China Discovers the Ancient Near East

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It was the summer of 326 BC when Alexander the Great reached the banks of the Hyphasis River in India. His army had just won a hard fought battle against a minor local ruler named Porus. On the far side lay the Nanda Empire, armed to the teeth and ready to meet Alexander’s dwindling army with overwhelming force. “It was said,” reported Plutarch, “that the kings of the Gandaridae and the Praesii were waiting for Alexander’s attack with an army of 80,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 8,000 chariots and 6,000 fighting elephants.”[1] Such stories only made Alexander more eager to take on the challenge of battle, but discontent spread in his camp. To restore his men’s courage, he gave a speech before his army:

For a man who is a man, work, in my belief, if it is directed to noble ends, has no object beyond itself…if any of you wish to know what limit may be set on this particular campaign, let me tell you that the area of the country still ahead of us, from here to the Ganges and the Eastern Ocean, is comparatively small. You will undoubtedly find that this ocean is connected with the Hyrcanian Sea, for the great Stream of Ocean encircles the earth…and to this empire there will be no boundaries but what God Himself has made for the whole world.[2]

Alexander had no way of knowing that there was much more to the east than a “comparatively small” country. The Greeks were only dimly aware of India and were completely unaware of lands beyond it. In reality, past the Ganges lay Burma and Indochina, the Irrawaddy and the Mekong, and then China, a land with resources and population on a scale Greeks had never dreamed existed.

Alexander’s men were unmoved. They refused to go on. Alexander retreated to his tent in rage and did not emerge for three days, believing his troops’ failure of courage the only thing preventing him from becoming master of the entire world.[3]

At that time, China was mired in two hundred years of conflict known as the Warring States Period. By 206 BC, the Han Dynasty was in power and locked in a long brutal war with the nomadic Xiongnu. In 138 BC, Imperial official Zhang Qian was dispatched by the Emperor Wu in search of the Yuezhi, enemies of the Xiongnu with whom the Emperor sought to make an alliance. Not long after departing China, Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu and held a prisoner for ten years before he finally managed to escape. He finally reached the Yuezhi near modern day Bactria, only to find that they were no longer interested in an alliance. On his return to China, he was again captured by the Xiongnu and held prisoner for a year until a palace coup threw their society into chaos and he was able to make another escape.

Zhang Qian's travels.

Zhang Qian’s travels.

Thirteen years after his departure, Zhang Qian returned to great honor at the Imperial court, who one can imagine had likely given up all hope of his survival. Although he never traveled west of Bactria, he spoke with travelers and tradesmen from lands to the west and brought news of these territories back to the Emperor, as recorded in the Han Shu:

Anxi [Parthia] may be several thousand li west of the Yuezhi. The people live in fixed abodes and are give to agriculture; their fields yield rice and wheat; and they make wine of grapes. Their cities and towns are like those of Ta-yuan. Several hundred small and large cities belong to it. The territory is several thousand li square; it is a yery large country and is close to the K’ui-shui [Oxus]. Their market folk and merchants travel in carts and boats to the neighboring countries perhaps several thousand li distant. They make coins of silver; the coins resemble their king’s face. Upon the death of a king the coins are changed for others on which the new king’s face is represented. They paint [rows of characters] running sideways on [stiff] leather, to serve as records.[4]

Coin of Orodes I of Parthia.

“They make coins of silver; the coins resemble their king’s face. Upon the death of a king the coins are changed for others on which the new king’s face is represented.” — Coin of Orodes I of Parthia.

One li equaled 415.8 meters or approximately 1/4 of a mile. Zhang Qian also heard of lands to the west of Parthia:

Li-kan [Syria] and T’iau-chi [Mesopotamia] are several thousand li west of Anxi and close to the Western Sea. It [referring to T'iau-ch'i] is hot and damp. The inhabitants plow their fields, in which they grow rice. There is a big bird with eggs like jars. The number of its inhabitants very large and they have in many places their own petty chiefs; but Anxi [Parthia], while having added it to its dependencies, considers it a foreign country. They have clever jugglers. Although the old people in Anxi maintain the tradition that the Jo-shui and the Si-wang-mu are in T’iau-chi, they have not been seen there.[5]

These reports set the pattern for much of Han China’s knowledge of the Near East. Explorers visited Central Asia and brought back secondhand but nevertheless accurate information that was equal parts random facts and useful knowledge for merchants and diplomats.

