Customer Reviews: 1421: The Year China Discovered America
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on March 21, 2004
Gavin Menzies is a charming, seductive, inventive story teller, but his book is just an elaborate literary hoax, and belongs on the fiction list.
Gavin claims he has real, tangible evidence. Not true. Just check out for yourself some of the sources he cites. His own sources do not support the claims he makes.
For example, at pp 201-2(hardcover) Gavin writes of a pulley "for hoisting sails" found on the beach at Neahkahnie, Oregon, about 60 miles south of me. I drove down there and spoke with the curator of the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. He had talked with Gavin in 2002 and Wayne told Gavin the pulley had already been carbon dated (in 1993) to 1590; and, the wax was beeswax for candles, prized and common cargo for the Spanish trade galleons that traveled between the Philippines and the west coast of North America, on a regular basis, between 1564 and 1815. The pulley was from one of those Manila galleons. In his book (page520) Gavin lists as a source "Tales of the Neahkahnie Treasure", prepared by the Nehalem Valley Historical Society Treasure Committee, 1991, published by the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. It clearly states (p5) the beeswax, not as Gavin states "paraffin wax" a hydrocarbon product, had been carbon dated to 1681. Further, a pollen study of the beeswax had revealed its source was northern Luzon in the Philippines where there was a certain variety of shrub the bees visited for pollen.
Gavin ignores the inconvenient facts, hides them from the reader, and writes as if he is just waiting for the lab to confirm the finding of some possible real Chinese evidence. It's not possible, as Gavin well knows, the lab work has long since been done and it does not fit his time frame.
For another example consider the Bimini road story. Gavin devotes a short chapter to this (pp265-277). The Bimini road is a long standing hoax in its own right. Gavin claims all the experts agree it is man made. Not true. He only cites one "expert", David D. Zink, who was not a scientist, rather a former English teacher, a Cayce discple, intrigued with megalithic (big rock) structures and with the origins of myths. All the real experts know it is a natural geologic formation. Just by coincidence I noticed a timely article by Dr. Eugene A. Shinn, a geologist with USGS, in the Jan/Feb 2004 Skeptical Inquirer, pp38-44; "Natural submerged beachrock off the island of Bimini in the Bahamas has been deemed a remmant of Atlantis by the faithful since the 1960s. In spite of geological research demonstrating the stones are natural, 'true believers' continue to be drawn by the strong 'force field'." Take a look at that article and see if you can still believe the nonsense Gavin writes.
I could go on and on. Open any page and you will encounter nonsense. Gavin cites sources to be sure, but, if you take the time to read the claimed source material, you will invariably find it doesn't support what he writes. Gavin is desperate for some real, tangible evidence, and he simply ignores or misstates his own source material, and writes whatever he wishes, whatever he thinks may convince the reader his grand fantasy is true.
The book is a hoax and belongs on the fiction list.
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on July 5, 2006
The subject of this book, the Chinese exploratory voyages of the early 15th century, is an interesting one, and questions remain as to exactly how far they got and what they did. Unfortunately, there is little factual information in this book that is not to be found in other sources, and the novel claims are poorly substantiated. All too often, the "facts" cited are wrong, the nature of the argument Menzies means to make is unclear, or the evidence that he claims to exist is not actually produced. Let me illustrate from some of Menzies linguistic arguments. He claims that the Squamish language (which he mistakenly locates on Vancouver Island rather than on the coast of the mainland of British Columbia) contains no less than forty words that are identical with Chinese words. He does not cite any of the Squamish words and cites only three Chinese words. Not one of the three alleged Chinese words actually occurs in Chinese. At another point, he cites the fact that there is a village in Peru whose people speak Chinese. Aside from the questionable source of this claim, even if true, what would it prove? To constitute evidence that the Chinese had visited Peru prior to Columbus, he would have to show that the people in this village had spoken Chinese hundreds of years ago. He does not even assert this, much less provide evidence of it.

