ChapterPDF Available

Imperial Rome and China: Communication and Information Transmission

China’s Development
from a Global
China’s Development
from a Global
Edited by
María Dolores Elizalde
and Wang Jianlang
China’s Development from a Global Perspective
Edited by María Dolores Elizalde and Wang Jianlang
This book first published 2017
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Copyright © 2017 by María Dolores Elizalde, Wang Jianlang
and contributors
All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without
the prior permission of the copyright owner.
ISBN (10): 1-4438-1670-1
ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-1670-0
This volume has been published with the support of the Spanish Research
Project HAR2015-66511-P (MINECO/FEDER).
List of Illustrations ................................................................................... viii
Part 1: China from Global Perspectives: An Introduction
Chapter One ................................................................................................. 2
China from Global Perspectives: An Introduction
Presentation: China in the World, the World in China
María Dolores ELIZALDE
Preface to China from Global Perspectives
WANG Jianlang
China in the World: Historiographical Reflection
Manel OLLÉ
Placing China in Global Histories, and Global Histories in China:
Some Comments
Part 2: Approaches between China and the World
Chapter Two .............................................................................................. 28
Imperial Rome and China: Communication and Information
Ann KOLB and Michael SPEIDEL
Chapter Three ............................................................................................ 57
China–Bengal Interactions in the Early Fifteenth Century:
A Study on Ma Huan’s and Fei Shin’s Travels Accounts
Md. Abdullah AL-MASUM
Chapter Four .............................................................................................. 73
Caretakers of the Sulu King’s Tomb in China, 1417–1733
LIU Wenming
Table of Contents
Chapter Five .............................................................................................. 87
China from the Perspective of an Unusual Spanish Diplomat: Eduard
Toda, Consul at Macao, Hong Kong, Canton and Shanghai, 1875–1882
María Dolores ELIZALDE
Part 3: International Relations
Chapter Six .............................................................................................. 122
Europe, China and the Family of Nations: Commercial Enlightenment
in the Sattelzeit, 1780–1840
Chapter Seven .......................................................................................... 196
The Golden Gate and the Open Door: Civilization, Empire, and
Exemption in the History of U.S. Chinese Exclusion, 18681910
Chapter Eight ........................................................................................... 220
Laboratory of Globalization? Tianjin c. 1900
Chapter Nine ............................................................................................ 233
China and the International Alliances at the Beginning of the Twentieth
Va ld o FE RR ET TI
Chapter Ten ............................................................................................. 253
The Memory and Legacy of the Tribute System in the Twentieth Century
Part 4: Economic Relations
Chapter Eleven ........................................................................................ 274
The Monetization of Silver in China: Ming China and Its Global
WAN Ming
China’s Development from a Global Perspective vii
Chapter Twelve ........................................................................................ 297
Chinese Silk and European Trade: A Balance (SixteenthNineteenth
Chapter Thirteen ...................................................................................... 327
The Spanish Link in the Canton Trade, 1787–1830: Silver, Opium
and the Royal Philippines Company
Chapter Fourteen ..................................................................................... 350
Commercial Relations of the Russian-American Company with China
in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century
Alexander Yu. PETROV
Chapter Fifteen ........................................................................................ 375
Foreign Engineers’ Activities in China and the Process of China’s
Internationalization: The Case of the Engineering Society of China,
WU Lin-chun
Contributors ............................................................................................. 404
5.1 Eduard Toda, Spanish Consul in China, 1876–1882
Source: Eduard Toda, Manucrits. Xina-General
5.2 “Mon barco a la entrada de Suchao,” 1881
Source: Eduard Toda, Manucrits. Xina-General
5.3 “Pont de Wong-du”, 1881
Source: Eduard Toda, Manucrits. Xina-General
5.4 “Dificultat para entrar en Kwang-shan,” 1881
Source: Eduard Toda, Manucrits. Xina-General
5.5 “Tombas Ming”
Source: Eduard Toda, Manucrits. Xina-General
5.6 “Barca del Virrey Tso, Nankin”
Source: Eduard Toda, Manucrits. Xina-General
6.1 Distribution of articles according to the subject arrangement provided
by the “General Index of Subjects Contained in the Twenty Volumes,
with an Arranged List of Articles” in The Chinese Repository, Canton,
6.2 Distribution of articles according to macro-subjects
Source: Elaborated by the author
14.1 The Russian American Company and the fur market
Source: Based on data taken from the Archive of the Foreign Policy of
the Russian Empire, Russian-American Company papers, and
Collections from the State Archive of Irkutsk Region, State Historical
Archive in St Petersburg and State Archive of the Navy in St
14.2 Tea trade of the Russian American Company with China
Source: Based on data taken from the Archive of the Foreign Policy of
the Russian Empire, Russian-American Company papers, and
collections from the State Archive of Irkutsk Region in Irkutsk, State
Historical Archive in St Petersburg and State Archive of the Navy in St
China’s Development from a Global Perspective ix
15.1 Membership of the Engineering Society of China, 1901–41
Source: Engineering Society of China, Report and Proceeding, 1901–
05, 1909–19; Journal of the Engineering Society of China, 1939–41
15.2 Subject of Presidential Address, the Engineering Society of China,
Source: Engineering Society of China, 1940-41, pp. 11, 49–50
4.1 Wen an d An family trees
7.1 Graph of Chinese migration to the United States, 1894–1940
Source: Figures from Helen Chen, “Chinese Immigration into the
United States: An Analysis of Changes in Immigration Policies” (Ph.D.
