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.


Tombs on Tuesday

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:06 am

It’s been a good week for archaeology in the news, it seems:


Chasing Emperors

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:01 pm
Thumbnail Dragon Pin Thumbnail Dragon Pin Backing

My wife found this pin in her collection, and has no recollection of how we got it. I did a little digging and found that the “Civil Air Patrol” was an airline which operated out of China — mainland and Taiwan — from 1946 to at least the mid 1960s. It was founded by Claire L Chennault and Whiting Willauer and purchased by the CIA in 1950. This pin was a souvenir item. The text on the backing reads

This is one of the famous Oriental symbols of CAT (Civil Air Transport)..the five-toed dragon. In olden days only the Emperor could wear this symbol; those of lesser rank wore dragons with fewer toes. We like to think that all of our passengers on CAT’s colorful Mandarin Jet — truly a flying Oriental palace — receive hospitality and cordiality beffitting an Emperor and his Lady.

Wonderful bit of orientalist marketing, I think. My wife’s family was in Asia in the late 1960s, so it’s possible that they might have traveled via CAT at some point.

The other chase: I’m using Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance; the Ming Dynasty in Decline as the final text in my China to 1600 course, but I would really like to have a timeline to go with the book. The cast of characters and back-and-forth narrative is a bit confusing, honestly, and so I’d like a dramatis personae and chronology. Obviously, I’ve been looking on the web, but haven’t found anything. If anyone knows of a good source, and would like to share, I (and my students) would be deeply grateful. If I don’t hear of anything, I’m going to have to produce my own….

Elsewhere: Andrew Meyer is comparing China today to the Qing dynasty of a century ago: tottering, on the verge of vast social and economic changes, but without a strong reformist clique to take control. I like his analysis of China today, and I’ve got no quibble with his description of China at the end of the Qing, but I think he doesn’t take his own point — that China has a long history of extended fin de dynasty crisis eras — seriously enough. I have a sneaky suspicion, actually, that a better analogy might be to China two centuries ago: weak popular support for the monarchy/party, while the government tries to reassert increasingly irrelevant moral authority; growing but uneven economy; rising integration and tensions with international markets and diplomacy; increasing awareness of technological differentials but unwillingness to acknowledge power differentials…. maybe. Will Microsoft or Starbucks be the new opium?


Menzies and the problem of the “Smoking Gun” document

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:23 am
1763 Chinese Map Claims to be copy of 1418 Map

Menzies’ thesis won’t die. Just when it seemed to be fading out (unless Menzies’ argument about Mongol exploration is really his next focus), along comes this map (discussed in more depth here; update: and with translations of the notations here, and much more discussion by actual map historians here) which claims to be a 1763 copy of a 1418 map of the world. The Economist story even cites it as a possible source for previously unexplained pre-Columbian maps showing (something vaguely resembling) the Americas!

Geoff Wade at the National University of Singapore (who has challenged Menzies before) provided a quick rebuttal to the Economist article, so I don’t have to

The map is an 18th century copy of a European map, as evidenced by the two hemispheres depicted, the continents shown and the non-maritime detailed depicted. It proves nothing other than the Chinese (and Japanese) were copying European maps. That your writer has contributed to the Menzies’ bandwagon and its continuing deception of the public is saddening. The support mentioned all comes from Mr Menzies’ band of acolytes and the claims have no academic support whatsoever.

He goes into some detail on both the maps and “experts” cited, and I’m sure H-Asia will be abuzz for a while on this topic.

There are two things that I find interesting about this, on first look.



Hot Topics: Zheng He

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:31 pm

This year is the six hundreth anniversary of the first voyage of Zheng He, notes the New York Times. The article makes no mention of Menzie’s 1421 thesis, which leads me to hope that that particular wave has crested. It does, however, spend considerable time on NYTimes’ own Kristof’s favorite factoid: Africans descended from Chinese sailors. Also on contemporary naval defense issues.

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