Menzies' own account of his research techniques leaves one gasping with incredulity at his incompetence. He claims to have inspected a stone inscription in the Cape Verde Islands in a language unknown to him. Thinking that it might be from India, he sends a photograph of it to the Bank of India. The Bank responds that the inscription is in Malayalam. In response to Menzies' query as to what Malayalam might be, according to Menzies the bank responds that it is a language now spoken by only a few people but was more widely used in the 15th century. In point of fact, Malayalam is the principal language of the state of Kerala and is spoken by over 35 million people. It is one of the 22 languages listed in Schedule 8 of the Constitution of India. I am hard put to believe that the Bank of India told him that a language of which any educated Indian is well aware is spoken by only a few people, but if they did, it is stunning that he never bothered to make any further enquiry about it. Simply googling for Malayalam produces 185,000 hits. His own account reveals Menzies to be incompetant as a researcher. Incidentally, he never reveals what the inscription says, assuming that he ever found out. You'd think it would be relevant. As it stands, we are apparently to assume that the only way an inscription in Malayalam might have ended up in the Cape Verde islands is by having been written by someone travelling with Zheng He. It is at least as likely that a ship from India was responsible.

In the areas with which I am familiar, not a single argument is even plausible, much less convincing. Menzies' website, which is supposed to provide details that could not be included in the book as well as new information, is no improvement. The missing 37 Chinese words and 40 Squamish words, for instance, are not to be found on the website. This book is junk, pure and simple. If you want to learn about the voyages of Zheng He, read Louise Levathes' When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433. Unlike Menzies, Levathes knows what she is talking about.
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HALL OF FAMEon September 7, 2005
I was not expecting to believe all the claims in this book, though I was intrigued by the possibility of unexpected new findings about the age of exploration. The Europeans were clearly not the first to sail great distances and discover new lands. You would have once been dismissed as a crackpot for claiming that the Vikings reached the Americas 500 years before Columbus, but that's now accepted history. There's also plenty of proof that the Chinese were regularly sailing to the Middle East and East Africa centuries before Europeans could even leave their own shores. But this book, claiming that the Chinese momentously and influentially circumnavigated the globe in 1421-1423, is a disaster of hyperbolic claims and selective interpretation of historical evidence. That's because Gavin Menzies started with an idea, compiled evidence that seemed to point in the right direction, and convinced himself that he was finding mindboggling breakthroughs. But there is little reason for us to be as convinced as he is.

You can see plenty of other reviews (here and elsewhere) debunking the many, many research errors committed by Menzies. Most of these criticisms are more believable to me than Menzies' assertions. On a higher level I'll add that Menzies is an unabashed member of the "incredible coincidence" school of history. In just a couple of examples, among multitudes, he claims that the presence of Asiatic birds in South America means "the conclusion is inescapable" of visiting Chinese sailors; or an ice-free depiction of Antarctica on a map "confirm[s]" that the Chinese were there during a January. Menzies also unquestioningly accepts Chinese court histories as accurate, without considering the possibility that they may be distorted by embellishments or state propaganda. The same goes for his faithful belief in the accuracy of folklore and oral histories. An especially damaging methodological error is that Menzies doesn't question the alleged years of origin of any of the maps he examines, which are of course mindblowingly and impossibly old. The Piri Reis map is the most important example, as there is much scholarly dispute (unacknowledged by Menzies) over whether this map really dates from 1513.

There are surely many mysteries about the age of exploration, as compelling pieces of physical and anecdotal evidence give us plenty of reason to doubt accepted histories. But what makes this book such a failure is that Menzies has one grand answer for all unsolved mysteries - a single momentous Chinese expedition. Some other reviewers have made telling comparisons to the farcical "Chariots of the Gods" which does the same thing, except with spaceships and aliens.
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on May 7, 2005
I am Australian. I know something about Australia. My judgement of the rest of the book is based on what the author says about something I know.

The Author says the 15th Century Chinese could have called in south-western Australia (near modern Bunbury) for the fruit growing amply there. There was NO fruit there until planted after white settlement in 1829.

The book refers to the "Koala bears" abundant in south Western Australia. There are NO koalas in Western Australia.

Also to the populations of "Quokkas" (A type of wallaby) and fairy penguins allegedly abundant in south Western Australia. Quokkas are found on one or two small islands and in tiny pockets on the mainland. They are not abundant.

