About Gunnar Thompson's Trip to Beijing

Photo of crystal trophy
Zeng He Award

In April of 2006 Dr. Gunnar ThompsonDr. Gunnar Thompson, speaking in Beijing was invited to Beijing, China to evaluate a map which had been recently purchased in a Beijing antique shop. Here he spoke at a conference of historians, map experts, and other authorities in the field of early map making and sea voyages.

This map of the world, a 1763 copy of a earlier Ming Dynasty map from 1418, is authentic. The map's paper has been dated accurately, and the map itself contains many of the errors and eccentricities of other maps of this time period. It even looks old and smells old. This is the earliest scientific map of the whole world. It is indeed an international treasure!

Here are some of Dr. Thompson's own words following his trip:

I have been slow in telling my story about the trip to Beijing out of hopes that the key details would appear in Newsweek, Time, or perhaps some other major journal—but so far not a peep. I think that the international press was hoping for a flop—in accord with the journalistic principle that "bad news is good news" when it comes to the primary function of journalism as entertainment?

Before I left for Beijing, I prepared a thorough report with profuse illustrations on the authenticity of the 1418 Ming Map as a handout for reporters. The crux of my proof of authenticity is based on the fact that 13th & 14th century European spies, including the Polo Brothers & Marco Polo (1295), Niccolo da Conti (1421), and Pero de Covilha (1487) managed to purloin copies of Chinese maps. By comparing 11 key errors or "diagnostic geographical markers" on European spy maps and on the Qing (or "Ching") antique, I was able to demonstrate that the Qing copy of the 1418 Ming map was authentic.

Wednesday, March 22: I had the breakfast buffet in the company of Frank Lee—which I did for the remainder of my stay in Beijing. We were joined by Leon Yu—simultaneous translator for the City of Xiamen—a major tourist city near Hong Kong. For the rest of the morning, Gavin Menzies, Liu Gang, and I met with newspaper reporters and television hosts—mostly for Japan and China stations. These meetings took place at a lounge provided by the hotel. In the afternoon, Gavin, Liu Gang, and I spoke before a press conference of Asian reporters that was held in the offices of a Beijing business leader. We were provided with a driver who took us back-and-forth between the offices, assorted restaurants, and our hotel for the next three days. Leon Yu did the translations at these meetings. At the end of the press conference, the Zheng He Society presented us all with "Zheng He" trophies—crystal glass globes held in the palm of a glass hand and inscribed with Chinese writing. This was a great honor. That night, we all had dinner at the Chinese Restaurant at the hotel.

Thursday, March 23: We had more TV and press interviews at the hotel all morning, followed by lunch at a Japanese restaurant. We left for the Bookworm Club, and we had a brief snack while setting up for the afternoon and evening "shows." In the early evening, we gave PowerPoint presentations to the international press for about an hour followed by about an hour of questions and discussion. Liu Gang talked about the radiocarbon test that proved the age of the document was from the 18th century while the text on the map was 15th century Ming—thus proving that the document was an authentic 18th century copy of an earlier Ming Map. I demonstrated the authenticity of the map by comparing the errors on the map to the same kind of errors that appeared on 15th century European spy maps. Gavin Menzies added his support to the show with a further comparison featuring the Albertin DeVirga Map of 1414 showing that Africa was fully known to the Chinese after the Yuan Dynasty of Kublai Khan. Incidentally, Marco Polo brought copies of the Yuan Dynasty maps back to Venice where they were later copied by European cartographers. A Newsweek reporter was present as were journalists from about thirty newspapers including German and Italian reporters. After a brief intermission, and a sandwich, we gave about the same presentations to an audience of Bookworm regular club members.

Dr. Thompson with author Gavin MenziesFriday, March 24: We had no meetings scheduled for the morning. Gavin wanted to take a tour of the Beijing observatory that was built during the Ming Dynasty in about 1425. Observatories are essential to making accurate maps because astronomers are charged with making the baseline measurements of constellations that are used for calculating longitude and latitude in the field. We were greeted as important visitors. The observatory managers were called out to talk with the visiting British author (Gavin Menzies) while Frank provided translations. Before we left, they insisted we sign their log book of visiting dignitaries. The Chinese had very sophisticated astronomical equipment that enabled them to make observations of comets, constellations, etc., centuries ahead of Europeans. In the afternoon, I gave a second presentation to members of the Zheng He Society, which included more naval personnel. One retired admiral had his bodyguard present in full navy uniform. Frank Lee did the translation—adding a lot of his own material about who I was and why I had flown all the way from Seattle to China for this event. We both included humorous material that seemed to play very well with the Stone Lion in Beijingaudience. At the end, the Zheng He Society presented me with another gift—a book about Chinese maps. That evening, Liu Gang treated all of us to a fine dinner at a restaurant that specializes in Peking duck.

May 12: I'm back in Seattle and working hard on the Marco Polo book as well as a new project called "Secret Voyages to the New World." This book will include chapters on Solomon, Hsu Fu, Marco Polo, Zheng He, Friar Nicholas, Martin Behaim, and Francis Drake. It will be done and available sometime this summer.


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