Below is my essay that I wrote for one of my subject in school.
In 2008 best-selling book “1434, The year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited The Renaissance”, Menzies argues that Chinese fleet arrived in Italy in 1434 where they met the pope and bring along knowledge to Europe such as world maps, astronomy, mathematics, art, printing, manufacture, engineering, military machine, etc. The knowledge that sparked the birth of renaissance. In his previous book, “1421 the year China discovered America”, he claimed that there is a direct influence from China to pre-Columbian America. Now in his recent book, he claimed that China also has a direct influence to Europe, make Europe woke up from middle ages, then entered the Renaissance era. He even accused Leonardo Da Vinci was just a fine illustrator and a plagiarist of Chinese invention. A statement that shocks the history, if it is true. But is it really true? Menzies labeled his book as non-fiction book. I will discuss it in this essay.
Who is Gavin Menzies? Who is the person that dare to said such a provoking statement? How can he suddenly discover a knowledge that against the common belief for centuries? How did he get the data? In the earlier edition of the book, it is written that he was born in China, which has been rectified in later edition. He is not paid by Chinese government but he pays for all his own flights. Actually he used to be a British submarine commander, not a scholar since he never majoring in history. He also cannot read Chinese, thus hindering him to read Chinese book in the original language. But he did an extensive research and claims that he has visited 120 countries, more than 900 libraries, and every major seaport of the late Middle Ages.
I have tried to research on what he claimed. First, about claim that when Chinese went to Italy in 1434 and bringing along the Chinese knowledge to Europe. So, the renaissance era should start after 1434. In fact, the usual starting date of renaissance is from the end of 14th century, means several decades before 1434. Some of the earlier Italian scholar and painter that help starting the renaissance such as Giotto, Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch lived around 1300. It’s more than one century earlier than Chinese’s direct influence. Means that without ‘help’ from China, actually the renaissance had already started in Italy.
Second, about the knowledges that the Chinese bring to Europe. Many of the Europe knowledge in renaissance are based on classical idea rooting from ancient Greek and Roman, not Chinese. The works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Plotinus, Ptolemy were translated to Latin, as well as from Arab scholars, such as Avicenna and Averroes. If the influence from China is so important so it ignites the renaissance, there should have a translation of Chinese’s work as well. Western people generally respect the writer of the book, so they still preserve the author’s name, just like what happened to Avicenna and Averroes. In fact there is no Chinese’s inventor has been preserved in Europe. Apparently Menzies sees that all of the European scholars agree to abandoned the Chinese’s original inventor. It’s a strange claim since they still preserve the Arab and Greek inventors name.
If Chinese really ignited the renaissance, the Chinese thought should have influence in Renaissance thought. But in fact, there is no Chinese philosophy found in Europe during Renaissance era. The Renaissance art is very different with Chinese art. And also there is no ‘renaissance’ happen in other place in East Africa or India or South-East Asia, a place where Zheng He visited more than once. Why should renaissance happen in Europe, a place where Chinese just visited once? What about the rest of the world? If China really brought knowledge to Italy, they should also brought it to India or Middle East.
Then about Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the most important figure in Renaissance. He is referred as a renaissance man, a man who can master in many field. He has ability in botany, anatomy, geology, painter, etc. It is true that Leonardo was born after 1434, so he might have a chance to see the Chinese work before he draw his sketch. But there is no real evidence that he has copied from Chinese since Menzies just comparing and found the similarity between them. Menzies just shew that Leonardo inventions has a similarity with the Chinese instrument, avoiding that he can developed their own idea independently. And also at that time there is no law in plagiarism, even the term ‘plagiarized’ haven’t existed yet. If he really did copy, it’s not problem with the law. And if it happened, it means that he just not inventing some of his inventions, since he has other inventions that is not similar with the one in China, such as tank, helicopter (the Chinese bamboo toy is just a toy, and quite different with the Leonardo’s helicopter with passenger), and other war machine. And he still has other ability in science and arts, which not copied from Chinese.
From this book, I have an impression that Menzies originally has the idea about the Chinese influence to Europe, then gathering as many evidence as possible. In fact many of his claim are inaccurate. For example windmill, printing, and lock canal has present in Europe before 1434, claim that Columbus believe that he has met Chinese in America, instead of native-american. Contrary with the fact that native-american are called Indian, because originally Columbus thought that they are Indian. An evidence that Columbus didn’t bring Chinese map before the voyage. His claim that a Chinese ambassador went to Florence is just based on a copy of a letter dated 1474 (40 years after 1434) by Italian mathematician Toscanelli found among Columbus’s papers. It’s not a strong evidence. There should be more evidence that Chinese really came and brought their knowledges to Italy. He didn’t really do research about his argument well. Just blindly showing the evidence that support his claim.
It is true that Chinese has invented many things before the Renaissance. But, many of them such as paper, cannon, and ammunition have spread through the silk road to Middle East and Europe. But I personally doubt that just a single voyage can cause a change of entire Europe continent. There should have other factors must be considered since Chinese also visited many other countries more than once. I wonder why don’t he publish a paper or journal about his discovery? Why he write a book that resemble a novel in style? And how can such an amateur historian suddenly can discover something that never being realized by many historian scholars for centuries before? I suspect that the answer is he want to get sensation and big fame from it.
1. Interview with Gavin Menzies on 2007-03-22. (http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2006/s1702333.htm)