The book says modern Perth and Fremantle are seperated by the estuary of the Swan River. Fremantle is the port at the river's mouth and Perth the commercial capital about 10 miles up-river. They are no more seperated by the river than Richmond is seperated from Greenwich by the Thames.

Turning to the Eastern States, the book says there is a variety of valuable minerals at Newcastle, north of Sydney. The only such mineral at Newcastle is coal.

He also says there are diamond mines near Sydney. There are not.



If I find the parts of this book dealing with a subject I know something about to be absolute rubbish, it does not increase my condfience in the rest of - any of the rest of it.

Where was the publisher's fact-checker or copy-editor?
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on March 1, 2004
Oh, boy! This enormous example of what Samuel Eliot Morison called "moonstruck history" is a poorly edited, contradictory and irksome argument that the Chinese voyages of 1420 and following went not only to Africa, as Louise Levathes and others have documented, but circled the earth including treks to near the North and South Poles and planted colonies in North and South America. Menzies' book is a pretty good example of how easy it is to mislead people who don't know how professionals do historical and archeological work.
An example: Menzies makes a big deal about the Cherokee rose, the state flower of Georgia, which is Chinese in origin. He claims that its presence in early America proves Chinese voyages before Columbus. In fact, the rose was introduced from China in 1759 and spread widely.
Sometimes the readiness of this British Navy captain to grasp any straw, so long as it's a rice straw, borders on the crazy. His "reconstruction" of Chinese "voyages" to the Caribbean depends on the view of certain coasts being exactly the same, with harbors, sandbars and winds that never change (thus, the maps which are the majority of his "evidence" are decipherable to him because of his decades of experience as a sub captain, when professional historians never noticed these "similarities"). However, his Chinese admirals were able to sail around Greenland (in wooden-hulled junks) because the ice had melted in a warm period. Make up your mind, Menzies! If the water was one fathom lower (in his chapter on Bermuda, where the sea-concreted stones are a Chinese engineering work) then how could the view from sea level be the same, as he claims in the beginning of the book? And a sub captain sees a *different* view than a junk's lookout atop a tall mast!
This book is nonsense, I'm sorry. Louise Levathes and several other scholars have made the same judgement. Read her fine book and ignore this.
The website, with such "evidence" as urns found in Oregon (as if there were no dollar stores in Oregon to supply them) and "giant cometary impacts" as explanations for the ships sinking (of course, Europeans were too stupid to notice a huge natural disaster!) is an embarrassment.
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on January 27, 2004
1421 would make a good case study for a class in debunkery. With so many claims, the class could be split into groups, each assigned a different set of claims to follow trails of evidence. They'll find dead ends.
I'll list a few problems.
The book begins with history of the 15th century Chinese fleets, of which little is known among most Westerners. This part is engaging, and judging from footnotes, seems well grounded in fact. Real flight of fancy begins on pp. 103-104, with discussion of an old inscription on a stone (Pedra do Letreiro) on Cape Verde. Experts have long tried but failed to determine the language of this inscription. The author faxes a picture (not shown in the book) to the Bank of India and asks if they know. Their reply: "It looks like Malayalam." The author has never heard of Malayalam. The Bank informs him that this "was the language of Kerala" and "has largely ceased to be spoken today." To the author, this communication constitutes proof that the inscription IS in Malayalam (and "I punched the air in my excitement").
Any encyclopedia or web search will reveal that Malayalam is an official language of India today, spoken by 30+ million people, and the official language of the state of Kerala. Ironically, Kerala's main claim to fame is its 100% literacy rate. So what do all those Malayalam-reading Keralans make of the inscription? We are not told. When the author was on book tour in January 2004, I asked him about this Malayalam inscription. He was still waiting to hear from the experts. He had tracked down the world's leading expert in Malayalam, but unfortunately this person couldn't help because he is blind. Sadly, nobody in the room laughed.
