While I’m working on indexing and proofreading the page proofs for Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, I’ve also been trying to assemble the final list of texts for my collection on ancient texts related to ancient astronauts and fringe history, which has the working title of Ancient Astronauts and Alternative Histories: A Sourcebook. In reviewing the list, I found that East Asian texts were rather underrepresented. This isn’t entirely my fault; fringe historians tend to tread lightly on Asian material except for repetitive iterations of miracle stories and flying dragons—and how many of those can one read?
So I did a little more research to see if I could find some more appropriate Asian material, and I came across the Chinese story of Fusang, which I’m sure I’ve discussed before but which I’ve discovered has some interesting connections I didn’t already know about.
The legend of Fusang is a bit complex. According to the early historian Sima Qian, the first Chinese emperor sent envoys to find a magic tree called the fusang-tree, which supposedly existed on a magical island called Fusang, located at the place where the sun rises in the east. In time, this magic never-never land became identified in Chinese poetry with Japan, the islands to the east of China. However, in the interim the name was applied less consistently, and it was during this period that the historian Yao Silian compiled the Liang Shu, an official history of the Liang Dynasty of southern China. Silian wrote in 635 CE, compiling information in large measure collected by his father Yao Chao decades earlier. These records in turn discussed events that supposedly took place a century before, in the middle of the fifth century.
The text was translated in 1875 by Charles G. Leland, though the passages below I have slightly modified for my book by transliterating names using modern terms:
During the reign of the dynasty Tsi, in the first year of the year-naming, ‘Everlasting Origin’ [499 CE], came a Buddhist priest from this kingdom, who bore the cloister-name of Hui Shen, i.e., Universal Compassion, to the present district of Hukuang, and those surrounding it, who narrated that Fusang is about twenty thousand li in an easterly direction from Da-han, and east of the Middle Kingdom. […] In earlier times these people lived not according to the laws of Buddha. But it happened that in the second year-naming ‘Great Light,’ of Song [458 CE], five beggar-monks from the kingdom of Kipin [in northeastern Afghanistan] went to this land, extended over it the religion of Buddha, and with it his holy writings and images. They instructed the people in the principles of monastic life, and so changed their manners.
Here’s the weird thing: Even though the text makes very clear that Afghan monks traveled to Fusang and then a Buddhist from Fusang traveled in turn to China, for the past two and a half centuries Western scholars have labeled this China’s discovery of America.
The story of how that happens begins with Joseph de Guignes, a French scholar who wrote a book 1761 suggesting that Fusang had to be America. Part of Yao’s description of Fusang included things like hieroglyphs and bark paper, which recalled the achievements of Mesoamerica. Further, the distance to Fusang—20,000 li—seemed to indicate that this was in fact America. The length of li was not consistent over time, but in the period when Hui Shen supposedly traveled, 20,000 li would have been 5,200 miles. In the period when Yao Silian wrote, it would have been 4,000 miles.
Disconfirming details associated more with Siberia—such as deer herding and the presence of horses in Fusang—were ignored. French mapmakers, however, were taken with this idea and began including Fusang on their maps, typically in what is now California or British Columbia. This lasted for a few decades at the end of the 1700s.
The story gained new impetus in 1875 when Charles G. Leland published Fusang: The Discovery of America by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century. He identified Fusang with Mexico, and to this day there are those who believe that the people of Fusang were the Maya and that therefore the Maya were really Buddhists—in large measure due to the now-debunked idea that the Maya were a pacifist culture. Leland’s views, though influential, were all but conclusively demolished by Gustaaf Schlegel in one essay of his “Problèmes géographiques: Les Peuples Étrangers Chez les Historiens Chinois,” published in T’oung Pao 3, no. 2 (1892). Schlegel compared each detail of Fusang to the actual geography and anthropology of Mexico and found it wanting. He preferred to identify Fusang with Kamchatka or other far eastern Asian lands.
