LINGUIST List 15.1196

Mon Apr 12 2004

Disc: Last Message, Sum: How China discovered America

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Peter Menzel, Re: How China discovered ...
  2. colkitto, Re: 15.986, Disc: How China discovered America...?

Message 1: Re: How China discovered ...

Date: Fri, 2 Apr 2004 11:04:10 +0200
From: Peter Menzel <>
Subject: Re: How China discovered ...

Menzies is *not* a linguist, but a retired (British) submarine
commander. His linguistic evidence is, therefore, marginal to his
thesis. Of central importance to his arguments are things like the
accuracy of Chinese world maps, which were drawn *before* the European
voyages of discovery, or Chinese artifacts found at certain sites;
sites which he posits the Chinese discovery fleet must have touched,
given the nature of their ships and the purpose of their journey.
There are also, of course Chinese documents.

One argument of major importance was that the Chinese at that time
knew how to determine the longitude, though not while they were at
sea. That is, (as near as I can recall now) they used some of the data
they had collected on their voyage(s) to determine the longitude and
latitude of the major points of their journey after they had returned
home. It is this that enabled them to draw maps (seas charts) of the
world that were much more accurate as anything drawn in the West for
some centuries.



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Message 2: Re: 15.986, Disc: How China discovered America...?

Date: Fri, 9 Apr 2004 01:14:31 -0400
From: colkitto <>
Subject: Re: 15.986, Disc: How China discovered America...?

First of all, let me thank all the LINGUISTLIST subscribers who
responded to my request regarding Menzies "How China discovered
America". I am posting a summary of their comments, as stacks and
stacks of this book can be found in bookstores, and therefore we might
expect that it will become a bestseller, and it will be handy for many
linguists to have the materials below available

My own, understated feelings, on the topic were "It looks a little bit
suspicious, but Menzies does seem to have done his homework in the
book as a whole."

Menzies's statements that

"A sailing ship is chamban in Colombia, sampan in China, a raft is
balsa in South America, palso in China, etc."


"until the late 19th century villagers in a mountain village in Peru
spoke Chinese, citing the Peruvian historian Padron."

came in for a lot of criticism

Thanks to Mike Maxwell, Nicholas Widdows, Lameen Souag, and Tim
Beasley for pointing me to

which offers a succint crticism and indication of errors.


Lameen Souag added

"Even without research I can see that this is wrong: "palso" is not a
possible word shape in any Chinese dialect (they don't allow l at the
end of a syllable [I didn't think so either, but my knowledge of
Chinese dialectology is "tenDs to zero" - RAO]). "Sampan" is
originally a Chinese word (meaning "three boards"; ); it does not mean a
sailing ship, but a flatbottomed skiff. I can't find "chamban"
anywhere on the web except in quotes from him - which is amazing,
considering how many Spanish pages are out there - so I have no
confidence that the word exists, or at least that it's correctly
quoted; but if it does, it could as easily have come through
Portuguese (think Macao), or even English (they border the Caribbean)
as through ancient Chinese fleets."

and in response to

"He also makes the startling statement that until the late 19th
century villagers in a mountain village in Peru spoke Chinese, citing
an the Peruvian historian Padron."

pointed out that:

"I've never heard of this, but it would be far from startling if we
replace "until" with "in"; several Latin American countries imported
Chinese labor in that century, as did the US. "Between 1849 and 1874,
100,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru." - ."


Tim Beasley pointed out that

"Looking at the pseudolinguistic legacy of the 19th century, we see
such claims as an East Amerindian tribe that speaks Welsh such that a
Welshman and a member of that tribe would have no problem in holding a
conversation, or the claim that Welsh (or Irish Gaelic) is mutually
intelligible with Hebrew. "Conclusive proof" always turned out to be
typological parallels (VSO, preposition + bound pronoun, etc.). Not
coincidentally, the claimant always has scant knowledge of one or both
of the languages and has some sort of politico-ideological axe to
grind (whether it's the supremacy of British claims over North America
or Anglo-Israelism). Arguing against such claims always has the flavor
of arguing a negative, when really the null hypothesis is
"unrelatedness". Just try making that claim to naifs."

