China and the European Renaissance


"1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance" by Gavin Menzies. Published by William Morrow (Harper Collins), N.Y. (2008) 368+32 pp.

Reviewed by Dr. Rohan H. Wickramasinghe

The work under review follows on Menzies’ earlier book "1421: The Year China Discovered America" (a controversial publication: see The Island Midweek Review 22 January 2014, p. II). The current work presents the theory and supporting arguments that the Chinese played an important role in the Renaissance in Europe. (The Late Middle Ages in European history were followed by the Renaissance. In Italy, the literary and artistic movements were followed by scientific and technological developments.)

This proposal has generated considerable opposition from many historians. However, it has also been noted that Menzies cannot be considered an amateur given the number of years he has been working on the maritime heritage of China and other historical studies. Whether his theories (or parts of them) will stand the test of time remains to be seen. In the meantime, it must be observed that his books have enjoyed considerable sales and much interest in other countries. This is, in part, due to the huge quantities of information in his books and, in part, to the extremely readable way it is presented. (His modesty in ascribing credit to others is also refreshing.) Notwithstanding this, many Sri Lankans are not conversant with these theories and their details. Since Lanka aspires to become a ‘knowledge hub’ some day it is advisable that information on all aspects of major controversies is widely disseminated. This review attempts to present an introduction to some of the basics presented by Menzies in the proposal that China played a major role at the start of the European Renaissance.

Before embarking on an account of the relevant voyages of the Chinese, Menzies (who had previously served for many years in the British Royal Navy) provides a technical description of methods the Chinese had developed for determining latitude and longitude. This would have been a requisite for making a map of the world by the year 1418. For this endeavour, they used their excellent knowledge of astronomy and, also, tools developed by themselves. They printed star tables incorporating information from their study of 1461 stars. Printed tables and star maps were provided to all their navigators. Menzies also notes that Kublai Khan the first Yuan emperor entrusted a project of creating a new calendar in 1276 to Guo Shoujing, an outstanding mathematician and astronomer. (The Gregorian calendar was introduced in Europe in the 16th century.)

After the introductory preamble, it is noted that the fleets under discussion left Nanjing on the 19 January 1431. It is observed that ships from China destined for India and Africa chose this month in order to avail themselves of the winds of the northeast monsoon, while the return trip was planned to benefit from those of the southwest. The Chinese junks sailed initially to Malacca, Lanka, Calicut, Aden and Cairo. They were largely self-sufficient for weeks at a time at sea and carried interpreters proficient in various languages of (among others) India, Africa and Europe. Notably (with relevance to the present discussion) the interpreters could communicate in the Romance languages.

On 18 November 1432, when the ships were south of Lanka, Zheng He (a.k.a. Cheng Ho) the overall commander dispatched a portion of the fleet under the command of Hong Bao to Calicut. This portion subsequently crossed the Arabian Sea to reach Jebel Khamish and thence Bandar Abbas on 16 January 1433. A squadron detached from Hong Bao’s fleet then sailed up the Red Sea to Mecca and Cairo and the Mediterranean.

The Ming Shi-Lu (the official Ming history) had recorded that the Papal States (Rome, Florence, Lumi) and Baghdad (Qian Lida) among other countries had sent tribute to China during the reign of the Ming Emperor, Zhu Di (1403 to 1424) but Egypt (included in the Mamluk empire of Tianfang) and certain other countries had received gifts from China but had not given tribute by 1430. Zheng He’s forebears had been travelling to Egypt for centuries reaching Cairo through the shallow Red Sea-Nile canal. Menzies notes that the pyramids were described on the Chinese 1418 map and on other records. Records also show that, in addition to the visits in the Zhu Di era, the Chinese visited Italy during the time of Zhu Zhanji, the Xuan De emperor (1426 to 1435).