The declaration of a "Malayalam" inscription seems to be the signal that thoughtful readers should put the book down now, so the author can continue for the gullible who won't think of hard questions. You don't even have to look anything up to see things that don't make sense. Page 257: "Sea levels in 1421 were lower than they are today. Global warming has caused the polar ice to melt, causing sea levels to rise slowly but inexorably." Page 306: "Greenland was circumnavigable in 1421-2, for not only was the maximum limit of the polar ice well to the north of its present position, the climate of Greenland was far warmer than it is today."
Not only is that a contradiction, but the author also ignores the most natural ways to find data on both sea levels and Greenland temperatures. We can find Greenland temperature history data over centuries by doing a web search, turning up what scientists have learned from Greenland ice cores. The author ignores this evidence and instead relies on evidence from types of flies found in Greenland house excavations (p. 306). As for sea levels, he writes (p. 257) that "reputable oceanographers" put the rise over the past few centuries at somewhere between one and four millimetres a year. Concluding: "In the almost six centuries since 1421 it is safe to say that sea levels have risen between just under four and just under eight feet." The math is OK, but what's the point of calculating such a rough ESTIMATE when some coastal areas of Europe and Asia have historic RECORDS of local sea levels going back to 1421 and earlier?
The book has some purported linguistic evidence, of similarities between Chinese words and those of indigenous American languages. This type of word list comparison has been done before with other pairs of unrelated languages, and doesn't prove anything, because you can always find a few words that look as if they may be related. For example, see sci.lang newsgroup archives for a discussion of Mandan (of North Dakota) and Welsh.
1421 has a strong undertone of disparagement of non-Eurasian cultures. For example, p. 320: "While serving in HMS Newfoundland, I travelled thousands of miles along the East African coast from Kenya to South Africa. In 1958 it was largely unspoilt, lined by the remains of old Arab and Portuguese slave towns and the occasional musty British club, the last remnants of empire." (Unspoilt?) Other chapters include put-downs of native Americans who supposedly couldn't have invented much of what they did by themselves and must have had help from the Chinese.
The author puts great promise in DNA evidence linking distant peoples with the Chinese. But he presents none of this evidence.
According to the book, there should be supplementary information on the 1421 website, but check it out: it's practically empty. I also wonder, why the rush to publication? The author even admits that some parts are incomplete, and more details will be filled in later, either on the website or in future editions of the book.
Also, the index leaves much to be desired.
American readers will enjoy references to "Bahía California" (p. 402), "the Mississippi River west of Kansas City" (p. 415), and "the Pacific coast of New Mexico" (p. 417). They may challenge themselves to see how "San Francisco and Los Angeles are clearly depicted at correct latitudes on the Waldseemüller chart," (p. 202) with the chart between pp. 296-297.
According to the book jacket, the author served in the Royal Navy from 1953 until 1970 (the year he turned 33), and commanded the submarine HMS Rorqual from 1968 to 1970. He makes many, many references in the book to things "I know from my own naval career" to explain away some oddities in old maps. There is a curious omission on p. 227: "When I commanded HMS Rorqual, I took her through the South China Sea and Philippine Islands to Subic Bay." He does not inform us that on June 13, 1969, HMS Rorqual rammed into the USS Endurance when the Endurance was moored at Subic Bay. It would have been interesting to read his side of that story!
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on March 26, 2010
The only valid reviews possible for this book must be done by academics who spend their professional lives delving into the primary sources cited in a history book.