and added
claims 'balsa' is from Chinese, with no obvious attribution. Other
websites turned up by Google list it variously as being a tree name -
> light raft, or light raft --> wood used --> tree. (I lack
non-Slavic resources.) 'Balsa' is variously attributed to the entire
west coast of South America or specifically to Lake Titicaca. I like
the null hypothesis found in )


without referring to the upenn article online, R�my Viredaz pointed
out that

"sanpan means "three planks" in Chinese, thus a small boat, not a
sailing ship. palso 'raft' does not look Chinese. balsa means
basically a kind of tree (with a very light wood, used among others
for making rafts)."


Leo J. Moser, author of "The Chinese Mosaic: Peoples and Provinces of
China." made the following comments:

> The recent work Menzies, Gavin. 2003. 1421. The Year China
> Discovered America. New York: Harper & Collins. makes some very
> interesting, albeit vague, suggestions about possible Chinese
> linguistic influence on the languages of the Andes (p. 226). "A
> sailing ship is chamban in Colombia, sampan in China,

A "sampan" (literally "three boards" -- in southern Chinese) is not a
sailing ship at all. It is a very small boat/raft, made up by
definition of only a few boards. They are used on small streams and
perhaps in harbors.

> a raft is balsa in South America, palso in China, etc."

A word like "palso" exists in no dialect of Chinese. Syllable final -l
is not at all characteristic of the Sinitic languages.

Standard Chinese for "raft" is fa2zi, mu4pai2, mu4fa2.

Also my sources give English "balsa" as from Spanish (or Portuguese)
meaning "raft." Matters pertaining to small rafts and ferries in
Spanish use the root: balsear, balsero, etc.

> Menzies also makes the startling statement that until the late 19th
> century villagers in a mountain village in Peru spoke Chinese,
> citing an the Peruvian historian Padron.

Why no evidence since?

"Chinese" was often a symbol of the "exotic" in places such as
Peru. Recall that Peruvians often call a recent President "el Chino"
although his family background is Japanese.

> It looks a little bit suspicious, but Menzies does seem to have done
> his homework in the book as a whole. Any comments?

Nothing cited is in my opinion any convincing evidence at all. The
possibility of such a trip exists -- as does the possibility of
countless other things.

Also I see no evidence of basic homework from the above, like citing
what word in what dialect of Chinese from what era had any similarity
to the Spanish "balsa".


Steven Adelewitz suggested some further interesting points

During the 16th century, in which Spain colonized Peru, it also
colonized the Philipines, from which it conducted trade with
China. Also, it is known that Chinese sailors served on Spanish ships,
even in the early years of trans-Pacific trade. And so on. I would
suggest that these data provide room for an alternative hypothesis.
And I'm sure other subscribers will find still more explanations of
why his data are inconclusive at best. Too bad Menzies hasn't found
any artifacts (a shipwreck would be nice) that can be conclusively
assigned to early Chinese visitors to South America.

But hey, who knows? Absence of evidence is after all, not evidence of


Mark Irwin pointed out that different editions of the book seem to
have different titles

> Merely as a point of order, it should perhaps be pointed out that in
> order to avoid any confusion on the part of readers who have a
> non-US edition of the work Robert Orr refers to in his posting, the
> original title is '1421: The Year China Discovered the WORLD' (2002,
> published in London, NZ, Australia, South Africa). I will refrain
> from making any facetious comments as to why Harper & Collins deemed
> it necessary to change the title.

new editions, both hardback and paperback, are appearing with that
title in Canadian bookstores


Ken Decker adds:

Several years ago, in Belize, I met a lady that was doing research
comparing possible cognates between Chinese and Mayan varieties. What
I saw of the data looked like coincidental similarities, but there was
a large number of comparisons.

A search on the Internet led me to an article from Harvard reviewing
the evidence for Chinese contact with the Americas:

It seems there is room for more research, and linguistics may provide
valuable clues.


