Chinese vessels known as junks are designed with flexible, curved sails that hold their shape with bamboo inserts. Junks have sailed the Pacific since the 3rd century, fishing and trading. The dominant winds and currents of the Pacific Ocean may have carried “accidental explorers” from the Chinese coast in a clockwise journey past the Aleutian Islands and south along the North American coastline. There are numerous accounts of Chinese mariners who successfully set out to see what lay to their east and returned to China with a full report of their expeditions.
The Great Chinese Encyclopaedia, compiled between 502 and 556 by the Chinese Emperor’s imperial court historians, records that Hui shen sailed “20,000 li” (roughly 10,000 kilometres) across the oceans east of China and reached a rich and populated land in the mid 400s. The land was named Fusang and is now thought by some to be North America, especially the area of California and Mexico. Hui shen and his companions were Buddhist missionaries who were wandering for the purpose of spreading Buddhist teachings. Upon their return to China in 499, they were able to share some notes on the customs and foods of the American peoples, their use of metals (they did not have a source of iron and their economy was not based upon the exchange of copper, gold and silver), and animals. Hui shen wrote, “Stags are used here as cattle are used in the Middle Kingdom [of China], and from the milk of the hind they make butter.” For some historians, such observations serve as proof of their journey. For others, they are evidence to the contrary, indicating that the monks could not have made the crossing to a point as far away as the shores of North America and must instead have reached islands in the Pacific such as the Japanese archipelago.
Admiral Zhou Man reportedly set off in 1421, bound for the South Pacific. After his circumnavigation of Australia and the Barrier Reef, he made his way to South and Central America and sailed north. Although the Chinese fleet is thought to have been one of the most advanced in the world at the time, regularly trading with India and Africa and constructing large, seagoing vessels, China began to suffer the results of its interest in expansion. In 1435, imperial edicts closed off overseas travel and trade. Expedition accounts and even the shipyards were burned to prevent further expeditions. Scant sources survive, such as the I Yü Thu Chih, The Illustrated Record of Strange Countries from 1430, now at Cambridge. Some believe that the 15th century Chinese expeditions around the world left behind evidence, such as a pulley system from a junk found on the California coast and plants (including rice and roses) transplanted from Asia to the Americas. Although the original 15th century Chinese charts were likely burned, Japanese copies and later charts show the islands of the Pacific, Africa, Australia, and North America. They may have been drawn based on the information gathered by Chinese expedition leaders like Zhou Man.Did Chinese sailors intentionally sail to the Pacific coast of North America? There is no question that they had great skill as mariners and the capacity to construct suitable vessels. We can debate the evidence given here or the legends of specific expeditions, but it would be a more extraordinary tale of history if the Chinese didn’t seek Fusang than if they did!