dissertation, Brandeis University, 1980), Table 15, p. 181
7.2 “The Chinese New-Found Friends Will Knock in Vain”
Source: Library of Congress
7.3 American merchants and Chinese compradors in Shanghai at the turn
of the 20th century
Source: Lynn Pan, Shanghai: A Century of Change in Photographs,
1843–1949 (Hong Kong: Hai Feng Publishing, 1993)
7.4 “A Fool’s Paradise”
Source: Outlook, Vol. 82, No. 12 (Mar. 24, 1906): 701–6
7.5 “The ‘Anti-American Boycott’ Awakens Nationalism (2nd
Source: Yangcheng Wanbao, “The 1911 Revolution in Guangdong: The
‘Anti-American Boycott’ Awakens Nationalism (2nd Installment),”
excerpted in Renmin Wang, September 21, 2001
10.1 Map of national shame
Source: Hong Maoxi, eds, The New Chinese Map authorizedby
Ministry of Interior for Elementary School (Chongqing: Dongfang
Yu d i Xu es h e, 1 93 8 )
As leading world powers, the Imperium Romanum and the ancient Chinese
Empire of the Qin and Han dynasties were in contemporary existence from
around the mid-second century BCE to the first half of the third century CE.
Between them, it has been reckoned, they controlled half the entire world
population.1 Yet, they lacked a common border. They were separated by
the enormous distance between the opposite ends of the Eurasian continent
and a forbidding topography that included some of the highest mountains
and deadliest deserts on the planet. Nevertheless, particularly from the first
century CE onwards, sources from both ancient empires record increasing
commercial and diplomatic interchange, as well as a significant interest in
written accounts on the other. Depending on the value attributed to these
sources, modern scholars have proposed contradicting views of either
independent or interacting empires. Thus, it has recently been argued that
“the two world empires remained hidden to each other in a twilight realm
of fable and myth” and that they unconsciously took part “in a major
world system of trade that had developed, while few if any of the
participating parties knew much about the others.”2 That in turn led others
to conclude that both empires had minimal interaction and developed
independently of each other, thus creating an ideal opportunity for studies
in comparative history.3 Others, however, presuppose frequent and routine
contact. Thus in a recent book on geography in classical antiquity one
scholar maintains that “the Romans reached as far as China, establishing
contacts with the local” people. The Romans, we are told, “traded with the
1 Scheidel, “Introduction,” State Power, 5.
2 Fibiger Bang, “Commanding,” 120. Loewe, “China’s Early Empires,” 83.
3 Scheidel, “Introduction,” State Power, 5.
Imperial Rome and China
Chinese and had reciprocal contacts with the court there as early as the
time of Augustus.” 4 Earlier adherents of this school of thought even
suggested that in 122 CE the Roman emperor Hadrian ordered the
construction of the great stone wall in the north of the province of
Britannia because travellers’ accounts of the Great Wall of China had
inspired him to do so. 5 A re-assessment of the flow of information
between the two great empires, of the nature and state in which the data
was preserved, and of the channels and agents that conveyed it, therefore
seem apposite.
Western Data
By the fifth century BCE, Chinese silk had reached the West.6 China,
however, remained unknown to Western contemporaries. Thus, although
Herodotus seems to have known of a trade route used by Scythians and
Greeks that connected the Black Sea with Central Asia,7 his informants
had nothing but fanciful stories based on rumours and hearsay to offer
about the creatures, peoples and countries in and beyond the adjacent
mountain barrier.8 According to the reports he collected (but refused to
believe), these mountains were inhabited by men with goats’ feet, and
beyond these there was a people who slept for six months of the year. He
also heard of one-eyed men and gold-guarding griffins on the near side of
the mountains. Over a century later, in the years 334–326 BCE, Alexander
the Great conquered the countries between the eastern Mediterranean and
the Punjab. Yet even now Western literature had nothing reliable to say of
the Chinese.