IMG_5714

“[T'iau-ch'i] is hot and damp. The inhabitants plow their fields, in which they grow rice. There is a big bird with eggs like jars.”

Zhang Qian opened up the west to Chinese contact in the opening stages of what would eventually become the Silk Road. Some decades later, a Chinese embassy arrived in Parthia and returned to China with a Parthian ambassador who brought an ostrich egg and a juggler as gifts. Later, in 87 AD, the Parthian king sent lions and a gazelle to the Imperial court.[6]

By the 1st century AD, the dreaded Xiongnu had been defeated, the Great Wall protected China’s northern border, and Chinese diplomats were ready to explore further afield. In 97 AD, the procurator Ban Chao sent Gan Ying to explore further to the west in hopes of reaching a rumored great empire known to the Chinese as Da Qin. According to the Hou Hanshu (“History of the Later Han), he “probed as far as the Western Sea, and then returned. Previous generations never reached these regions.” In Parthia, he sought to travel further to the west and was told by the Parthians that “The ocean is huge. Those making the round trip can do it in three months if the winds are favorable. However, if you encounter winds that delay you, it can take two years. That is why all the men who go by sea take stores for three years. The vast ocean urges men to think of their country, and get homesick, and some of them die.”[7]

This was of course completely ridiculous information, but Gan Ying had no way of knowing that the Parthians were lying about the Mediterranean being a giant ocean. Clearly the Parthians did not want the Chinese establishing contact with their sworn enemies in Rome. Gan Ying had to content himself to secondhand reports of Da Qin. According to the Hou Hanshu, “No doubt he prepared a report on their customs and investigated their precious and unusual [products].”[8] This information about a great empire to the west became incorporated into the Hou Hanshu:

The Kingdom of Da Qin is also called Lijian. As it is found to the west of the sea, it is also called the Kingdom of Haixi (Egypt).Its territory extends for several thousands of li. It has more than four hundred walled towns. There are several tens of smaller dependent kingdoms. The walls of the towns are made of stone.

They have established postal relays at intervals, which are all plastered and whitewashed. There are pines and cypresses, as well as trees and plants of all kinds. The common people are farmers. They cultivate many grain crops and silkworm-mulberry trees. They shave their heads, and their clothes are embroidered. They have screened coaches (for the women) and small white-roofed one-horse carts.When carriages come and go, drums are beaten and flags and standards are raised.[9]

"The ocean is huge. Those making the round trip can do it in three months if the winds are favorable. However, if you encounter winds that delay you, it can take two years. That is why all the men who go by sea take stores for three years. The vast ocean urges men to think of their country, and get homesick, and some of them die." Andromeda's Rocks, ancient port of Jaffa, Israel.

“The ocean is huge…The vast ocean urges men to think of their country, and get homesick, and some of them die.” — Andromeda’s Rocks, ancient port of Jaffa, Israel.

Rome had a number of client kingdoms that acted as buffer states between Roman and Parthia, which Gan Ying may have visited (the “smaller dependent kingdoms”). Although Gan Ying almost certainly did not visit the city of Rome, he provided a summary of its affairs based on what he had heard:

The seat of government (Rome) is more than a hundred li (41.6 km) around. In this city are five palaces each ten li (4.2 km) from the other. Moreover, in the rooms of the palace the pillars and the tableware are really made of crystal. The king goes each day to one of the palaces to deal with business. After five days, he has visited all of them. A porter with a sack has the job of always following the royal carriage. When somebody wants to discuss something with the king, he throws a note in the sack. When the king arrives at the palace, he opens the bag, examines the contents, and judges if the plaintiff is right or wrong.

