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5/19/2006

Satire, self-parody and court jesters

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:07 am
I was looking for a good way to announce my new position as a member of the Carnival of Bad History team, when Geoff Wade sent this to H-Asia, and Prof. Goodman has graciously agreed to allow me to reprint it here:
Colonial Irony - A review

Paul Chiasson
The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America
St Martin's Press, New York, 2006
376 pages. Bibliography. Notes. Index.

One of the great mysteries of life in Twenty-first Century Sydney is Doyle's Restaurant at Watson's Bay, just inside the southern part of the Heads that lead from the Harbour area into the Pacific Ocean. How does it happen that a fish-and-chip shop is located in an area of such extremely high land values? There is no sense in which this might be regarded as a native construct. Fish and chips are by no means part of the indigenous Australian culture. It would seem that one of the many generations of migrants to these shores had generated Doyle's. Perhaps the French (D'Oyle) the Italians (Dolio) or the Germans (Deller) with subsequent anglicisations of names as is inevitably the Aussie way. Unfortunately, a trawl through the many books written about the history of Sydney's development reveals no such explanation.

Puzzling about this in the summer of 2003 on a visit to Glebooks, I happened upon 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies. Suddenly the penny dropped. As Menzies details, the Chinese Ming Emperor's fleets had come to Sydney in the middle of the Fifteenth Century. Clearly, they had landed at Watson's Bay and settled. With them of course they brought all their cultural practices to establish a new community overseas. As is clearly the case from the contemporary UK, this included Chinese fish-and-chip takeaways. Doyle's is an Aussification of 'Daole' - Chinese for 'arrived,' the words they uttered on reaching Watson's Bay. The mystery is solved.

Surprised? Find this explanation a little fanciful and far-fetched? This is essentially the argument-line, though transposed to Canada, of The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America. It suggests these ideas are merely the logical outcome of the work of Gavin Menzies. In an entertaining and often amusing parody, The Island of Seven Cities deliberately out-Menzieses Menzies. The (presumably) fictional author, Paul Chiasson, starts by explaining that he was dying of AIDS before beginning this project and then places one improbable conjecture after another in telling his tale. Not only did the Chinese settle on Cape Dauphin, Cape Breton Island (in today's Canada) but this was the origin of the myth of Eldorado, and these particular Chinese were Christians.

Lest we are in any doubt that the author's tongue is very firmly in his cheek, the story provides several clues indicating that it is only the foolish reader who will be conned if disbelief is suspended. The style of the telling is deliberately naïve, an exploration of the personal. 'I was no longer prepared to ignore information that didn't fit in comfortably - indeed, that seemed to be the only sort of information I was collecting.' (p.169)

Yet it is the references to Menzies and 1421 which reveal the true intent of The Island of Seven Cities.The topic of 1421 is introduced by saying 'I would normally consider such titles to be in the New Age domain of legends of Lost Atlantis or the Holy Grail ... But Menzies was talking about China ... And the Author had been a naval commander, so would know the oceans.' (p.190.) Menzies's specialist naval knowledge has of course been much challenged -- notoriously his claim that the fleet sailed across the Indian Ocean from Calicut (in West India) to East Africa at the end of the North-east Monsoon (1421 p.88) at a time when there is a South-west Monsoon along that coast that closes it to sailing vessels, and reverses the flow of the ocean's surface current.

Later on, as The Island of Seven Cities is discussing the reasons why the Chinese should want to have settled on Cape Breton Island, the author is drawn to explanations related to that island's supply of coal:

'Coal was important in China and the Chinese would have recognized it immediately wherever they went. Cape Breton offered easy coal, the easiest in the Americas, an inexhaustible source of energy, an irresistible magnet to settlement. Today, we take it for granted that nations will go to any length in their search for energy - energy and information. The Chinese of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are unlikely to have been an exception.' (p.229)

Yet it is a conversation with Menzies that points The Island of Seven Cities towards its eventual denouement of claiming the Chinese colony of Cape Dauphin as the site of the later mythologized Eldorado.

'I was also surprised when he [Menzies] brought up the subject of gold while we were talking about Chinese motivations for coming this far.