But Alexander’s conquests and, over 100 years later, the unification of
China in 221 BCE under its first emperor Qin Shihuang laid the
foundations that would eventually enable the unparalleled success of
ancient long-distance trade to develop along the network of routes we now
usually refer to as the “Silk Road.”9 Still, according to tradition it took
4 Dueck, Geography, 62.
5 Stevens, “Hadrian,” 397–399. Breeze and Dobson, Hadrian’s Wall, 32. Cf.
Campbell, “Chinese Puzzle,” 371–376.
6 Miller, Athens and Persia, 77ff.
7 Hdt. 4, 23–25. Cf. 101.
8 See Hdt. 4, 13.4, 25–27 with the interpretation by Walter, “Seidenstrasse,” 87–
93, and Walter, Entstehung früher Fremdbilder, 63–73.
9 See most recently Hill, Jade Gate, Liu, Silk Road, and esp. Graf, “Silk Road.”
For an overview see also Olbrycht, “Seidenstrasse,” 67–87. For early Hellenistic
influence in ancient Chinese art see Nickel, “First Emperor.”
Chapter Two
another century before the trade route became fully operational in the late
second century BCE, for that was only the result of the establishment of the
Seleucid and later the Parthian kingdoms in Persia, the Maurya kingdom in
India and the great Chinese expansion under the Han emperor Wu (156–87
BCE). The vast size of these realms, their comparatively small number, the
will of their rulers and their at least adequate authority created an
environment that was favourable to long-distance trade, not least with
regard to costs for protection and to taxation. Since the late second century
BCE at the latest, a flow of trade, envoys and information surged between
these kingdoms. By the mid-fourth century CE, the Roman historian
Ammianus Marcellinus, without a notion of surprise, mentions “a very
long road (iter longissimum) through Central Asia that “frequently” or
“periodically” (yet in either case recurrently: subinde) led merchants past a
place called “Stone Tower” to the land of the “Seres” (Silk People) whose
rich and vast country was encircled by “great walls.”10
Ammianus also knew of a maritime trade route that connected the
eastern Mediterranean with India and the land of the Seres, and that
brought goods to markets in the eastern part of the Roman Empire
(Osrhoenian Batnae, in particular).
11 For the long-distance trade system
between East and West only reached its final and most complete state in
antiquity after Rome’s conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE. Rome’s take-over of
Egypt not only politically united the entire Mediterranean Basin, it also
established the maritime route through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean
as an economical alternative and thereby included it into the trade system
of the “Silk Roads.”12 As a result, the trade routes linked the Atlantic
Ocean with the Pacific. Although sea-faring merchants from the Roman
Empire first traded for Chinese goods in India,13 some appear to have
sailed as far as modern Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam.14 Since the end of
the first century BCE, exotic goods from India and China were being sold
in Rome and in markets throughout the Roman world in fairly large
10Amm. 23, 6, 60: Praeter quorum radices et vicum, quem Lithinon Pyrgon appellant,
iter longissimum patet, mercatoribus pervium, ad Seras subinde commeantibus.
(“Along the base of these [i.e. the mountains Ascanimia and Comedus] and
through a village, which they call Lithinos Pyrgos [Stone Tower], a very long road
extends, which is the route taken by traders who recurrently journey to the land of
the Seres”). “Great walls”: Amm. 23, 6, 64. Campbell, Chinese Puzzle, 374, takes
this to be no more than a “poetic description of mountains.”
11 Amm. 14, 3, 3.
12 Speidel, “Wars, Trade and Treaties.”
13 PME 64–5.
14 Jos., AJ 8,6, 4ff. Ptol. 1,14. Liang-Shu, 54. Wei-Shu, 102. Ferguson, “China and
Rome,” 586. Hill, Jade Gate, 291ff.
