I paid 1p. last week for 1421: the year that China discovered the world by Gavin Menzies. Initially, I felt I paid too much for it! However on reflection, provided you want a Dan Brown style yarn which you don’t really believe in, it’s good entertainment.
His thesis, widely derided by scholars throughout China as well as abroad, is that Chinese fleets reached America and Australasia before Europeans and sailed to Italy (before the Suez canal!) to spark the Italian Renaissance. All with a lack of contemporary witness reports as evidence.
In yesterday’s post I pointed out, based on Walter Watson’s book The Architectonics of Meaning, how important it is to look at the entire developmental range of a civilization over time. Well, Menzies was a submariner, and he never gets his head up for any length of time out of the watery world into the world of signs, of textual evidence, into comparative cultural evolution.
On reflection, though, I think a good metaphor for the quality differences in history can be found in Edwin A. Abbott’s short novel Flatland. Recently an excellent new edition annotated by Ian Stewart has been published. Abbott was a Victorian headteacher who specialised in mathematics and theology. He talks about a 1- dimensional Lineland and the creatures who live there, and then a 2- dimensional Flatland with the other creatures who live there and finally migrating to the wonderful 3-dimensional Sphereland. Salvation! The inhabitants of each ‘-land’ are unaware of the other dimensions, until some special circumstances occur, which gives Flatland its plot.
Gavin Menzies’ is a 1-D history, unaware of the world of the general ideas which animate the Chinese literati and their Neoconfucian orthodoxies.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is a fine historian who has been particularity trenchant about Gavin Menzies. In his book Millenium: a history of our last 1000 years he describes the history of China and of the West in cross-sections sliced into time. For example, in one scenario he shows that in the year 1000 CE , China was far more advanced than Western Europe, both culturally and materially. In this book he uses a 2-D method. By that I mean a method which is aware of the world of general ideas but does not take into account the transmission of cultural ideas over time.
In other books Fernandez-Armesto uses a 3-D method, which includes an awareness of the generational transmission of the shared concepts of a civilization. The supreme example of the 3-D history method applied to China is Joseph Needham’s multi-volume masterpiece Science and Civilization in China. This traces the Middle Kingdom’s core ideas and their application in technologies as they mutate over the centuries. A breathtaking vision!
Correction. Since posting this article I have been contacted by Dr Geoff Wade, of the Australian National University. Dr Wade made the valid point that Gavin Menzies clearly does not market his book as a fictional entertainment, as does Dan Brown. Mr Menzies expects us to read it as alternative history. Dr Wade provided the web link to ‘The ‘1421’ Myth Exposed’ which I strongly encourage you to visit. My next post will summarise the evidence from the perspective of ‘signs of communities’.