Was America The Wonderful Land Of Fusang?


How many men, from how many nations, voyaged to the American continents before Columbus? Norsemen certainly, around 1000 A.D. Possibly other Ediropeans, by design or accident. And, it seems quite likely, a Ruddhist named tiwm Shan, in 458 A.D. He left a written record. After the ludicrous uproar last October over the Vinland Map (which we published jointly with the Yale University Press) it seems wise to remind the ethnically sensitive that this is not a new story, although modern archaeological studies in Mexico seem to be adding new evidence to back up old conjectures.

Hwui Shan’s voyage from China, five hundred years before Lei I Eric son and a thousand before Columbus, lias been almost totally ignored by modern American historians, yet a rather considerable number of learned papers, articles, and even books were once written about him by Western scholars who believed that he crossed the Pacific: and landed on the west coast of this continent—which he described as the wonderful Land of Fusang—in the year 458. The great Alexander von Humboldt called him the Leif Ericson of China, and the Land of Fusang the Vinland of the West. The French sinologues de Guignes and Paravey believed that he reached California. The German Karl Friedrich Neumann identified the Land of Fusang as Mexico. One American, Charles G. Leland, wrote a monograph called Fusang (London, 1875). Another, Edward P. Vining, compiled an 8oo-page encyclopaedic volume about the man he regarded as An Inglorious Columbus (New York, 1885). Dr. Charles E. Chapman, in his History of California: The Spanish Period (New York, 1921), devoted a chapter to him entitled “The Chinese Along the Pacific Coast in Ancient Times.”

Hwui Shan, whose name (also written as “Hoei Shin”) means “very intelligent” in Chinese, was a cha-men , or mendicant Buddhist priest, from Afghanistan who first came to China as a very young missionary about the year 450. The period was one of great expansion for Buddhism, and extraordinary journeys made by cha-men on land and sea were not at all uncommon. This one seems to have left China almost immediately, in the company of four fellow priests, on a missionary journey to evangeli/e new lands. His report indicates that they sailed northeast of Japan to the Land of Ta-Han (the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia) and from there travelled 20,000 Ii (about 6,600 miles) east to the Land of Fusang. This distance and direction suggest that they went by a coasting, islandhopping route across the North Pacific, past the Aleutian Islands to Alaska, and down the west coast of America as far as Mexico. There, apparently, they remained for forty years, observing the country, its people, its customs, crafts, plants, and animals—and diffusing Buddhism among the inhabitants.

At that period in Europe the Roman Empire was still in existence, and Fiance and Germany, still known as Gaul, were peopled by tribes of Goths. No one, as far as is known, had ever attempted—at least deliberately—to cross the mysterious ocean named for Atlantis, whose ancient civili/.ation and disappearance had been related by Egyptian priests. Old myths and legends have given rise, of course, to the idea that there were prehistoric or very early crossings of the Atlantic. The Greeks believed that there were Isles of the Blest far out in the Western Sea inhabited by men to whom the gods had given the gift of immortality. A strangely similar paradise was known in Welsh mythology as Avalon, the abode of deathless heroes like King Arthur. Seafaring tales of great antiquity, which may or may not have been true, intermixed with fables, also contribute to the speculation that the New World may have often been found. Diodorus of Sicily said that the Phoenicians (expert seamen 1,500 years before Christ) venturing out beyond the Pillars of Hercules on their circumnavigation of Africa were blown by a storm to a large, fertile, prosperous land in the west, whose citizens enjoyed much leisure time. The historian Plutarch also recorded the yarn of certain sailors who landed in Spain circa 60 u.c. after visiting, so they said, two large Atlantic islands 10,000 stadia (about 1,200 miles) west of the African coast. The Portuguese, too, had their Antilia (a name that was later applied to the West Indies), which appears as an island or a large land mass on many medieval charts and globes with cartographical exactitude midway between Lisbon and Japan. In addition there was Saint Brendan (484-577), an Irish monk believed by many writers to have discovered America. There seems no doubt that he and his crew of forty other religious seafarers in their specially constructed skin-covered kayak made it to Iceland; a colony of Irish monks was found there by the Vikings when they first arrived. But even if Saint Brendan did push on for forty clays and nights to the Land of the Gods, as his legend-encrusted narrative maintains, and even if it was America, Hwui Shan still preceded him by a century, for the Irishman’s alleged discovery did not occur until the year 545.

After he returned to China in the year 499, Hwui Shan appeared before the Emperor Wu Ti. A kind of Marco Polo in reverse, possibly the first Oriental to have seen the West, he was then a very old man. Overcome with emotion and weeping, he presented the Emperor with gifts from the Land of Fusang and gave him a lengthy, detailed account of his travels.