This book is fantasy history. It takes a true historical set of events, well-documented in and of themselves, and then extends it into fantasy using 'sources' that have been found, if you do your investigation like a number of academics have, to be either complete misinterpretations or unsubstantiating evidence.

Mr. Menzies is not a serious historian. He is either deluded or paid to spread delusions. That so many others have followed in spreading this dishonest and intellectually offensive as history is both an insult to historians and probably also a sorry reminder that the general public will eat anything as long as it is sweet and exotic.
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VINE VOICEon January 10, 2003
Gavin Menzies' "1421: The Year China Discovered America" presents a fascinating premise: in the year 1421 a huge armada set forth from China to explore the oceans of the world, visiting not only India and East Africa, already known to the Chinese from previous expeditions, but also West Africa, the American continents, Australia, and even Antarctica decades or centuries before European explorers reached those same shores. But when the survivors of this great endeavor returned to China a profound change at the highest levels of the government had taken place, a change that ruptured contact with the outside world. China withdrew within itself, destroyed the records of the expedition, and the great adventure was forgotten. Nonetheless, critical information about their discoveries was conveyed to the West, sparking the European age of exploration.
It is tempting to dismiss Menzies as being simply yet another in a long line of authors who have proposed extremely ambitious revisions to traditional history based upon much speculation and little solid evidence. We have all seen books that offer the true stories behind the Pyramids and Great Sphinx of Egypt, the Holy Grail, King Arthur, Atlantis, and a host of similar topics - books that promise much but soon fade from sight. Yet, Menzies does outline a large body of evidence in support of his theory. Perhaps most crucial are old maps dating from the 15th and early 16th Centuries which appear to show in persuasive detail coastlines of the Americas, Australia, and Antarctica long before European ships reached those shores. Menzies believes that these maps originated in the Chinese explorations, the information passed on to foreign contacts even while it was being obliterated at home. (Other amateur revisionist historians have sought to explain such maps by resorting to ancient sea-kings in a pre-Ice Age world or even to extraterrestrial visitors; Menizies' theory seems almost sedate in comparison.) In support of this idea, he quotes from contemporary accounts that European explorers finding "new" lands admitted that they were guided by existing maps. Menzies' partiality towards maps and questions of navigation is undoubtedly grounded in his background as a former commander of a Royal Navy nuclear submarine. The experience gave him, as he describes it, a "periscope's eye" view of lands seen from the sea, valuable in interpreting what might be shown on a centuries-old chart.
There is a broad array of other evidence mentioned by Menzies: inscribed stones at numerous locations around the world, the supposed presence of Asiatic chickens and African coffee in the Americas before Columbus, the reported growth of American maize in southeast Asia before Europeans provided a link across the Pacific, Chinese-style structures in various places, mysterious old shipwrecks which seem to be Chinese junks (including one in a sandbar along California's Sacramento River), possible Chinese colonies in New England and Portugese colonies in Puerto Rico well before Columbus ... The list of presumed evidence appears endless.