There is a government department of archives. [A group of] thirty-six leaders has been established to meet together to deliberate on affairs of state. Their kings are not permanent. They select and appoint the most worthy man. If there are unexpected calamities in the kingdom, such as frequent extraordinary winds or rains, he is unceremoniously rejected and replaced. The one who has been dismissed quietly accepts his demotion, and is not angry.[10]

This appears to be a loose description of the Consuls and Senate of Rome during the era of the Republic. By the time Gan Ying visited Parthia the Republic had been effectively dead for 141 years, and their kings were definitely permanent and were not replaced regularly. If they were replaced, they did not fade quietly into the background.

ostia_parade1

“When carriages come and go, drums are beaten and flags and standards are raised.”

The Hou Hanshu goes on to list trade goods available in Roman territory: “The people of this country are honest in business; they don’t have two prices. Grain and foodstuffs are always in good supply. The resources of the state are abundant.” The organized and bureaucratic Chinese government definitely admired the reports of the Roman Cursus Publicus courier system: “The population there is dense. Each ten li (4.2 km) there is a postal stage, and each thirty li (12.5 km) a postal station…When envoys from a neighboring kingdom arrive at their border, they use the courier stations to get to the royal capital, and when they arrive, they give them gold coins.” Elsewhere it was noted that: “Finally, there is no trouble with bandits, but there are many ferocious tigers and lions on the road that obstruct and kill travelers. If the caravans don’t have more than a hundred men carrying arms, they will be devoured.”[11]

Most oddly, The Hou Hanshu said that the people of Rome “are all tall and honest. They resemble the people of the Middle Kingdom and that is why this kingdom is called Da Qin.” Da Qin literally means “Great China.” The Chinese saw the Roman Empire as another great empire, equal to China except on the other side of the world.[12]

Roman glassware. In the Ecce Homo Convent, Jerusalem, Israel.

Roman glassware. In the Ecce Homo Convent, Jerusalem, Israel.

Eventually Rome managed to break through the Parthian restrictions. In 166, Marcus Aurelius sent envoys who traveled to China by way of modern-day Vietnam (likely meaning they took a sea route around Parthian territory) and presented the Emperor Huan with “elephant tusks, rhinoceros horn, and turtle shell.” This was the first direct communication between the two empires, and the Middle Kingdom was not impressed: “The tribute brought was neither precious nor rare, raising suspicion that the accounts [of the ‘envoys’] might be exaggerated.”[13]

By the third century AD, the Silk Road was in full swing and goods were flowing between China and Rome and all the points in between. Luxury goods such as silk and colored glass were the biggest sellers. “The profit margin is ten to one,” according to instructions for traders in the Hou Hanshu. At the other end of the line in Rome, Pliny the Elder lamented that “At the very lowest computation, India, the Seres, and the Arabian Peninsula withdraw from our empire one hundred million sesterces every year—so dearly do we pay for our luxury and our women!”[14]

juggler

“They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.” — Statue of a Roman juggler, late antiquity.

In the third century, Chinese historian Yu Huan produced another document titled the Weilue, which offered an extended description of Rome based on the Hou Hanshu. Yu Huan provided more detailed information about how to get to Rome by sailing from Vietnam to Egypt, then up the Nile, across the Delta and along the North African coast before turning north to Italy. Another way was through Parthian territory, although “in early times only the maritime routes (to Da Qin) were discussed because they didn’t know there were overland routes.”[15]

This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions.The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). The outer walls of the city are made of stone.

This region has pine trees, cypress, sophora, catalpa, bamboo, reeds, poplars, willows, parasol trees, and all sorts of plants. The people cultivate the five grains [traditionally: rice, glutinous and non-glutinous millet, wheat and beans], and they raise horses, mules, donkeys, camels and silkworms. (They have) a tradition of amazing conjuring. They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.

They have always wanted to communicate with China but, Anxi (Parthia), jealous of their profits, would not allow them to pass.