Imperial Rome and China
quantities.15 Unsurprisingly it thus seems China was firmly integrated into
the Western concept of the inhabited world, the oikumene.16
It is surely no coincidence that by the time Western authors began to
take notice of China and the Chinese, i.e. the first half of the first century
BCE, silk had become a well-known and highly desirable luxury good at
Rome and in the Hellenistic East.17 The significance of the Chinese to the
Greeks and Romans is immediately betrayed by the name they were given:
“Seres”, the “Silk People.” 18 Apparently, the true name of the “Silk
People” was as yet unknown to Western authors. Still, they unanimously
located them in the easternmost parts of the inhabited world, occasionally
by associating them with other (better-known) peoples from the distant
East.19 However, geographical knowledge of the Far East in the surviving
works of Western geographers was mostly nebulous. Thus, for instance,
Pomponius Mela wrote: “The Seres inhabit roughly the middle part of the
East, with the Indians and Scythians on the extremities, both occupying
broad swathes, and spreading, not only in this place, to the ocean.” 20 It
therefore remains impossible to establish beyond doubt whether the term
“Seres” referred to the Chinese proper or to middlemen (e.g. from the
Tarim Basin), to locate their capital city Sera, to define their exact relation
to the term “Thina(e)”/“Sinai” of Ptolemy and the Periplus,21 or even to
establish whether all references in ancient Western literature to the Seres
were to one and the same people.22
The Seres were portrayed as a people of inoffensive manners best
known for the trade (commercium) they conducted, though they were
accused of the barbarian habit of shunning intercourse with the rest of
15 Thus also Graf, “Silk Road.”
16 Cf. e.g. the survey of Western sources in Ferguson, “China and Rome,” passim,
to which one might add the Tabula Peutingeriana (Sera Maior: 11 B 5, for which
see most recently Speidel, “Fernhandel”). McLaughlin, Trade Routes, 131–132.
17 Ferguson, “China and Rome,” 592. Strabo 11,11,1 quoting Apollodoros of
Artemita is the earliest reference to the Seres. Cf. Poinsotte, “Réalités et mythes,”
432f. According to Ammianus Marcellinus (23, 6, 67), silk had become available
“even to the lowliest” by the fourth century CE.
18 Ptol. 11,11. 15,1. There remains some uncertainty whether in some cases the
term Seres refers to middlemen from the Tarim Basin.
19 Cf. e.g. Strabo 11,11,1. Hor., Carm. 1, 12, 56. 3, 29, 227. 4, 15, 23. Pomp. Mela
1,11. PME 64–65. Ptol. 1, 11. Amm. 23, 6, 60. Hld. 9,16–18. TP 11 B 5 (Sera
20 Mela 1, 11.
21 PME 64–65. Ptol. 7, 3, 1. 7, 3, 6.
22 The interpretative optimism of Dueck, Geography, 62, and the respective
pessimism of Campbell, “Rome and China,” mark the extremes in recent literature.
Chapter Two
mankind, awaiting the approach of those who wished to traffic with
them.23 With some Western authors they also had a reputation for being
excellent archers and charioteers, as well as for living long lives and for
being particularly just. 24 In the early third century CE, Bardaisan, a
philosopher and member of the royal court at Edessa in Northern
Mesopotamia (and thus from one important branch of the “Silk Road”),
praised the Chinese for having laws and legal courts that structured and
regulated their daily lives (rather than astrological superstition).25 Also in
the third century, Celsus and Origen believed the Seres to have been
atheists (a reference to Confucian scepticism?).26 Ammianus Marcellinus,
in the fourth century CE, described the Seres as peaceful, “for ever
unacquainted with arms and warfare,and “troublesome to none of their
neighbours.”27 Pliny, quoting from a source from Sri Lanka, claimed that
they were tall, with golden hair and blue eyes.28
Evidently, much of the data collected by these (and other) Western
authors was either meaningless or simply wrong. Equally uninformed
statements and hazy reports about the West can also be found in the
Chinese sources, as we shall see below. One school of thought therefore
holds that little if any real information passed from one great ancient
empire to the other. 29 The question therefore arises whether there is
anything in our sources to suggest that real information occasionally
flowed from one empire to the other, or whether our sources, just like in
the days of Herodotus, continue to convey fanciful stories, differing from
earlier ones only in occasionally sounding more “credible.” In other
words, must we accept that the surviving ancient literature reflects the
extent of knowledge on ancient China that was available in the Roman
Perhaps not. For the loss of texts from the Roman world is
unfathomable, particularly of those texts whose authors and readers issued
from social levels below those of the imperial elites. The lost works no
doubt included not only texts like the Periplus Maris Erythraei, but also
the entire and once abundant travelogue literature that provided much of
23 Mela 3,60. Plin., NH 6, 20, 54.
24 Hor., Carm. 1, 29, 7ff. Prop. 4, 8, 23.
25 “Book of the Laws of the Countries” 116ff. Cf. Euseb., P.E. 6, 10, 12f. Compare
also Caesarius 2, 109.
