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The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance

  by Gavin Menzies
  published by HarperCollins Australia
  RRP $35.00 (368pp; 235mm x 155mm)

  Following on from his popular 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, Gavin Menzies has delved further into the exploits of China’s pre-eminent naval admiral, Zheng He. Controversy followed Menzies after his first book on Zheng He’s voyages, with critics claiming conclusions reached were more flights of fantasy, than historical fact.
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does seem destined to be similarly dogged.
  This is not to say that Menzies’ new contribution to debate is not without entertainment and what seems to be a mountain of “evidence”. Both books have their avid readers.
  In fact a golfing buddy told me recently that he was riveted by the quality of Menzies’ writing and amazed at the extent of influence of China in the modern world. For him, Menzies had amply proved his assertions. So that is one devotee.
  A Google search regrettably, reveals more commentators of the other sort. While it is acknowledged that Zheng He sailed extensively in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, critics are quick to point out that from official records of participants in Zheng He’s voyages, no mention is made of travel anywhere beyond the confines of the Indian Ocean.
  Facts and figures are available to substantiate Chinese navigation in these waters, but not beyond.  In an interview on the ABC, eminent Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey expressed the view, as he does in his new book, Sea of Dangers – Captain Cook and his Rivals, that the evidence for Menzies’ assertions about Chinese discovery of Australia “had not stood up to inspection”.  On the other hand, Blainey allows that “someday a more documented case for Chinese exploration might be put forward” and would constitute a “legitimate source of pride for the Chinese”. We hope to review Sea of Dangers in December Afloat.
  So what could the fuss be about? Menzies is, as described, an entertaining writer. Not only that, but he has apparently scoured the world’s museums for relevant data and has not come up empty-handed. He has presented his evidence from extensive research and assistance from scholars (quoted and referenced), physical evidence (described and translated where necessary) and his own assessments (from his extensive experience as sailor and navigator in the Royal Navy) of Chinese advancements in multiple fields at the time of Zheng He’s voyages.
  But it is his conclusions from a myriad of so-called supporting evidence that has critics most incensed. Often, without much more than these related “facts”, the author leads with his chin with statements that reflect his own conclusions – nowhere near scholarly enough for some.
  But the seeds of possibility are there. Zheng He’s fleets did sail extensively into the Indian Ocean. Would that not have included the Red Sea? If yes, then were the canals of the Ptolemies joining the Red Sea to the River Nile able to be made navigable? And so, could the Chinese Fleet and the wonders of the Ming Dynasty have been brought to the Mediterranean and thence to Italy?
  And what of the claims that the Chinese Fleet (or part of it) was wrecked on the South Island of New Zealand by a tsunami caused by meteorite? Again critics cry foul. But perhaps this is the plight of groundbreaking historians: to be criticized for daring to suggest something new.  In a 2006 interview with the ABC’s Four Corners, the author said of his first book that the public, who counted most, were on his side. And that seems to be the crux of the earlier book’s success and probably of this one as well.
  Whether or not the critics and historians like it, the romance of the claims will probably be its attraction.