The common people can write in hu (‘Western’) script. They have multi-storied public buildings and private; (they fly) flags, beat drums, (and travel in) small carriages with white roofs, and have a postal service with relay sheds and postal stations, like in the Middle Kingdom (China).[16]

Yu Huan offered a historically dubious explanation for how another empire could exist that rivaled China, reporting that the Romans “say they originally came from China, but left it.” He also provided a detailed list of products available in Roman territory, which is mostly a long list of expensive luxury items, fine fabrics, gems and precious metals. It also features some stranger trade items such as “rhinoceroses,” “black bears,” “divine tortoises,” and “red hornless dragons.”

The king of Sifu (Petra)1 is subject to Da Qin (Rome). From his residence northeast to Yuluo (Karak),2 you go 340 li (141 km), and cross over a sea (mistake for ‘river’ = the Wadi al-Ḥesa).3

“The king of Sifu (Petra) is subject to Da Qin. From his residence northeast to Yuluo (Karak), you go 340 li (141 km), and cross over a sea.” — The road into ancient Petra.

The Weilue also offers brief descriptions of Rome’s client states in the Near East that would be useful to traders. The kingdoms of Petra and Karak are mentioned as well as other places along the Great Rift Valley. No details are given save the direction and distance to other locations, and whether each kingdom was under Parthian or Roman control.[17]

Both the Weilue and Hou Hanshu represent the absolute limits of the transmission of knowledge in the ancient world. No civilizations further apart than Rome and China made contact in the ancient world. And while the two empire’s knowledge of each other was limited and often very inaccurate, the fact that they traded and conducted diplomatic relations testifies to how advanced each civilization had become.

References:

[1] Plutarch, Life of Alexander, trans. by Ian Scot-Kilvert, in The Age of Alexander, (New York: Penguin Press, 1973), 62.

[2] Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander, trans. by Aubrey de Sellincourt (New York: Penguin Press, 1958), 5.26.

[3] Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 62.

[4] “Selections from the Han narrative histories,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hantxt1.html#zhang (accessed February 22, 2012).

[5] “Selections from the Han narrative histories,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hantxt1.html#zhang (accessed February 22, 2012).

[6] “Selections from the Han narrative histories,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hantxt1.html#west (accessed February 22, 2012).

[7] “The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html (accessed February 22, 2012).

[8] “The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html (accessed February 22, 2012); Frances Wood, The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002), 46-47.

[9] “The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html#sec11 (accessed February 22, 2012).

[10] “The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html#sec11 (accessed February 22, 2012).

[11] “The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html#sec12 (accessed February 22, 2012).

[12] Wood, The Silk Road, 44-45.

[13] “The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu,” http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html#sec12 (accessed February 22, 2012).

[14] Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories, trans by John Bostock & F.R.S. H.T. Riley, (www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=12:chapter=41, accessed February 22, 2013), 12.41.

[15] Yu Huan, Weilue, at “The Peoples of the West, from the Weilue” at http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html#section13 (accessed February 22, 2013).

[16] Yu Huan, Weilue, at “The Peoples of the West, from the Weilue” at http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html#section11 (accessed February 22, 2013).

[17] Yu Huan, Weilue, at “The Peoples of the West, from the Weilue” at http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html#section14 (accessed February 22, 2013).

Image Sources: (Banner) http://www.ssqq.com/travel/barcelona2009romereborn.htmhttp://history.cultural-china.com/en/46H151H593.html; http://www.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%E6%BC%A2%E6%AD%A6%E5%B8%9D.jpg; (Body) http://www.ibiblio.org/chineseart/contents/atls/c04.htm#; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Orodesi.jpg; Photo of an Ostrich © Christopher Jones 2012; Photo of Jaffa © Christopher Jones 2012; http://www.reenactor.net/forums/index.php?cat=14; Photo of Roman Glass © Christopher Jones 2012; http://www.usu.edu/markdamen/ClasDram/chapters/161latertheatre.htm; Photo of Petra © Christopher Jones 2012.

Article © Christopher Jones 2013.

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