26 Origen., c. Cels. 7, 62–64.
27 Amm. 23, 6, 67.
28 Plin. NH 6, 24, 88. Cf. Sánchez Hernández, “Pausanias,” 7.
29 Cf. e.g. Scheidel, “Introduction,” Rome and China, 3. Campbell, “Rome and
China,” 49. Fibiger Bang, “Commanding,” 120. Loewe, “China’s Early Empires,”
Imperial Rome and China
the underlying data.30 It is very likely that at least some of these texts
would have conveyed more informed views of the Far East, and that they
contained more accurate geographical, topographical, political, economic,
cultural and other information than can be found in the surviving writings
of the ancient geographers. The Periplus Maris Erythraei sheds light on
the nature and quality that the data transmitted by this branch of literature
could attain, and thereby gives an impression of the extent of the loss. For
if this text, which is transmitted only by a single manuscript, had shared
the fate of the rest of its genre, we would be deprived of most of our
present knowledge concerning Rome’s first century CE maritime trade
with South Arabia, East Africa and India, and of nearly every detail this
unique text records, for hardly any of the rich and superior data it contains
can be found elsewhere. It therefore seems prudent not to draw rigid
conclusions from the assumption that the surviving literature reflects
nearly everything that was once known about ancient China and the Far
East in the Roman world.
Envoys and Merchants
Ancient Chinese historiographical texts, it seems, only began to refer to
the Roman Empire in the distant West in the first century CE.31 The term
they used was “Da Qin,” Greater China, “apparently thinking of it as a
kind of counter-China at the other end of the world,” as the great sinologist
Edwin Pulleyblank put it.32 Remarkably, the earliest Chinese texts on
Rome contain no transcriptions based on the names Roma or Imperium
Romanum, which echoes the parallel absence of a transcribed name for
China in the earliest Western sources.33 At any rate, the existence of the
other great empire was henceforth an integral part of the concept of the
inhabited world both in imperial China (“Da Qin”) and the Roman Empire
(“Seres”). Moreover, there was now a considerable interest on both sides
of the Eurasian continent in producing knowledgeable accounts about that
distant other empire. The growing flow of trade along the various branches
30 See in particular De Romanis, “Periplus Maris Erythraei.”
31 See esp. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources. Pulleyblank, “Han China.” Hill,
Jade Gate.
32 Pulleyblank, “Han China,” 71–79, esp. 71. Cf. also Ying, “Ruler,” 327. Hoppál,
“Chinese Sources,” 263–306, esp. 270. Yu, “Survey,” 1–268, esp. 28–29. For other
notions of the term “Da Qin” see the literature conveniently collected in Gizewski
and Kolb, “Review,” China and Greek World, 488, and below at n. 80ff.
33 Pulleyblank, “Han China,” 77. Contra: see the references in Gizewski and Kolb,
“Review,” China and Greek World, 488.
Chapter Two
of the “Silk Road” entailed an increasing stream of information. Although
envoys and merchants can be identified as the carriers of relevant
information, it remains a matter of debate whether either ever established
direct contact between Rome and China.34 Diplomatic contacts between
the major powers along the “Silk Road” trade system are well attested and
include both Chinese and Roman contacts with representatives of various
intermediate countries.35 Soon after the Roman conquest of Egypt, and no
doubt as a direct consequence of the new conditions at the western end of
the long-distance trade routes, Western sources report a surge of
diplomatic missions from far-away eastern countries, some located in
India and Central Asia, to Rome’s new sole ruler, Augustus. It is said that
they came to conclude agreements of “friendship” (amicitia) with him and
the Roman people.36 Unfortunately, none of these agreements between
imperial Rome and distant eastern rulers has survived, but most of them
were no doubt concluded in (written) Greek, as that language served as the
lingua franca for merchants and diplomats throughout the Red Sea Basin,
Parthia, Central Asia and as far as India.37 Yet whatever the exact contents
of such agreements may have been, the appearance of so many foreign
envoys at the court of Augustus in the aftermath of his accession to sole
rule over the Roman world is one of many revealing examples of the
efficient long-distance transportation of news by merchants to their
respective political centres at home. 38 Such information could then
obviously be transferred onto written documents, further developed or
condensed, stored and retrieved to serve as bases for conclusions and
political, fiscal or military decisions. The same is evidently true for the
information that was officially and secretly collected and transported by
official envoys.39 We even know of entire missions that imperial Rome
34 Cf. recent discussions e.g. by Graf, “Chinese Perspective,” 200. Leslie and
Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 150–162. Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 304–310.McLaughlin,
Trade Routes, 111–140. Graf, “Silk Road.” Schulz, Entdeckungsfahrten, 387ff.
35 Cf. e.g. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 139–162. Ziethen, Legationes
Externae.” Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 263–266. McLaughlin, Trade Routes, 111–140.
Arbach and Schiettecatte, “diplomatie,” 388–390. Graf, “Silk Road.”
36 Speidel “Fernhandel.” Cf. Speidel, “Almaqah,” 246f., and Speidel, “Wars, Trade
and Treaties,” 111ff.
