East of the Eastern Ocean lie
The shores of the Land of Fusang.
If, after landing there, you travel
East for 10,000 li
You will come to another ocean, blue,
Vast, huge, boundless.
This ancient poem, written by a 3rd century Chinese poet, describes a place that is often referred to in Chinese folklore as the “Birthplace of the Sun”. It was a place well known in ancient China. It appears frequently in poetry and around the 2nd century BC, one Han emperor is said to have sent an expedition to colonize this land. Where was the legendary land of Fusang? Eighteenth century mapmakers placed it in North America, usually near what is today Washington or Vancouver. These cartographers, most notably De L’Isle and Zatta, mapped Fusang based on a popular essay written by the French orientalist historian Josepth de Guignes in his 1761 article “Le Fou-Sang des Chinois est-il l’Amérique? ” De Guignes was a dubious historian at best, but with this he may have been on to something. Fusang is most fully described on by the 6th century itinerant monk Hui Shen.
Hui Shen is said to have been a mendicant Gondaran monk and to have appeared in the court of the Emperor Wu Ti at Jingzhou in Southern Qi in 499 AD. His adventures, which are described by Yao Sialian in the 7th century Book of Liang, describes his voyage in both known and unknown lands. Starting around 455 AD, he traveled to the coast of China, to Japan, Korea, to the Kamchatka Peninsula, then to Fusang. Fusang, he reports is some 20,000 Chinese Li (about 9,000 km) east of Kamchatka. This would place it somewhere around what is today British Columbia, roughly where Zatta and De L’Isle map the colony of Fusang.
While it is a subject of ferocious debate, numerous scholars and historians have embraced the idea that the Chinese not only visited the New World but maintained regular contact with it. We have long known that, given the advanced stated of shipbuilding and navigation in ancient China, the Chinese were capable of launching expeditions across the Pacific. The real question is, did they? The story of Hui Shen is one of the few actual documents that describe such an voyage. Hui Shen’s tale, which offers anthropological and geographic commentary consistent with Pacific Coast of America, describes Fusang in considerable detail. Over the past 200 years numerous scholars, both eastern and western, have broken down the Hui Shen text. Some have declared it a fabrication, but most have embraced the idea that the Chinese did in fact not only visit America, but maintained a minor but active back and forth communication.
Though many scholars agree that the Fusang tale does have some element of truth, few agree on where it may have been. Some point to Peru (Hui Shen describes the leader of Fusang as the “Inki”), others to Mexico (Fusang = Maguey), and still others to British Columbia (most likely arrival point sailing east from Kamchatka with the easterly North Pacific Current). The name Fusang itself is derived from Chinese mythology where it is a land or tree in the east from which the Sun is born. This kind of plant, or something similar, is described as common in the Land of Fusang. Fusang is billed as a kind of all purpose plant which can be eaten, made into clothing and made into paper, etc. There is considerable debate as to what Fusang may have been, with some identifying it with the Maguay of Mexico, others with various types of Cactus, and still others ancient varieties of corn (which were common along the Pacific Coast of North America).
There is some, but not significant, historical evidence to support the idea that the Chinese were active in Ancient America. Ancient Chinese coins, ship anchors (James R. Moriarty of the University of San Diego), and other relics have been discovered along the American coast – some dating back as much as 2,000 years! Also, Hui Shen’s descriptions do correspond somewhat with what we know of the New World around 450 AD. It is far too much for this short blog post to breakdown the details of Hui Shen’s narrative, especially when it has been done so well and so well by others, however, our list of references below can offer significant further reading.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 1979.
Guignes, Jospeh, de, “Le Fou-Sang des Chinois est-il l’Amérique?”, Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, tome 28, Paris, 1761
Mertz, Henriette, Columbus Was Last, Hyperion 1992.
Wei Chu-Hsien, China and America -Volume One, Shuo Wen Shu Dian Bookstore, 1982.