When China Discovered the World
2 X 1 hour programs
A television special that rewrites the history of exploration
For almost 600 years, China’s discovery of the world has eluded historians. In 1421, centuries before the great European explorers, a massive Chinese fleet set sail. This fleet reached the North Pole, the South Pole, Australia, the Americas and hundreds of lands between.
So why has this remained such a secret?
The Chinese themselves destroyed most of the records of these voyages and a ‘west-centric’ view of history ensured they remained undiscovered.
Now, incontrovertible evidence of China’s astonishing role has been painstakingly gathered and verified.
Come with us on an amazing journey of historical detective work as we go back to 1421 - the year China discovered the world.
Program 1: The Pole Star
We are in the court of Emperor Zhu Di, the Son of Heaven. It is 1421 and China is the most powerful nation the world has ever seen.
Zhu Di has conquered the million strong army of Mongol invaders, repaired the Great Wall, the Grand Canals and built the massive city of Beijing and the Forbidden City within it. A 4000 volume encyclopaedia has been completed, astronomers and historians have filled the majestic library with great works.
Still, he wants more. His court is replete with scholars and astronomers, translators and botanists. His enormous fleet of treasurer ships lies in the harbour. For Zhu Di, the time has come for China to launch the largest expedition of exploration ever undertaken – to sail to the very ends of the world.
It is hard to imagine the enormity of the fleet he gathered. Some of the massive junks carry only water, others carry horses or exotic plants, grain, animals, concubines or gifts for the unknown leaders they would find.
This armada travels from Beijing south to Malacca, on to India, Arabia and the east coast of Africa before rounding the Cape of Good Hope and heading into the unknown.
Though the captains do not know it, the Court of Zhu Di and the mighty aspirations which led to the voyage will be toppled and turned around during their 3 years at sea and their return will be marked by ignominy, not acclaim.
We are in the magnificent Topkapi Serai museum in Istanbul. The curator leads us to the room which houses the astounding Piri Reis chart of the world. This chart, drawn in 1513, provides crucial evidence used to retrace the voyage of the great fleet.
From the chart we fade to the dramatic islands of the Cape Verde group. Here the armada will split – one fleet heading northwest towards what is now the Bahamas and the other southwest to South America and beyond. Zhou Wen and his ships will discover and chart the Bahamas and the east coast of North America before circling Greenland and making a remarkable voyage through the Arctic Ocean and back to Beijing. But he will do this at great cost. In the cyclone lashed region of the Bimini Islands, many of his ships are damaged beyond repair. The survivors, crowded into the undamaged ships, will be dropped with provisions near current day Rhode Island and left to fend.
Nearly 100 years later, a Venetian explorer comes across the natives of this area:
“…some of them incline more to whiteness, others are of a yellow colour, of comely visage with long black hair…”
The fleet which sailed south also split and the ships commanded by Zhou Man cross the Pacific and make land at what is now Vancouver. Travelling with the prevailing currents, his ships move south as far as Panama. Following the course he took, we will find standing stones, wrecks and even plants and animals which testify to this early discovery of the ‘new world’.
Program 2: The ends of the earth
Weaving the story of the epic southern voyage with modern day detective work, we will follow the fleet as it battles the most inhospitable regions of the world.
While Zhou Man was charting the north Americas and even the Arctic, the rest of the fleet were leaving the comfort of their prime navigational aid – the pole star – and sailing into regions that were known only in myth.
We will re-enact aspects of the almost unbelievable voyage made down the east coast of South America and into the icy seas of Antarctica.
Within this story we will also witness the political upheavals within the Beijing court. Zhu Di’s grandiose plans and his dream to open China to the world and the world to China were not popular with all. When he died in 1424, his son, Zhu Gaozhi ascended the throne and China reverted to isolationist policies.
Spanning the centuries, we will go on our own treasure hunt around the coast of Australia, visiting sites which baffle conventional history – the rock carvings near Sydney which show large ships resembling junks and people in long robes, the stone fortress near Eden, the wreck found near Byron Bay with a wooden rudder more than 12 metres high, the wrecks and stone carvings north of Perth and the artefacts, carvings and legends from Arnhem Land and Cape York .
On their own, these historical anomalies make little sense – but pieced together and blended with those maps and records which did survive, the dramatic story of China’s astounding voyage of discovery begins to emerge, like an ancient jigsaw puzzle, as one of the great feats of exploration.
It is 1836 and near Warrnambool in Victoria, two sealers come across the wreck of an enormous ship. What was to become known as the ‘Mahogany ship’ has puzzled historians since – the design, the hard timber, the large bronze spikes and steel ladders are not of European origin. The local Yangery tribe add to this mystery with their legends of ‘yellow men’ who settled amidst them long ago.
With this great voyage into its third year, we will follow the remnants of the fleet as it makes its way back to Beijing, carrying charts and animals and plants from the ends of the earth. What were the commander’s thoughts as he returned home to a court now ruled by the Mandarins? Expecting great tribute and fame, he found a court which had forbid expansion and exploration. We will never know how the explorers felt on their return for their diaries, along with all the records of this global discovery, were destroyed as China moved into 400 years of grand isolation.