37 Strabo 15,1,73. Cf. Strabo 15,1,4. Dio 54,9,8. Cf. Speidel, “Wars, Trade and
Treaties,” 112–119. On Roman long-distance trade with the Far East see esp.
Raschke, “New Studies.” Young, Rome’s Eastern Trade. Graf, “Silk Road.”
38 On the subject in general see Lee, Information and Frontiers, 162–165. 175–
177. Austin and Rankov, Exploratio, esp. 26–28, 87–88, 94, 100, 210.
39 Cf. e.g. Hdt. 3, 17. Plut., Alex. 5, 1. See Lee, Information and Frontiers, 166–
170. Austin and Rankov, Exploratio, 120–123.
Imperial Rome and China
occasionally set up and sent out to collect information on distant foreign
The record of foreign envoys to Augustus includes a group of Chinese.
This mission is known through a single Roman author, Florus (from the
early second century CE), who notes the arrival at the court of Augustus of
envoys of the Seres.41 Florus’ account mingles the Chinese envoys with
Indians “who live immediately beneath the sun. Though they brought
elephants amongst their gifts as well as precious stones and pearls, they
regarded their long journey, which took them four years, as their greatest
tribute. And indeed their complexion proved that they came from beneath
another sky.” Florus is not quite clear on whether the Chinese, of whom he
has nothing else to say, arrived together with the Indians, and how they
communicated with the Romans. Yet Florus’ testimony is generally
rejected, for not even the chapter on foreign embassies in Augustus’ res
gestae mentions envoys from the Seres. We would indeed expect
Augustus to have done so, for Roman rulers never hesitated to interpret,
accept and promulgate any such visits as signs of submission.42 The next
Chinese effort on record to establish direct contact with imperial Rome
occurred roughly one century later. According to a Chinese account, in 97
CE the General Ban Chao sent his chief ambassador Gan Ying on a
mission to establish contact with Da Qin. The general context appears to
have been a military one, but the mission failed because the Parthians
thwarted it, allegedly because they feared losing control of the overland
silk trade.43At any rate, although Gan Ying never actually reached the
Imperium Romanum, he is said to have made it to the shores of the Persian
Gulf in 97 CE, where he surely collected as much information on Da Qin
as he could.44
40 Sen., Q. nat. 6, 8, 3.Plin., NH 6,35,181. 184–186. 12, 8, 19. Dio 63, 8, 1. Cf. e.g.
Austin and Rankov, Exploratio, 114–118. Lee, Information and Frontiers, 170–
41 Florus 2, 34.
42 Cf. e.g. Ferguson, “China and Rome,” 592–593 (“an enterprising merchant or a
piece of wishful thinking from an adulatory historian”). Poinsotte, “Réalités et
mythes,” 435 (“sans doubt confondus avec les Bactriens”). Ziethen, Legationes
Externae,”189–192 (“Betonung der herausragenden Bedeutung des römischen
43 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 10 and 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 23 and 27). Feng,
Early China, 281. See also below at n. 58.
44 On Gan Ying’s mission and his much debated itinerary see Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill
sect. 10: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 23) and Hill, Jade Gate, vol. II, 16–20. Leslie and
Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 141–148. Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 299–300. Yu,
“Survey,” 5 and 10–17.
Chapter Two
Several direct Roman contacts with the Chinese are also on record. The
geographer Marinus of Tyre, for instance, referred to a first century CE
account by an otherwise unknown merchant from Roman Macedonia
named both Maës and Titianus, who had used information provided by his
agents and freedmen to note travel times and distances along the route that
led from a commercial station in the Pamirs (the “Stone Tower”) to
“Sera,” the capital of the Seres. Unfortunately, both Maës’ record and
Marinus’ account of it are lost. Both are only known to have existed
because the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus mentions them
in a short paragraph in his Geography, in which he quotes Maës as his
source for the claim (which he and Marinus disbelieved) that it was a
seven-month journey from the “Stone Tower” to “Sera,” the capital city of
the Seres.45 It was precisely this route passing the “Stone Tower” to the
land of the Seres that Ammianus Marcellinus later qualified as iter
longissimum and of which he reports that it wasfrequently or
“periodically” used by merchants in the fourth century CE.46
According to ancient Chinese texts, the earliest Romanembassy to
visit China only arrived in 166 CE, and came from the South (thus via the
Red Sea and Indian Ocean maritime route).47 The Chinese recorded the
arrival of “envoys” of the Roman emperor ndn (i.e. Marcus Aurelius,
or, perhaps, Antoninus Pius) at the Chinese court with offers of rhinoceros
horn, ivory and turtle shell. The Chinese naturally took these gifts for
tribute, but having expected jewels and exotica from the king of Da Qin,
they were not impressed and began to suspect that the wondrous accounts
they had heard of the Roman Empire were altogether exaggerated.48 For in
the ancient world, the local value of imported goods directly reflected on
the reputation of their country of origin as well as on the significance of
45 Ptol. 1,11. Cf. also Ptol. 1.12.1–10. For a full discussion see now Heil and
Schulz, “Maes Titianus.” Whether the journey was noted in Chinese historical
accounts remains a matter of speculation: Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources,
149. McLaughlin, Trade Routes, 126–128. The place named “Stone Tower” is
mostly identified with Taškurgan or Darautkurgan: Poinsotte, “Réalités et mythes,”
445 n. 54 and Paul, “Maès Titianos,” 955, with further bibliography. “Sera
metropolis” remains to be identified.
