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.
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.
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