井底之蛙

3/5/2007

Gavin Menzies, Historian

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:08 pm

A few weeks ago I received a flyer from a publisher who shall remain nameless. They are soliciting people to write pro and con essays on various historical controversies. I realize that projects can change a lot, but at present it looks like rubbish. They combine…

-Interesting historical questions like if American slavery was profitable, or if Nestorius was really a Nestorian.

-Trivia like the authorship of Shakespeare or if Richard III killed the princes.

-Crazy stuff like did Atlantis exist, and is the Holy Grail really in Wales.

They also want someone to write on the Menzies controversy. I suppose if they put him in with Atlantis and the Welch Grail I would be o.k. with that. Still, it was bothersome to me to see someone entirely lacking in credibility like Menzies being mixed up with real history.

Then this week I got something much worse. Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader vol II, published by Bedford St. Martin’s and edited by Kevin Reilly of Raritan Valley College. It is a collection of short primary and secondary readings on various topics in World History. Surprise, surprise, there is a selection from Menzies’ book. Reilly points out that Menzies’swork has “caused a stir among historians”, and states that this selection “contains the author’s more reliable discussion of preparations for the great Chinese naval expedition of 1421.” which at least implies that the editor does not take Menzies seriously. The actual selection just a summary of stuff about the Ming and the tribute system and there is nothing obviously dishonest about it.

So why does it bother me so much? I normally am not all that concerned with issues of status, but it really bothers me to see an obvious fraud like Menzies getting exposure and credibility. Soon he will be as solidly lodged in history as George Washington’s cherry tree, Qin Shihuang burying the Confucians, and Francis Bacon as Shakespeare.

9 responses to “Gavin Menzies, Historian”

  1. It bothers me because there are other authors — credible ones — who have written on the same topics. It’s really as simple as that: you don’t assign known frauds to students, even on topics where they are “more reliable,” when alternatives exist.

    Now maybe this was Reilly’s way of doing what his publisher wanted — courting controversy — while not diluting the product too much, but it’s a poor compromise. Too bad: I’ve got the book on my shelf, too, waiting for review, and I think I’m going to have to give it a pass, now, and stick to my original plan of using online sourcebook materials.

  2. Suya says:

    At the risk of causing distress — Qin Shihuangdi’s burying of scholars and burning of books didn’t happen?

  3. elizabeth says:

    Well at least you can be rest assured that no Asianist who teaches world history (and we probably end up teaching half the world history lectures in the US) will ever assign that textbook. And as for the publisher who wants to include the Menzies debate in his controversy series, why not see if H-Asia will let him publish their thread on that. Frankly I am so sick of the whole thing. (We waste far too much breath and ink on him.)

    But this does point to a serious problem. China historians (Jonathan Spence aside) are not publishing monographs with popular appeal. And there is a HUGE demand for anything China. So until we start being more accessible, people will continue to get their Ming history from Menzies and gender studies from Wild Swans. And then again here I am writing that dissertation that will hold my interest and get me that job rather than a big fat book contract and a spot on Oprah – part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  4. Alan Baumler says:

    At the risk of causing distress — Qin Shihuangdi’s burying of scholars and burning of books didn’t happen?

    Derek Bodde discusses this in Cambridge History of China vol. 1. He concludes that book burning probably did happen, and that scholars probably were persecuted, but that the stories about scholars being buried alive are almost certainly not true.

  5. Hilary Smith says:

    Michael Nylan also says that the Qin burning of the books was not quite as thorough or indiscriminate as Han scholars would later suggest that it had been. She suggests the sacking and burning of the Qin capital did as much damage in terms of text loss as the book-burning edict. See her book, The Five “Confucian” Classics, pp.28-30.

  6. elizabeth said: “The actual selection just a summary of stuff about the Ming and the tribute system and there is nothing obviously dishonest about it…So why does it bother me so much? I normally am not all that concerned with issues of status, but it realy bothers me to see an obvious fraud like Menzies getting exposure and credibility.”

    Yes, yes, yes. There are hard working and rigorous historians of Ming China who should be recognized for their work, some of them: 1. Geoff Wade (Singapore), 2. Liew Foon Ming (Germany), 3. Christian Daniels (Tokyo).

    People like Menzies who try to make a name for themselves by creating over-stated over-excited controversies to draw attention to themselves and that play up to certain vested political interests while avoiding the hard work of scholarship and working critically with the sources…should be exposed for the fraud they are.

    >But this does point to a serious problem.
    >China historians (Jonathan Spence aside)
    > are not publishing monographs with popular appeal.

    What about Timothy Brook? for example:

    Brook, Timothy (1998). The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    >And there is a HUGE demand for anything China. So until we >start being more accessible, people will continue to get >their Ming history from Menzies and gender studies from >Wild Swans.

    I agree with you there. There is sometimes an overhwelming presupposition that scholarship is not worth anything unless it sceptically tears the primary sources to shreds. I once heard a western historian of the Tang refer disparagingly to the Brook work above as a popularisation and not real economic history (????)

    IMHO accessibility might be helped by the ***valorization of translations***. I read the Brook translation of a Ming merchants manual over the weekend, wonderful. Academia doesn’t seem to valorize translation enough, as an act of making primary sources more widely accessible.

  7. J Chan says:

    [Comment Deleted] J Chan: You have been warned before. If you have nothing constructive to add to the discussion your comments will be deleted without further warning. Your random insults are not welcome here. -KML

    UPDATE: Several other comments by J Chan on this posting, which continue to mix discussion of the posting with insults, have also been deleted, despite protests about “freedom of speech.” I will just note that, while reasoned and specific critiques of any arguments made in the postings are welcome, those wishing to insult the bloggers here at Frog in a Well are “free” to do so on their own blogs, or elsewhere on the internet. However, it is silly to suggest that a guest, visiting a house, for example, has the freedom to spray insults on the walls. We may clarify our comment policy soon to avoid confusion, but in the meantime, posters reserve the right to delete comments which are irrelevant to the discussion of the posting, or which are disrespectful and insulting. Visitors are perfectly “free” to post such material on their own websites.

  8. m harris says:

    I just recently read the 3/5/2007 post by Alan Baumler with interest. He mentions “Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader”, edited by Kevin Reilly, and bemoans a selection included that was taken from Menzies’ book, widely identified as bogus history (my position). I looked, without success, in both volumes of “Worlds” and could find nothing taken from Menzies, nor indeed any mention of Menzies. These two volumes do not provide indices, so I had to skim them page by page and may have missed it. Chapter 1- Chinese and European Expansion (1400-1600), where it most likely would appear, contains an introduction by Reilly which tells us “Before 1434, Chinese shipbuilding technology was the envy of the world.” A grandiose, anachronistic assertion that perhaps reveals bias. The chapter opens with a selection by Nicholas D. Kristof, and he discusses the design of Zheng He’s large ship with ” balanced rudders and watertight bulwark compartments” ; and of the Portuguese “eventually sailing around the Horn to Asia.” Of course he means to write “bulkhead compartments” and “around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia.” Elementary blunders that suggest his knowledge of Chinese shipbuilding, and geography, are deficient.

    If I missed the material in “Worlds” that Baumler alludes to, please smarten me up – provide a page number and edition, or the correct citation wherever it may reside. I am collecting examples of Gavin’s contamination.

  9. Alan Baumler says:

    Dear M. Harris,

    Sorry I can’t help on the page numbers. I tossed the book (rather than giving it to the library) I think this was the first edition, and they are up to four now. I’m glad to see they have taken that out.

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