A little squall ruffled the staid world of historical scholarship earlier this month after a Beijing lawyer and amateur collector produced a tattered, bamboo-paper map that at first glance appeared to undermine an axiom of Western history. The map, which Mr. Liu Gang said he bought in a Shanghai bookshop in 2001, purports to be an 18th-century copy of a Chinese map of the known world, drawn in 1418.
According to Mr. Liu and his supporters, it proves that the great Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He had not only circumnavigated the globe by that date but had discovered America en route — more than 70 years before Christopher Columbus. “For Chinese history, this is very significant,” Mr. Liu said.
Well, perhaps so, but that would depend on the map’s authenticity, which remains up in the air almost two weeks later. Carbon-dating tests are being done to determine whether the drawing is a forgery, either a modern one or an 18th-century one. Many historians and cartographers have expressed doubts about the claims made for the map, citing multiple anachronisms and “un-Chinese” features (China, the fabulous “Middle Kingdom,” for example, is not even in the middle of the map). Furthermore, as a National Geographic article pointed out last week, even if the map does date from 1763, as is inscribed, that doesn’t prove the existence of the 1418 map it was supposedly copied from. Columbus can rest easy in his grave, for now.
Whatever the verdict on the map’s authenticity, however, the scholarly storm in a teacup has been of interest for a broader reason — and it is an encouraging one. It is hard to overstate the significance of Chinese scholars’ reluctance to back Mr. Liu. In fact, they have led the chorus of skeptics. In a rational world, of course, that is what one would expect: Who better to truthfully assess a Chinese-language document than Chinese experts? But the world we live in is anything but rational. Nationalism, the most irrational sentiment outside romantic love, overflows in all directions, coloring the conduct of politics, trade, news-gathering, scientific research (as witness South Korea’s disgraced cloning expert, Mr. Hwang Woo Suk), historical scholarship and, above all, mapmaking. And the Chinese are as nationalistic as anyone.
Mr. Liu himself was candid about the pride he took in the chance to boost the reputation of an already celebrated Chinese seafarer. “Right now, China, with respect to technology, is far behind the United States,” he said. “But I think this map will tell the young generation we Chinese are not stupid — we are actually as smart as other nations.”
Indeed they are — but this dubious map is not what demonstrates it. Nobody was disputing China’s past greatness or technological accomplishments to begin with. What demands respect now is the prudence, honesty and lack of nationalist bias that Chinese scholars have brought to their assessment of Mr. Liu’s unexpected claim.
Mr. Gong Yingyan, a Zhejiang University historian and map expert, said he had “high hopes” when he first heard about the map. “But I can see now,” he said, “that it is an entirely ordinary map that proves nothing.” Mr. Mao Peiqi, a history professor at the People’s University in Beijing, said he was “certain Liu’s map is a fake.” And in a blistering comment published in the Beijing News, Mr. Zhou Zhenhe of Fudan University’s Chinese Geography Research Institute said, among other things, “Examining this map, one can see the fake elements without even looking closely. What is the point in sending it for testing?” Instead, professor Zhou said sharply that Chinese scholars “should be studying why China’s naval power in the 15th century was not developed to the extent where China became a strong maritime power.”
Why, in short, did China turn its back on the rest of the world even after Zheng’s well-documented seven voyages to places as far-flung as eastern Africa? Why did it pursue an inward-looking, “land-based ideology” rather than an outward-looking, sea-based one? Those are questions with real relevance to contemporary Chinese policy.
In a concluding comment, Mr. Zhou had the last word on the interplay between historical research and nationalism. Essentially, he suggested, there shouldn’t be any: “At the same time as respecting patriotism, we need to respect historical facts.”
Wise words, no matter what the outcome of those tests. But here is a prediction: If the map proves “very significant for Chinese history,” to recall Mr. Liu’s words, it won’t be because it shows that Zheng reached America before Columbus. (Let’s face it, a lot of people did.) It will be because of the boost that the common sense and integrity of Chinese historians in this case have given to the reputation of their discipline.
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