Monday, June 06, 2005

Book Review--Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America

Gavin Menzies claims that the Chinese discovered America in their around-the-world voyages between 1421 and 1423. At first, I was very hesitant about such claims. I knew China was a great power and had quite the long record of exploring and trading throughout the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, although I am far from an expert in Chinese history. But I figured that someone would have made these claims earlier if they had much merit to them. As of this point, I am still hesitant. Menzies makes some legitimate points about Chinese influence being around the world. So it is possible that the Chinese explored the world in the early 15th century. But more interesting to me than the claims of this work is the use of evidence and the attitude that amateur historians have toward professional historians.

One major difference between amateur and professional historians is the way that they use evidence. We professional historians are trained to be skeptical of our sources. Too often, we are not in fact. But generally I try to interrogate the source itself before believing its claims. Menzies sort of doesn't do that. Basically, whenever he finds something that maybe might could possibly substantiate a part of his claim, he goes in whole hog and says that it incontrovertibly proves that the Chinese were at Point A. Well, no it doesn't. I can't even think of all the times I thought, "well, maybe you're right but I could think of a whole lot of other things that piece of evidence could be interpreted." For instance, the fact that people around the world have "Chinese DNA." First of all, what is Chinese DNA? Is is a specific thing? Do the Chinese have purer DNA than other peoples? Couldn't the resemblance within the DNA have resulted from the peoples who crossed the Bering Land Bridge 20,000 years ago? Couldn't it come from the fact that the Chinese have lived in the Americas in large numbers since the 19th century due to widespread migration out of parts of China at that time? These seem like basic questions to consider when talking about DNA. He talks about giving in speech in Boston, I think, where he said that people should see if they have Chinese DNA because they probably do. Maybe they do, but again that could come from so many different places. Menzies gives way to much credence to this one point of fact. And he doesn't even consider the opposite--could the Chinese have European or Native American DNA? Not a peep about this.

If such claims were true, wouldn't the effects of the Chinese in the New World be the same as Europeans? They certainly would in disease. That is after all what wiped out most of the Indians from the New World. The most Menzies discusses this is to say that the Chinese and some indigenous peoples in the South American tropics have similar intestinal parasites. Wow. Of course for Menzies this is incontrovertible proof that the Chinese were in Venezuela and Brazil in the 1420s. I would say that a lot better proof would be if there were oral legends about masses of people dying of respiratory failure after these strange people came. Because that's what happened as soon as Europeans came and diseases spread from Europe to Asia fairly rapidly, as with the bubonic plague in the mid 14th century.

I'm sorry but this would have been a much stronger book if he was satisfying suggesting that Chinese exploration in Australia, Antarctica, the North Pole, and the Americas was possible than trying to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. That he could have done and made a pretty interesting case for. But he goes way over the line of acceptable use of evidence here. And it undermines what is otherwise a pretty interesting book.

In a move all too common with amateur historians, Menzies gets very snarky when professional historians question his findings on the type of grounds that I present above. To me, these are very legitimate claims. To Menzies they mean that "professional" historians (he loves putting professional in quotation marks) are feeling threatened by an amateur and that they are wrapped up in promoting the myth of European exploration. For 99% of historians, the second claim is absolutely false and it's about the same number for the first question. What professional historian is threatened by an amateur? Amateur historians constantly talk about this. Where is the threat coming from? I think what's really happening with people like Menzies or David McCullough who I have heard similar things from is that their use of evidence and argument is far from infallible and they don't like this pointed out. I like the idea that people are buying history books and I just hope the ones that sell are well-researched and well-argued. I don't really think there is very much financial jealousy either, as the amateur historians like to claim about the professionals. I do wish that I could make that kind of money on my work, but the jealousy comes from the fact that I don't write well enough to do that. If I could write as well as people like Menzies and Ambrose (though he kind of straddles the amateur/professional divide) and present the kind of work that I do in a popular way, I would be very happy. But I don't begrudge amateur historians for their writing ability.

What I do begrudge amateur historians for is their lack of respect for professional historians. One of the most annoying things about doing history for a living is that everyone thinks they're a historian on the level of you. I wouldn't claim to tell Menzies how to run his nuclear submarine; he's an expert and I respect that. So what right does Menzies or any other non-professional historian have to tell me about history or how I am not doing it correctly? Maybe I am being oversensitive here, but unless you are in a similar profession where everyone thinks they know something about it, I don't think my irritation is easily understandable.

Ultimately though, the thing about a question like whether the Chinese "discovered" America is who cares? What difference does it make? Did they do anything with their discoveries? No. Did it change the course of world history? Not really. I asked my wife this question and she said that it's interesting for the sake of knowledge. But that's not really good enough for me. Maybe I am very American in this way, but I don't have much use for knowledge that doesn't serve the world in some way. I need some practicality. I think the worst kind of history is that which makes no connections to the present day world. I'm not necessarily talking about Menzies here for he does try to make some connections. But academic histories that are all about just knowing about some colonel in the Indian wars for the hell of it is without value to me. And I think that ultimately the question about who discovered America first runs close to lacking value. What matters is not who discovered it but what happened after it was discovered. That's what interesting and meaningful to the modern world.