46 Cf. above n. 10. According to Campbell, “Chinese Puzzle,” 372, Ammianus, in
this passage, was simply displaying knowledge he had extracted from Ptolemy.
47Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 27). See e.g. McLaughlin,
Trade Routes, 133ff. Schulz, Entdeckungsfahrten, 389f.
48 Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 223. Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 27 and cf.
Imperial Rome and China
their rulers.49 Éduard Chavannes, in 1907, therefore argued that the Roman
“envoys” were in fact Roman merchants.50 If the episode is based on a real
encounter, Chavannes’ clearly is the most attractive solution, although the
question of how the two parties communicated remains unsolved.51 It is
difficult to imagine from which other professional group official “envoys”
of the Roman emperor to the distant ruler of the Seres might have
stemmed. At any rate, we should probably assume that Roman “envoys”
usually were free-born Roman citizens, but the story of the Roman knight
who travelled 600 miles through Germania to the shores of the Baltic Sea
to buy amber during the reign of Nero (54–68 CE) shows that not all long-
distance merchants were necessarily of modest social status. Moreover,
Roman authorities are also known to have entrusted foreign merchants
with the delivery of messages to far-away addressees.52 However, there is
no record of the embassy of 166 CE in Western sources, and not all
scholars believe in its historicity.53
The Chinese recorded the contact of 166 CE asthe very first time
there was [direct] communication” (i.e. between the two empires). That
seems to imply that several more such visits followed, but only two further
direct contacts are on record for the third century, both known only from
Chinese sources and both concerning Roman visitors to China. Thus, a
Chinese account from the sixth century using material from much earlier
periods (Liang-Shu, 54), reports the visit in 226 CE of a Roman merchant
to the court of the king of Wu (the later emperor of Wu), Sun Quan, at
Nanking. Allegedly this merchant (named Qin Lun in the Chinese texts),
who seems to have arrived via the sea route, left a now-lost detailed
account of the Roman Empire with the Sun Quan.54 Again, nothing is said
49 For a Roman assessment see Tac., Ann. 2,60. For Sri Lanka: Plin., NH 6, 24, 85
and Cosmas 11, 338. For China: Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: Hill, Jade Gate,
vol. I, 27).
50 Chavannes, “Heou Han Chou,” 185 n. 1, followed by Wheeler, Imperial Frontiers,
174. Cf. also more recently Loewe, “China’s Early Empires,” 83. Fibiger Bang,
“Commanding,” 120.
51Pace e.g. Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 308. McLaughlin, Trade Routes, 133–135.
Feng, Early China, 281–282.
52 Roman knight: Plin., NH 37, 11, 45. Foreign merchants: Tac., Ann. 14, 25.
Hillers and Cussini, Palmyrene Aramaic Texts, 2754.
53 E.g. Campbell, “Chinese Puzzle,” 373 n. 21: “commentators naively assume the
former [scil. the name An-Tun] to be the phonetic equivalent of [Marcus]
Antoninus.” Campbell, “Rome and China,” 49: Marcus Antoninus bears only a
superficial similarity to ‘An-tun’.”
54 Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 100–101 and 158–159. Cf. Hirth, China,
46–48. McLaughlin, Trade Routes, 136f. This account does not appear to have
Chapter Two
about how communication was established, and how language or
translation possibly affected the recorded information. In 284/85 CE,
another Roman “embassy” bringing “tribute” (apparently including
asbestos) is recorded in other Chinese sources to have arrived in China
(probably via the sea route).55 No further details appear to be known.
Thus, the extant sources, with the exception of Ammianus Marcellinus, do
not imply much direct interaction between the two great empires at the
opposite ends of the Eurasian continent during the first three centuries CE.
