Monday, August 07, 2006

1421 and All That

Australia's history wars may take on a whole new dimension. While the education minister was writing her speech about bringing Captain Cook back into our classrooms, Four Corners was busy exploring the claim that the Chinese got here first. Last Monday's program was nothing new to afficionados of 15th century history, but for most viewers it would have been a startling introduction to Gavin Menzies and his notorious book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World.

Not that it's first time this revisionist tsunami has hit the local news. Hu Jintao's announcement to federal parliament during his 2003 visit that Australia was discovered by his people didn't escape notice. More recently, Melbourne University's decision to fete Menzies in April drew a fair amount of comment. Overall though it's provoked surprisingly little discussion for a theory that, if accepted, explodes the traditional narrative of antipodean history (as usual it's fallen to New Zealand to take the lead). Especially given that Menzies' claims go beyond discovery to encompass Chinese colonies from Port Philip Bay to Darwin and miscegenation of the Aboriginal population.

It's these sort of assertions that have sent experts worldwide into apoplexy, in one case to the point of dragging Menzies' publisher before the UK's Consumer Complaints body for marketing the book as 'non-fiction'. Menzies' Melbourne lecture featured an extraordinary tirade from the head of the university's history department, reading from a prepared list of points to show that the man is a fraud (the MC cut him off after number one). Four Corners tactfully declined to broadcast that part, but they did interview the professor in question as the local rep in a string of academics striving to outdo each other in disdain for Menzies' theories and, in most cases, for the man himself.

Both lecture and program gave salutary insights into why academics often lose in the court of public opinion. At the lecture, Professor Wheatcroft's bluster fared badly against Menzies' poise and the array of presentation technology used to make his case. But that's why we have investigative journalism, which probes through the stage management with which Menzies has (by his own admission) cloaked this pseudo-academic enterprise.

Four Corners revealed the dapper ex-Royal Navy commander as a charlatan, who conveniently forgets blackmail threats against his critics, admits that he doesn't check evidence and defends himself by citing the number of books he's sold. The program was denounced by Menzies as a hachet-job, an accusation that may sting with the stench of Forest-Gate still in the air. But given the chance to defend himself, Menzies managed to appear not merely a crank but a fraud and a white-collar thug, traits born out by his tactics against critics and presence on the English vexatious litigant list. Any hope that he makes up for this with academic rigour is dispelled by a visit the official 1421 website. 'Sophomoric' is a generous description; it would certainly never have passed my VCE history class.

I knew that both Menzies' claims and his academic method were dubious, but to see the man himself articulate them on Four Corners was surreal. I think he lost me with the claim that the Chinese fleet sailed up the Thames and presented Henry V with a set of underwear, an event that has left no surviving records (at least, none discovered yet). Or maybe it was when he waxed lyrical about Marco Polo touring Hudson's Bay in the 1200's. Or maybe it was one of his converts enthusing about the remains of 45 junks washed up on the New Zealand coast by a tsunami, itself caused by a meteor. The same meteor that wiped out Chinese settlements around the New World, leaving it free for the Europeans to colonise a century later.

Four Corners pertinently observed that since 1421's publication the claims have steadily ratcheted up, from the 'discovery' of the Liu Gang map early this year through to the Henry V and Marco Polo revelations. Not surprising, since by Menzies' own admission this has been a marketing exercise from day one.

"[I] hoped that there would be lots of critics there, and they'd all lambast it, and it would make excellent publicity. And therefore, I'd be able to clinch a sale for my book. So, really, it was a public relations exercise on my part, to hopefully create a lot of controversy and sell literary rights."

Of course there's nothing wrong with hypingrevisionist history, so long as it's not bunkum. But the fact that Menzies' case is an academic sieve raises serious ethical questions about his PR spin, especially given the lengths that his publisher went to in bolstering his credentials to write on Chinese maritime achievements (like incorrectly claiming on the dust jacket that Menzies was born in China).

The irony is that this marketing blitz targets the very demographic that ought to be most sceptical, and with great success. I knew about the criticisms of Menzies and his book before I bought it, but priding myself as a world history buff I felt a need to have it on my shelf. In other words, my intellectual ego drove me to subsidise the quack history that I've been denouncing in this post. Lest I be further hoist by my own petard, I should stop wasting time on things like blogging and sit down to dissect Menzies' 'evidence' for myself. I've yet to get past the book's third chapter, despite the army of editors provided by Bantam Press to make his manuscript readable.

Further pontificating -
1421 Exposed
Debunking Gavin Menzies
China History Forum


geoff wade said...

