The dangers of junk history

The History News Network has voted The Jefferson Lies by evangelist David Barton the Least Credible History Book in Print. Plugged by professional freak and broadcaster Glenn Beck, it is an attempt to re-invent Thomas Jefferson as what today’s Christian Right would have liked him to be, notably a devout non-secularist – and one who wouldn’t have fathered children by a slave girl, or think bits of the New Testament could and should be ignored.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a runner-up. It is in many ways exactly what Barton’s readers would most hate: the archetypal leftish liberal collectivist interpretation. Unlike a rewriting of history to suit Biblical literalists’ fantasies, it is simply biased – laboriously so. It was still newly published when I was at college, and sure enough the brainwashing national education system of the time expected us to read it. Even then it seemed overly PC (as it would now be called), recounting a centuries-long series of noble downtrodden groups bravely rising up against the vicious you-know-what-colour, you-know-what-age, you-know-what-gender oppressors. It starts on page 1, paragraph 3… 

Which bring us rather neatly to another book in HNN’s generally American-focused list of pseudo- and junk history. It’s none other than Gavin Menzies’s 1421: the Year China Discovered America. Even six years ago, it was being dismissed as a joke, and I can’t remember how many times I have transferred it from a bookshop history shelf to the fiction section. It is, to quote the HNN panelist:

…a stunning farrago of deceptions and misrepresentations of sources and scholars, [bringing] false historical writing and intentional public deception to a new level … the publishers have classified this volume as “non-fiction” with full knowledge that the book was fabricated by persons who had no knowledge of the Ming voyages … concocted to be sensational … depicting academic historians as unbending conservatives trying to keep knowledge of pre-Colombian voyages from the public … the Da Vinci Code of the historical realm … no book has done more harm in terms of misrepresenting the American (and indeed global) past…

Ouch. Chinese officials and state-managed academics, not always averse to hijacking archaeology and anthropology for the greater glory of the motherland, have kept their distance from Menzies’s claims. They have, over the years, suggested unique descent of the ethnic Chinese from Homo erectus, adopted barbarian Mongol leader Genghis Khan as a Chinese, and declared millennia-old fishing trips as proof of ownership of the whole South China Sea, well into the 200-mile limits of the Philippines and Vietnam. But discovery of the Americas is a step too far. Which is just as well, since Menzies followed up his 1421 fantasy with an even more deranged 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. I can’t wait for 1447: The Year the Ming Dynasty Landed on the Moon.

Even without demanding America and Italy, China has a lot of other countries’ de facto territory on its shopping list. Beijing claims a bit of India on the grounds that the British grabbed it from Tibet (which of course has always always been part of China). It demands the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to some extent on the grounds that they weren’t historically Japanese, and, therefore, who else’s could they be?

The big worry – and puzzle – now is the South China Sea. In a recent opinion piece, Kishore Mahbubani asks Is China losing the diplomatic plot? After years of finessing the issue, Beijing has recently openly declared its claims to sovereignty over what are clearly other countries’ territorial waters. In doing so, it has wrecked the trust it has spent decades building in Southeast Asia and guaranteed a bigger American presence in the region. And, by officially confirming the demands implicit in the infamous nine-dotted map, it has done so in such a way that it can’t really back out. (Wang Gungyu’s Straits Times article on the Japanese/KMT-derived map – like the SCMP’s version of Mahbubani’s article – is sealed away in an Internet vault, but can be seen here.)

Mahbubani blames overzealous junior officials, but it also sounds like some sort of tiff in which the PLA gets one over on the Foreign Affairs wimps. Either way, as with Taiwan, Beijing has painted itself into a corner. Any leader who tries to make concessions will have Politburo enemies or millions of nationalistic students wanting to string him up. If China carries on pushing idiotic, bullying demands, we can lay good odds that in five years’ time the US will have a base at Cam Ranh Bay and there will have been anti-Chinese riots and lootings in at least one or two ASEAN capitals – plus all the global ramifications. All because of junk history.

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18 Responses to The dangers of junk history

  1. Bela Taupin says:

    You omit the biggest fibster of all: nail-biting genocidist Henry Kissinger. His new China book is selling well. I gave up on Chapter Three. It reads like a rehashed LONELY PLANET history section. the news…

    Funny that fish farmers, guilty of the world’s most intensive pollution of our waters, complain about pollution.

    To the “tune” of PAPER ROSES by Utah’s Marie Osmond:


    I realized Government deceived me
    With tender looks that I mistook for love
    So take away the press release you gave me
    And send the cash you reminded me of

    Plastic pellets
    Plastic pellets

    Oh how harmless they seemed to be
    But now I want
    And compensation’s
    What I’m bleedin’ gonna get

    Copyright SEA OF TRASH Music Group 2012.
    Wholly owned by the Patriotic Triad Fishermen of Sai Kung.
    Specialists in Heavy Metal (and Salmonella).

