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The Myth of the Chinese Discovery of America


Last weekend, while I was in Oakland, I wandered over to Occupy Oakland for a bit. They had an interesting sort of public history exhibit. Someone had strung up a wire between two poles where people could attach notes about Oakland’s radical history. There were 12-15 pieces of paper attached. Some were fairly obvious such as the Black Panthers. Others had nothing to do per se with Oakland, such as Troy Davis’ execution. Others showed some real understanding of Oakland’s radical past, such as the 1946 general strike.

What really grabbed my attention was a piece of paper discussing how the Chinese had discovered America hundreds of years before Columbus and had lived peacefully here since then. I assumed this idea originated with the rather small but locally significant Yellow Power movement of the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s, but I haven’t found anything in my brief search on the internet showing the roots of this idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything on me to take notes about the specific details.

I am curious why this idea that the Chinese reached America before Columbus has such legs. Of course, no one has done more to popularize this myth as Gavin Menzies through his awful book 1421: The Year China Discovered America. In the years since this book came out, I have heard way too many otherwise smart people (inevitably politically progressive) assert that the Chinese arrived in America before Columbus as fact, using Menzies book as evidence. Menzies essentially argues that the Chinese fleet which left China in 1421 discovered the entire world, using extraordinarily flimsy standards of evidence. I discussed how bad this book was years ago.

In 2006, I was in Malacca, the Malaysian port city where the fleet set out. Menzies’ supporters had set up a very elaborate and well-funded exhibit in the city promoting this myth. Menzies had taken a good bit of flack for his absurd assumptions and responded very angrily. A British naval officer and amateur historian, he didn’t like professionals picking apart his methodology. He responded by making ever more outlandish claims. In this Malacca exhibit, he actually claimed, and I swear to whatever higher power you wish that this is true, that the Chinese had not only discovered Antarctica, but that the irrefutable evidence is some wood washed up on the shore that means that a comet had hit the southern Indian ocean and the resulting tsunami wrecked that part of the Chinese fleet, washing it up on the Antarctic shore.

The thing about this myth, whether produced by Menzies or my Asian power advocates, is that it is at least theoretically possible that it’s true. Menzies book, bad as it is, does realistically convince of the possibility that the Chinese did reach the west coast in the 1420s, even as he provides no actual evidence.

But even if they did, who cares. What real difference does it make? What are these people trying to prove? The only way it works from a leftist perspective is that these Chinese settlers lived peacefully with the Indians which the Europeans did not want to do, but I am extremely skeptical of this possibility even if the Chinese did reach here. After all, what people has dealt more tolerably with minority groups in history than the Han Chinese!

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