Did Chinese Sailors Reach America First?
by Desteny Alvarez, age 16
A copy of a map from the early 14th century hints that Chinese explorer and diplomat Zheng He discovered America before Christopher Columbus. This discovery has caused polarization between historians.
In 2001, Lui Gang, a partner at a Beijing law firm, bought a map from a bookstore in Shanghai, which was replicated in 1763 from an alleged 1418 original. He recognized the map’s historic value, and started researching it before showing it to the public in 2006. The name of the map was “General chart of the integrated world map,” and it showed two hemispheres of the globe. It also included longitude and latitude lines. According to Lui Gang, the discovery would change history.
A British author and lieutenant-commander named Gavin Menzies argues in his book, 1421: The Year China Discovered The World, that Zheng He found America before Columbus. Menzies says that in 1421, Zheng He sailed the east coast of North America and started settlements in South America. The Chinese explorer may have circumnavigated the globe, which is a controversy among scholars. Indeed, some historians say that the map is too detailed for the time it was said to be created.
Zheng He is usually remembered for his seven voyages throughout the Pacific and Indian Ocean, where he encountered the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf. He voyaged for 30 years of his life, which is a short period of time compared to European voyagers. Some historians claim it is hard to prove that the map came directly from Zheng He because it is inconsistent with Chinese mapmaking history, and because many historical records were destroyed.
Beijing’s government has recently honored Zheng He for his innovation and diplomacy more than for his said discovery of America. Even though he is recognized within China, most people internationally are unaware of Zheng He’s name, let alone his journeys. This controversy shows people's reaction to China’s growing world power, and historians are still divided about their conclusions on the map’s authenticity and Zheng He’s voyages.
[Sources: National Geographic; New York Times; livescience.com; The Voice]