History Files



Chinese Map Claims Americas

P L Kessler 13 January 2006. Updated 1 July 2017

A map unveiled in Beijing and London in 2006 could have lent weight to a theory that a Chinese admiral discovered America before Christopher Columbus, not that Columbus was the first by any means.

The map, which shows North and South America, apparently states that it is a 1763 copy of another map which was made in 1418. If true, it could have implied that Chinese mariners had discovered and mapped America decades before Columbus arrived there in 1492, thinking that he had reached the Indies.

The map faced a good deal of scepticism from experts. Chinese characters written beside the map say that it was drawn by Mo Yi Tong and was copied from a map made in the sixteenth year of the Emperor Yongle, or 1418. It clearly shows Africa and Australia. The British Isles, however, are not marked.

Controversial claim

The map was bought for about $500 (250 or 360) from a Shanghai dealer in 2001 by a Chinese lawyer and collector named Liu Gang. According to the Economist magazine, Mr Liu only became aware of the map's potential significance after he read a book by British author Gavin Menzies.

The book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, made the controversial claim that a Chinese admiral and eunuch named Zheng He sailed around the world and discovered America on the way. Zheng He, a Muslim mariner and explorer, is widely thought to have sailed around South East Asia and India, but the claim that he visited America is hotly disputed.

In 2005 the map was being dated in order to check that it actually had been drawn up in 1763, with the age of the paper and ink being subjected to tests, and the results were due in February 2006.

Even if it did prove to have been drawn in 1763, sceptics would still point out the fact that we still only had the mapmaker's word that he had copied if from a 1418 map, rather than from a more recent one.

Ming world map
Menzies and his team concluded that the map was genuine, but several other historians without multiple books to publish on the subject of Chinese maritime discoveries have pointed out numerous faults and flaws

Chinese map

The map clearly shows the Americas, along with extensive coastal and riverine detail that couldn't possibly be known in China at the time claimed

The results

Fortunately, despite some of Gavin Menzies claims over several books in the intervening years, and some rather dubious historical claims, some real historians were also on the case.

Historian Geoff Wade pointed out some rather glaring issues that had arisen in relation to the map.

Firstly it is a dual-hemisphere map, a cartographic tradition which was exclusively European. California is represented as an island, copied straight from European maps of the seventeenth century. China is placed at the centre of the map as it was in early Jesuit maps of the world which were produced in China - the map is based on a rough copy of a Jesuit map of the world.

As if that wasn't enough, the eunuch Zheng He is referred to as Ma San-bao. No one would have dared to use his original name given that the emperor had assigned him the surname Zheng. The amount of non-coastal detail (including riverine systems extending thousands of miles from the coast) indicate that these maps could not have been produced by maritime voyagers. The information in the maps was obviously amassed over time by cultures who had travelled widely. It fits perfectly within the history of European cartography, but is a complete anomaly in Chinese cartography.

Finally, the Himalayas are marked as the highest mountains in the world. This fact was only discovered in the nineteenth century. Sadly, perhaps, the map was a fake.



Text copyright P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.