  2. Sir Crispin says:

    Legend: a lie that has attained the dignity of age.
    – H. L. Mencken

  3. Real Tax Payer says:

    There’s junk history and junk history and pure myth (look no farther than the Vatican or Joseph Smith for myths : same same )

    I would not so easily dismiss 1421

    There’s a wealth of independent and verifiable evidence flowing in from all over the world which confirms Gavin Menzies’ theory

    I suspect that a lot of the criticism against 1421 is sour grapes from historians who don’t like to have their feathers ruffled by “one of them who is not one of us”

    And as John Maynard Keynes said, which was quoted recently somewhere in the HK press (Tom H? Jake? ) :

    “When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do sir? “

  4. Old Timer says:

    “I would not so easily dismiss 1421”

    Hook, line & sinker.

  5. Headache says:

    So let’s try a more laborious dismissal.

    RTP, your credulity on all matters China leaves me incredulous.

  6. stanley gibbons says:

    @George: Don’t give up your day job. Oh wait…….

  7. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    RTP – please tell us how the moon landing was fabricated or September 11 was an inside job.

  8. Big Al says:

    The Chinese claim that historical evidence “proves” that the whole of the South China Sea once belonged to them. Disagreeing with this viewpoint would, no doubt, “hurt the feelings” of the Chinese people. Not wishing to cause them any discomfort (unlike, say, their own Chairman Mao, who ensured 30+ million starved to death), I suggest we wholehartedly support their “it’s ours because we were there first” logic.

    Then, of course, we can casually point out that before “modern” China, the Mongolians had the largest land empire the world has ever seen, extending from the Yellow Sea to the borders of eastern Europe, INCLUDING ALL OF CHINA ( see Therefore, whatever the Chinese claim, according to their logic, actually belongs to the Mongolians. Hoist by their own petard!

  9. Disenfranchised says:

    Nothing like getting a hoist up the petard.

  10. Stephen says:

    Living in this part of the world one unfortunately gets confronted with rah rah China books – When China Rules the World, Martin Jacques, Jonathan Fenby nonsense etc – as to become utterly sick and tired of the very sight of them (let alone ever trying to read one).

    Now China, with there almost finished blue water fleet, are now going about ruling the waves and whipping up nationalistic fervour on the mainland ?

    I wonder why – is the economy about to tank ? I suppose we’ll know when the gunfire starts or when Fenby and Jacques et al entertain us with less delusional published horseshite.

  11. Chopped Onions says:

    During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, soldiers painted the brown ground in the camps the same green colour as their tanks. This is a good simile for modern china.Underneath its crap
    China is the fat child in the playground that’s been teased and now realizes that its size can actually be a source of fear in others. However, if it uses that power unwisely,I’m convinced it will end up being sorely tested…

  12. Chimp says:

    The rebuttal by Davies is interesting. It goes a bit far for me… you can’t say, Q.E.D., the baochuan didn’t get to Italy because they couldn’t cross the Isthmus of Suez. This conclusion may seem obvious (and it’s most likely correct) but the warranted conclusion to the facts that Davies presents is simply that, even if the Suez Canal existed at that point (which it didn’t), the ships described by Davies (which are unlikely, though of course, not impossible) couldn’t have passed through it.

    There are lots of areas where Menzies can be shown to be wrong without vitriol. All the “he’s a fucking looney” comments really are the media’s job. Though I agree… he’s a fucking looney… except he probably sold a few books based on the controversy… and will get funding from groups who like the cut of his jib… so maybe he’s not a fucking looney. Instead, lets call him “an academic”. All the fucking same… pet theories, falsifying data, grant grovelling and so on.

  13. Real Tax Payer says:

    Sceptics all ye !

    Fact is, there IS confirmatory evidence coming in for 1421

    Anyway my case rests , and time alone will sort this one out. Modern archaeology keeps digging up the strangest things that refute established beliefs of the time … e.g when Darwin suggested that perhaps the world is not 6,000 years old

    Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction


    PS: is that Bela ( or should it be Bella ?) in person in the second youtube video he quotes above ?

    Is he woman, man or both?
    Or none of those and yet still loth…. to tell us WHAT?
    The Bella of SWAT

    ( Sorry – la)

  14. Headache says:

    “Fact is, there IS confirmatory evidence … my case rests.”

    Well I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m convinced.

  15. Joe Blow says:

    The CCP has no natural friends inside China.

    CCP-ruled China has no natural friends outside China.

    Bullying -and never mind how clumsy and hapless it looks- is the only way they have left to get what they want. That, plus chequebook diplomacy. And that only lasts as long as the money lasts.

  16. Jon Dica says:

    Having gone through the US public education system, I’d be happy to hear some _positive_ recommendations for a book that covers similar ground as Zinn’s tome, rather than a rundown of everything that’s a waste of time. Anyone care to recommend an alternative, particularly regarding realistic US history?

  17. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Tiu Fu Fong

    As far as I recall, the Chinese were not involved in either the moon landings ( at least not yet ! ), nor 9/11.

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