Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Did China discover America?

Did China discover America?

This map claims that a Chinese Muslim beat Columbus to it. But is it real?

This map claims that a Chinese Muslim beat Columbus to it. But is it real?

Rosie Blau | May 21st 2015

In 1405 a Chinese Muslim eunuch, Zheng He, launched the first of seven voyages west from China across the Indian Ocean. Over the next 30 years, in command of the world’s largest fleet and funded by the Ming emperor, he sailed to the east coast of Africa and deep into the Persian Gulf. That much, we know, is true.

But some people believe he went much farther—and this map is one reason. Entitled “General chart of the integrated world”, it is apparently an 18th-century copy of a 1418 map which claims to show the world that Zheng He discovered. If it is real, it rewrites history, for it shows that he circumnavigated the globe and—most provocatively—that he discovered America more than 70 years before Columbus.

The map came to light in 2001 when a Shanghai lawyer, Liu Gang, says he bought it from a local dealer for around $500. He believes it proves that Zheng navigated the waters around both poles, the Americas, the Mediterranean and Australia too. In 2003 Gavin Menzies used it as evidence for his book “1421: the year China discovered the world”.

The outlines of the continents on the map are instantly recognisable. Some aspects are characteristically Chinese: the blue, fan-like waves are part of China’s cartographic tradition, as are the annotations with textual descriptions of places. The map is impressively detailed. It shows the two hemispheres of the world, a convention for depicting the round Earth on flat paper. The contours of North and South America are clear, as are the rivers running from far inland. We can see the Arctic. And the Himalayas, among whose foothills Zheng He was born, are marked as the highest mountain range in the world.

It is these detailed elements, however, that give the game away. Only Europeans represented the globe this way. European explorers completed travels like this over the course of hundreds of years, rather than Zheng He’s 30, which makes it almost impossible that his maritime voyage would have had such a specific grasp of river courses. The Arctic appears first on a Ming Chinese map only in 1593. And the world’s greatest mountain range was labelled as such only in the 19th century.

“This map is a complete nonsense,” says Professor Timothy Brook of the University of British Columbia. He believes that what you see here is a copy of a European map from the early 17th century. But it is still interesting, because of the stories attached to it and the recent hype surrounding Zheng He. He was certainly a great mariner, but had been largely forgotten until the late 1990s when the history of his quest was resurrected and he was embraced as a national hero. As Brook puts it: “The West had a Columbus and the Chinese needed one.”

The debate over the veracity of this map is emblematic of the current arguments over China’s role on the world stage. President Xi Jinping hails Zheng He as one of China’s great innovators and an example of its early, peaceful exchanges overseas. Though he does not claim that Zheng He found America, he holds up his voyages as an inspiration for a new maritime silk road that is now being promoted to expand Chinese trade and influence abroad.

Though Columbus and Zheng He both sailed the seas, their purposes were quite different. Columbus’s mission was commercial, Zheng He’s diplomatic: he was sent to bring back envoys from other countries to pay homage to the new Yongle emperor, who had usurped power from his nephew and needed to find a way to assert his legitimacy.

With the end of Zheng He’s life, China’s explorations on the high seas finished too. By this time there was a new emperor with less need to finance pricey expeditions. For the next few hundred years China largely turned in on itself. What would have happened if the Chinese fleet had been allowed to continue is one of the great counterfactuals of history. Instead, while Columbus forged his way to the New World, Zheng He died a quiet death—at sea or at home, it is not known—and few beyond China now know his name. ~ ROSIE BLAU

6 Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.

User - December 27th 2016

Somehow the Chinese fleet discovered the Americas, mapped the entire coastline of North AND South America, mapped several thousand miles into the interior of both continents, oh and several islands in the caribbean, and not to mention discovering and mapping Australia and New Zealand as well? And this was all accomplished over a few years? I don't buy it. The amount of resourced it would take to make this map means there would have been established Chinese cities and colonies all over the Americas. This map is so fake, it discredits the "Chinese discovery of America" theory more than it supports it.

nmendoza85 - December 25th 2016

There is a more relevant map which is attributed to Henricus Martellus (1489) which coincides with Columbus narrative about his travels. According to philosopher Enrique Dussel, Columbus used Martellus map as a guide, and Martellus used Chinese maps to re-create his own. Check out Dussel's "1492. El Encubrimiento del Otro".

Jim Dunbar - November 12th 2016

One thing that makes me even more sceptical is that supposedly at the time of drawing the map the Chinese had managed to travel the entire coast of the Americas but had never been to Indonesia, Malaysia or Philippines. Another reason this doesn't make any sense is because the Mongols invaded Java in 13th century, yet according to this map the Chinese forgot it was there. This doesn't seem plausible.

drarsonist - October 31st 2016

I think it's an interesting idea that Chinese officials from the emperor's court travelled to what we now call America in the 15th. However I also think that this map is fake, because of its many details: I cannot estimate the time it would take to discover all this in a 15th century life time sailing around the world and major rivers even if I grant Zheng He the most advanced ship building technologies of this time plus the knowledge of all maps that had been made so far at this time (assuming that he e.g. did't sail around Europe and parts of Africa by himself because that was already mapped somehow) . Plus, some aspects of map-making are more from a "European" point of view. Example: Baja California was long thought to be an Islands by Europeans, because they travelled from the south to the north (and obviously turned around before realizing the truth). Assuming that Zheng He has come from the Bering Strait, he would never come to this conclusion. I think that research in the paper itself and the ink used for this document will give us an easy access to when this map has been made and if the the question if it is fake or real can be hardened by Facts.

Allan West - October 30th 2016

I found your article an interesting coda to Menzies book. Thank you. The map pictured here strikes me as in no way created in the 15th century. The continents are labelled, "Now called North America," "Now called South America." Thus the map couldn't possibly have been drawn before Vespucci departed. But, as you say, this is believed to have been an 18th century copy... with, we must assume, contemporary addendum.

bucklem - July 18th 2016

You do know people were living in the Americas long before they were "discovered"? And despite your kindergarten-level comprehension of European history, Columbus didn't land in North America. Whether your racist interpretation of the world is driven by Chinese or European colonialism it's still grotesque. I can't believe such a woeful story made it past the editors of a serious magazine.