 33) arrives in the Bahamas. (The Encarta link is a pretty long bio on Columbus & has some fun information. It says that there was a reward for sighting land, nearly a year's pay, & that Columbus dishonestly pocketed it himself. This fits with Mr. Menzie's depiction of Columbus & his brother as crooks.)

OK, I'll be back to add more explorers later, as they come up.

12 February 2008

Interesting Tidbits

So, this second time through I'm planning to take the time to look up all the odd little bits that last time I wasn't sure what exactly what going on, but I wanted to know the story, so I just pressed on past it. Places I can't point to on the map, people and explorers that I'm unfamiliar with, that sort of thing. So here goes.

The first one is this cartographer, Zuane Pizzigano. So I googled him. The very first hit was this odd Mysteriuos World site that I'm not entirely sure that I trust. But they did say that his map is available for folks to go look at at the University where Mr. Menzies originally found it. It's not terribly far from here, maybe the next time Andy gets sent there for business I'll tag along and see if I can't see the map. But this site seems a bit ... off ... to me.

Here's an actual copy of the 1424 map, found on the 1421 website. That's pretty interesting, although it's a little small.

Here's an interesting (if a little long) article about the 1424 map. Looks like it was written well before our book, but one of the things that they mention at the end of the article is that you'd have to outline what voyage made landfall on "Antilia." But apparently Portuguese children are taught a different story of the discovery of the Americas.

Oh, hey, this is interesting. I looks like notes from a presentation that Mr. Menzie did at some point. Mr. Menzie & his buddies think the Chinese were a major factor in kicking off the Renaissance. Not that they say it in so many words, but the contributions they're crediting to the Chinese are things that contributed significantly to the flowering of knowledge and technology that became the Renaissance. Things like movable type and calculating latitude. Makes me wish that I could go to some of the sessions that he's talking about these other men presenting.

Here's another one, that starts out quite hostile to Mr. Menzies right from the get-go. It's a 39 page .pdf, so bring some hot chocolate and some cookies. However, be warned that the author of the paper is rather unfriendly to Mr. Menzies, preferring an Aribic-Islamic theory of the discovery of the world. It's not a pleasant read at all, but it does answer one question I had about Mr. Menzies's theory: he seems to discount the Arabs pretty early on as incapable, but I'd always thought that they were the folks that gifted us with the concept of "zero" among other important things, and it seemed odd that they should be so casually brushed aside. So it's somewhat comforting to discover that there are other theories out there. It also further muddies the water. I have come to the conclusion that we basically have No Idea who got to the Americas "first."

Anyway, back to 1421. (Although I still know little to nothing about this Zuane Pizzigano guy.)

Ming China

So, learning history is much much easier when you have a story to hang it all on, and reading this has made me much more interested in the stuff that my Asian history class tried to teach me in college. Back then I couldn't remember names or places or keep the one separate from the other in my mind. It was just a big mish-mash. But now that I've got some story to hang the various parts and pieces on, I find that the history makes a lot more sense. Here's a bit from my old text book, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations.

The very early Ming was a period of vigorous Chinese military resurgence after the period of Mongol domination. The founder of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanshang ... (Mentioned on page 45 of 1421 - he's Zhu Di's rags-to-riches father.) For his era name he chose Hongwu, which means "grand military achievement," and his military accomplishments were certainly impressive. By the end of his reign, the Ming had won control of all China and dominated th frontier region from Hami, in Zinjang, north through Inner Mongolia and into northern Manchuria. (Here's a map of Ming China.) Beyond that, the Ming had won the subjugation of Korea as well as various Central and Southeastern Asian states which sent tribute. Chengzu, the third Ming emperor, often referred to by his reigh name, Yongle, continued his father's expansionist policy, leading five expeditions against teh Mongols, intervening in Annam and then incorporating it into the empire, and sending out great maritime expeditions, which established China as a naval power. (According to our Mr. Menzie, Zhu Di was 3rd Ming emporer, let me see if I can find any information about these 2 people. Ah, yes. Wikipedia and this other site will be happy to tell you about it.) The early Ming was thus a period of vigorous Chinese military resurgence coming after the period of Mongol domination.

(The father; no wonder I had such a hard time... in addition to each ruler having a fistful of names, the book is very equal-opportunity in using them all!) was a harsh and autocratic ruler. The position of Chancellor was abolished, and ministers now had to kneel in front of the emperor whereas in the Song (a previous dynasty) they had stood and in the Tang they had sat in the imperial presence. Taizu insisted on deciding personally even matters of secondary importance. A very hard worker, he went through stacks of memorials: in one period of ten days he is reported to have perused 1,660 memorials dealing with 3,391 separate matters. ... Merciless in exterminating those who stood in the way or were suspected of doing so, he obtained information through a secret service provided with its own prison and torturing apparatus. Officials who displease the emperor were subjected to beating in open court. Always painful and terribly humiliating, the beating was sometimes so severe that the victim died. ...

(our Zhu Di) was as politically and militarily vigorous as his father but did not follow the first emperor's example in all respects. After defeating his nephew, the second emperor, in a massive civil war, Chengzu moved the capitol from Nanjing to Beijing, which he largely rebuilt. To assure supplies for the capitol, he also reconstructed the Grand Canal. Just as severe as his father when it came to purging real or suspected opponents, he was better educated than Taizu and more generous in his patronage of Confucianism. ... He also sponsored major scholarly projects. The most grandiose of these was the compilation of a huge literary treasury, which employed more than 2000 scholars and when complete in 1408 resulted in a compendium of 22,877 rolls, or chapters. Under Chengzu the complete, unexpurgated Mencius (an influential book of Confucian philosophy.) was also once more available.