"Don't forget that you may be looking at more than an agricultural economy," he said. "Gold was a great motivator, especially then. You may find evidence of smelting on Cape Dauphin."' (p.293)

The subtleties of this kind of approach to poking fun at Menzies are set aside for a less controlled (though still sometimes amusing) silliness when The Island of Seven Cities approaches questions of culture: cultural practices and material culture. The indigenous people of Cape Breton Island are the Mi'kmaq. In highlighting the similarities between continental Chinese culture and tribal Mi'kmaq practices The Island of Seven Cities deliberately repeats the unanthropological approach to anthropology that readers of 1421will immediately recognize:

'As I read about the cultural practices of the Mi'kmaq and the Chinese, I came to see the close similarities between their two worlds, similarities that seemed to go far beyond coincidence. According to early observers, the Mi'kmaq took every opportunity to recite their ancestry and glorify their families. Age was respected, and the person who had the greatest number of children was held in highest esteem. Ancestor worship was a central aspect of Mi'kmaq spiritual life: they believed that the dead had influence over the living and that ancestors needed to be respected and cared for after death. In the preparation for the death of a family member, in the funeral rites and the grave building, and in the length and process of grieving, both the Mi'kmaq and the Chinese shared attitudes and similar ritualized practices...' (p.215)

The joke though wears a little thin when The Island of Seven Cities considers material culture. The Mi'kmaq favour crosses which indicates the Christian background of the Chinese settlers. 'Christianity established itself in China before it made much of an inroad in Europe. By the fifteenth century China had Christian bishops, large churches and an open channel to Rome.' (p. 201) Mi'kmaq women apparently wore pointed hats, not unlike those worn by some non-Chinese inhabitants of areas now located within the borders of the People's Republic of China. 'I had already observed that the distinctive hats once worn by Mi'kmaq women bore obvious similarities to styles worn by various Chinese minority groups.' (p. 279)

These minor defects aside though The Island of Seven Cities has done a magnificent job of pricking the pomposity and pretentiousness of Menzies and 1421. The author, when his or her true identity is revealed, and the publishers, St Martin Press, are to be congratulated for their courage, as well as their sense of the absurd.

David S G Goodman
Professor of Contemporary China Studies
University of Technology, Sydney

If that's not enough to brighten your day, consider this much more serious publication, which includes discussions of Court Jesters around the world, including India and pre-Qing China

20 Responses to “Satire, self-parody and court jesters”

  1. STEWART says:

    Hi, I Have a first cousin who climbed the same mountain as Paul did.He climbed the mountain from the Englishtown side,and located the smaller settlement,he could not beleive what he saw besides the fountations there was a large wall surrounding the settlement.I have recent aerial photographs of the site you can make out a wall from these aerial photographs.What people do not know is that the local micmaq consider this site as being important to there nation, so that is why the Nova Scotia Goverment will not explore the site .I do beleive that Paul should request promission from the Micmaq First nations people,and also request thier imput, and assistance.The site in qestion has an ancient burial ground on it.

  2. If you have pictures, post them somewhere: flickr, blogger, whatever. Then we can talk about what, if anything, they might mean

  3. Chris Salsman says:

    My family is from Cape Dauphin, and has lived there on and off for 200 years. My family and my cousins keep several cottages pretty much directly below where the site is. What is up there has been a subject of discussion of our family on and off for many years. There are lots of very interesting things around Cape Dauphin, and it’s an area with a lot of history and myth. The Fairy Hole cave is something really interesting as well. I was at this site four years ago not knowing a thing about it other than my great grandfather thought it could have been an old scottish settlement, according to my grandmother. There are other ruined foundations similar to the ones on the top of the hill near the shore below the site that I think could be connected to the top of the mountain. These ruins are definately something unknown to current historians, whether they are chinese, I’m not sure, Chaisson lays out of a lot of evidence. If it’s not chinese though, the real question is.. how could a site this big have gone unrecorded by the French or British if they built it. It’s bigger than the original Louisburg fort, one of the most important installations in the atlantic in its day.

  4. Patty Cogen says:

    Seemingly far-fetched ideas that challenge or break old, accepted paradigms are initially considered laughable, treason or heresy according to Thomas Kuhn’s classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

    The most convincing arguement for early Chinese explorations are the detailed maps they had of the “New World”.Check the map at the 1421 Website (http://www.1421.tv/assests/images/maps/1418-map) These maps guided the Europeans on their voyages of “re-discovery’.

  5. Please don’t play the Galileo Gambit: it’s so old. The map you cite’s been the subject of significant debunking and is most likely a fraud, though whether it’s a venerable 18th century fraud or a current and ongoing hoax is very much under debate. (also here)

  6. [...] Nova Scotia, Canada. I have recently come across your response to an article on the Internet “http://www.froginawell.net/china/2006/05/satire-self-parody-and-court-jesters/” I would like to share information regarding this site and possibly contribute to your [...]

  7. C F MacKenzie says:

    I thought the book was a fascinating exercise in self-deception. However, I can’t arrive at your conclusion that it is a self-parody or satire of Menzies work. I believe Paul Chaisson is misguided, but quite sincere. My sister met him abouot a month ago and he is still trying to drag anyone he can to the site. He convinced two of her Micmaq colleagues, who are very knowledgable about Micmaq history, to go. They saw nothing to back up his claims.

