Was America The Wonderful Land Of Fusang?

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Compared with other travellers Hwui Shan does not seem such a Munchausen. In fact, his story is exceptionally free, as ancient stories of discovery go, from the marvelous and the incredible. Nevertheless, as I have suggested, it does have problems. Since 1761, when the Chevalier de Guignes encountered it in The Records of the Liang Dynasty and brought it to the attention of Western scholars for the first time, it has engendered a lively and somewhat belligerent controversy, mostly during the nineteenth century, among savants in Europe and America. Significantly, those who have believed that Hwui Shan discovered America—at least those who have written to that effecthave outnumbered their opponents two to one. Besides those already mentioned they include José Ferez, Gustave d’Eichthal, Dr. A. Gordon, the Reverend N. W. Jones, the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, and the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. But those opposed —Lucien Adam, Vivien de Saint-Martin, Dr. E. Bretschneider, and Professor S. W. Williams—had a formidable leader in the person of Heinrich Julius Klaproth, a celebrated Sinologue of the early nineteenth century, who wrote a critical paper on Hwui Shan in 1831. Klaproth and his followers did not deny the fact of the missionary’s voyage but disputed its length and its destination. They maintained that the distance had been falsified, either through the braggadocio or Buddhist zeal of the adventurous missionary himself or else by the courtiers who questioned him, the historians who published the record, or the scribes who copied and recopied the original documents. Scribal errors were common enough, of course, in the days before printing (an art invented in China, but not until the ninth century); they were particularly apt to occur where numbers were involved.

The question then arises: If Fusang was not in North America, where was it? Klaproth’s theory (the only one that has ever been advanced by the opposition) was that Hwui Shan must have reached some country close to China—probably, because it lies in a generally easterly direction, Japan.

Unfortunately for the fame of our Buddhist Columbus, Hubert Howe Bancroft, that astonishing academic entrepreneur who founded The History Company, Incorporated, of San Francisco and successfully applied commercial business methods to the wholesale buying, writing, and selling of history, inclined to Klaproth’s view, a fact that above all others explains why the subject has been ignored by so many American historians. Yet Bancroft remained intrigued by Hwui Shan. He quoted a large part of the Chinese text in his Native Races of the Pacific States , published in 1886, and gave a great deal of help and encouragement to Edward P. Vining, whose An Inglorious Columbus , dedicated to Bancroft, still remains the most impressive work on the voyage of Hwui Shan. Vining’s book is unshaken—indeed, its conclusions seem to be confirmed—by recent archaeological studies; though not the last book to be written on the subject, it seems to have put an end to the controversy.

The charge has also been made that Klaproth was guilty of conduct unbecoming a scholar: that he took up the opposition through chagrin that his rival, de Guignes, had been the first to discover Hwui Shan. Indeed, the Japan theory does not do justice to Klaproth’s reputation. It is well known that the Chinese had contacts with Japan as early as the first century A.D. and possessed a written history of that country in the year 297, nearly two centuries before Hwui Shan. Many known details concerning Japan also make it abundantly clear that he could not have mistaken Japan for Fusang: iron was used in Japan at an early period, the Japanese were anything but pacifistic (in Hwui Shan’s time they were engaged in a military invasion of Korea), and the introduction of Buddhism there by other missionaries in 552 A.D., long after Hwui Shan’s death, is well documented. It seems hardly necessary to add that Japan is actually mentioned in Hwui Shan’s narrative in connection with locating the Land of Marked Bodies, or that the possibility of errors in ancient manuscripts is a knife that cuts both ways.

What about the reddish, pear-shaped fruit of the Fusang tree? Vining and Chapman thought it may not have been the century plant at all but the prickly pear or cactus apple, known in Mexico as the tuna , which grows there on a cactus similar in some respects to the century plant; travellers sometimes confuse the two. And the Mexicans did not drink pulque , Dr. Bernai informs us, until the tenth century, 500 years after Hwui Shan. The trained deer are obviously reindeer—transplanted, perhaps, from Hwui Shan’s journey to Siberia and misrepresented by the Chinese scribes, who recorded his story, as drawing carts instead of sleighs. Gigantic cattle horns, probably those of prehistoric bison which once roamed Mexico, were shown as curios by Montezuma to Cortes and have also been found in ruins in Mexico, indicating that they were indeed used as containers. In fact, almost all the inconsistencies and problems in Hwui Shan’s story are open to interpretation and have a way of turning out in his favor. For instance, Vining has expertly shown, while performing what is probably one of the neatest tricks in all scholarship, that the shy, chattering, hairy “ladies” of the Land of Women—with their precocious children—who lived 1,000 Ii beyond Fusang, were Central American monkeys.