Thanks John. Very nicely done.
You might also find time to comment on Mr Menzies' newest rant which he certainly did not send past his lawyers.

Best wishes,

geoff wade

John Lee said...

thank for the compliments. That's Menzies' second response to Four Corners, he obviously put a bit more
time into this one. But it's amateurish, like everything else on his site. The ABC has 'brought discredit upon Australia'? That's a tall order for a public broadcaster. And he really seems to think that the (alleged) numbers of supportive emails he gets or books he sells support his theories...

To give Menzies his day in court, he does list reams of academics who he claims as backers (and whose contacts were allegedly provided to Four Corners). But given his record of citing people who don't agree with him, I'm sceptical.

geoff wade said...

The Chinese “scholars” who support Menzies and their specialties

Zheng He’s fleets reaching Europe

Tai Peng Wang

(A journalist for Asia Inc.)

Dr Siu Leung Lee

(An antiques collector who owns a faked medal)

Lao Sun

(No one has heard of this person)

Zheng He’s fleets reaching the Americas

Dr Siu Leung Lee
(see above)

Dr Ed Liu

Not known in Chinese or Asian history studies at all.

What Ed Liu has contributed to the menzies website is:

“The little that is known about di Virga’s states that he owned a small fleet of ships which traded with Alexandria. In those days all foreign ships visiting Alexandria had to deposit their maps and globes for copying (Ed Liu research)”

Professor Liu Manchum

(Could not even get his name right. Probably Lin Mei-cun an archaeologist based in Beijing. Has made some comments on Zheng he, but never supported Menzies or claimed Zheng he reached America)

Professor Bi Quan Zhong

Can’t get this name right either: It is Bi Quanzhong

Journalist who has written a couple of articles for People’s Daily. No history background at all. Confuses Parsis with Brazil.

Lam Yee Din

An imaginative researcher who claims Chinese observation of eclipses in Australia 2,000 years ago.

Zheng He’s fleets reaching Australia

Professor Zhiquiang Zhang

A lawyer, I believe.

Professor Han Zheng Hua (Re Wang da Yuan)

(Actually Han Zhen-hua)
Famous scholar. Died in 1993. He had never heard of Menzies. A typical ploy of Menzies is to cite famous dead scholars as his supporters. They rarely deny the claim.

Professor Zheng Yi Jun
Chinese Historian of Zheng He. Has never written anything in support of Menzies. Mr Menzies should be asked for evidence of his support.

Mr. Tai Peng Wang

(see above)

Zheng He’s fleets circumnavigating the globe

Professor Zheng Yi Jun

(see above)

GM credibility (generally)

Professor Yao Jide

Muslim scholar at Yunnan University. Wants higher global profile for Zheng He.
Possibly will say nice things about Gavin, but without any historical basis

Professor Fayuan Gao

Head of Chinese Communist Party branch at Yunnan University. Muslim who wants a higher
Profile for Zheng He. Possibly will say nice things about Gavin, but without any historical basis

Professor Wang (Phoenix)

A member of Phoenix television station. No history background at all. Collaborator with Menzies on TV program.

“Wang Jiyan joined Phoenix at its establishment in March 1996. Wang Jiyan is currently Executive Vice President of Phoenix Satellite Television and Head of the Phoenix Chinese Channel. Before joining Phoenix he had been a professor at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, where he had taught for more than twenty years.”

Chinese institutions

President Hu Juntao (Australia)

Can’t get this man’s name right either. Hu Jin Tao.
I am sure he will not be ready to publicly state his support for Mr Menzies

Chinese Ministry of Transportation (1418 Map)

Need evidence

National Defence and Science Commission of China

Need evidence

China Classification Society

Need evidence

Office of National Navigation

Need evidence

Others cited

Professor Wei Chuh- Hsien

Chinese historian. Dead. Never commented on Menzies' ideas

In short, a bundle or people who are either dead, have not commented on Menzies work, or have no expertise at all in the area. Hardly a convincing bunch of supporters.

The same is true of the first list of “experts” cited. They have either no specialised knowledge of any relevant area (John Coghlan is a medico at Melbourne Uni for example), are being cited completely out of context or simply are eccentrics in the mould of Cedric Bell (Gunnar Thompson is writing a book about Marco Polo’s voyages to the Americas for example)

There is not one respected academic in the area of Chinese history, Ming foreign relations, or global maritime exploration who thinks that Menzies is anything but a charlatan or an eccentric.

Adam Ladhams said...