Something I found interesting, though, was one of the more extreme claims of Joseph de Guignes. For reasons known only to him, he believed that Chinese characters were derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs and that Chinese culture was “really” Egyptian. This belief found its way into other eighteenth century texts, which similarly tried to tie various Asian high cultures back to Egypt as the “mother culture” of the whole world. Surely you will recall that the 1909 hoax article about the alleged Grand Canyon “lost civilization” found just this same mix of Egyptian and Buddhist imagery—specifically finding a Buddha just like the one that the Afghan priests supposedly brought from Kipin, a kingdom which in those days abutted Tibet:
Over a hundred feet from the entrance is the cross-hall, several hundred feet long, in which are found the idol, or image, of the people's god, sitting cross-legged, with a lotus flower or lily in each hand. The cast of the face is oriental, and the carving this cavern. The idol almost resembles Buddha, though the scientists are not certain as to what religious worship it represents. Taking into consideration everything found thus far, it is possible that this worship most resembles the ancient people of Tibet.
A few years later, in 1913, Alexander M’Allan made the same case in Ancient Chinese Account of the Grand Canyon, trying to use the Fusang texts and others to prove that the Chinese visited the Grand Canyon.
What I didn’t realize at the time I first discussed M’Allan’s work was how these seemingly disparate theories and hoaxes shared a deep background in an eighteenth-century misinterpretation of the Liang Shu. There really are connections in ancient history—just not the ones fringe historians think.
3/5/2014 02:58:43 am
Jason---was the misattribution toward a Chinese discovery merely because of a misconception of what was meant by "beggar-monks from the Kingdom of Kipin?"
3/5/2014 03:01:36 am
It seems to be. Leland, for example, writes that Kipin was inhabited by Chinese pilgrims studying Buddhism and was therefore Chinese despite being located in Afghanistan.
Julio Cesar Assis
3/5/2014 06:15:31 am
“First we describe the Fu-Sang story, centering upon the monk Hui-Shen, at the end of the +5th century. The controversies initiated by de Guignes over the identification of the land of Fu-Sang with the American continent […] suffice it to say that the most probable locations of Fu-Sang are still Karafuto, Kamchatka, the Kurile Islands, perhaps Japan itself”.
3/5/2014 06:34:33 am
It is longstanding theory, but one that has yet to have evidence in its favor. Michael Coe included Chinese contact in his classic text "The Maya," but there has never been any Mesoamerican artifact found in China or vice versa. The jade, incidentally, isn't even the same color (or rock type), and it's doubtful either culture would have recognized the other's jade as the same rock.
Julio Cesar Assis
3/5/2014 10:10:46 am
The only artefacts that would falsify Needham’s hypothesis would be the ones that corroborate that Chinese influence over Mesoamerican culture was decisive. It is unlikely that such artefacts will ever emerge.
3/5/2014 06:01:39 pm
If Needham actually states in so many words that Chinese contact with Mesoamerica is "undeniable fact," then his credibility is somewhere in the toilet. "You can't disprove it" doesn't make it a fact. It only means it's a possibility--and that, I won't argue with.
Julio Cesar Assis
3/5/2014 06:56:21 pm
"…relatively little that was fundamental came from outside. At all events it was never enough to affect the basic ethos of the Meso-American civilizations. Yet we retain the conviction that individuals from Asia, and even small groups, did come, possibly quite often, bringing with them ideas and objects which stimulated the Amerindian peoples to parallel or divergent developments”.
Julio Cesar Assis
3/5/2014 07:02:32 pm
A. L. Kroeber’s concept of “stimulus diffusion”.
3/6/2014 05:13:48 am
Needham et als hypothesis does indeed lack much, if any support. Despite well over a century of intensive digs relatively little support for much diffusion as appeared. In fact the one more or less undeniable pre-columbian diffusion seems to be from America toPolynesia - the sweet potato. We have problematic possibilities like the chicken, albeit possibly introduced just before Columbus and apparently confined to a small region of South Amerrica - pre Columbian.
3/5/2014 01:48:54 pm
This reminds me of a series of rather vigorous debates I had with someone at the In the Hall of Maat website. This individual was quite adamant that not only was Fusang America. Ignoring the presence of the wheel, domesticated reindeer, horses etc. But he was convinced that Chinese immigrants had founded Teotihuacan and that Buddhism was spread by missionary monks in Mesoamerica. He was convinced that a rebellion in China c. 750 C.E., triggered the collapse of Teotihuacan c. 750 C.E. He was further convinced that the fall of the Maya was correlated with the end of the Tang Dynasty in 907 C.E. Well firstly Teotihuacan fell it appears 600-650 C.E., or even earlier, and the Maya had been collapsing for more than century by the time of the last long count date, (909 C.E.).
