Author Tags: 1700-1800, Chinese

“It is a near certainty that Japanese or Chinese people arrived on the northwest coast long before any European.” —HISTORIAN DEREK HAYES

“The numismatic evidence [study of coins] from both British Columbia and Alaska does not support an ‘ancient Chinese’ connection with the eastern Pacific coast.” —ARCHAEOLOGIST GRANT KEDDIE

Just as we increasingly accept that Vikings visited the eastern shores of North America long before Christopher Columbus, historians and archaeologists are increasingly willing to consider that sailors from Asia might have reached the western shores of North America long before Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo made the first European voyage along the coast of California in 1542.

The supposition that Chinese mariners might have reached the shores of British Columbia has been based mostly upon the retrieval of trading coins in B.C. and Alaska, some of which can be dated from pre-contact dynasties in China. The Chinese were using the magnetic needle and navigating by the stars prior to Christ. It is conceivable Asian mariners could have reached North America from China using the currents of the Pacific Ocean. In 1979, archaeologists from the University of San Diego verified the discovery of ancient Chinese stone anchors near Palos Verdes Peninsula and off Point Mendocino in California. In the latter case, the anchor was encrusted with manganese which showed that it had been lying on the seabed for more than 2,000 years. Ancient Chinese artifacts have also been discovered in British Columbia.

Spaniards in the Gulf of California reported seeing large Chinese junks at anchor in 1544. In a controversial book entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America, a retired British submarine commander named Gavin Menzies has claimed a Chinese mariner named Zheng He visited the West Coast of America about one lifetime prior to Columbus. Zheng He (1371-1435 A.D.) was a eunuch whose ships ventured to Arabia and East Africa. Such expeditions were made with flotillas of more than 300 ships under the direction of Emperor Zhu Di during the Ming dynasty.

Louise Levathes’ study When China Ruled The Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (Oxford University Press, 1996) is one of several books that has documented the far-reaching accomplishments of Chinese mariners such as Zheng He (Cheng Ho), Zhou Man and Hong Bao during the early 15th century. Menzies has added a mish-mash of conjectures to Levathes’ research to suggest the Chinese also reached America, Antarctica and even Europe. A media feeding frenzy ensued when Menzies’ book appeared, but his research has been ridiculed as inconclusive and fanciful by academic experts.
Even more elusive are the earlier maritime wanderings of the monk Hui Shen, sometimes spelled Hoei-Shin. In The Jade Coast (2003), biologist Robert Butler repeats the common assertion that Hui Shen visited “a distant land to the east that they called Fusang quo” in the fifth century. This land of Fu Sang or Fou Sang was often included on European maps during the 18th century in areas that have roughly approximated the location of Vancouver Island.

American historian Charles Chapman refers to Hui Shen in his chapter “The Chinese Along the Pacific Coast in Ancient Times” within A History of California: The Spanish Period. Chris Lorenc in the Double Cone Quarterly repeats the supposition that Hui Shen returned to the Chinese court in 499 A.D. having named the distant land to the east after a type of plant resembling the prickly pear, cactus apple or yucca. “You can follow Hui-Shen’s descriptions and distances from the Ainu in Japan,” he writes, “to Kamkatcha to Fu-Sang, which measures out to California although the culture resembles people further south since the people of Fu-Sang had a form of writing and parchment made from the fu-sang plant.”

Most investigators of the Hui Shen story suggest the fu-sang plant was the Mexican maguey plant [Agave americana] which served many functions for the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico. Hui Shen reported inhabitants of Fu-Sang were making writing paper from the plant. According to Hui Shen’s narrative, houses in Fu-Sang were constructed from wooden beams and mats were made of reeds. Other scholars have speculated as to whether Hui Shen reached Central America or went only as far as Korea.

Hui Shen’s narrative about travels to an exotic land called Fu Sang is contained within the Chinese classic Liang Shu (The History of the Liang Dynasty). This work was first translated into English, with commentary, by the American scholar Charles G. Leland in his book Fu-Sang, Or the Discovery of the World by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century (New York: J.W. Bouton, 1875). Leland was no common sensationalist. Born in 1824, he studied at universities in Heidelberg and Munich, attended lectures at the Sorbonne and the College Louis-le-Orand, returned to Philadelphia in 1848, studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1851, but made his living mainly as a writer and magazine publisher in Philadelphia and New York. Leland wrote numerous books based on his research into ancient and modern literature, translating Heinrich Heine, producing esoteric works of poetry such as The Music Lesson of Confucius and Other Poems, and examining subjects that included Gypsy songs, Egypt, Abraham Lincoln and Algonquin legends. Leland’s investigation of Hui Shen was an expanded translation of an 1841 work by a German scholar named Carl Frederick Neumann. He, in turn, was influenced by the 1761 work of French sinologist Joseph de Guignes in the French scholarly journal Memoires of the Academie de Belles Lettres. The original European version of Fusang’s memoir was entitled Recherches sur les navigations des Chinois du côté l’Amerique.

