Was America The Wonderful Land Of Fusang?


Such drillings were, of course, accidental, but the Spaniards also used the Japan Current in the old days of sail. Every year for 250 years, from 1565 until 1815, the big, round-hulled Manila galleons with their broad sails and decks high on prow and stern returned to Mexico by this route from their annual journeys to Asia. Laden with 1,00 tons of Chinese silks and other treasures from the Orient, they sailed north from the Philippines as far as the fortieth parallel or farther to catch the current, followed it to the American coast (approximately at the present-day Oregon-California border), then continued on their way to Acapulco.

The third—and the most remarkable—quality of Hwui Shan’s story is the way in which his descriptions of the people and the places he visited correspond with the North Pacific route and with what is known about America at that period. For example, he wrote: “The Land of Marked Hodies is situated 7,000 li [2,300 miles] northeast of Japan. Its people have marks [or stripes] on their bodies like wild animals. In front they have three marks. If the marks are large and straight they belong to the upper class, but if the marks are small and crooked they belong to the lower class.” This distance and direction indicate that the Land of Marked Bodies must have been in or near Alaska. Now hear what Bancroft, the historian par excellence of our Pacific states, says of Alaskan traditions: “At Point Barrow the women have on the chin a vertical line about half an inch broad in the center, extending from the lip, with a parallel but narrower one on either side of it, a little apart. Some have two vertical lines protruding from either angle of the mouth … a mark of their high position in the tribe.”

But it is above all Hwui Shan’s description of the Land of Fusang that fascinates scholars. “That region has many Fusang trees,” he said, “and these give it its name. The Fusang’s leaves resemble those of the T’ung, and its first sprouts are like bamboo shoots. The people of the country eat them. The fruit is like a pear but reddish. They spin thread from the bark and make coarse cloth from which they make clothing and from it they also make a finer fabric. The wood is used to build houses and they use Fusang bark to make paper.”

Mexico ,” writes Professor Charles E. Chapman, “means the land of the century-plant , just as ‘Fusang’ was named for the ‘Fusang tree.’ In no other country in the world is there a plant put to such uses as those described by Hwui Shan. … The sprouts of the century-plant do resemble those of the bamboo and the people do eat them. The plant does furnish a rough sort of thread from which a kind of hempen cloth is made and also a fine variety resembling linen. Furthermore, paper is made from … the fibre.” He might have added that the century plant, or maguey as it is called in Mexico ( genus Agave in Latin), is often described by travellers as a tree. As residents of our southwestern states are aware, it sends up a tall, branching, beautifully flowered, candelabralike stalk that often reaches a height of thirty feet. It was widely cultivated in regular groves in ancient Mexico, its trunk being used for the beams and rafters of build. ings and its broad, flat, waterproof, cactuslike leaves for the walls and roofs. On his return to China, Hwui Shan presented the Emperor with three hundred pounds of “silk” from the Fusang tree and also gave him “a kind of semi-transparent stone, about a foot in circumference, cut in the form of a mirror,” a curious item that sounds exactly like one of the polished obsidian (volcanic glass) mirrors used by the ancient Mexicans.

“They have a system of writing,” his report continues. “But they have no fortresses or walled cities, no military weapons or soldiers and they do not wage war in that kingdom.”

As pointed out by Ignacio Bernai in his recent Mexico Before Cortez , the period of Hwui Shan’s voyage—458-499 A.D.—coincided with a golden age in Mexico now called by archaeologists the Classic Period. The Mexicans of that age possessed a system of hieroglyphic writing undeciphered to this day; a calendar more accurate than our own; and a knowledge of mathematics that included a symbol for zero centuries before the concept was known in Europe. They also built great metropolitan cities, particularly one named Teotihuacân in the ruins of which, twentyfive miles from Mexico City, may be seen the gigantic Pyramid of the Sun. These extraordinary metropolises (not to be confused with the Aztec cities that were there at the time of the Spanish conquest) are unique in the history of ancient cultures, for they had no city walls or fortifications. Their inhabitants appear to have had no enemies—and hence no need to defend themselves—and to have known nothing about war. They worshipped peaceful gods like the sun and the moon and the rain and the gentle Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent, to whom butterflies were offered in sacrifice. It was not until the Toltec period (and much later still, in the time of the relatively modern Aztecs) that bloodthirsty warriors who practiced human sacrifice conquered and ruled the country. Another unusual thing about the Mexicans of the Classic Period is that they cremated their dead, a practice unheard of at any other time in Mexican history and one pertinent to the question of Buddhist influence.

“The ground contains no iron,” said Hwui Shan, “but it has copper. The people do not value gold and silver.”