Menzies gives an absorbing account of Cairo and its history. In 1432, Cairo (Mosili, Misr) was said to be the world’s largest port outside China. (The port of Alexandria was known to the Chinese as the Kingdom of Jiegantou.) Trade between Egypt and China had been taking place from centuries before Ibn Battuta’s accounts (‘The Travels of Ibn Battuta, AD 1325-1354’). Among other noteworthy observations is that Cairo’s Friday mosque, Al-Azhar, is connected to the world’s oldest university (founded June 972) still functioning. He also states that ‘The gowns of Oxford and Cambridge universities were copied from those worn by Islamic students’. The British university ‘chair’ is an offshoot of the imam’s perch above his students. Through the ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe, the world’s largest library was stored in Cairo.

Immediately surrounding the Friday mosque were shops selling spices in the bazaar called the Khan el- Khalili, perfumes and incense. Asian spices, which were traded through Cairo, were a major factor in the great wealth of Venice in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to be found in the medicine chests as well as in the kitchens of prominent Italians.

The capture of Byzantium (now Istanbul) by the Crusaders ultimately resulted in the control of the Adriatic by Venetian galleys. Thus, the Chinese ships had safe passage for their journey from Alexandria to Venice; this included the ports along the Dalmatian coast. (Later, Menzies relates the finding of Albertin di Virga’s 1419 map of the Eastern Hemisphere in the mountain town of Srebrenica and speculates that it was possibly a copy of a Chinese map, which had been published before 1419. He also recounts legends of a Dalmatian admiral who had received world maps from a Chinese admiral and used them to voyage to the Far East. Dalmatian ships may have, also, sailed to North and South America.)

Menzies goes into some detail as to ancient world maps and globes. Pizzigano had produced a map of the Caribbean in 1424. The wall of the Doges’ Palace in Venice was said to have had a pre-1428 world map, which showed North America. (This map was said to have been destroyed by a fire in 1486 but was subsequently restored.) The information relating to the Far East shown on this map was said to have been based on that brought back by the travellers Marco Polo (who had returned in 1295) and Niccolo da Conti (who had returned between 1424 and 1434 but had sent mail beforehand to Venice through a friend). It is interesting, also, that around 1436 the artist, Pisanello, who had painted murals in the Doges’ Palace in Venice had painted a fresco in a church at Verona, which included a personage strongly resembling a Mongol general and whom he would have seen in Venice or Verona.

There are intriguing aspects regarding many of the old maps. For instance, Johannes Schoener, who was born in 1477 and lived in a locality distant from the sea, and was not known to be a scholar, produced maps of South America etc before the voyages of Magellan. His globe was dated 1515. Martin Waldseemueller was born in1475 and spent his life working as a canon in a church. He, like Schoener, had never seen the sea. His world map was dated 1507 and produced in a thousand copies. Menzies sums up the fruits of his extensive investigations of the various maps (n.b. See the book for additional information) by attributing the hitherto accepted European ‘discovery’ of the Americas and the earliest circumnavigation of the world to the facilitation resulting from the gift in 1434 of the Chinese globe of the world by the Chinese delegation to the pope. These include, of course, the voyages of Columbus and Magellan.

The book continues with the following of the Chinese fleet up the Adriatic to Venice. On reaching Venice, the ships would have tied up at the Riva degli Schiavoni or Quay of Slaves. This was the customary berth for Chinese and Arab ships. The ‘Schiavoni’ referred to the concubines and slaves, who were sent to the slave market in Venice or on to Florence. The ‘Registro degli Schiavi’ notes that the girls were often in their teens and pregnant when sold. They were often Tartars and thousands were employed by well-to-do households, shopkeepers, priests, nuns etc. Menzies mentions intentions of researching the DNA of Venetians (and populations elsewhere in the world) to ascertain the possibility of tracing genetic mingling.

The Chinese ambassador and the remaining slave girls now moved on to Florence, the population of which had substantial numbers of those with Mongolian features. In later letters of Paolo Toscanelli dated 1474, he records that during this visit Pope Eugenius IV received the Chinese delegation. Toscanelli, also, shows (some eighteen years before the voyage of Columbus to America).that he knows that China can be reached by sailing west.

