Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa

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Laputan Logic*
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
China's Own Vinland Map

Posted on Wednesday 18 January 2006


Apparently, by the early fifteenth century, the Chinese, who were at the time unquestionably the greatest navigators in the world, had already charted all the continents of the world including both North and South America, Australia and Antartica.

That's according to a map recently discovered in China which purports to be a copy made in 1763 of an older map supposedly made in 1418. This is pretty astonishing stuff if proven true. We know that over a period of several centuries up until the mid-1400s, the Chinese did indeed maintain extensive network of trade links with the countries of the Indian Ocean, especially with Sri Lanka, India, Persia and the Middle East and the east coast of Africa. This was exemplified famously with the export of a live giraffe from the African port of Malindi (now in Kenya) to the Imperial court and, of course, with the voyages of the legendary Chinese eunuch admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He).

According to this article about it in the Economist

The map was bought for about $500 from a small Shanghai dealer in 2001 by Liu Gang, one of the most eminent commercial lawyers in China, who collects maps and paintings. Mr Liu says he knew it was significant, but thought it might be a modern fake. He showed his acquisition to five experienced collectors, who agreed that the traces of vermin on the bamboo paper it is written on, and the de-pigmentation of ink and colours, indicated that the map was more than 100 years old.

Mr Liu was unsure of its meaning, and asked specialists in ancient Chinese history for their advice, but none, he says, was forthcoming. Then, last autumn, he read “1421: The Year China Discovered the World”, a book written in 2003 by Gavin Menzies, in which the author makes the controversial claim that Zheng He circumnavigated the world, discovering America on the way. Mr Menzies, who is a former submariner in the Royal Navy and a merchant banker, is an amateur historian and his theory met with little approval from professionals. But it struck a chord: his book became a bestseller and his 1421 website is very popular. In any event, his arguments convinced Mr Liu that his map was a relic of Zheng He's earlier voyages.

The detail on the copy of the map is remarkable. The outlines of Africa, Europe and the Americas are instantly recognisable. It shows the Nile with two sources. The north-west passage appears to be free of ice. But the inaccuracies, also, are glaring. California is shown as an island; the British Isles do not appear at all. The distance from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean is ten times greater than it ought to be. Australia is in the wrong place (though cartographers no longer doubt that Australia and New Zealand were discovered by Chinese seamen centuries before Captain Cook arrived on the scene).

The commentary on the map, which seems to have been drawn from the original, is written in clear Chinese characters which can still be easily read. Of the west coast of America, the map says: “The skin of the race in this area is black-red, and feathers are wrapped around their heads and waists.” Of the Australians, it reports: “The skin of the aborigine is also black. All of them are naked and wearing bone articles around their waists.”

But did the Chinese really round the Cape of Good Hope and go on to circumnavigate the world? That depends a number of things, whether this map is authentic - the map is currently undergoing mass spectrography analysis at Waikato University in New Zealand to confirm its age - but, even more importantly, it also needs to be proven whether this really was an accurate copy of a much older map from the fifteenth century.

It is this second point that makes me wonder. Despite various inaccuracies that are evident in the map, on the whole it looks very much like a modern one and very unlike any other maps made in either China or even Europe during the same period. For one thing the map orients North to the top and uses something very close to a Mercator projection. The accurate renderings of continental shapes and positions implies that the navigators had a very good reckoning of longitude, something that was not achieved in the West until the 18th century with the advent of reliable mechanical clocks. What is known about Indian Ocean navigation of the time was that shipping was heavily dependent on the cycle of the monsoons and that ships tended to stick to the same latitude for the entire trip from Malaya to India and from there to Africa.

It's worth taking a moment to contrast the map with one that was considered to be the state of the art in 1402, The Kangnido. This map, which was more a comprehensive compilation of global features than anything available in Europe at the time makes no use of accuarate scale let alone any scheme of "projection".

Yoktae chewang honil kangnido
Map of Historical Emperors and Kings and of Integrated Borders and Terrain

A Korean map made in 1402 and drawing heavily on Chinese sources. Moving from right to left we have Korea (with a tiny Japan below it) followed by China and India shown here as a single body with Sri Lanka to its bottom left. To the far left are the African and Arabian pennisulas. Africa is depicted with a massive internal sea, possibly based on rumours of Lake Victoria.

If you ask me (and I'm of course no expert but that's never stopped me before), I'd say the map looks a lot like a fairly accurate representation of the state of Chinese navigational knowledge in the year, let's say, 1763 rather than 1418. By that time, of course, most of the Americas had already been charted as had large parts of Australia. It's not too much of a stretch to think that the Chinese had seen plenty of Dutch and Portuguese maps by that time.

But the thing that clinches it for me is a feature on the map that has been touted a possible mark of it's authenticity but its boosters: The map depicts California as an island.
Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.
This a famous excerpt from a 16th century romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián which was written in 1510 by Garcia Ordoñez de Montalvo. It was from this fantasy island that the real California got its name and a for a very long time afterward, the penninsula was repeated mistaken for an island despite having been proven to be connected to the mainland as early as 1539.

So did Montalvo get this notion from Chinese map makers. Or did the Chinese map makers get it from Montalvo? Or is it just a coincidence?

Johann Georg Schreiber. "America." From Atlas Selectus. Leipzig: J.G. Schriber, ca. 1740.

Update: more on Liu Gang's map here.