Today marks the 665th anniversary of legendary Chinese explorer Zheng He's (鄭和 / 郑和) first epic journey to explore the world. Chances are that most Americans (heck, most people in the western world) have never heard of Zheng He, and to be honest, I knew nothing about him until very recently.
Zheng He was an interesting cat to say the least, and his life story would make for one incredible Hollywood movie. As the descendant of a devout Muslim family (his grandfather and great-grandfather even made the haaj to Mecca. No small feat in the Medieval world), Zheng He was exposed to a world that few in 14th century Asia could possibly imagine. Not only was he a follower of a minority religion in China, Zheng had the unique opportunity to travel a large part of the Asian world. With the backing of a wealthy family, Zheng was fortunate to experience things that few of his contemporaries could possibly imagine.
But Zheng's life would change dramatically. After being attacked by a rival clan (a battle in which his father was killed), Zheng was captured by a group of Ming Muslims and eventually made a eunuch. But despite his terrible misfortune, Zheng rose to a position of great favor with the Ming emperor and was hailed for his bravery and fierceness in battle (some accounts state Zheng was close to 7 feet tall but that is probably more the stuff of legend than reality).
As years past, Zheng He eventually became a prominent figure in the growing Chinese naval/merchant world. His voyages throughout the "Western Sea" (Indian Ocean) were well chronicled, and the riches he brought home are the stuff of legend.
But this is the least of Zheng He's accomplishments...at least, according to some.
In his best-selling book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, author Gavin Menzies makes the bold claim that 14th and 15th century Chinese merchant ships may have landed in the "New World" nearly 70 years before Christopher Columbus. And one of Menzies' chief explorers in none other than the legendary Zheng He.
And though I agree with Menzies' assertion that Zheng He's explorations went much further than the confines of the Indian Ocean (quite possibly all the way to Eastern Europe and certainly to Africa) there is little or no evidence that he made it to the Americas. In fact, Menzies offers extremely shaky evidence that most historians completely reject. For example, his assertion that American Indian DNA can be traced to Asian origins proves little. The overwhelming majority of archaeologists/scientists attribute this to the land bridge from modern Russia and Alaska during the last Ice Age, and the subsequent migration of those Asian people to the "New World." In addition, there are ZERO Chinese artifacts, writings or other documents that were found in America as Menzies claims. This is a complete and total lie and why he would make such a claim is preposterous. In fact, Menzies has had to retract his bogus claim that the remnants of Ming ships have been found in Greenland and North America. Again, a complete fabrication. And finally, Menzies makes the ridiculous claim that Zheng He and his fellow explorers somehow possessed the knowledge that the world was round and were even successful in their mapping and charting of North and South America. This is another complete lie. None of Zheng's maps show anything resembling current geography, nor did Ming voyagers believe the world was round in the 15th century. The following is a typical map from Ming explorers of the world they understood. As you can see, it doesn't resemble anything we might recognize as being North or South America.
Long story short: Zheng He was an INCREDIBLE explorer and his story is worthy of further study by all. However, Zheng He, DID NOT discover America. He didn't even come close. This myth, which is sadly being embraced by some who I am guessing read the title of Menzies' bogus book and take it at face value, is based on nothing.
It's a fraud.
***For more info on Menzies' bogus book click here.***