Saturday, January 14, 2006

15th-century world map from China?

Students in some of my courses will remember, perhaps, a reference to the near-legendary Chinese admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), who in the fifteenth century led a huge imperial fleet around the seas east and south of Asia, extending imperial hegemony to countries as far away as Sri Lanka, if not farther. (A graphic comparing one of Zheng He's ships to Columbus' largest vessel can be seen here.) The story can be used, with various shades of nuance, to reflect on the relative position of China and Western Europe in the period just before Europeans started their great oceanic adventures.

One perspective emphasizes the fact that China was in some ways a richer and more politically powerful region of the world than disunited Europe; another is that the Chinese, for one reason or another, lost the opportunity that a lesser Europe seized.

Well, now someone is claiming that an old Chinese map shows that Zheng He's voyages were much more impressive than commonly thought: that his voyages allowed him to describe the world with a great degree of accuracy. The map (above) shows most of the world, including an amazingly accurate depiction of North and South America.

There are a number of problems with taking this story (see for example the Mumbai [Bombay] Mirror account) seriously.

First, it's a map from 1763. It claims to be a copy of another from 1412, the time of Zheng He, but it's a map from 1763 and probably not all that remarkable given the geographical knowledge available at the time.

Second, in my inexpert opinion, it's far too good a map for 1412. Could one man's fleets have visited so many unknown coasts, and done such an accurate job of charting them? It doesn't seem at all likely to me.

Part of my skepticism comes from my memory of the fuss over the Vinland Map, a document "found" in 1965 bound in a medieval manuscript, which map seemed to document geographical knowledge produced by the Viking voyages to North America had been transmitted to the rest of Europe. Some skeptics based their doubts on the fact that the depiction of North America and Greenland is the most accurate part of the map. Greenland in particular is amazingly like what any smart, careful kid could trace out of a modern atlas.

I think that the Vinland Map was a created by a modern forger intent on proving that Viking voyages to the Americas were real, not just legend. Forgers of earlier generations seem to have tried the same thing by fabricating a runestone in Minnesota and other such finds.

The funny thing, of course, is that real archaeology has since established the Viking presence in North America beyond serious doubt.

I rather think that the world map of Zheng He is going to be generally regarded as another unnecessary "proof" that these voyages were a remarkable series of early explorations.

Update: A more detailed article on the map.

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