Happy Columbus Day – but, let's not get carried away. After all, Cristoforo Colombo was johnny-come-lately in the American discovery business.
The riddle of who really, really, discovered America continues to fascinate scholars. You can get even money on Columbus (1492), Leif Ericson (1000), Saint Brendan (545) or Hui Shan (Hwui Shan) (458).
Hwui Shan who? That is not his true family name but is a Chinese term meaning Very Intelligent. Shan was born in land-locked Afghanistan and became a Buddhist monk. He was among 40 other young monks who set out to carry the words of Buddha to the ends of the earth.
They spent a few years in China which at that time navigated the open oceans with the aid of an instrument then unknown elsewhere – the compass. We know that early Chinese ships sailed on regular schedules with ships capable of carrying 300 passengers.
Shan heard tales by sailors about countries beyond the “Eastern Ocean” – a vast body of water the Spanish explorer Balboa would “discover” fifteen-hundred years later and name Pacific.
Chinese navigators knew there was land on the other side of the “Eastern Ocean” – just as Columbus knew the earth was round and that eventually he would reach land across the Atlantic.
The young monks were intrigued by accounts of a fabulous land where “trees grew a mile tall, silk worms were seven feet long, and birds had three legs.”
A third-century Chinese poet, for example, had written of far eastern lands:
“East of the Eastern Ocean lie/ The shores of the Land of Fusang./ If, after landing there, you travel/ East for 10,000 li/ You will come to another ocean, blue/ Vast, huge, boundless.” (The Atlantic?) The Chinese were among the earliest boat builders and navigators. Archeological discoveries in California and Central America bear out ancient contacts with Orientals. The Japan Current – a strong river within the Pacific – speeds along at 70 to 100 miles per day in the initial stages of its course eastward to the southern reaches of Central America before swinging west. It is certain that pre-history sailors used this current as an aid in going to and coming from America.
Several of the adventurous monks charted a sea-going junk to take them east until they reached a new land where the teachings of Buddha should be established. Shan, the apparent leader, kept careful records of the directions and distances they traveled. His descriptions of the people, animals and plants encountered make it easy to trace the journey.
His journal indicates the mendicants sailed northeast of Japan to the Land of Ta-han (the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia). From there they traveled 20,000 li (6,600 miles) east and south to the “wonderful land of Fusang.” If you trace this route, you end up at Acapulco, Mexico. Shan related that on the way to Fusang he saw a people who raised herds of “trained reindeer” (Siberia), and other natives with “marked bodies” (tattooed Eskimos). He marveled at giant trees (Oregon and California redwoods).
Finally he arrived at the Land of Fusang and described it thus:
“That region has many fusang trees, and these give it its name. The fusang's leaves resemble those of the t'ung, and its first sprouts are like bamboo shoots. The people of the country eat them. The fruit is like a pear but reddish. They spin thread from the bark and make coarse cloth from which they make clothing, and from it they also make a finer fabric. The wood is used to build houses, and they use fusang bark to make paper.” The word “Mexico” means “land of the maguey” – or century plant. Professor Charles Chapman points out that in no other country is there a plant put to such uses as those described by Shan.
Sprouts of the maguey resemble those of the bamboo, and Mexicans eat them. When shredded, the plant furnishes both coarse and fine fibers from which cloth is woven.
The plant often reaches a height of 30 feet and was cultivated in regular groves in ancient Mexico. Its trunk was used for the beams and rafters of buildings. Its broad leaves were woven into roofs and walls.
The maguey does not have reddish pear-shaped fruit, but a similar cactus sometimes mistaken for it does.
Shan also said: “They have a system of writing, but they have no fortresses or walled cities, no military weapons or soldiers, and they do not wage war in that kingdom. “The ground contains no iron, but it has copper. The people do not value gold and silver,” wrote Shan. When Cortez conquered Mexico, he also remarked at the natives' respect for copper and disinterest for gold except as decoration.
Shan stayed 40 years in the Land of Fusang. This was during the classic period of Mayan rule throughout Central America. Those ancient people had a system of hieroglyphic writing. Their calendar was more accurate than ours. They had a sophisticated knowledge of mathematics that included a symbol for zero centuries before the concept was known in Europe.
Mayans mined copper for tools but did not know how to smelt iron. They built cities that were unique in the ancient world because of the lack of fortification. They were a peaceful people who had no enemies until the fierce Toltecs, and later Aztecs, came down from the north and introduced the arts of war.
At age 90, Shan returned to china in 499. There, in a tearful reunion, he presented Emperor Wu Ti with 300 pounds of “silk” from the fusang tree and a mirror made from volcanic glass.
The old bhikshu monk's account was recorded by the court scribe and entered in the imperial records as an outstanding event of the year. It was published in the year 600 by Li Yan Chu whose books are recognized as the foundation of Chinese history.
Inasmuch as our history today is so strongly oriented to European events, we know little about early Chinese explorations. However, they were widely read and discussed in the 1880's. California was being extensively developed at that time, and evidences of ancient Chinese influence were unearthed.
Chinese junks, probably not much larger or stronger than that of Shan and his companions, occasionally put into San Francisco with miners during the Gold Rush. Chinese coins, some dated before the Christian era, were found in several places.
From an historical point of view, Shan's discovery came centuries before there was trade between East and West to stimulate permanent contacts.
Columbus' epoch voyage in 1492 opened up a new world at a time Europeans were ready to settle and exploit it systematically. He was at the right place at the right time. Thus, honor is rightfully due him.
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