Can Early Chinese Maritime Expeditions Shed Light on Lehi's Voyage to the New World?

Review of Gavin Menzies. 1421, the Year China Discovered America. New York: Morrow, 2003. xxiii + 552 pp., with appendixes, select bibliography, and index. $27.95.

Can Early Chinese Maritime Expedition Shed Light on Lehi’s Voyage to the New World?

Reviewed by John A. Tvedtness

Various ancient Chinese texts suggest that small groups of explorers may have
reached the New World. The most well-known such voyage is that of the Buddhist
monk Hwui Shan, in the mid-fifth century A.D. But it is a series of fifteenth-century
voyages that has more recently become an object of investigation.

From 1405 to 1433, a Chinese admiral named Zheng He led seven expeditions
of maritime explorers to various parts of the world. Based on maps and contemporary
documents, it seems that Zheng’s fleet of eight hundred vessels may have circumnavigated
the globe and even discovered America seven decades before Christopher Columbus.
In his controversial book, 1421, the Year China Discovered America,
Gavin Menzies describes not only the Chinese records of Zheng’s voyage of discovery
but notes that maps created before and just after the 1492 voyage of Columbus
show extensive mapping of distant coastlines using data not yet gathered by
Europeans. Menzies supports his contentions with an examination of medieval
shipwrecks (including a Chinese junk and other artifacts of Chinese origin found
in the New World). A television documentary based on the book’s theory was recently
aired on PBS. Some elements of the book have been criticized by Louise Levathes,
author of When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne

Zhu Di, emperor of China (Ming dynasty) ordered the construction of a huge
fleet of large wooden vessels (up to three hundred feet in length) and ordered
Admiral Zheng to sail to other lands in order to establish diplomatic and trade
relations. Four people who accompanied Admiral Zheng’s expeditions wrote books
about their experiences. The most detailed account is Ying-yai Sheng-lan,
written by Ma Huan, an interpreter who sailed on three of the voyages.2 In 1405,
the Chinese fleet departed with twenty-eight thousand men from Nanjing, China.
The sixteen-foot-long Mao K’un map, which is still extant, indicates sailing
directions for the different parts of the voyage.

Retracing the 1405 voyage are the crew of a Chinese junk named Precious
, led by explorer Rex Warner, accompanied by three other men and
a woman. Sailing from China in November 1999, the group followed the route described
by Ma Huan, putting ashore at various places in Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia,
Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. On 8 March 2001, the junk docked at
the southern Omani port of Salalah, in the region where Lehi and his family
were thought to have lived while building a boat to sail to the New World. Members
of the expedition filmed the voyage and Warner is preparing a book entitled
Voyage of the Dragon Kings.

Zheng’s expeditions, it seems, would have taken him over seas earlier crossed
by Lehi on his voyage to a promised land. Even if Zheng did not arrive in the
New World, his exploration of parts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans may provide
useful information for future Book of Mormon research.


  1. Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
  2. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores (1433), ed. J. V. G. Mills (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).