Mike Cahill added a salutary website:

Very interesting indeed! But such resemblances are not terribly
unlikely, even by pure chance. Mark Rosenfelder has put together a
website "How likely are chance resemblances between languages?" which
takes you through the math to show this, at .

As a matter of fact, very much to the point of your query, he even has
a list of Chinese and Quechua words which resemble each other, but
which he contends are NOT real cognates. This is at .


Harold F. Schiffman cited the following item, which illustrates the
care needed in disentangling various threads in this discussion:

> I'm no expert on this, and have serious doubts, too, but I seem to
>remember somebody once reporting the discovery of an early (Ming or
>Qing) Chinese coin in California, in a site where it couldn't have
>been "planted" or accidentally dropped at a later date. I don't know
>any more about this, but it seemed to indicate at the time I read it
>that maybe somebody was blown off course and shipwrecked in
>California? The same way that some early English explorer
>(Vancouver?) discovered a Japanese "slave" being held by the Macah
>tribe in (what is now) Washington State--the guy was shipwrecked,
>blown off course, drifted on the Japan current until found (and
>enslaved) by the Macah.

A google search on this topic reveals that some Chinese coins (all
found in areas where 19th century Chinese immigrants worked, and known
as "wen")

" found in nineteenth century overseas Chinese sites are somewhat
surprising in that the average date of issue precedes the date of site
occupation by approximately two centuries."

> So maybe it's all spurious...


Reporting from "China's CNN" (?!), Edward McDonald makes some
intersting points, including a pointer to the dangers faced by any one
individual who attempts to synthesise such an amount of material (even
within a single field such as our own!):

> In re the Chinese presence in America (and yes the author does argue
> for it in Australia, the Phillipines and even Antarctica as well):

> My impression of the book was that the author, a former submarine
> captain, was very sound on the evidence of old maps [NB - RAO, this
> is what I meant when I said :seems to have done his homework"] ,
> which is what he bases the whole theory on, but his genetics was
> unreferenced and therefore suspect, and his linguistics was
> speculative, to put it mildly. He doesn't not specify what dialect
> of Chinese the mysterious Peruvians are supposed to have spoken The
> shared vocabulary he cites suffer from similar problems: of the two
> examples given in Robert Orr's message: sampan is definitely
> Chinese, presumably from the Cantonese saampan "three plank"
> (Mandarin sanban); but palso is not an existing or even possible
> word in any Chinese dialect I am aware of: > balsa is in fact
> Spanish for "raft".

> The author is definitely an enthusiast, and tells a great - and as
> far as I can tell fairly plausible - story, but he would have done
> better to stick to navigation and oceanography.

> Of interest also from the book are the contacts he describes with
>Chinese scholars who have independently come to similar conclusions
>about the voyages of the Grand Eunuch Zheng He (in a footnote, also
>known as "Sanbao" and apparently the origin of Sinbad the
>Sailor). Again I don't see anything inherently implausible in this,
>but in the Chinese context it plays right into strongly held
>prejudices about China's "rightful" place in the world. And in regard
>to the change of title for the American edition, popular Chinese
>ideology tends to divide the world into "China" and '"the West", the
>latter really code for the USA, so it'll be interesting to see how
>the title comes out when the book is translated into Chinese!


Roger Blench made the point that:

> It is worth pointing out that Menzies' book is not primarily
> includes some of the discarded canards that first surfaced in Eric
> von Daniken. It also, as someone else notes, makes much broader
> claims about a series of secret voyages to various parts of the
> world, not just the Americas. When it appeared in Britain, it was
> given very positive reviews and much was made of Menzies' naval
> experience; but actually this is the least important part. Each age
> gets the theorising it deserves.

It might be worth mentioning that von Daniken did mention mysteries

Web Page:


Stan Anonby adds

There is an archaeological site about an hour west of Prince George,
British Columbia, Canada, called Chinlac. Chinlac was a centre for the
Carriers, and was abandoned before European contact. When I lived in
Prince George in the 1990's, one of the seven longhouses had been
excavated, and they had found a Chinese coin from the 1200's.

apparently Roman coins have been found in Iceland as well
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