The arrival of the Chinese delegation in 1434 coincided with the return to power of the Medici family from a period of political exile. The Medicis were extremely wealthy and were prepared to support, financially and otherwise, activities which took their interest. Their friends included the pope and the chancellor of Florence. These factors nurtured the ideas, inventions and culture brought by the Chinese and ensured their development and flowering to a remarkable degree.

Leading intellectuals of the time included Toscanelli, Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, Nicholas of Cusa and Regiomontanus. While space (and my personal inadequacy) do not permit much discussion of these and other intellectuals, it may be noted that Nicholas of Cusa was born in 1401 the son of a boatman, earned a doctorate in canon law and studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic and became prime minister in Rome. He owned a torquetum (instrument similar to an analog computer) based on the Chinese equatorial system. Regiomontanus was born Johann Mueller in Koenigsberg in 1436 (‘Regiomontanus’ was the Latin for ‘Koenigsberg’.) He was a genius in mathematics and astronomy from his youth and Menzies estimates that, had he not died at the young age of forty years, he may well have rivalled Isaac Newton. He was, also, familiar with the Chinese remainder theorem.

The scene now shifts to Florence. Together with an account of its natural beauty, a description is given of the influx of Chinese and others of Asian origin in the 14th and 15th centuries; as seen, for instance, in the art of the town. Comment is also made that between 1413 and 1470 this relatively small Italian town threw up a number of geniuses, who created a wide range of impressive works.

Mariano Taccola (born 1382) was a small-time clerk of works in a small mountain town in Siena (near Florence) who between 1430 and 1454 produced a number of drawings of various subjects such as machines, underwater divers, camels, elephants etc. He was followed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501), who, according to Menzies, plagiarized Taccoa’s work on numerous occasions; the drawings were noted, however, to be superior in quality.

Menzies also reviewed Leonardo da Vinci’s contributions to the Renaissance. Da Vinci was a gifted artist. His paintings (e.g the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’) and drawings (e.g. The ‘Vitruvian Man’) are world famous. However, he made very many (and very varied) other contributions including drawings of mechanical inventions. Menzies cites arguments to support the contention that many of these ‘inventions’ were based on material previously published by Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio, who may themselves have got their inspiration from Chinese works such as the Yongle Dadian, the Nung-shu and the Wu-ching Tsung-yao. The Yongle Dadian was a huge encyclopaedia of 1421, the Nung-shu was an encyclopaedia of 1313 (and the world’s first mass produced book; evidence is presented which disputes Gutenberg’s claim that his Bible was the first to have been produced using moveable type) and the Wu-ching Tsung-yao a reference work on military equipment and techniques. The Nung-shu was an agricultural manual.

The Chinese had been exporting silk to Italy for centuries before the 14th century. By the time Zheng He’s ships reached Venice in 1434 silkworms had been smuggled out of China and small quantities of silk were being produced. By 1456, the silk industry grew rapidly and in 1474 resulted in Venice issuing a law of patents. The resulting economic boom and need to feed more workers led to the large scale cultivation of rice, which was introduced in the 1440s in the Po valley. The agricultural conditions in the area around Venice and Florence were conducive to the successful cultivation of mulberry trees and rice.

Overall, the book contains a huge amount of information and a great deal of discussion of which even a small part cannot be covered in this brief review. However, it is necessary to touch briefly on a disaster which may have been responsible for the destruction of a large number of ships of Zheng He’s fleet. This was the tsunami which is said to have resulted following the impact of the Mahuika comet between 1410 and 1490 in the ocean between Campbell Island and South Island (New Zealand). The impact crater was twelve kilometres across. Menzies states that the tsunami destroyed Chinese ships in New Zealand, around South and East Australia, in the Indian Ocean, in the seas off South Africa and in the Pacific off North and South America. This together with the change of policy decided by the new Emperor in China brought to an end the voyages of discovery.

The book includes at the end a brief but interesting account of the demolition of the Inca empire of 20 million individuals in South America by 180 invaders led by Francisco Pizarro from the landlocked town of Trujillo in Extramadura in Spain.

Dr. Rohan Wickramasinghe is a member of the Executive Committee of the Sri Lanka China Society.

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