Selling Zheng He: A few tips

Attention Conservation Notice: This is a long, sarcastic screed pretending to offer advice about how to write a popular work of history about the specious claim that Chinese mariner Zheng He sailed clear around the world in the 1420s, discovering America decades before Columbus. You might be amused.

Background: Zheng He (1371–1433) was a Chinese Muslim who commanded a fleet of vessels that sailed the East Indies and the Indian Ocean, calling at ports as far away as Africa. His mission was to impress foreigners on behalf of his emperor. Today the Chinese government still uses Zheng He to impress foreigners, this time as a symbol of their country’s cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism. Australian writer Gavin Menzies is responsible for the myth that Zheng He sailed around southern Africa, across the Atlantic to the Americas, and onward around the globe.

My imagined audience for this piece is a certain amateur historian (let’s call him “Doc”) who has given lectures stringing together gleaned factoids about American Indians to support a theory that Zheng He was in North America. There he supposedly taught the precious little primitives how to make decent pots and to identify the Big Dipper. This fellow owns a 15th-century Chinese brass medallion that he claims was unearthed in North Carolina, but he goes temporarily deaf when asked to give corroborating details. After meeting him, I wrote this to blow off steam.

First of all, Doc, this story has been done before. Gavin Menzies has become a minor celebrity on the strength of his claim that Zheng He “discovered the world” for China. If you want a real blockbuster — I mean something in the same league as The Da Vinci Code — then you need a new angle. A good place to look for ideas is the pop history book that Dan Brown cribbed from for his novel and hit movie. I mean The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, by Dan Baigent, et al. (sold in the U.S. as Holy Blood, Holy Grail).

Holy Blood wove a lot of humbug evidence into a titillating narrative suggesting that Christian doctrine was a fraud, and that a conspiracy of super-intelligent folks has guided the Western world’s destiny and picked out many of its leaders. These same people are supposedly still active today, operating in total secrecy and planning to designate a future ruler from the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Jesus, you see, had not died on the cross but had gone to southern France and settled down with Mary Magdalene, establishing a sacred bloodline that is talked about in the Holy Grail legend.

The center of this two-thousand-year conspiracy turned out to be a wee Occitan village, and the “proof” consisted of some imaginary artifacts, an alleged buried treasure, and a bunch of anonymous “secret files.”

As you can see, the Holy Blood, Holy Grail thesis is no less incredible than the idea of Zheng He sailing around the world. It also proves that one can push weak evidence much further than you have attempted to do so far. In fact, it suggests that your Zheng He story is not nearly outlandish enough to be a blockbuster. You need to spice it up, Doc! So here’s some advice on how to do it.

How to do it:

What you need is, first, a prophecy, and second, a conspiracy to hide that prophecy. Don’t just have Zheng He carry the news of a new emperor to the Crow Indians; with all due respect, who cares? No, have him carry some shocking, world-changing message that has been obscured by the mists of time: a lost prophecy, you see, that has something important to say to us today.

Note that I’m not asking you to believe any of this. I’m just advising you on how to sell your story.

It is important that you relay this story in fits and starts, interrupting yourself with lengthy passages about “shadowy” hints and the “unbelievable,” “overwhelming” conclusions that you were reluctantly forced to make after years of painstaking research. Mention how these conclusions defy the consensus of conventional historians, yet you cannot stop yourself from going wherever the evidence may lead. Scholars may scorn and mock you, they may even get angry — but no sacrifice is too great for the truth!

The prophecy:

I leave the actual content of the prophecy to your imagination. Probably you don’t want to be too explicit about it. Leave something to the readers’ imagination, and you’ll be amused at the conclusions they will form on their own. You’ll probably hear something like:

“China is going to rule the whole world, and they’re going to give America back to the Indians! It’s an ancient prophecy!”

Then they’ll relay these conclusions to their friends, and many of those friends will buy your book and pass the word to others:

“America is like this ‘pure country’ where space aliens will land one day soon and bring world peace! It was promised to this Chinese sailor who went around the whole world like a hundred thousand years ago!”

Some people will indignantly condemn your book as fake history (which it is, of course). Eventually you might provoke some semi-retired historian with nothing better to do into attacking you. This will be good for you, as it will only make the book more famous and sell more copies. In fact, you may want to privately pay off some old fool to pose as your critic, in case some heavy-hitting scholars take an interest in debunking your work. That way you can respond to your hired critic in publicized events, while ignoring the ones with the tough questions.

