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1421: The Year that America was Discovered

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There is a children’s rhyme about the discovery of America that begins “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” The fact is, however, that Christopher Columbus may not have actually discovered the North American continent.  His place of honor has already been challenged by the Vikings; now, it seems, the Chinese might have beaten him here, as well.  While many people have heard that the Vikings preceded Columbus, not many have heard that Chinese explorers actually arrived in America a full 70 years before his arrival.

Who was the Chinese explorer who reached America so long before Columbus?  Did the Chinese explorers and the European explorers share a common goal?  Whether or not they shared a goal, how well did they achieve what they set out to do?  Finally, what were the long term effects that their explorations created?

Zheng He, the Chinese Explorer Who Discovered America

            Zheng He was a Mongol eunuch, castrated with the other Mongols defeated by the armies of the emperor Hong Wu, was committed to serve at the palace in Kunming  Zheng.  He became a loyal supporter of Zhu Di, Prince of Yen and later emperor of China (Menzies, 2003).  After Zhu Di became emperor, Zheng He and other eunuchs became part of the emperor’s inner circle.  Zheng He was given the title of “Grand Eunuch” and the nickname “San Bao” (Three Treasures).  Even though he had never commanded a ship before, Zheng He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of China’s sailing fleet within a year’s time (Menzies, 2003, pp. 48-50).

Chinese Goals for Exploration

            For centuries, China’s economy depended largely on the Grand Canal.  The 1800-kilometer canal stretched between north and south China; however, by the time Zhu Di came to power the canal could no longer support the demands of China’s trade (Menzies, 2003).  Its restoration was only the beginning of China’s return to economic power, however. Zhu Di planned for his fleet of ships, commanded by Zheng He, “to proceed to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas” (Menzies, 2003, p. 64).  By this time, Zheng He had already led trade fleets, preparing him at least in part to lead the emperor’s armada (Menzies, 2003).  In addition to economic conquest, the Chinese ships were to undertake explorations.  Menzies (2003) observes that:

The great Chinese fleets undertook scientific expeditions the Europeans could not even begin to equal in scale or scope until Captain Cook set sail three and a half centuries later. (p. 69).

These scientific expeditions set the Chinese apart from the Spanish and the Portuguese expeditions.  “Explorers” from the European nations were, as Menzies states, only interested in “gathering sustenance, gold, and spices, while warding off attacks from the natives” (2003, p. 69).  In part, the size of the ships in China’s massive fleet might have given the ability to make more leisurely explorations, as they were capable of carrying a massive amount of provisions.

In addition, the knowledge of astronomy and the weaponry carried by the Chinese ships were superior to those of the European expeditions, even though they preceded them by decades (Menzies, 2003).  The expedition lasted two and one half years, during which many ships and their crews were lost (Menzies, 2003, p. 71).  However, evidence exists that the Chinese fleet was successful in circumnavigating the globe.  This evidence includes:

both physical entities, [. . .] such as the carved stones of Africa, the remains of Chinese peoples in South America, and artefacts  [sic] scattered all over the world, inscribed with Chinese characters, in Chinese styles, and some successfully 2003d back to before the arrival of the Europeans. There also exists more circumstantial evidence such as the linguistic, ceremonial and spiritual similarities between the Chinese culture and those of other parts of the world in the fifteenth century. (Menzies, n. d., Evidence: Questions and Answers).

According to Gavin Menzies’ website, the Chinese left permanent effects in the linguistic similarities between the place names in Chile and Peru, among other effects.  Like the European fleets, the Chinese expedition left permanent effects on the cultures and languages of the places that they visited, through acculturation, sometimes assimilation, and trade.  The Chinese, however, were unable to hold onto what they had achieved, due to Zhu Di’s son “reject[ing] the outside world” (Menzies, n. d., Evidence: Questions and Answers).

            China had a remarkable culture, able to achieve scientific wonders that would elude the rest of the world for centuries.  Evidence exists that the Chinese expedition, which set sail under the command of Zheng He circumnavigated the globe, reaching America in 1421.  If this scientific evidence is correct, then Columbus reached America’s shores long after it was first discovered.


Menzies, G. (2003).  1421: The year China discovered America.  New York: Harper Collins.

Menzies, G. (n. d.). 1421: The Year China Discovered the World Website.  Retrieved 4 Sept 2007 from http://www.1421.tv/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=38

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