Did China Discover America?

"The West had a Columbus and the Chinese needed one."

An alleged replica of a 1418 map detailing the earth’s geography may suggest that China discovered America.

Nyjil George

An alleged replica of a 1418 map detailing the earth’s geography may suggest that China discovered America.

Angie Leung, Copy Editor

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and ended up “discovering” America first. But the copy of a map from the early 14th century suggests otherwise. Perhaps a Chinese sailor discovered America 70 years before Columbus did — an argument which has caused heated controversy among historians.

A Dive Into Chinese History

According to the magazine 1843, the Chinese Muslim eunuch and diplomat Zheng He sought to get envoys from other countries to recognize the new Yongle emperor who wanted to assert his legitimacy. In 1405, Zheng He began to embark on his seven voyages across the Pacific and Indian oceans — whether he sailed farther than the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf remains a mystery. 

China on globe
Chuttersnap / Unsplash
Oh his seven voyages, the Chinese eunuch and diplomat Zheng He sailed the Indian and Pacific oceans.

When a partner in a Beijing law firm, Lui Gang, bought a copy of an old map in a Shanghai bookstore, he discovered the map’s worth and subsequently conducted his own research before presenting it to the public, declaring that it had the potential “to change history.” 

 The map, called the “General chart of the integrated world map,” illustrated the two hemispheres of the globe, had clear and accurate definitions of river routes and continent outlines, and stunningly operated on our basic understanding of the earth today, including longitude and latitude. Lui argued that the map’s precise documentation of geography must have been the result of Zheng He’s voyages.

In his book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World,”published in 2003, British author and lieutenant-commander Gavin Menzies pointed to the map to argue that Zheng He had indeed sailed the east coast of America in 1421 and perhaps may have created settlements in South America.  

Book cover of Gavin Menzies' book, "1421: The Year China Discovered The World"
Bantam Press
British author and lieutenant-commander Gavin Menzies argued the “General chart of the integrated world map” revealed that Zheng He had indeed sailed the east coast of America in 1421.

The controversy, then, arises: The map, boasting geographic ideas much more progressive for its time, suggests that Zheng He circumnavigated the globe and beat Columbus in the race — which would fundamentally alter discussions about America’s discovery, currently dominated by the Western eurocentric lens. 

Zheng Who?

From history textbooks to the Columbus Day holiday, then, why is the American Indian enslaver more vividly remembered than the peaceful overseas explorer?

The flaws that poke holes in Menzies’ claim, however, lie in the very map that causes the heated debate. Ironically, the most glaring problem with the map is that it is too correct. Zheng He’s total of 30 years of voyaging could not have produced such clear and precise images of river routes or other distinctive features, in contrast to European explorers who required hundreds of years to collect the same knowledge. 

The source additionally does not follow in accordance with neither Chinese history nor its mapmaking history. Although the map portrays the Arctic, the first depiction of the Arctic on Chinese maps did not occur until 1593, more than a century after the alleged original 1418 map was produced. The map also uses a term for the Western God that was only used in the 16th century, after the Jesuits’ arrival in China. 

The controversy, unfortunately, is expected to remain a mystery, as much of the Chinese historical record was destroyed because Chinese emperors desired to isolate themselves from the world, and there is no substantial evidence to corroborate the existence of the 1418 map. 

Today, while the Beijing government praises Zheng He’s innovation and peaceful diplomacy — not necessarily recognizing his discovery of America — Zheng He remains a mostly unheard of name, unmentioned by most textbooks. 

The controversy reflects China’s growing role as a world power and its subsequent adverse reactions from leading superpowers. As Professor Timothy Brook of the University of British Columbia adamantly contended, “The West had a Columbus and the Chinese needed one.”