BEIJING -- A tale of ancient maps, lost cities, sunken treasures, and a resurgent hero has become one of the more curious attempts by China to bolster its cultural pride.
Last week, Liu Gang, a Beijing-based securities lawyer and amateur map collector, unveiled an antique map that he says proves a bold assertion: that a Muslim eunuch-warrior from the 15th- century Ming Dynasty named Zheng He discovered the Americas 70 years before Christopher Columbus and circumnavigated the world 90 years before Ferdinand Magellan.
''For Chinese history, this is very significant," Liu said at his office as he showed off a framed copy of the map, a section of which is undergoing carbon testing at Cambridge University in Britain.
Liu bought the map from a Shanghai antique shop for $500, and a notation on it says it is a 1763 copy of an older map, dating to 1418. It shows the world in far greater detail than any maps made at the time by Europeans.
''My first reaction was that it was a forgery," Liu said. ''Now, I'm 100 percent sure it proves that Zheng He and his men actually went all over the world and mapped it by 1418."
That assertion was first made in the 2002 book ''1421: The Year China Discovered the World," by Gavin Menzies, a former Royal Navy submarine commander-turned-amateur historian who says it was only by acquiring copies of ancient Chinese maps that later Europeans came to the New World.
''How have professional historians for so long adopted the fairy story that Christopher Columbus discovered America, when they've all known Columbus had a chart, a map showing him the way to the Americas?" Menzies said after a recent lecture in Beijing.
Menzies cites references to these ancient Chinese world maps in Renaissance-era European diaries and maintains that a large part of America was settled by Zheng and his men. He says he has also found Zheng's ''lost capital" in Newfoundland, as well as the sunken remains of many of his huge treasure ships, some of which lie off the West Coast of the United States.
Many historians, both Western and Chinese, reject the assertions of both Menzies and Liu.
''Mr. Menzies just fabricates things and gets a lot of press," said Geoff Wade, a historian with the Asia Research Institute in Singapore. ''There are people who rebut him, but they usually write in academic journals and so get much less publicity."
Mao Peiqi, a professor of history at the People's University in Beijing, said he was certain that Liu's map is a fake.
''It shows the world in two hemispheres, but it was only after the Ming Dynasty, in the 1650s, that the theory about the earth having two hemispheres was gradually developed," Mao said.
Regardless, the publicity over Zheng's potentially textbook-altering exploits has captured the imagination of many in China, where rapid economic growth and cultural regeneration have created a groundswell of ethnic pride.
Born into a humble Muslim family in southern Yunnan Province, Zheng was enslaved at 10 by invading Han Chinese armies, castrated, and taken to Beijing. There he found favor with the Ming Dynasty emperors, under whom Chinese civilization reached its zenith, and built the Chinese Navy into the world's largest.
Records and excavated remains show the flagship of Zheng's 200-ship fleet was 400 feet long, while the three ships in Columbus's fleet were 70 feet long on average.
Liu and those who support his assertions acknowledge that resurrecting this iconic ancient in modern times is an act heavily tinged with nationalistic pride.
''Right now, China, with respect to technology, is far behind the United States, England, Japan," he said. ''But I think this map will tell the young generation we Chinese are not stupid, we are actually as smart as other nations."
The Chinese government, which is trying to deflect international criticism over its expanding armed forces and navy, has also found value in Zheng's renaissance. Although records say the purpose of Zheng's trips to Asia and India was to collect tribute from ''barbarian" nations, Beijing has been describing his voyages as friendship missions.
''Unlike Columbus, who used his skills to colonize, [Zheng He's] voyages were peaceful," said Zheng Ming, a retired admiral credited with building up China's navy and vice director of an association that studies Zheng He. ''Even though China was the greatest country in the world, Zheng He was still very friendly to people in poorer countries. He gave them lots of Chinese goods and tried really hard to help those countries to prosper. He knew that's how to avoid war and maintain China's stability. That lesson is still applicable to us today."
Last year, the government, whose current mantra is that China's rise in the world will be peaceful, launched a series of celebrations to mark the 600th anniversary of Zheng's first voyage in 1405.
''It doesn't really matter if [Liu's] map is fake or not," said Zheng Ming, whose organization wants to build a replica of Zheng He's giant ship that would travel the world on good-will missions. ''What matters is that the world can see Zheng acted in the Chinese way, the peaceful way."