Map shows Chinese explorers may have discovered New Zealand before Europeans, according to new book

A new book claims a map from 1602 shows Chinese explorers could have discovered New Zealand before Europeans. 

The consensus among scholars is that Chinese marine voyages in the early 15th century only took the explorers to countries bordering the Indian Ocean. 

But author Sheng-Wei Wang posits in Chinese Global Exploration in the Pre-Columbian Era: Evidence from an Ancient World Map their exploration zone extended beyond that to the Americas, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. 

A map shows when Chinese explorers could have discovered New Zealand.
A map shows when Chinese explorers could have discovered New Zealand. Photo credit: Image Database of the Kano/SCMP

Wang's conclusions, as reported by the South China Morning Post, are based on her analysis of the first Chinese-language world map, the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (KWQ), in which she concludes it was sourced from Chinese maps by Ming dynasty (1368-1644) explorers rather than being of European origin. 

As well as concluding the map shows Chinese explorers beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas and rounded the southern tip of Africa by 1433, Wang examined the depiction of the Oceania region on the KWQ. 

The KWQ depicts Australia and Antarctica as a huge connected continent taking up the entire bottom section of the map. 

Seventeenth-century Japanese copy of Ricci's 1602 map of KWQ.
Seventeenth-century Japanese copy of Ricci's 1602 map of KWQ. Photo credit: Image Database of the Kano/SCMP

As Wang examined the map, she noticed that the actual outline of northern Australia appeared somewhat similar to the stretched out coastline depicted in the map. 

But the more interesting part that piqued her interest was that the map included a group of islands off to the east - islands that Wang thought could represent New Zealand. 

The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman is officially recognised as the first European to "discover" New Zealand in 1642, around 350-450 years after ancestors of the Māori arrived from Polynesia. 

Wang said the KWQ suggests Chinese mariners had explored Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica by the 1420s, much earlier than European explorers. 

Wang also touched on the findings of British surveyor T.C. Bell in the book, which she says shows "direct [hard] evidence of Chinese junks and Chinese presence in New Zealand".

Bell found what he said seemed to be two crushed ships lodged upside down in a hill on the southeast coast of the South Island in the early 2000s - a result of landscape changes from a tsunami. 

He also claimed sticky rice adhesive - a potent glue that was also used in sections of the Great Wall - was used to join concrete blocks to fortify the ships, Wang wrote. She said he also found Chinese lettering on the concrete.

But Kiwi historians are rubbishing Wang's claims, in part because Bell's claims have been discredited.

"I have not read Dr Wang’s recent book, the focus of the South China Morning Post article, and nor do I intend to, but her reheating of the claims (and those made by Cedric Bell in the 1950s) seem presently, again to my mind, to play into a particular PRC [People's Republic of China] driven nationalistic narrative that this author (not a trained historian; and nor were Menzies, Bell et al) has shown herself prone to in the past," Programme Director for the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University Duncan Campbell said.

*Update February 5: This article has been edited to make clearer T.C. Bell's claims are not supported by historians.