Strange Maps

156 - China’s 1418 World Map


The Turks have Piri Reis, whose 1513 map shows parts of America and Antarctica with astonishing and, in the case of Antarctica, frankly inexplicable accuracy. The Chinese have this map to demonstrate that the story of how the ‘West’ discovered the World is only one of many versions of the very earliest form of globalisation.

The map is similar to many present-day Chinese world maps in that it positions at the centre of the map China (which used self-confidently to refer to itself as the “Middle Kingdom”), and not Europe. It states that it is a 1763 copy of a fifteenth-century original. Chinese characters written beside the map say it was drawn by Mo Yi Tong and copied from a map made in the 16th year of the Emperor Yongle, or 1418.

The double dating of this map implies that America was explored and mapped by the Chinese at least 70 years before Columbus made landfall in what he then still thought was India. Furthermore, it shows Africa and Australia in fairly accurate detail. Europeans only stumbled across Australia after 1600.

This map supports the controversial claim that a Chinese mega-flotilla under an admiral named Zheng He sailed around the world in 1421. Zheng He is an historical figure, and he is known to have visited South East Asia, India and Africa – his explorations span a 30-year period from 1405 to 1435. However, the claim that he visited America is not sufficiently proven, many experts hold.

Zheng He´s discovery of America is defended in Gavin Menzies’ book ‘1421 – The Year China Discovered the World’. But the story behind this map only works if one supposes an even earlier Chinese discovery of America – as the map predates Zheng He´s trip by three years. The Chinese admiral´s American voyage would therefore be to re-visited lands that were discovered earlier by Chinese explorers, or by himself.

This map was in the news at the beginning of 2006. It had been bought for $500 in Shanghai in 2001 by a Mr Liu Gang, a Chinese map collector. He at first suspected it to be a fake and only became aware of its possible significance after reading Mr Menzies’ book.

News reports in January 2006 stated the map would be examined to check the age of paper and ink. But even if it were proven the map was made in 1763, this would still not prove it wasn’t a contemporary forgery

Tests on this map were supposed to be finished in February 2006, but I haven’t heard a peep since. A bad sign? It might not have been significant if the map were real, but the British Isles aren´t marked on this map. If it were a forgery, could it be a snub bythe (supposedly Chinese) forger at that little kingdom at the edge of the world that came to rule the waves and a quarter of the globe´s land surface, thus stealing mighty China´s thunder?

Another anomaly: California is presented as an island, which is a particularly European cartographic misconception, as it not only follows from the shape of the Baja California peninsula, but also from a Spanish literary tradition of an island called California,way out west (see post #71 on this blog on that very subject).

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