    If he had spoken with the locals at the beginning of his quest, he might have been a little more skeptical about his conclusions. For example, the road ascending the mountain, rather than taking hundreds of men years to build was, unlike Rome, built in a day. My uncle built it with a dozer on a Saturday in 1952, to get crews and equipment to a fire on top of the mountain. The “walls” are a fire break created to battle another fire in 1968. The outlying pads from the central settlement were built in 1988 for drill rigs doing work to delineate a potential quarry for Kelly Rock. In fact at least one still has the head of an observation well sticking out of it. The angles and planes of the rocks which supposedly indicate hand cutting are simply the fracture planes of that particular type of rock, and from what I’ve been told, can be seen in many areas on top of the mountain.

    Why anyone would choose the top of Cape Dauphin to build a settlement eludes me. There is little to no soil, in fact trees have difficulty growing there. One area burned by the 1968 fire has reverted to barren. The site would have been quite difficult to establish and the cape bears the brunt of storms coming in of the Atlantic, making it a miserable place in the winter.

    Why build there when there is the beautiful sheltered harbour of Saint Ann’s Bay, with better agricultural land just around the corner. Arguably, it could have been a defensive position, but from whom? The early French experience with the Micmaq showed them to be a peaceable people.

    I believe that Mr. Chaisson has commited the not uncommon sin of seeing what he wants to see in order to fit a pet theory.

  8. Goodman is being facetious when he accuses Chaisson of satire. Goodman is, however, entirely serious about Chaisson’s arguments being historically absurd.

    Thanks for the observations: it’s great to hear from someone without an axe to grind and with personal knowledge of the site.

  9. Alan Lehto says:

    You’re all right to be skeptical, but I don’t think anyone without a pre-conceived notion has looked at the spot. CF MacKenzie’s rebuttal above misses some points in the original book. Chiasson claims he sees the walls in aerial photos back to 1929, and that the road has tight switchbacks too tight for machinery. Assuming he is telling the truth, this means that MacKenzie’s explanations don’t fit the facts either.
    There’s an article on the CBC website (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/nova-scotia/story/2006/07/27/capebreton-chinese.html) about archeologists who walk around the site one day and don’t believe it, but the quotes seem so dismissive, they couldn’t have been taking it seriously.

    I’m going to wait until someone with training in being rigorously scientific, with some help from Micmac First Nations representatives does some real exploration up there.

  10. Richard says:

    I always find it intersting to read the quotes about something that is out of the ordinary. There is positive and negative comments about the ancient tombs of the past pharoahs, about the so called lost city of alantis, about the ancient mayans. What if all these are possible, what if the Chinese did settle on Cape Breton first? Why is it so far fetched? I have just started to read Pauls’s book, and i find it quite intriguing and also quite possible to be the truth.

    I look forward to the next step of seeing this through

    Richard

  11. Gail Anderson says:

    Prior to archeological proof did historians believe that L’Anse aux Meadows was a Viking settlement? It is now proven to be the earliest known European settlement in the New World (around 1000 to 1010). It wasn’t until 1978 that the archaeological remains at the site were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Let’s not be so critical and give Paul Chaisson and Gavin Menzies a chance to prove their theories. I’ve read both books and although some things may appear far-fetched other things appear intriguingly plausible! The Chinese were a very advanced society – if our history books need to be rewritten so be it!

  12. They’ve had many chances, and the evidence isn’t there. Not say that it might not be, but it would have to be extraordinary evidence to overcome the known facts which run directly counter to Menzies’ theory. This isn’t a case where — as in the Viking case — there was a gap in the historical record, and new evidence filled it; in this case there’s substantial credible evidence in the way.

  13. David Trent says:

    Hi there,
    I have visited Nova Scotia last week (Holiday) and met with a history teacher who has told me about the Cape Breton site and gave me the book (The Island of Seven Cities) written by Paul Chiasson.
    For many years now I have an interest in archeology and Paentologie and have visited many sites in Europe and in Australia, where I live.
    I am not a history expert, but like many of you I like to know …… and like to have some evidence to prove the story.
    I am planing a visit to Nova Scotia in July 2009 to collect some buried remains of an old WW2 camps for a local historian society.
    While I be visiting Nova Scotia I would like to do some location study of the Cape Breton area.
    If there is any one living locally who would like to join or past on more information, please contact me on roo1961@hotmail.com

  14. pierreb says:

    I can’t get enough of the online responses on this and other sites about Chiasson’s book. It won’t seem to go away, which tells me that it is worthy of serious investigation.

    Has anyone done carbon dating on these ruins to determine their age? If they started there, that would at least prove or disprove the above claims about recent work from 1952 and 1968 etc. From there, a proper dig could be undertaken to examine the site in detail by an interested university group.

    A casual outing by a few museum workers from Halifax does not measure up to Chiasson’s work. Their response seems lazy and biased, typical of bureaucrats who should not be deciding on such matters.