In the book "The Northern Approaches: Australia in Old Maps 820-1770" written by Eric B Whitehouse B.A LL.B., Whitehouse believes that there is evidence that suggests the Egyptians, Arabs and Chinese periodically visited Australia between 592 BC and 1474. This is implied in written texts, cave carvings and maps. Also in the publication, Prof. Wei Chu Hsien (late) the author of the article - The Chinese Discovery of Australia - implores that there is compounding evidence to suggest that the Chinese had knowledge of it's people and of kangaroos. Let history take it's course.

John Lee said...

That may be so - I haven't read either of those authors so I can't comment. But the overall thesis put forward in Menzies' book doesn't hold water, whether for lack of evidence or because various experts have shot down his individual claims.

And there's no question Menzies uses misinformation to boost his own status, as Dr Wade has shown above. Credible historians don't cite book sales or politicians as support (not to mention they can spell 'Hu Jintao' right). And they certainly don't try to get detractors fired by the academy, as Menzies has tried against Dr Wade.

"The public are on my side, and they are the people that count." (Menzies at the end of Four Corners program)
That attitude is the antithesis of scholarship, and until Menzies ditches it we can't treat him as a scholar.

Kenneth said...

Adam Ladhams,
whatever Mr. Whitehouse fancies may have happened the balance of evidence tends to leave such far fetched notions in the realm of fantasy.
Some eccentrics can turn aboriginal fish-traps into Phoenecian wharfs when it suits them, and Celtic peoples and Africans and all sorts were supposed to reach NZ too (if you heed the flakes and don't ask 'How?' 'Why?').
There is always a market for such books yet they are not based on the same quality of evidence as mainstream academia might require, even if they are much more fun to read.
About the Chinese recording Kangaroos...I have heard this before but never from a credible source to say the least.
Tell you what, give me a quote in the original Chinese {assuming it is referenced} and lets see how it actually stacks up to Mr. Whitehouses version.
Some shoddy and playful translating work is the first step to many of these myths.
I can assure you that there would be just a little bit more evidence out there for archaeologists if repeated journies were made by such developed cultures (Egypt/China etc.)over a 2,000 year period.
Fanciful artefactual comparisons are not a form of evidence.
There is diddly squat to see.

The real story of human discovery of continients may not be fully understood but the conventional versions are already incredible enough and astounding (and with rather more merit).
Alternate histories seem strongly associated with lack of evidence, subjective interpretations and over-reaching hypothesis.

Kenneth Blair

Lutz said...

Hi John,

nice piece, I was already wondering if this fantastic book crossed your path. Well, I'm neither historian nor academic, yet the Four Corners report was very telling. Menzies seems to be convinced of his theories, which casts a rather strange light on those with the power to publicise their opinions on a broad scale.

It seems rather fashionable nowadays to play with historic ideas. I still can't understand the outrage about the 'Da Vinci Code', clearly marked as fictional piece, and the lack of outrage about 'Pearl Harbour', which nurtures the myth of a Japanese surprise attack. Even without Hollywood glamour history can be entertaining, like a lot of BBC documentaries prove.

Seeing an imposter like Menzies producing historical evidence out of sales figures is a hit in the face for any scholar, and for anyone with respect for science and arts. Errors are inevitable in these fields, and no theory has been carved in stone yet. Ignorance, on the other hand, just indicates a severe misunderstanding of scientific methodology. The level of ignorance shown by Mr. Menzies was frightening.


John Lee said...

hi Lutz,

Dan Brown has in fact avoided making definitive statements on The DaVinci Code's historical accuracy. But you're right, it's not marketed as a work of history like Menzies' book is.

Public understanding of history in western countries is still very Eurocentric, and a bestseller about Zheng He's voyages could have helped redress that. Instead Menzies has helped equate non-Eurocentric revisionism with academic bankruptcy and agenda-pushing (the title of the Four Corners report was 'junk history'). The more you look at his work, the more it shades from eccentricity or ignorance into outright chiacanery. Menzies may really believe his own claims, but if so he reconciles that with a complete lack of intellectual integrity or sense of responsibility. How he made RN submarine commander eludes me.

Unfortunately the media hype and marketing tactics deployed by Menzies often trump academic argument in the public sphere. It happens all the time - blanket statements about 'Islam' and 'Western Civilisation' are very common these days, lacking any historical or sociological depth, but the public laps it up because that's what they want to believe. History is a lot more complex than most people have time for, so they just swallow whatever their favourite pundit tells them.

haven't seen you at kungfu lately...?