Thursday, July 31, 2008

Columbus was a Panzy: Book Review of 1421.

The summer usually affords me time to curl up with a good book (or two) and disconnect from television (with the exception of Big Brother). To broaden my horizons, I cracked open Gavin Menzies' historical novel 1421, which focuses on the Chinese nautical adventures taking place during the reign of the Ming emperor Zhu Di. One need travel no further than the cover page for Menzies' unorthodox thesis, which states the Chinese discovered America. By cross referencing the title of the book with an old nursery school rhyme, Menzies places the Chinese in North and South American some seven decades before Columbus took his historic voyage into the unknown. While the book is considered blasphemy by the orthodox historical community, it unearths many fascinating pieces of evidence that are impossible to ignore. I don't want to ruin the book by discussing too much, yet let me say it is worth every page. Aside from the revelation that the Chinese were bad-ass explorers, here are some of the more random facts the book cited while making its case.

5. Indians sported pearls in their penises (for the ladies)

For some reason, Menzies chose to elaborate quite often on the sexual behaviors of fifteenth century India. One passage from the book cites Niccolo da Conti's account whereby he recalled the tinkling noises made when young men walked because they had inserted beads into their penis. The beads were inserted to enliven the sexual experience. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Gross.

4. Chinese trained otters to hunt for fish in the middle of the ocean

Seriously, forget having a trained monkey, I want a trained otter that can catch fish for me. I'm not even joking about this one. The Chinese affixed ropes to the legs of otters which could wrangle schools of fish into the waiting nets of Chinese seamen. So much for running out of food. The Chinese would launch these animals from flooded compartments in the holds of the Junk ships, which leads me to my discussion of Chinese ships and our next amazing fact from 1421.

3. The Titanic doesn't have sh^* on a Chinese junk ship

One of the many technological innovations which the White Star Line (creators of Titanic) marveled at where Titanic's watertight compartments, which could allow the Titanic to stay afloat even if it had begun to take on water. We all see how well that worked, but I digress. The Chinese used a system similar on their massive junk ships, some few hundred years before the White Star Line even existed. The Chinese also employed various shipbuilding innovations that would be copied by other nations around the world for years to come. You'll have to read the book to find them out. They're freakin' amazing!

2. Sea Cucumbers, when eaten, are an aphrodisiac

Much like revelation number five, this is gross. I'm going to turn it over to wikipedia to describe, and unlike other wiki entries, this one is real. Think of it as ancient Viagra.

1. Being a Eunuch sucks.

Zheng-He (leader of the expedition) was a eunuch. If you don't know what a eunuch is, look it up. The most disturbing, and oddly fascinating aspect of 1421 was the description of how Zheng-He became a eunuch and what it entailed. This is another fascinating wiki search, but I will warn you it is not for those with a weak stomach.

While I only listed gross and disturbing facts from the book, there are so many reasons to read it. Unlike other historical novels, it does not read like a textbook. Despite its outstanding prose, 1421's power lies in its ability to challenge everything you thought you knew about the world, while making you ponder about other lies history books propagated on our gullible civilization.

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