Postings by Matthew Mosca

Contact: matt [at] froginawell.net

Menzies Continued

Filed under: — Matthew Mosca @ 11:36 pm

It has been suggested to me that it may be a good time to begin a new discussion of the original Menzies topic, which was first posted in January and has now garnered 30 comments.  I will therefore begin one with a comment I posted yesterday.  (The original discussion, started by Jonathan Dresner, can be viewed here.)

As my comment is in response to one by Gunnar Thompson, PhD, I will post the beginning of his observations here, the full text may be viewed through the link above.  He writes:

“I have been studying early voyages to the New World for the past 30 years with a primary foucus on ancient maps for the past 15. When I first learned about the Chinese Admiral Zheng He nearly 17 years ago, I was struck by the enormous resources that were available to the leader of the Chinese navy, the enormous ships, the tens of thousands of mariners and laborers involved in the logistics behind the seven expeditions between China, the Middle East, and Africa. It seemed to me that anybody with those kinds of resources, especially when you consider the cooperation of the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Muslims (who arguably had the best astronomers in the world) should have been able to explore the Americas and to make a map. So, I was never burdened with the doctrinaire belief that “no Chinese Map of the World could possibly exist.”

Reading Dr. Thompson’s post, I can’t help but make the following observation. Far from being “burdened with the doctrinaire belief that ‘no Chinese Map of the World could possibly exist,’” I think I can speak for most of my colleagues in the field of Chinese history when I say that a). scholars have a full appreciation of the development of Chinese science and technology before the modern era, and b). historians of China would be, in principle, delighted to discover conclusive evidence that Ming voyages reached America (what scholar doesn’t take pride in the achievements of the place and time they study?). Furthermore, as press coverage and the sale of Mr. Menzies’s book has demonstrated, most journalists and their readers are by no means burdened with such knee-jerk ‘doctrinaire’ beliefs. However, I can only concur with the views of a Chinese scholar, quoted in one of the relevant H-Asia postings, that promoting an unsubstantiated claim will ultimately only harm the field, as well as popular views of past Chinese achievements. I am quite happy to admit that I hesitate to accept extreme hypotheses based on scant proof, but not that I am impelled by ‘dogma’ to dispute that American was discovered by someone other than Columbus. This strikes me as the standard straw-man argument of those pitching far-fetched ideas.

What concerns me about Dr. Thompson’s argument (and Menzies’ book) is the degree to which European evidence is advanced to support their claims. It would not be impossible, let me hasten to add, for knowledge from Ming China to reach Europe even before the arrival in China of the Portuguese, through the channel of indirect trade. What is patently odd, however, is that evidence for a Chinese voyage should circulate more widely in Europe than in China – no authoritative Chinese source about the Zheng He voyages supports such claims (despite several accounts of his voyages, some first-hand, surviving charts detailing his route, and coverage in numerous official and non-official compilations). The lack of Chinese evidence has led most serious scholars of Chinese history, within and without China, to dismiss these claims. (Parenthetically, the lack of corroborating Chinese evidence also seems like the best reason to dismiss the “Mo Map,” the appearance of which can only be labeled extremely convenient.) If we are to adopt Dr. Thompson’s course and pit en bloc dogmatic mainstream scholars against far-sighted theorists, let me strike a blow for the former and say that I find it curious that men who read no Chinese can see more clearly that Zheng He discovered America than masterful (and patriotic) Chinese scholars of Ming history who have every reason to support the notion, and only their scholarly conscience to restrain them.

I have not read Menzies’ book. I picked it up when it came out, intrigued. I flipped through the back matter, and came upon a line in which he adduced as evidence in support of his claims a similarity between “Chile” and the Chinese place-name Zhili 直隸 (given there, I believe, in Wade-Giles romanization as Chih-li). I put it down, and have not picked it up again. Similarly, I had sufficient immediate doubt about the content of Mr. Mo’s supposed 18th-century map (in addition to the more comprehensive arguments of other scholars) to prevent me from devoting days to its minute study. This is not to belittle the issue. The interest stimulated by the Menzies theory and its debate has been considerable, and it is the duty of historians to comment on the reliability of information passing through the public realm. I imagine that evolutionary biologists did not take pleasure in reading through the pronouncements of Kansas school board members. Some, however, took the trouble to rebut them out of a sense of their public duty as scholars. In the same vein I salute my colleagues in history who have the patience to spend weeks carefully rebutting claims from which they can derive no edification. The interest of this topic to the public makes it, and its debate, worthwhile.