3/5/2014 10:34:22 pm
Fusang was mentioned in many Chinese texts but the earliest go give a description was the Liang Shu. Leland actually did translate nearly all of the material on it from the Liang Shu, if I can judge by the later French edition, made directly from the Chinese, which is almost identical. Leland's translation doesn't look complete because he broke it up into short sections interspersed with commentary, but Chinese experts say this is the entirety of the entry for "Fusang-guo" in the Geography section of the Liang Shu.
3/6/2014 05:16:05 am
Thanks for the clarification. I am wondering if the later French translation you are referring to is in Schlegel 1892?
3/6/2014 05:17:57 am
Yes, it is. I compared it as well to more recent Chinese work that happened to include excerpts from the same (though for a different reason), and no one else cites material beyond these few paragraphs, so it seems like it covers everything.
Julio Cesar Assis
3/7/2014 04:42:45 am
“it is extremely unlikely [the Asian visitors] came "quite often".
3/8/2014 03:54:48 am
"The fury to debunk is such that people try to debunk the very ideas they hold."
Large Islands + FUSANG
3/5/2014 04:21:12 pm
1.) Taiwan --- Its due east, its an island with a history.
3/9/2014 01:16:38 am
Well, in summary, I guess we could say mis-information is as tantamount as information...but as long as it's not lost...who cares?
3/9/2014 12:59:28 pm
The best argument against pre-columbian contacts between the old and new world, with exception of L'Anse aux Meadows, which was a grazing shot in my opinion, is the stay away of the Colombian exchange in those alleged contacts. To bad they didn't happen, the Amerindians might have developed resistance against the diseases the conquistadors brought along.
Julio Cesar Assis
3/10/2014 03:42:02 am
They say that the Aztecs were defeated by disease but if allies of Tlascala and other city-states were in closest contact with Europeans these tlascaltecas and others should have been the first to get sick. But at the same time it is said that the Spaniards could only win due to these Indian allies as Europeans were few. I would like to know the answer to this apparent paradox.
3/10/2014 03:51:59 am
Why do you think the Amarindians who siddd were spared from diseases? I think they all died in large numbers, no matter which side they were on. Most deseases have an incubation time, you don't die by just looking at an European :-).
Julio Cesar Assis
3/10/2014 05:03:16 am
It was a long way to Tenochtitlan and rubeola, smallpox and epidemic parotitis all have incubation periods of less than two weeks.
3/10/2014 10:16:28 am
Still, what makes you think the allies of Cortes survived? The population of the new world was reduced with 95% in the first century after 'first contact', but not everybody died after first meeting the Europeans. The defense if Tenochtitlan would also collapse if just 25% of it defenders died during Cortes' atack. Also bad for their moral. If the same percentage of the alies of the Europeans died, I don't think it would have made such an impact. Certainly because the conquistadors them self were not affected.
3/11/2014 10:12:50 am
More puzzling is why the amarindians didn't have a lot of diseases unknown to the Europeans. The often given reason that there were no large animals, because the quartenairy extinction, who could transmit diseases, doesn't feel satisfieing. Pest e.g. transmits through rats.
The Other J.
3/13/2014 09:18:33 am
If it looks like what the story actually describes is far east Asia/Siberia/Kamchatka, my question would be what's the history of Buddhism in those parts? I just don't know. But it'd be interesting to see if the history stretches back to the same era as the Fusang story (450's CE), and if the locals there have any folklore that corroborates the Liang Shu history.
8/31/2016 02:12:20 am
A Chinese poet in the 3rd Century BCE reported that Fu Sang was
6/6/2019 11:34:56 pm
Jason, I am clear on the fact that you do not believe that Buddhists or Buddhism reached
6/14/2020 02:25:20 am
For an old example of a large chessboard grid pattern in a remote area of Alberta Canada use your favorite search engine and type in "Joseph Needham N American Chessboard Grid Collection". When you get to that site scroll down to where it
7/11/2020 06:04:13 pm
Cultural Anthropology, particularly the subsection of Matriarchal Societies, will provide evidence to reasonably conclude that the
11/20/2022 05:22:58 pm
"Church Rock Cathedral in the Desert"
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.