Book and film reviews

1421 - When China discovered the world

By Menzies, Gavin, Droemer, Munich, 2003.

(Published in GralsWelt 57/2010)

The history of China mentions a sea expedition under the command of the eunuch Zheng He led a Chinese fleet into the Indian Ocean. That was almost eight decades before the Portuguese (Vasco da Gama 1498) reached the Indian coast, and against the much larger, more numerous, better armed Chinese ships, the Europeans would not have had a chance in a sea battle at that time. The development of the East India trade would have been denied to the invaders from the west.

However, this well-known Chinese research trip to the Indic was only the beginning and part of a much larger project that has so far remained unknown: the exploration of the world by Chinese navigators and geographers.

Emperor Zhu Di (1360-1424)

At the beginning of the 15th century, China was the most important empire on earth. The “Son of Heaven” had united the empire within a few decades, relocated the capital from Nanking to Beijing, and had huge structures erected there. To supply the rapidly growing new capital (soon to be the largest city in the world), the Imperial Canal (the connection between Beijing and the sea) had to be enlarged and expanded, and to protect the new capital near the border Zhu Di renovate the Great Wall of China.  

The treasure ships

In the 14th century, the Chinese built the most reliable and by far the largest sailing ships that had ever sailed the oceans. These “treasure ships” had stern rudders, bulkheads, several decks, and cabins for travelers. A standard measure for such giant ships, which called at many ports in East Asia, Africa and Arabia, was 142 m long and 55 m wide.[i] They exported china, silk, tea and brought goods from Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, and Southeast Asia.  

The emperor's grand plan

At the height of his power, the emperor left Zhu Di build the largest armada of all time to date. Hundreds of cannon-armed warships, transporters, and merchant ships weighed their anchor in 1421 and put to sea. They were well stocked, could stay at sea for 3 months and cover at least 4,500 nautical miles. Their task was to map and to establish trade relations with all over the world: Between 1421 and 1425 the armada, divided into four fleets, actually explored the world!

Chinese ships weren't just in the Indian Ocean. They circled the Cape of Good Hope and traveled the Strait of Magellan. American east and west coasts were measured, Greenland circled (in the warmer climate at the time!), And the north-east passage from Iceland to Kamchatka was conquered. Almost in passing, New Zealand was discovered, Australia circled, and the Antarctic (South Shetland Islands) advanced.

These achievements seem incredible, especially because they were previously unknown to us, but those of the experienced naval officer Gavin Menzies convincing evidence presented in his impressive book.

The first reliable world map

Chinese astronomers had found a method to determine the geographic longitude: By observing lunar eclipses at the desired longitude and in Beijing at the same time.[ii] This method was not helpful for direct sea navigation, but based on the measurements and the data collection created by the great Chinese armada, the most accurate maps of the world up to that point could be drawn!

European seafarers could only make reliable length measurements towards the end of the 18th century.[iii]

A lightning strike brings the end of Chinese shipping  

When the fleets finally returned after years of adventure, filled with treasures from all over the world, and with invaluable geographic and hydrographic measurements, their homeland had meanwhile changed: the great emperor was dead and the country was shaken by crises.

History repeated itself in China: Qin Shi Huang Di (Ying Zheng, 259-210 BC), the first emperor, unified the country, had the Great Wall of China and the famous tomb built with the Terracotta Army. He so overwhelmed his empire in wars and building work that it fell apart soon after his death.

Many centuries later it had emperors Zhu Di, also a unifier of the empire, again asking more of the people than it could afford. Civil war tensions were in the air. When lightning flashed the recently completed imperial palace during a storm, even the emperor began to doubt his “mandate from heaven”. There was unrest in the provinces and mandarins, opposed to expansion, triumphed.

Emperor Zhu's successor had the construction of large ships forbidden, even their plans burned, and logbooks and scientific records of the great research voyage destroyed. Few reports and documents have survived. A century later the voyages of discovery were forgotten, the art of building large ships for China was lost, and overseas trade collapsed.


[i] Columbus's “Santa Maria” is estimated to be 24 m long and 8 m wide (cf. Landström, Björn: “Das Schiff”, Bertelsmann, Gütersloh, 1973, p. 103).

[ii] Reported in the appendix of his book Menzies of scientific reviews of this method which gave surprisingly accurate results.

[iii] For more details on length measurement, see “Short, terse, curious” on page 188 “The fateful battle for length”.