At the same time, I feel constrained as a student of history to add that ultimately it matters little whether Zheng He reached America or not. From the perspective of Chinese history, scholars have long dealt with the conundrum that the Ming government initiated direct contact with India and the Arab world, places richer and more alluring than the Americas, and yet finally relinquished those contacts along with their maritime power. This is a real and important issue in Chinese history. Even if Zheng He indeed reached America and failed to follow this up, that would add little to the larger issue – already well noted by historians of China – of the puzzling relationship between the early Ming government and maritime power. When we compound this with the fact that Zheng He’s discovery of America, supposing it happened, had virtually no impact on his contemporaries or later residents of China, we can hardly describe Zheng He’s discovery of America as a crucial issue in Chinese history.

Nor world history. The real importance of Columbus’ voyages is that they were followed up. The settlement of America, the destruction of native American cultures, the boost the exploitation of American resources may have given to European powers and their colonial projects, the impact of American silver on world currency markets, and the role of North and South America in later world history, these are some of the reasons the early European voyages of discovery are of great historical importance. Columbus’ voyage is significant not as a single feat, but as an early link in a chain of events. The debate over whether Zheng He reached America is a fascinating subject, and I follow the issue closely, but I don’t think it can be ranked among the major issues of Chinese or world history.

Chinese Philology Meets Canadian Politics

Filed under: — Matthew Mosca @ 5:01 am

This is not history-related per se, nor indeed more than a triviality, but I am spending a few weeks in Vancouver (now in the midst of the Canadian election) and was interested to see that the proper interpretation of a Chinese expression has become a minor election issue. To summarize, a candidate for the governing Liberal Party described the leader of the New Democratic Party as having a “boiled dog’s head smile” (煮熟狗頭般齜牙咧嘴). What exactly this means, and the degree to which it should be construed as offensive, have both become points of debate (see English-language coverage in the Globe & Mail [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20051230/ELXNLAYT30/TPNational/Canada] and Chinese language coverage in the World Journal, a Taiwanese newspaper chain with a local BC branch [http://www.worldjournal.com/wj-va-news.php?nt_seq_id=1289053; http://www.worldjournal.com/wj-va-news.php?nt_seq_id=1289054]). It is interesting to note that neither the man who proferred this expression nor his target are Chinese, and so both had to invoke different (conflicting) Chinese authorities to defend their positions. As an additional tie-in, this comment was first reported on a blog, a fact that has not escaped Canadian election-related bloggers (http://bdoskoch.electionblog.ctv.ca/default.asp?item=123729). The larger issues – if there are any – can be debated by the readers of this blog, but I dare say this is one of the few times an expert could pontificate about the subtleties of Cantonese folk-sayings on a current events show. I will leave you with the thought of politico concerned, David Emerson:
“I really value many Chinese expressions because they’re very creative ways of articulating things.”


Filed under: — Matthew Mosca @ 4:31 pm

Hi, Everyone,
To belatedly introduce myself, I’m Matthew Mosca, currently a doctoral candidate in the program in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. My dissertation is on the subject of Qing-era views of India, and my research looks at geographic scholarship and Qing foreign relations. On a personal note, I was born and raised in Vancouver, BC, where I received my BA from UBC, and I will be going to Beijing in September (and Taiwan in February) to conduct archival research for a year.

I’ll take this opportunity to recommend warmly “The Man Awakened from Dreams,” by Henrietta Harrison, which I have just finished reading. It chronicles the life of one Liu Dapeng (1857-1942), a juren and self-consciously strict Confucian, who lived near Taiyuan in Shanxi and has left a lengthy diary. I found the subject quite interesting: Liu was thoroughly acquainted with life under the Qing and under the Republic, and his professions included scholarship, commerce and agriculture; his sphere of activity and thought was quite broad, and some part of the book is certain to be of interest to a student of Chinese history. His attitude to newspapers, democracy, coal mining, familial relations and the like are examined, and they do not always conform to what one might expect of a rural Confucian. Konrad might be interested by his contact with the Japanese (pp. 159-65). My unscientific opinion is that detailed, scholarly biographies of ‘ordinary’ people are fairly rare in the field of Chinese history, so this work is a valuable addition.

I was impressed by Harrison’s restraint: there are only 170 pages of text, and those well-written. The book is organized according to different spheres of activity, and is roughly chronological. Given the scope of the diary she was working with, and the myriad opportunities for detailed Sinological digression, it could have been a much longer work, but on balance I think her treatment captures the essential topics and moments succinctly – and after all, I imagine it’s much harder to write a good short book than a long one. This would probably be a useful book for teaching undergraduates, especially those prone to making simple judgments about China. It would probably also appeal to the non-specialist (perhaps for this reason it’s immediately available in an affordable and rather attractive paperback – see amazon if you’d like to read a few pages online). I will add the caveat that this book is outside of my normal sphere of ‘High Qing’ research, so I have probably missed points in the work (and its arguments) that would arouse immediate interest or disagreement in a student of Republican China.

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