Six years ago, I set out to write a book about Huishen, an Afghan Buddhist monk who is reported in the records of the Liang Dynasty to have sailed from China to the Americas in 458 AD, a thousand years before Columbus. My research took me to Kabul on a Taliban visa two weeks before 9/11, so it’s not surprising that, with the Taliban at one end, the Zapatistas at the other and the attacks on the World Trade Center colouring everything in between, what had begun as a whimsical quest quickly morphed into something more deeply political. Now that the book, Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas is being released by Stirling Publishing in New York, I’ve had time to pause and think about what I learned during that strange pilgrimage through so many cultures and so much historical layering.
I learned at least two important lessons about what it means to be human: first, I was reminded at every turn of just how interconnected we were long before the advent of the so-called global village. Our ancestors travelled vast distances, over oceans, mountain ranges, sometimes out of curiosity but mostly out of necessity. They were intrepid travellers willing to undertake epic voyages into the unknown, to risk everything. Evidence points to the fact that Europeans were the last to arrive in the Americas, but they had the biggest mouths and the best PR.
Second, I learned that vested interests have encouraged us to concentrate on human differences—race, colour, religion—rather than on human similarities. They’ve done this because it’s easier to control others if you demonize them, make them appear inferior, less worthy of basic human rights, particularly property rights. Why else would we still be thinking in terms of such dangerous and antiquated frames of reference as East and West, White and Black, Us and Them? These outmoded constructions have nothing to do with reality and they are pushing us further and further apart at a time in history when we need to be emphasizing human solidarity—brotherhood, sisterhood.
Huishen may have embarked on his voyage of discovery out of curiosity or missionary zeal, but it’s equally likely, given the uneasy status of Buddhists in a constantly changing China, that his voyage was motivated by political astuteness.
The question I am left with is this: Would it make any difference to the way we look at ourselves and the way we conduct our affairs internationally if we knew that Asians were frequent visitors to the Americas and that a Buddhist monk from Afghanistan had reached these shores centuries before Europeans by gunk-holing along the coast in a small junk, by way of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California?
I believe that it would.
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