Next thing you know, you’ll be on the History Channel.

So that’s your best strategy: Drop qualified hints and let your readers run wild with them. When the interviewers ask you about them, you can smile indulgently and come off as a seasoned, cautious scholar in comparison to your enthusiasts.

The conspiracy:

In your book, be sure to uncover signs of a long-standing conspiracy to hide the truth about Zheng He. Why isn’t he the most famous sailor in world history? Why don’t we celebrate him instead of Columbus? It’s a conspiracy, that’s why!

Zheng He was carrying the Truth with him, and many powerful people did not want the Truth to be known. But now, at last, your book is going to tell all. Here is the evidence that finally allowed you, the author, to pierce the curtain of silence and uncover what had been deliberately hidden for so many centuries. Without explicitly saying so, you should drop hints that any critics of your book are merely the unwitting tools of the conspiracy.

In fact, this conspiracy ought to be the reason that Zheng He’s voyages were curtailed: He was too hot to handle. You should discover that, as an experienced mariner, Zheng He came across unusual people with startling information. For the Ming emperor Xuan De, who commissioned Zheng He to carry the tidings of his own coronation, this prophecy proved too disturbing. Xuan De worried about what else the intrepid admiral might reveal, so he ordered him to end his travels.

But Zheng He wouldn’t do it! He was driven to carry his prophecy throughout the known world, and beyond into lands that would not be rediscovered for long years afterward! So the Powers That Be conspired to bury the truth about this courageous man. In China, India, the Islamic empires, in Europe and in Africa, they all agreed to forget about Zheng He. But Zheng He kept sailing, until he came to a New World where he could once more tell his secrets.

What a story!


Now I’d like to offer a little advice on the evidence you’ve presented so far. It’s great that you’ve brought Indians into the story. Combining the great Asian explorer with the Native Americans gives you selling points to virtually the entire book-buying world. It’s pure literary gold. But you need to work a little more on how you present your stuff.

By the way, you might want to talk with a literary agent about which term, “American Indian” or “Native American,” will sell better with readers. Indians generally call themselves “Indian,” but non-Indians seem to feel that “Native American” is somehow more “respectful.” Your agent can advise you as to which term will move more merchandise.

Anyway, your main point should be that, as incredible as it seems, several pieces of overlooked evidence point to the presence of Ming Chinese in America in the 1400s, and apparently these folks made a big impression on the native peoples. This is preposterous of course. Therefore — I can’t emphasize this enough — you must remember to use a lot of obfuscating language about shadowy hints, vague suggestions, and being inexorably drawn to incredible but unavoidable conclusions.

The brass medallion:

This is a wonderful item, and most readers will be eager to believe that it really was unearthed in Cherokee country. But you will have a few skeptics to deal with, and your best method is to get them into the right frame of mind. The best way to do this is to insist on your own initial skepticism, then pretend that you were forced to conclude that the medallion is authentic.

The provenance of the medallion is a problem. You will have to say something about where it came from, and you may be understandably reluctant to do this. So make up a history for the object. First, devise a story about how you acquired the medallion without understanding its true significance. You will have to say you received it from someone, but aside from that you can let the prior history of the medallion plunge into obscurity.

Next, dream up an old document that describes the medallion in detail. Date this document to the 16th century or so, and arrange for someone to anonymously deposit it in some obscure archive, where you will happen to stumble upon it. This “transcript” (based on an “original” that is, of course, lost forever) will serve as your proof that the medallion was in North America a long time ago, and by this means you can tell whatever lies you please about it. To hedge your bets, you might want to invent several “ancient” documents to discover. Call it the Dossiers secrets method. It worked like a charm for Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code.

Technical jargon is your friend. Throw around some obscure terms from spectroscopy and the most obscure sub-disciplines that you can possibly bring to bear. Lean on your credentials as a man of science. Pretend to be forced to conclude that the medallion was made in Ming China and nowhere else. Then shift gears abruptly, and contemplate the medallion’s inscription as if with new eyes, perhaps meditating on the lovely plain circularity of it. There must be a message in its form, somehow. If only you knew what it was! Pretend to feel ashamed for having such unscientific thoughts — yet you cannot deny the feeling that is growing within you.

