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The Chinese In Pre-Columbian Mexico
By Bill Mesusan
As the 21st century evolves into “The Chinese Century” it’s fascinating to contemplate the possibility, even probability, that the Chinese discovered the western coast of the American continent before Columbus ever set eyes on the West Indies.
The story of the Chinese discovery of America and Mexico begins with Hwui Shan, a 5th Century Buddhist priest from Afghanistan, who came to China as a young missionary around the year 450 A.D.
During this period of great expansion for Buddhism, it wasn’t unusual for zealous monks to journey to far off regions to share their evangelical fervor. Priests traveled the Silk Road, west to the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
Hwui Shan and four fellow priests chose a much different route than other missionaries, casting their fate to the winds, literally, and to the currents as well when they set sail to the east of China.
The distance and directions given by Hwui Shan indicate a coastal island-hopping route: across the North Pacific, past the Aleutian Islands to Alaska, then down the entire west coast of America as far as Mexico. The monks remained in Mexico for forty years observing the country.
Many 19th century Western scholars were convinced that Hwui Shan crossed the Pacific and landed on the west coast of the American continent. His story generated controversy, numerous articles, and even a book (Edward Payson Vining’s An Inglorious Columbus).
The great explorer Alexander von Humboldt described Hwui Shan as the Leif Ericson of China, and “Fusang” as the Vinland of the West. The voyage of this Marco Polo in reverse is ignored by modern historians.
Hwui Shan’s is not a new story. What is new is the theory proposed by British author Gavin Menzies in his best-selling book 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered the World. Menzies writes that the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China on March 8, 1421. This expedition, massive 400-foot-long junks, was under the command of Admiral Zheng He and other loyal eunuch admirals circumnavigated the globe (a century before Magellan).
Menzies claims this Chinese fleet sailed around Africa, up the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, landed in America 70 years before Columbus, settled Australia and New Zealand 300 years before Captain Cook, and mapped the entire globe long before historic European voyages of discovery.
Did the daring Zheng beat Columbus to America by two years? Did the Chinese really explore Mexico at this time? Menzies claims remain controversial.
Most critics believe the limits of Zheng He’s voyages are clear. He made a series of trips between 1405-1433 in the course of which he surveyed portions of the Indian Ocean already well-known.
What about this Chinese expedition and its explorations in Mexico?
Menzies most compelling evidence is his references to the pre-Hispanic lacquer art known in Mexico as Maque. Lacquer art, a highly unusual, complex and time-consuming method of decoration, flourished in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Michoacán.
Menzies points out that the technical lacquering processes in China and Mexico are almost exactly alike (except for the use of local materials). Although the intricate processes are almost identical in China and Mexico, this doesn’t prove that the Chinese taught indigenous Mexican’s the art. It may have arisen simultaneously, independent of cross-cultural influences.
Much of the evidence presented in 1421 has been contested by experts in cartography and naval architecture. The behemoth junks are considered a technical absurdity, the story relies on ocean currents that don’t exist, and Menzies most important map is considered a 21st century fake. The book’s premise is highly speculative, improbable, and viewed as a fabrication.
The author hasn’t helped his own cause. In his Acknowledgements, Menzies writes that his book is for the general reader and three-fourths of the evidence had to be omitted. He now claims: “The great bulk of the new evidence that has enabled me to make such startling claims has come from readers of my book.”
Menzies thinks records, documents, and maps of the 1421-23 voyages were deliberately hidden or expunged by officials of the Chinese court during an abrupt change in foreign policy.
When Emperor Zhu Di lost control, and China began a long, self-imposed isolation from the world, “The great ships rotted at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed.” The Spanish word demasiado, which translates as “too much,” is applicable to this historical novel masquerading as revisionist history. Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto considers 1421 devoid of “evidence, logic, scholarship, and sense.”
This brings us full circle back to Hwui Shan since evidence of his sea voyage to Mexico 1,000 years before Columbus discovered America is highly credible. First, there’s a written record.
Hwui Shan related his tale to courtier Prince Yu Kie. This was recorded in official court documents for the year 499. It was later published (circa 600) by historian Li Yan Chu in his Records of the Liang Dynasty. Additional passages are found in Ma Twan Lin’s Antiquarian Researches, published in 1321. The story appears in later Chinese works, including encyclopedias, and is always treated as a history (not a fable).
