Times Past

Times Past: Were the Chinese here long ago?

According to the “Book of Liang,” compiled in 635, the Kingdom of Fu-Sang once flourished along the remote stretches of the Oregon Coast. It was founded by a Buddhist monk, Hui-Shen, and his disciples from Afghanistan.

A group of monks led by Hui-Shen traveled down the California coast to Mexico. Hui-Shen’s account of this journey can be linked to indigenous Mexican stories of the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, the “Feathered Serpent,” from the northwest coast.

It’s a wonderful story linking China to California as we celebrate the approach of the “Year of the Dragon.” The Year 2012 is the 4709th Chinese year. Claims of contact between China and North America have been taken seriously by historians beginning with Hubert Howe Bancroft in the late 19th century.

If the Buddhist monk, Hui-Shen, didn’t have a fleet to sail across the sea, the armada of Zheng He, admiral of the imperial Ming navy, did.

Zheng He was a Central Asian Muslim, born Ma He, the son of a rural official in the Mongol province of Yunnan. Taken captive when the invading Chinese army overthrew the Mongols in 1382, he became a favorite at the court in Beijing. More than 600 years ago, Zheng directed seven voyages to East Africa. His navies may have gone elsewhere, too.

Seven years ago, Liu Gang, an antique dealer in Beijing, discovered a 1763 copy of a 1418 Chinese map of the world that included well-detailed outlines of the coasts of both North and South America. The map was used by author Gavin Menzies as support for his thesis in “1421: The Year China Discovered America.”

In the ensuing debate, some experts have relegated the Liu Gang map to the same place as the Vinland Map, discovered in 1950, declared fraudulent in 1974 and then at least partially rehabilitated by scientific studies by Thomas Cahill of UC Davis in 1987.

In any case, we can agree that the study of history is made more enjoyable, albeit less certain, by such controversies. And it is the folk stories and legends that sometime lead us to a better understanding of the past.

The dragon plays a major role throughout Chinese history, going back at least to the Yellow King’s coronation during the Winter Solstice of 2697 B.C., which marks the beginning of the Chinese calendar.

Cal Poly’s Chinese Students Association, the oldest nondepartmental club on campus, is celebrating the coming dragon with a play for their New Years banquet.

“Dances with Dragons” depicts the genesis of the Chinese dragon we know today. When a powerful force threatens to destroy everything in ancient China, a young hero must rise. Sheng, the young leader of the Snake Clan, must avenge the life of his father by uniting all of China’s greatest clans against the dastardly evil ways of Tiger Claw and his mighty Tiger Clan.

You can attend the tasty banquet catered by Mandarin Gourmet and learn how the dragon helps our hero prevail.

The 55th Annual Chinese New Year Banquet will be held Saturday in Chumash Auditorium at 6 p.m. Doors open around 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children.

Entertainment includes performances by the lively and beautiful Lion Dance/Ribbon Dance Teams, and Liu Yu and Norm Petredean’s world class Wushu Taichi Center. The push and pull of Chinese and U.S. cultures are always apparent in the up-to-the-minute humor of the student-created drama.

To order event tickets, email calpolycsa@gmail.com or call Jenny Peng at 408-677-6730.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.