A full year after its initial publica-tion in English sparked a major controversy internationally, the Chinese language edition of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is finally out. In the book, author Gavin Menzies claims that the Chinese admiral Zheng He was really the first person (except for the Native Americans) to discover the New World, doing so 70 years earlier than Columbus. Not only that, says Menzies, but the fleet led by Zheng also reached Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica. In Menzies' revision of history, the glory of the great European explorers-da Gama, Magellan, Cook-dims considerably in comparison.
The Chinese language edition does more than just give Chinese readers a chance to see what all the fuss has been about. It also includes copious notes by the Chinese translator, Bao Jiaqing, which point out misunderstandings in Menzies' use of Chinese-language source materials, thereby making a helpful contribution to further clarifying various objections raised by critics with regard to the sources and data for the book. The year 2005 will mark the 600th anniversary of the first of Zheng He's six voyages to distant seas, and 1421 has become a great curtain-opener for the celebrations, prompting us to ask up front, "What is it that maritime legend Zheng He really represents-the glorious past of the Chinese people, or the limitations of the Chinese maritime perspective?"
The theory of Zheng He circling the globe surely is an intriguing one. But the first question one might ask of Gavin Menzies' 1421 is, "Why would they have done it?" What kinds of beliefs would have sustained Chinese sailors 600 years ago as they faced the daunting voyage across the Indian Ocean, through turbulent waters past the Cape of Good Hope, and toward the unknown New World? What mission would have carried them through the frigid passage between South America and Antarctica to Australia and New Zealand, and from there back to China, thereby completely circumnavigating the earth?
They were helping the emperor complete the great dream of the empire-"Spreading the benefits of Chinese culture and tradition to civilize faraway peoples"-says Menzies in the book, quoting an expression oft used in imperial China. Of course not everybody had such lofty ideals. The ministers and ranking officers who led the fleet were all dedicated and professional sailors. Most of the crewmembers, meanwhile, were convicts, who had chosen exploration at sea as an alternative to prison or exile. Though life at sea was perilous, there was meat and alcohol on board, and though only about one man in ten survived the duty, those who returned not only regained their freedom, they were richly rewarded as well.