However - there is always a "however" in these things - can we be confident that Menzies has properly evaluated and presented this seemingly overwhelming body of information? Footnotes are rather sparse, something which must make the careful reader cautious. By Menzies' own acknowledgement, the validity of some pieces of his evidence has already been strongly challenged in the past: the stone tower of Newport in Narragansett Bay, the controversial Vinland Map, and the mysterious underwater "roads" of Bimini. Menzies has stated that additional detailed supporting material will appear on his Internet website, but as yet I have seen little there of this promised data.
Given the bold nature of Menzies' proposal and the broad scope of information presented, it seems inevitable that at least some of Menzies' evidence will be shown to be in error. But might enough of it eventually be proven correct to validate his ideas? There are a number of paths of research suggested by Menzies for further pursuit, including archaeological excavation of the Sacramento River wreck and of mounds on the beaches of Bimini, DNA analysis of plants, animals, and peoples in many places ordinarily presumed isolated from one another, caron-14 dating of artifacts sitting on museum shelves, and so forth. Perhaps, the thesis of the great expedition of 1421 will be found to be too narrowly phrased, while the broader matter of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas will be buttressed. Quite possibly some of the more ambitious Chinese exploits described by Menzies, such as a voyage around the north of Greenland and the exploration of the north coast of Siberia, will be pruned away, leaving a more solid central core intact. Or maybe in the end the whole thesis will be discarded. But before that happens, I would hope that a serious look be given to Menzies' ideas and the underlying evidence. The Chinese of the 15th Century, we now understand, certainly did have vessels capable of long ocean voyages, and we should not be so Eurocentric to preclude the notion that East Asian explorers could have made their own wide-ranging explorations. And that detailed information on those old maps had to come from somewhere, after all. Was it more than only imagination and luck?
"1421: The Year China Discovered America" makes for a fascinating reading experience with much in it worthy of further thought, but I would also recommend to the prospective reader that caution be exercised against taking everything at face value. At the same time, the reader would be well-advised to keep an open mind to the possibility that the ancient Chinese at least briefly knew far more of the external world than we had ever realized and that this information helped kindle the flames of European exploration.
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on February 1, 2004
If allowed, I would have given 0 star.
For mysterious reasons, my submissions since 1/27 were never posted.
The book based on a proposition that Antilia mapped in a 1424 map was Puerto Rico. But Menizes did NOT tell you:
a. He rotated Antilia to make it looks like Puerto Rico
b. Antilia is much much larger than Puerto Rico
c. He forgot all the previous research on Pizzigano Chart -- especially a 1986 "discovery" that Antilia was Nova Scotia
Menzies asked no-brainers to believe that wooden sailing boat could be built in the past as long as an aircraft carrier in the late 1930s and as tall as a 40-floor building.
Such ship has a displacement between 20,000 to 30,000 tons. Its requires a draught of 30 to 40 ft. Menzies wants you to believer that in the 15th century that seaports from Africa to China had a water depth of 50 ft.
He also asked you to believe that the naval expedition was a luxurious sea cruise with fine restaurants, brothels, and so on.
By his calculation, the expeditions visited 3000 countries in a period of 100 months (7 expeditions X an average of 15 months per expedition). Assuming no repeated visits, the expeditions had to berth one country per day. What Menzies asked you to believe is that these ships did not sail in the water at all!
It is more than a coax given the marketing support and coordinate worldwide promotion.
Also Menzies rented a room from Royal Geographical Society to announce his "findings." Readers should carefully examine his association (or the lack of association) with the Society.
In my previous review submissions, I listed over 10 Chinese and English sources debunking the book. Smart readers should check the internet for Louise Levathes, Natalie Danford, Manuel Luciano da Silva, and Jeng-Horng Chen.
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From time to time, this reviewer comes across a publication so crackpot that I hardly know where to start in reviewing it here. I'm happy to see that Gavin Menzies' thesis in 1421: The Year China Discovered America, that a Chinese fleet launched in 1421, embarked on a tour around the world, discovering all major points before Europeans and leaving artifacts, has already been generally debunked by numerous sources. Perhaps the most substantial is Robert Finlay's review "How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America" in the Journal of World History, June 2004, where Finlay shows that there are no "lost years" in Ming dynasty sailing, and so Menzies' book is completely without foundation. My fellow reviewers here have also offered some important critiques. I would like to offer a perspective from my own individual profession, linguistics. Menzies writes, for example:

"Linguistics provide further evidence. The people of the Eten and Monsefu villages in the Lambayeque province of Peru can understand Chinese but not each otherĂ¢(tm)s patois, despite living only three miles apart. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century inspector employed by the government of California to survey the native population, found linguistic evidence of a Chinese-speaking colony in the state."

The first assertion, on the Peruvian village, is not sourced at all and is either the personal fancy of the author or some minor crank idea. The second, however, is cited to an 19th-century bit of scholarship evidentally done without appropriate field methods. He goes on to claim that Chinese sailors shipwrecked on the East Coast of the United States would have been able to communicate with locals, as these would have included Chinese who had walked over the Bering Strait. Chinese walk across to Alaska and across all North America, but end up speaking Middle Chinese, and yet leave no trace of this dialect on neighbouring Native American languages? Risible fantasy. There's even an assertion that Navajo elders understand Chinese conversation, and an assertion that the Peruvian village name Chanchan must be Chinese because it sounds (at least to him) like "Canton". Perhaps the silliest Peruvian connection is between Chinese "qipu" and Quechua "quipu"; Menzies seemingly doesn't understand that "q" represents a completely different sound in each language. So, I hope that the reader with some training in linguistics can see what kind of arguments are used in the book, and beware accordingly.

If I may be permitted one final indulgence, I should like to protest Menzies' weird view of Chinese culture. He blasts European explorers for committing genocide, claiming that continued Chinese expansion would have led instead to a world of peace and Confucian harmony. This is the naive romantic view of the Orient held by a child flipping through National Geographic. A man of Menzies' age and experience should have realized that all civilizations have it within them to commit do in indigenous peoples--the marginalization of Tibetan and Uighur language and culture and the disappearance already of a distinct Manchu people stand as proof that the Chinese are no exception.
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