The Leland/Neumann translation is brief enough to provide in full. “During the reign of the dynasty Tsi, in the first year of the year-naming, ‘Everlasting Origin’ (A.D. 499) came a Buddhist priest from this kingdom, who bore the cloister-name of Hoei-schin, i.e., Universal Compassion, to the present district of Hukuang, and those surrounding it, who narrated that Fusang is about twenty thousand Chinese miles in an easterly direction from Tahan, and east of the Middle Kingdom. Many Fusang trees grow there, whose leaves resemble the Dryanda cordifolia; the sprouts, on the contrary, resemble those of the bamboo-tree, and are eaten by the inhabitants of the land. The fruit is like a pear in form, but is red. From the bark they prepare a sort of linen which they use for clothing, and also a sort of ornamented stuff [or fine silk]. The houses are built of wooden beams, fortified and walled places are there unknown.

“They have written characters in this land, and prepare paper from the bark of the Fusang. The people have no weapons, and make no wars; but in the arrangements for the kingdom they have a northern and a southern prison. Trifling offenders were lodged in the southern prison, but those confined for greater offences in the northern; so that those who were about to receive grace could be placed in the southern prison, and those who were not, in the northern. Those men and women who were imprisoned for life were allowed to marry. The boys resulting from these marriages were, at the age of eight years, sold as slaves; the girls not until their ninth year. If a man of any note was found guilty of crimes, an assembly was held; it must be in an excavated place. There they strewed ashes over him, and bade him farewell. If the offender was one of a lower class, he alone was punished; but when of rank, the degradation was extended to his children and grandchildren. With those of the highest rank it attained to the seventh generation.

“The name of the king is pronounced Ichi. The nobles of the first-class are termed Tuilu; of the second, Little Tuilu; and of the third, Na-to-scha. When the prince goes forth, he is accompanied by horns and trumpets. The colour of his clothes changes with the different years. In the two first of the ten-year cycles they are blue; in the two next, red; in the two following, yellow; in the two next, red; and in the last two, black.

“The horns of the oxen are so large that they hold ten bushels. They use them to contain all manner of things. Horses, oxen, and stags are harnessed to their wagons. Stags are used here as cattle are used in the Middle Kingdom, and from the milk of the hind they make butter. The red pears of the Fusang-tree keep good throughout the year. Moreover, they have apples and reeds. From the latter they prepare mats. No iron is found in this land; but copper, gold, and silver are not prized, and do not serve as a medium of exchange in the market.

“Marriage is determined upon in the following manner:—The suitor builds himself a hut before the door of the house where the one longed for dwells, and waters and cleans the ground every morning and evening. When a year has passed by, if the maiden is not inclined to marry him, he departs; should she be willing, it is completed. When the parents die, they fast seven days. For the death of the paternal or maternal grandfather they lament five days; at the death of elder or younger sisters or brothers, uncles or aunts, three days. They then sit from morning to evening before an image of the ghost, absorbed in prayer, but wear no mourning-clothes. When the king dies, the son who succeeds him does not busy himself for three years with State affairs.
“In earlier times these people lived not according to the laws of Buddha. But it happened that in the second year-naming ‘Great Light,’ of Song (A.D. 458), five beggar-monks from the kingdom of Kipin went to this land, extended over it the religion of Buddha, and with it his holy writings and images. They instructed the people in the principles of monastic life, and so changed their manners.”

If Hui Shen followed the Japanese Current from the Orient to Mexico, he could have visited British Columbia en route—and his narrative might have contained the first literary reference to B.C.

The original story of Hui Shen has had a convoluted publishing history, undergoing various transmutations. It is assumed he departed from China during the Sung Dynasty based in Nanking (420–479 A.D.) but he returned during the Ch’i Dynasty (479–502 A.D.). Records for the Ch’i Dynasty were lost but his adventures were mentioned in documents pertaining to the Liang Dynasty (502–557 A.D.). These records also disappeared but extracts subsequently were published in the History of the Liang Dynasty, or the Liang Shu, completed around 629 A.D. by a team of official Chinese historians that included Yao Silian (557–637 A.D.). The Liang Shu recalls a monk named Hui Shen sailed across the great eastern sea between 458 A.D. and 499 A.D. to reach the land of Fusang. Almost seven centuries later, the adventures of Hui Shen were extracted from the Liang Shu for Ma Tuanlin’s historical encyclopedia called Wen-hsien t’ung-K’ao in 1317 A.D. That version of Hui Shen’s story was, in turn, translated by de Guignes in 1761 A.D., to be followed by subsequent translations of De Guignes’ version into English by Leland (1875), Edward Vining (1885) and Henriette Mertz (1972).

“A modern and critical translation of the original documents is needed,” wrote Grant Keddie in 1989, “before there can be an attempt to resolve the dispute as to the locations referred to in the stories.”

Amen to that.


Liang Shu (The History of the Liang Dynasty), 629 A.D., column 54, Dong Yi Lie Zhuan, edited by Si’lian Yao, Tang Dynasty. British: Fusang, Or the Discovery of the World by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century (1875; Curzon Press Ltd. 1973). American: Fusang or the Discovery of America by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century by Charles G. Leland (New York: Bouton, 1875, 8 vol; Harper & Row, 1973); An Inglorious Columbus: Or Evidence that Hwui Shan and a Party of Buddhist Monks from Afghanistan discovered America in the Fifth Century A.D. by Edward Vinning (New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1885). Fusang: Or the Discovery of America by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century by Charles G. Leland (Sun Publishing, 1981); Pale Ink: Two Ancient Records of Chinese Exploration in America by Henriette Mertz (Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1972); 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies (Morrow, 2003).

[BCBW 2003] "1500-1700" "Chinese" "1700-1800"