Did the Chinese discover New Zealand first

Did the Chinese discover New Zealand first? 

A question that has sparked considerable debate among historians and scholars alike is: “Did the Chinese discover New Zealand first?” 

This question challenges the conventional narrative of European and Polynesian navigators being the first to set foot on Aotearoa’s shores. It suggests that Chinese explorers may have come before them. 

So did the Chinese discover New Zealand first? 

There is no certainty that the Chinese discovered New Zealand first. Some evidence suggests that they reached it centuries before the first Europeans and Polynesians arrived, but nothing is definitive and many historians remain skeptical. 

The Theory Behind China Discovering New Zealand First: 

The theory that the Chinese might have discovered New Zealand first is largely based on the work of British author Gavin Menzies. 

In his controversial book, “1421: The Year China Discovered the World,” Menzies posits that a large fleet from Ming China set out in 1421 AD. He claimed that they set out to discover the world, and this voyage included New Zealand. 

This date is centuries before Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. He is often credited as the first European to sight New Zealand. Abel Tasman is said to have arrived in 1642 way before Captain James Cook’s landing in 1769.

Evidence to Support the Theory Behind China Discovering New Zealand First 

Menzies’ theory rests on several pieces of potential evidence. Let’s jump into it.

Piece of Evidence # 1

One of the most significant pieces of evidence is the alleged discovery of shipwrecks of Chinese junks in and around the Papatowai estuary. These could mean that the Chinese were present in New Zealand long before Europeans if verified. 

However, it’s worth noting that this evidence has been met with considerable scepticism within the academic community. So, further research is necessary to establish its authenticity.

Piece of Evidence # 2 

Additional evidence supporting the theory can be found in the form of Chinese artefacts discovered in New Zealand. Some researchers argue that certain artefacts, such as porcelain fragments and old coins, could be traced back to the Ming Dynasty. 

Once again, these findings are contentious. So they have yet to be universally accepted as proof of early Chinese exploration.

Piece of Evidence # 3 

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of proof though comes from Maori oral history.

Certain legends speak of early interactions with people who could potentially have been Chinese. 

One such legend is the story of Hui Mai. Hui Mai is said to have been a Chinese sailor who arrived in New Zealand in the early 14th century. He was shipwrecked on the North Island coast and taken in by a Maori tribe. Hui Mai lived with the tribe for many years and married a Maori woman. 

He taught the Maori about Chinese culture and technology, and he is said to have introduced them to rice cultivation.

Another Maori legend that speaks of early Chinese interactions is the Tākitimu canoe story. The Tākitimu is said to have been one of the seven canoes that brought the first Maori settlers to New Zealand. According to legend, the Tākitimu was also carrying many Chinese passengers.

These legends do not prove early interactions between Maori and Chinese people. However, they do suggest that the possibility of such interactions should not be ruled out.

Countering the Theory of China Discovering New Zealand’s First

This theory, while intriguing, isn’t without its critics. Critics argue that insufficient concrete evidence supports this claim. 

Let’s take a look at some of the counterarguments against this theory.

Counterargument #1 

One of the primary counterarguments to Menzies’s theory is the lack of concrete evidence. Despite claims of shipwrecks and artefacts suggesting a Chinese presence, many scholars assert that these pieces of ‘evidence’ are inconclusive. 

They argue that the supposed shipwrecks of Chinese junks in the Papatowai estuary have not been definitively verified as Chinese in origin. The artefacts, such as porcelain fragments and old coins, lack solid provenance. This makes them unreliable indicators of early Chinese exploration.

Counterargument # 2 

Another significant counterargument is the absence of permanent Chinese settlements in New Zealand. If Chinese explorers had indeed arrived in Aotearoa before the Polynesians, it’s reasonable to expect some trace of their habitation. 

However, no such evidence has been found. The archaeological records continue to indicate that the Māori, descendants of Polynesian navigators, were the first to establish permanent settlements in New Zealand.

Moreover, critics of the theory point out that it contradicts established Māori oral histories, which trace their ancestors’ journeys from the mythical Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. These histories do not mention any encounters with people who could potentially have been Chinese.

Counterargument #3 

It’s also worth noting that the theory seems to overlook the Polynesians’ significant navigational and seafaring skills. Polynesians were accomplished navigators colonising the vast Pacific region. 

The suggestion that Chinese explorers came even before them in New Zealand somewhat undermines these remarkable achievements.