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Thursday, July 21, 2011

1421: The Year China Discovered America DVD

Surprisingly well-balanced approach to a controversial theory 

Zheng He (1371-1433)
I fully expected this DVD to be a whole-hearted film adaptation of the book without any criticism of the central thesis. If you are not aware of the thesis, British naval officer Gavin Menzies proposes that the gigantic Chinese "Star Fleet" not only explored the Indian Ocean and the coasts of Africa, India and Arabia, but also went around South Africa, into the Atlantic and eventually landed in the Caribbean, North America and South America. Menzies asserts that they went around Tierra Del Fuego, entered the Pacific and eventually returned to China, thus being the first the circumnavigate the globe.

The DVD is very sketchy about the latter half of this trip (The Pacific Ocean leg). The first hour does a strong job of explaining why you may have never heard of Zheng He or his fleet. It also tells about the voyages that historians are confident that Zheng He completed. This lasts about an hour.

The second half of the DVD focuses on the suggestion that Xheng He went to the Americas. Menzies lays out his case and the casual observer comes away convinced.

Then, the experts are brought out and Menzies solid case becomes more of an interesting speculation, which is really where this belongs. Under close scrutiny, this fun bit of theory develops a lot of holes (including New World and Old World diseases, a topic not even mentioned by the experts but that occurred to me).

It turns out that Menzies has very little solid data to hold up his proposal. That being said, it should not be entirely dismissed. I encourage Menzies to address the shortcomings that were brought up and make the necessary adjustments to his thesis. Will he? I certainly hope so.

I rate this DVD 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 29, 2008.

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