For aeons, the Pacific Ocean’s far reaches and enormous extent were essentially unknowable to the world. It was not until 1521 that Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) made what is believed to have been the first navigation across Earth’s largest wet bit.
However, according to one slightly mad-sounding idea, people from Ancient China made this epic crossing and visited parts of what is now the Southwestern United States – thousands of years ago. Yup. That’s right. This left-field notion maintains that the Chinese discovered America as long ago as 3,750 years before Columbus. The source for this view is a Chinese classic text which was first written down in the 4th century BC and which in certain enigmatic passages describes the Grand Canyon!
Stirs the imagination, sure, but does this theory have any academic legs? Or is it just esoteric hogwash?
Current thinking is that during the last ice the very first inhabitants of North America came over from the Eurasian landmass, traipsing across a frozen Bering Strait into Alaska and Canada and then eventually heading further south. These indigenous peoples lived largely undisturbed until Chris Columbus rocked up to a Caribbean island in 1492 and ushered in the European domination of the Americas. There are two accepted exceptions to this – the Vikings reaching a tip of northwest Canada about 1000 AD, and mercantile contact between northeast Asian and northwest American peoples, also early in the second millennium.
The 'Mulberry Tree'
The Classic of Mountains and Seas, also known as Shan Hai Jing, is a central text in early Chinese literature and mythology. It takes the form of a compendium of natural history, medicine, and folklore and was described as ‘magico-geographical’ by leading sinologist Joseph Needham (1900-1995). It is thought to have originated around 2,400 years ago during the period of Chinese history known as the Warring States. The first parts of the book take the form of a kind of travelogue of Ancient China and its vicinity, while other sections explore ‘regions beyond the seas’.
In the Classic of Mountains and Seas, this ‘Mulberry’ tree or land is said to be found ten thousand miles away from China across ‘the eastern sea’
In the strange 1913 work, the Ancient Chinese Account of the Grand Canyon, or Course of the Colorado, Alexander McAllan argues that the Classic of Mountains and Seas contains descriptions of the North American continent and the Grand Canyon. This ‘account’ is purported to be from a much earlier time than the composition of the text – to around 2250 BC.
According to McAllan, the ‘Ancient Mexicans’ called North America a ‘Mulberry Tree’, and Chinese ‘sages’ spoke of North America as the distant land or tree of ‘Fu-Sang’, meaning ‘Helpful Mulberry’.
In the Classic of Mountains and Seas, this ‘Mulberry’ tree or land is said to be found ten thousand miles away from China across ‘the eastern sea’. It says that this tree or land is three thousand miles wide and has a ‘trunk’ about a hundred miles thick.
There is indeed a point near Yucatan that is around 120 miles in width. Beijing to the Grand Canyon as the crow flies is also a distance of around 10,200 miles. North America, coast to coast, is roughly three thousand miles wide. Weird, eh?
In discussing the text’s description of the Grand Canyon, McAllan relates that:
‘[A]ccording to the translation, a "Great Canyon" is to be seen in the "Great Eastern Waste" "Beyond the Eastern Sea".’
This canyon is said to feature numerous ‘ledges’ and to flow into a ‘charming gulf’. The Grand Canyon does indeed have many falls, cataracts, and rapids, which could be described as ledges, and the Colorado River flows into the Gulf of California.
While the image of a Mulberry tree when thinking about the shape of the continent rings eerily true, this could, of course, be pure coincidence. Furthermore, the ‘trunk’, though out by only 20 miles, is only true if referring to the continent as far as Mexico, where the slimmest point is roughly from Tehuantepec to Coatzacoalcos. This ‘trunk’ notion does fit if you ignore Panama (where the narrowest point is nearer to fifty miles across).
Clutching at straws, perhaps? While some elements of this ancient text are thought to be more accurate than others, the parts of the book which deal with exotic ‘foreign’ lands are much more fantastical and are not thought to represent a reliable record of lands ‘beyond the seas’.