Hwui Shan unique story is the only actual record yet found that may be an historical account of an early East-West connection, although numerous discoveries suggest contacts dating back to 1200 B.C.
The second remarkable feature of Hwui Shan’s chronicle is his accuracy, in both distance and direction, in describing the journey from China to America (as well as the plausibility of his route).
Is the general direction “east” inaccurate for his journey? Not really. Consider that our western coastline doesn’t run north and south, but at a forty-five degree angle towards the east (i.e. due southeast). The common misconception that the Pacific Coast runs north-south results from printing a flat projection map of North America on a page.
In fact, it’s easy to imagine Hwui Shan making a successful journey from China since Asia and North America are almost joined together at Bering Strait. The sea route along the Aleutian Islands allows even small, primitive boats to follow it without ever being long out of sight of land.
The most amazing quality of Hwui Shan’s observations is the way his descriptions of the people and places he visited correspond to the North Pacific route and with what is known about America during that period. His “Land of Marked Bodies” is located 2,300 miles northeast of Japan. The tattoos or face paintings he described on local villagers are identical to those observed at Point Barrow, Alaska, in the 19th century.
Hwui Shan’s vivid description of “Fusang” (Mexico) is fascinating. “The region has many Fusang trees,” he said, “and these give it its name.” “…its first sprouts are like bamboo shoots. The people of the country eat them. They spin thread from the bark and make coarse cloth from which they make clothing and from it they also make a finer fabric.”
“Mexico,” writes Professor Charles E. Chapman, means “the land of the century-plant.” The sprouts of the century plant resemble bamboo and indigenous peoples in Mexico did eat them. The century plant furnishes a rough thread from which hemp cloth is made and also a finer variety similar to linen. Paper is made from the plant’s fiber.
The century plant (genus Agave in Latin), called maguey in Mexico, is described as a tree by residents of the American Southwest because its tall, branching, flowered stalk can reach a height of thirty feet.
Upon his return to China, Hwui Shan presented the Emperor with three hundred pounds of the silk of the “Fusang” tree and “a kind of semi-transparent stone cut in the form of a mirror.” This object might have been a polished obsidian mirror, the kind used by ancient Mexicans.
“They have a system of writing,” he reports. “But they have no fortresses or walled cities, no military weapons or soldiers and they do not wage war in that kingdom.” Did the wandering monks happen upon Mexico’s golden age, now referred to by archeologists as the Classic Period?
The Mexicans of that age possessed a system of hieroglyphic writing; a calendar more accurate than our own, and knowledge of mathematics that included a symbol for zero (centuries before the concept was known in Europe).
They built great metropolitan cities, one named Teotihuacán, not to be confused with Aztec cities that were discovered at the time of the Spanish conquest. These cities, unique in the history of ancient cultures, had no walls or fortifications. The inhabitants had no enemies and appear to have known nothing about war.
The Mexicans of the Classic Period cremated their dead, a practice unheard of at any other time in Mexican history. This opens up the question of a Buddhist influence upon these peoples.
“The ground contains no iron,” reported Hwui Shan, “but it has copper. The people do not value gold and silver.”
Iron existed in Mexico, but its use was unknown at this time. The Spanish were the first to mine it. Copper was used by the Tarascans to make needles, pliers, awls, hatchets, and the cutting edges of farm tools. The Tarascans (a.k.a. Purépechans) lived in western Mexico, the region where Hwui Shan would’ve landed.
In his Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, Diaz states that gold and silver were bought and sold like other commodities in Mexico City’s marketplace and paid for with the regular currency of the country, which was cocoa.
There are inconsistencies with Hwui Shan’s accounts, but his observations are relatively free of the incredible and the marvelous. Dr. Charles E. Chapman, a noted American historian, wrote: “Either “Fusang” was in America, presumably in Mexico, or else the story was a lie. The evidence that it was true is almost overwhelming”
Hwui Shan’s journey may never be proved, but what a mind-boggling event to contemplate: five Buddhist monks trekking around central Mexico more than one thousand years before Columbus discovered America.
(Ed. Note: The illustration was done by Michael Boss, who can be researched at www.michaelboss.com)