The Big Dipper flag:

This evidence has some real strengths, such as the familiarity that virtually all readers will have with the constellation, and with the Cherokees, one of the best-known Indian tribes. Remember to begin with pretended skepticism, “chance” findings, and technical jargon. (The term you want is vexillology, not “vexicology.”)

Flag showing seven white stars on a red field
Ancient flag of the Cherokee Indians, according to some guy’s website.
Pretend that it is only by chance that any record of the ancient “Big Dipper” flag of the Cherokees — forgotten by the modern tribe — was preserved at all. Pretend to be astonished beyond belief that it so nearly resembles the flag of Zheng He. To maintain an appearance of skepticism, discuss the Big Dipper flag of Alaska as counter-evidence. (It would be hard to argue that the Alaskans were influenced by a Chinese mariner in their choice of a state flag.) Then you might pretend to discover an “ancient” document that suggests the Cherokee flag really is very, very old — while the Alaska flag only dates from the twentieth century. That should do the trick. Make up some mystifying phrase like “the seven brothers [stars] dressed in white on a bloody ground.” Holy Blood, Holy Grail will give you an idea of how it’s done.

Finally, link the image of the Big Dipper to the prophecy that you want Zheng He to be carrying. Become convinced that a Chinese emissary traveled far across the continent, until he arrived among the Crow Indians as a “message carrier.” But the message will not be news of a new emperor. Tell the readers that this was your initial thought when you first discovered this little-known, misunderstood story. But on reflection it becomes clear that the “message” is the dangerous lost prophecy of Zheng He.

Here’s the clincher: This message will be rooted out and erased throughout the world, wherever Zheng He goes — except among the Indians, who will preserve the message in secret for the benefit of mankind, and in spite of the conspiracy to erase it. Zheng He and the Indians save the world!

Other evidence:

The other claims you have assembled (about Cherokee and Catawba words, and Catawba pots) are relatively boring, compared to the two items already mentioned, and they won’t withstand much scrutiny. More to the point, pottery and language are a real snooze to most American readers. You might do better, though, if you can find some suggestive Chinese phrases buried inside the sound of some “Indian” words. For example, an American Indian Muslim has convinced himself that the place name Tallahassee contains an Arabic phrase about God. (T’Allah assee; get it?) Try something like that, but with Chinese.

The possibilities are almost endless. You might begin by looking at “Indian” toponyms (like Tallahassee, Mississippi, and Chicago) and dreaming up Chinese words, phrases, or names that they might conceivably have been corrupted from. Don’t be picky about it. Quantity is important, and many readers who are inclined to be skeptical will succumb to a flood of evidence, no matter how weak each piece is.

Try this on for size: “It was the Ming Chinese and not the Spaniards who introduced the horse to the North American Indians. We know this because the Chinese-derived ping-pong strongly resembles pinto pony, proving that Zheng He was in contact with the Indians of the Great Plains.” OK, you and I both know that ping-pong doesn’t come from Chinese. But to English speakers it sounds Chinese, and that’s good enough for your purposes.

Missing evidence:

There are some promising avenues that you have overlooked. If the Ming Chinese really were in the Americas in the 1400s, wouldn’t they have left some traces among the folklore of the native peoples? Frankly I’m surprised that you haven’t taken the Cherokee uktena, a mythical serpent with a magical crystal in its head, and used it as proof that the Cherokees knew about the Chinese dragon.

I strongly advise you to look at some books of Indian myths and draw all the parallels you can with Chinese legends, monsters, and heroes. For one thing, it gives you an excuse to entertain your readers by briefly recounting all these great old stories about Spearfinger, Stone-Coat, the water panther, or the man who became a snake. Your readers will have fun with these, and they’ll be only too glad to allow you to use these stories as “proof” of Chinese influence. But be sure to cast it in terms of a partnership of mutual respect between Chinese and Indians, not as a case of civilized Chinese meeting primitive Indians. Most Americans have a vague respect for Indians, although they may also harbor crude stereotypes of Indians at the same time. In general they would rather see Indians portrayed as noble and pure rather than as primitive or backward. You may not realize it, but many Americans imagine that they have Indian ancestry, and that the Indians were somehow “better,” “simpler” people than modern Americans are. This means they will identify with the Indians in the Zheng He story and will probably look upon them as their own ancestors. If you keep this in mind, you can use it to get readers emotionally involved in your tale. This will tend to make them less critical.

These tips should help you write a book that has the potential to match The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in sales. It all depends on your imagination and willingness to lie charmingly about the past. Good luck.

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