Looks like for this section, the textbook has some very similar although less detailed things to say about the Early Ming period of history. The next section goes on to talk about the Maritime Expeditions, mentioning the enormous fleet and the foreign envoys that are brought back to pay tribute to China. Apparently the King of Borneo was buried in China, outside of Nanjing, and you can still see his grave there today. But the text only lists destinations of "not only various areas of Southeast Asia but also the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.(page 241)" It's not terribly surprising that it doesn't list all of the destinations that Mr. Menzies gives, as his reading of the history and the evidence for his conclusions in some cases, is new and controversial. At least it is in the West, and this is an English language textbook, published in the USA. Huge portions of our history will need to be re-written if Mr. Menzie is correct about many of his assertions at all!

07 February 2008

Chapter 2 - Disaster!!

Heh.. Ok folks. I'm starting to feel like a blabermouth on here. Feel free to add posts in between my huge long ones.. *hint hint nudge nudge* (Anyway, with that disclaimer aside, I'll go on and say my bit about the next chapter)

Oh my goodness! The turn around of fortune from the previous chapter was so drastic! Gavin Menzies is a very compelling author. He is very gifted in putting a spin on a story. Not to say that I think it's all untrue, or impossible, but he does seem to have a lot of flourish and detail and an impressively fleshed out story for something that had all documentation destroyed.

All that aside though, one can't help but feel great sympathy for Zhu Di and his complete downfall before the end of his reign as emperor. By the end, all his dreams had been squashed and destroyed. I'm sure it's very American of me to look at it ( and so not Confucian) and think that it was so admirable that Zhu Di achieved so much greatness and that it be so tragic that his successors would turn it around so completely after his death. However, I'm sure Zhu Gaozhi and Zhu Zhanji felt they were doing what was best for China; all of Zhu Di's extravagance almost bankrupted the country and was so heavy with human life. Still, I think it's a sad sad tale.

I think I feel the most sympathy for the poor sailors who went on that two year voyage and came back to a completely changed country. I'm sure they were so excited to return with all their successes, and then to be shunned for being part of Zhu Di's extravagance is so very tragic.

Though, in it all, my question is: If all the records were so meticulously destroyed after the voyagers returned, how did Columbus get those maps, or the Venetian cartographer Zuane Pizzigano?

Hehe... hopefully Mr. Menzies will address that eventually.

02 February 2008


I finished the first chapter tonight. So much happened!

Throughout the entire chapter I was impressed again and again by Zhu Di's ingenuity and powerful, driving ambition. His rise to power was intense to say the least. I mean, the man faked insanity, lived in squalor for several months and hid out in plain sight to avoid being killed for being a threat as a potential rival to the chosen heir, Zhu Yunwen (p.48). That's dedication.

Once he had finally conquered and overthrown Zhu Yunwen and Nanjin, he had such amazingly colossal plans for improving China. And he implemented them unabashedly from the get-go. Moving everything to Beijing was just the beginning. Throughout his reign, Zhu Di built the Forbidden City, repaired the Grand Canal, and compiled a huge collection of academic knowledge, printed novels and a 4000 volume encyclopedia set (p. 62). All the while maintaining peace with the people in his empire and in surrounding areas and still managed to build a huge ocean-worthy fleet of ships for which he planned to "proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas..." (p. 64).


Also, I thought it was very interesting the lengths that he went to in order to fully establish that he was the legitimate heir and that the gods smiled upon his reign. On page 54 it talks about how Zhu Di built the Temple of Heaven at the center of the new city as the very first project. Not only would it be the stage for major, yearly ceremonies, it would be the "very heart" of the new Chines empire. And later, he would present a magical "qilin" (or giraffe.. hehe.. from East Africa) to convince the mandarins to support his pricey schemes. This gift was presented by a close adviser to Zhu Di and proclaimed to be a sign of heavenly approval for his rule (p.58). Such a swindler.. heh.

All in all, it seems that Zhu Di led a charmed life; always achieving what he set out to do. However, the last paragraph of chapter one seems to hint that all would not end well despite the auspicious beginning:
"As they sailed out across the Yellow Sea, the last flickering lights of Tanggu faded into the darkness while the sailors clustered at the rails, straining for a last sight of their homeland ... The majority of those seaman at the rails would never see China again. Many would die, many others would be shipwrecked or left behind to set up colonies on foreign shores. Those who eventually returned after two and a half years at sea would find their country convulsed and transformed beyond all recognition."
I am intrigued and must read on......

01 February 2008

I Finished the Book!

I did it this afternoon while my baby was sleeping: I finished the book. I kept wanting to turn the pages, and pretty soon the spot where I was reading was a very long ways away from where I had been studying the many many interesting things that this book has to offer. I now plan to go back to the beginning with my notebook and my Book of Centuries in hand and probably look at a lot more maps... there's a LOT in this book, and I don't know enough about geography or Chinese history or even European history to follow everything that's in there. I'm also planning to make some visits to his 1421 website to see what I can see there. This stuff is fascinating!

It does raise the question: what do I teach my children about the discoveries of the various places in the world when it comes time to do that? If this book is right, and with all the evidence he has including diaries from the European explorers it sure is convincing, then all of the history textbooks need to re-written in a spectacular fashion.