    We all know how these kinds of discoveries in science and history are first met with resistance or ridicule. The response from authorities throughout history is always the same. I suppose it’s just Human nature for the comfortable to resist the unknown.

    Why do people who claim to hold expertise and technical skill in these areas refuse to use those skills to build on the very knowledge they claim to protect? Get to work and prove him wrong instead of dismissing him off the cuff with arrogant and elitist notions about scientific processes.

    Human history is by nature an incomplete project and until they study it in some detail – using their own ‘scientific’ methods to complete Chiasson
    ‘s inquiry, the cynics appear far more foolish than the man they mock.

  15. Andy Fitts says:

    There seems to be credible evidence building concerning wide ranging Chinese exploration by sea in the 1400′s. I find it amusing to read some of the so called ‘scholars’ of the establishment refuting these conclusions. The vehemence of some of their responses is a heightened indicator that some kind of truth has arisen that they can’t control. When I see this kind of thing in any field of knowledge, it instantly alerts me to ask why some people feel such a strong need to oppose the new information coming out. It is usually because such people have an agenda. It counteracts something that they stand for, and is seen as a threat. If they were free thinking people interested in the truth, they would be better at suspending judgement and joining in the discussion. Time and impartial inquiry always brings out the truth. Why can’t we trust in the process?

    Alas, it is human nature, or at least the lower realms of human nature that makes some of us hold onto our territory and fight till the finish, despite information that we may be wrong.

    Reading deeper, I sense that some folks feel that they’ve been given the role (or grabbed it themselves) to defend the honor of the status quo. To allow the game change of the Chinese having had a leg up on us, is unthinkable. What does that say about us? As barbaric westerners sailed the seas and overcame the natives by deceit, disease, and arms, what does that say about us, compared to the picture emerging of the Chinese entering cultures as traders, sophisticated communicators, sharing knowledge that help all parties in the end. Granted, the tribute system used by the Chinese has its own type of manipulation, yet it is vastly different than how Europeans barged into new lands and created chaos and then domination.

    As westerners, we are increasingly exposing ourselves as spoiled brats, clawing at the last vestiges of our ignorance that we think protects us. Thank goodness that era is coming to an end. Our system is showing its flaws. Our only way out, without self-destructing, is to open up to the information and learn to share the inquiry.

    Coming to realize that the Chinese of yesteryear (maybe not in modern times) had a superior culture than ours at the time of the Ming Dynasty is not that difficult to grasp. Why not consider it likely that they embarked on world voyages, with all the technology and social sophistication that they had? Give it a go. What have we got to lose? Our ignorance?

  16. No, there’s no credible evidence supporting the idea of Chinese exploration of the Pacific or beyond the Cape of Africa. The reason we are objecting strenuously is that there is no evidence: “part of the process” as you put it, is for scholars to look closely at the evidence offered in favor of new ideas, and to challenge those ideas if they are insufficiently or fraudulently supported. Most of us who post and comment here regularly are quite aware of the centuries in which Chinese technology and society were more sophisticated than the West. But it’s about what they did, not what the could do; it’s about the actual history, not about some imagined or wounded pride.

  17. L says:

    Why is it that you never hear input from any of the local Native peoples in any matter concerning all these bunk theories of outsiders settling among the Native folk? It seems that in the quest to one up the other, both Westerners and non-Westerners (Afrocentrics, Sinocentrics, etc.) care little about Native input unless it corroborates their agenda. After all, Natives are too brutish and ignorant to have created any type of structure above a hut, right? Fortunately, some Natives have given their input and it points to “No, no foreigners came to settle here.”

  18. Robert Thompson says:

    You are very naive to believe that Mr Chaisson is writing this book as a parody or to poke fun at Mr Menzies or the Chinese notion. He has taken this very seriously and while totally ill informed and poorly researched (I also live in this area), there is a strong movement to claim this as fact. In fact, there are many people making moeny off of this notion and a tv show is in the works. People will do anything to sell books and make money even if it means distorting facts and twisting history. Wake up, people!

  19. Robert Thompson says:

    I also have to wonder how many of the responses that are supporting this notion are written by Chiasson and his cronies! I see the same argument put forth in the comments. There is no great FEAR that the Chinese may have discovered North America, any more than the fact that the Portuguese fishermen have been here since the 14th century. It is much more due to the fact that the Chinese have no written, verbal or physical history of such a great accomplishment. Good luck on your battle, Mr Chiasson!

  20. You are very naive to believe that Mr Chaisson is writing this book as a parody

    Prof. Goodman was, himself, writing in a satirical vein. The purpose is to show that Menzies’ and Chaisson’s ideas are so ridiculous that they can only be considered a kind of self-parodic act.

    If the commenters here were actually Mr. Chiasson or a “sock puppet” persona, I’d expect a much more vigorous and detailed defense.

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