Later, in 499 AD, an account by a Buddhist missionary purports to describe ‘Fusang’, its people and its customs, though with a shorter distance quoted of around twenty thousand Chinese li (about 6,600 miles) away from China. Some later proponents of the actual existence of this land, therefore, placed Fusang in whichever geographical region was located this distance east of the starting point, without much (if any) corroborating evidence. Modern sinologists dismiss the notion that this land if it existed at all, was anywhere near the Americas, and instead proffer that it was an island in the vicinity of modern-day Japan or Russia.
Fusang was for a long time believed by some to be a real place, however, and a French map from the 18th century even located Fusang in British Columbia.
Despite solid academic rejections of these ideas around the time of McAllan’s book, as late as 1958 a book, by Henriette Mertz, was insisting that Fusang was America.
'We woz 'ere': Do certain rock carvings indicate an ancient presence?
In 2013, researcher John Ruskamp found what he believed to be archaic Chinese pictograms - 84 in total - at sites across the Southwestern United States, including in national parks not far from the Grand Canyon. Ruskamp claims these carvings are proof of Chinese ‘expeditions’ to North America thousands of years ago. Ruskamp dates several pictograms found in Nevada to around 1300 BC. He asserts that some of these pictograms are records of rituals and sacrificial offerings and that the syntax and characters of the script are consistent with writing from Shang-era China. Other pictograms he dates slightly earlier, to around 500 BC. These were found in Nevada and one of them depicts an elephant, according to Ruskamp.
Is Ruskamp’s theory as rock-solid as the boulders which bear the pictograms? Not quite. A 2015 peer review by archaeologist Angus Quinlan was unambiguous in its rejection of Ruskamp's theory, describing his research as highly selective, subjective, and reductive.
Also-rans: The Olmecs and the fleet of Zheng-He
There are so many theories about pre-1492 contact with the Americas that even a cursory look at them here would be too much for one article. I’ll round off, though, by briefly exploring two examples that also concern the Chinese.
American archaeologist Betty Meggers (1921-2012) argued in 1975 that the Olmec civilisation – which flourished in modern-day Mexico from around 1500-400 BC and left behind among other things their famous giant stone heads - developed from Chinese migrants. Mesoamerican specialists rejected this claim pretty much straight away, and evidence uncovered in the intervening years has only strengthened the contention that the Olmec culture arose from indigenous peoples.
Meggers was no quack, though, having been a prominent figure at the Smithsonian Institution for decades. However, despite even her harshest critics acknowledging that developments in Mesoamerican archaeology are hard to keep up with, ultimately her interpretation of the Olmec data was wrong.
In his 1974 book, R.A. Jairazbhoy espoused his theory that Ancient Egyptians were responsible for the flourishing of the Olmec culture, and that the Shang-era refugees were a second stream of influence. Archaeologist Warwick Bray reviewed the publication at the time, describing it as not just a ‘bad book’ but ‘a dangerous one’.
According to retired submariner Gavin Menzies (1937-2020), America was discovered by the Chinese in 1421. Menzies claimed that the fleet of Chinese admiral Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435) circumnavigated the globe, calling in at America seventy years before Columbus, and discovering Australia, Antarctica, and New Zealand into the bargain. This claim has been vehemently dismissed by experts, with academics calling it variously, ‘reckless’, ‘preposterous’, and even ‘fiction’.
It is unlikely that the Ancient Chinese had any meaningful contact with North America in the periods in question. It almost certainly did not happen in the distant period in which the ‘visit’ to the Grand Canyon was said to have taken place, some 4250 years ago. It boils down to a lack of evidence – archaeological and nautical. There were believed to be large ships at the time of the Han dynasty in the 3rd century BC – the louchan or ‘castled ships’ – but how far these ever went beyond the waters of East Asia is unknown. Also, while twentieth-century experiments have attempted to show that primitive crafts such as bamboo rafts could traverse the Pacific, some of these having a fair amount of success, these have been met with some scepticism. Experts remain doubtful as to whether pre-imperial China had the actual transpacific seafaring capability. Could the remains of a mighty vessel be uncovered in some wood-preserving bog one day and prove them wrong? Never say never.