Chinese in America: When did the Chinese first reach the New World?

The argument of several writers, that the Chinese discovered America early in the Christian era, is based upon a curious historical statement in the works of Ma Twan-lin, one of the most notable of Chinese historians. It is professedly an extract from the official records of China, embracing a traveller's tale told in the year 499 A.D. by a Buddhist priest named Hwui Shin, on his return from a journey he had made to a country lying far to the east. This story seems to have been considered of sufficient importance to be recorded by the imperial historiographer, from whom Ma Twan-lin copied it. It describes the people and natural conditions of a country known as Fu-sang, and has given rise to considerable controversy, some writers asserting that Japan was the country visited, others claiming this honor for America. The literature of the subject is summed up in E. P. Vining's "An Inglorious Columbus," a recent work, in which the Chinese record is exhaustively reviewed, and the balance of proof shown to incline towards the American theory.

Of the various translations of the Chinese record we present that of Professor S. Wells Williams, prefacing it with the statement of Li-yan-tcheou, the original historian, that in order to reach this distant country one must set out from the coast of the Chinese province of Leao-tong, to the north of Peking, reaching Japan after a journey of twelve thousand li. Thence a voyage of seven thousand li northward brings one to the country of Wen-shin. Five thousand li eastward from this place lies the country of Ta-han. From the latter place Fu-sang may be reached after a further voyage of twenty thousand li. (The li is a variable measure, ordinarily given as about one-third of a mile in length.)

IN the first year of the reign Yung-yuen of the emperor Tung Hwan-hau, of the Tsi dynasty (A.D. 499), a Shaman priest named Hwui Shin arrived at King-chau from the Kingdom of Fu-sang. He related as follows:

Fu-sang lies east of the Kingdom of Ta-han more than twenty thousand li; it is also east of Middle Kingdom [China]. It produces many fu-sang trees, from which it derives its name. The leaves of the fu-sang resemble those of the tung tree. It sprouts forth like the bamboo, and the people eat the shoots. Its fruit resembles the pear, but is red; the bark is spun into cloth for dresses, and woven into brocade. The houses are made of planks. There are no walled cities with gates. The (people) use characters and writing, making paper from the bark of the fu-sang. There are no mailed soldiers, for they do not carry on war. The law of the land prescribes a southern and a northern prison. Criminals convicted of light crimes are put into the former, and those guilty of grievous offences into the latter. Criminals, when pardoned, are let out of the southern prison; but those in the northern prison are not pardoned. Prisoners in the latter marry. Their boys become bondmen when eight years old, and the girls bondwomen when nine years old. Convicted prisoners are not allowed to leave their prison while alive. When a nobleman (or an official) has been convicted of crime, the great assembly of the nation meets and places the criminal in a hollow (or pit); they set a feast, with wine, before him, and then take leave of him. If the sentence is a capital one, at the time they separate they surround (the body) with ashes. For crimes of the first grade, the sentence involves only the person of the culprit; for the second, it reaches the children and grandchildren; while the third extends to the seventh generation.

In addition to this statement, the Chinese annals contain an account of the "Kingdom of Women." of the "Great Han country," and of the "Land of Marked (or Tattooed) Bodies," all related in situation to Fu-sang. That given, however, is the most matter-of-fact of these several narratives, and appears to describe an actual country, though its details do not tally very closely with the known conditions of either Japan or Mexico, which latter country is believed by Mr. Vining to be the true Fu-sang. In his view the maguey represents the fu-sang tree, and he brings many analogies to bear in favor of his theory, though the actual location of Fu-sang, like those of Atlantis, the Fortunate Islands, and Vinland, must always remain a matter of doubt and controversy.

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