Was America The Wonderful Land Of Fusang?

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Iron, of course, existed in Mexico but its use was unknown before the time of the Spaniards, who were the first to mine it. “Metals never had a great importance in American cultures,” writes Dr. Bernai. “Metals were for luxury rather than for their practical usefulness. Nevertheless, especially among the Tarascos, copper was abundantly used to make needles, pliers, awls, hatchets, and the cutting edges of farm tools.” The Tarascos, incidentally, were a tribe who lived in western Mexico, the region where Hwui Shan would have landed. His reference to the Mexicans’ indifference toward gold and silver is also borne out by eyewitness accounts of the Spaniards. Bernai Diaz, one of Cortes’ lieutenants, describing the market place of Mexico City (in his Discovery and Conquest of Mexico ), stated that gold and silver, far from being used as money, were bought and sold like other commodities and paid for with the regular currency of the country, which was cocoa.

Hwui Shan’s report also contains information about the emperor and the noblemen of Fusang, about slavery, crime and a prison system for punishing criminals, marriage, funeral customs, etcetera. Much of this data cannot be checked because of the lack of literature surviving from the Classic Period and our inability to decipher its hieroglyphs, but some of it, frankly, has a suspiciously Oriental, even a Chinese, sound: for example, the visitor wrote that the emperor of Fusang changed the color of his clothes at certain seasons of the year, from blue to red, then yellow, white, and black.

There are also some serious inconsistencies and problems in Hwui Shan’s story. The century plant does not bear reddish, pear-shaped fruit; moreover, objectors say that any convincing description of the plant should have included a reference to pulque , the well-known Mexican liquor made from its juice. A particularly difficult problem also appears in one excerpt which has been said to prove that the Land of Fusang was not in America: “They have large cattle horns which they use as containers, the biggest ones holding about five gallons. They have carts drawn by horses, cattle, and deer. The people of that country raise deer as the Chinese raise cattle and from their milk make a fermented liquor. …” It is well known, of course, that American Indians, in spite of the high degree of civilization they reached in Mexico and other places, never domesticated animals or, strange to say, discovered the use of the wheel, except as they used it in toys. Cattle and horses and carts—not to mention trained deer!—were unknown among them until the Spaniards introduced them.

There is also another difficult problem involved in Hwui Shan’s account—his mention of a Land of Women. This, he said, was located 1,000 Ii beyond the Land of Fusang. Its female inhabitants were completely covered with hair, walked erect, and chattered a lot among themselves but were shy when they saw ordinary human beings. They gave birth to their young after six or seven months of pregnancy and nursed them on their backs. The babies were able to walk within 100 days and were fully grown in three or four years. “Believe it or not,” he concluded, “this is truel”

Problems like these may cause some readers to dismiss the entire story of Hwui Shan as nothing more than a fifth-century addition to the old Chinese fairy tale of Fusang. It ought to be remembered, however, that very few ancient travellers who visited foreign countries for the first time were accurate in everything they reported, nor were their accounts lacking in fantastic touches. Take, for example, the Icelandic sagas that tell of the colony of Vinland. They not only mention monopeds—one-legged men—but recount such bloodcurdling Viking exploits as that of Freydis, Leif Ericson’s half sister, who on one expedition to the New World allegedly murdered all the other women in her party with a battle axe in order to retain supreme command. For centuries, such tall tales as these caused the sagas to be regarded as entirely fictitious. Marco Polo, the first Westerner to see the Far East, lived for twenty years at the court of Kubla Khan and travelled widely in Asia. He came back to Venice with Paul Bunyan-like tales of a bird that could lift an elephant (the roc of the Arabian Nights , which he had heard about and accepted as factual), oxen as large as elephants, dogs as big as donkeys, and men with tails. Christopher Columbus, besides being a superb navigator, was a geographer and a cartographer of distinction, one of the first mariners to use the compass, and the very first to note that the North Star moves around the celestial pole. Yet even this sophisticated man repeated, like Hwui Shan, the story of an Island of Amazons. As a matter of fact, the legend of a Land of Women plays a considerable role in American history. California was long believed by the Spaniards to be an island rich in pearls and gold, populated by black-skinned ladies “without a single man among them” and ruled by a beautiful queen “of majestic proportions” named Calaffa. Such was the description of our as-yet-undiscovered Golden State in Amadis of Gaul , that infamous five-volume, fifteenth-century best seller (with sequels) which, more than any other book, was responsible for the madness of Don Quixote. The legend inspired the equipping of expeditions and persisted as late as the seventeenth century. So, too, did the belief of brave, strong men in the Fountain of Youth, the Earthly Paradise, and the fabulous Golden Kingdom of Quivira.