In fact, the account which records the visit of 226 CE (Liang-Shu, 54)
explicitly states that Roman merchants often visited Fu-nan (Cambodia),
Jih-nan (Annam) and Chiao-chih (Tongking) but rarely travelled to China.
This goes well with the statement of the Periplus Maris Erythraei (PME
64) that “rarely do people come from it [i.e. ‘Thina’/China], and only
few.” It is thus generally held that merchants did not travel the entire route
from east to west or vice versa, but that long-distance trade was organized
in stages and involved several intermediaries.56
Yet, perhaps one should not a priori exclude the possibility that some
individuals indeed travelled the entire distance, or very substantial parts of
it.57 For the story of Maës, as well as Ammianus Marcellinus’ reference to
the long road leading to the “Silk People” and the Liang-Shu’s claim that
Roman merchants sailed as far as modern Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam
but only rarely to China, all appear to imply the existence of a small group
of individuals that occasionally did travel very long distances between the
two imperial realms. More importantly, however, there apparently was a
will and ample opportunity to meet somewhere en route between the
empires. Thus, Ban Chao’s mission is explicitly on record for having
attempted to establish direct contact with Da Qin. Even though his envoy
Gan Ying never actually reached the Imperium Romanum, he is said to
have made it to the shores of the Persian Gulf in 97 CE, where he must
have had the opportunity to collect much information on Da Qin. Yet,
instead of finding out about viable routes to the frontiers of the Roman
Empire, Gan Ying let himself be discouraged by stories of a horrendous
and potentially deadly sea passage, which he was told by “sailors of the
been the source of the information given in the Weilüe (for which see below), as
that text is exclusively concerned with the land route.
55 Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 159–160.
56 See e.g. Ying “Ruler.” Ruffing, “Seidenhandel.” Sanchez Hernandez,
“Pausanias,” 8–9. Graf, “Silk Road.”
57 Thus also Ruffing, “Seidenhandel,” 73.
Imperial Rome and China
western frontier of Parthia,” and turned home.58 But Gan Ying was not the
only Chinese to reach Parthia during the Han Dynasty.
Parthia had diplomatic and commercial contact with both the Roman
and the Chinese empires. 59 It is not unlikely, therefore, that despite
Chinese claims of Parthian attempts to thwart direct contact, Parthia
offered opportunities for individuals from both ends of the Eurasian
continent to meet, as there is no evidence to suggest a total and permanent
blockade of the land route through Parthia for Roman merchants.60 The
Oasis of Merv (Antiochia/Alexandria in Margiana), in particular, may
have been a place where merchants from both empires met recurrently.61
More such opportunities for repeated direct contact may also have
occurred at other intermediate market-places in India, Central and
Southeast Asia, or South Arabia. 62 If true, that is of considerable
significance, for within pre-industrial societies market-places played a
crucial and notorious role in the circulation and dissemination of
information.63 No doubt, information thus collected and brought back to
the Roman and Chinese empires by merchants and envoys, could
eventually find its way into documents that were at the disposal of
imperial decision-makers. The Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy, for one,
quoting from Marinus’ account of the journey of Titianus’ agents to
Central Asia, explicitly acknowledged that “all this became known
through an opportunity provided by commerce.”64 Moreover, Étienne de la
58 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 10: cf. Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 23). Leslie and Gardiner,
Chinese Sources, 46.
59 For embassies to and from China see Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 10: cf. Hill,
Jade Gate, vol. I, 23) Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 46 and 139–143.
60 Thwart contact: Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: cf. Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 27) and
Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 51. Weilüe 11: Hill, Weilüe sect. 11, and
Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 70. Cf. also Hirth, China, 42. Blockade:
Isidor of Charax’s Mansiones Parthicae, Ptolemy’s account of the journey Maës
Titianus’ agents undertook (1,11), and the Tabula Peutingeriana suggest that the
passage was possible (at least at times). Graf, “Silk Road.” Contra: Walter,
Entstehung früher Fremdbilder, 113. Overall, however, the evidence implies that
merchants from the Roman Empire preferred the sea route, due perhaps to
unfavourable conditions for Roman merchants in Parthia.
61 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: cf. Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 23 and 248–249). Plin.,
NH 6, 18, 46–47. Isid. Char. 14. Cf. Graf, “Silk Road.” Coloru, Traina and Lycas,
“Parthians,” 49–58.
62 Cf. Lewis, Qin and Han, 143. Fauconnier, “Graeco-Roman Merchants.” Feng,
Early China, 279.
63 Cf. Lee, Information and Frontiers, 175–177. Austin and Rankov, Exploratio,
27, 209–210.
64 Ptol. 1, 11.
Chapter Two
Vaissière has recently convincingly argued that Ptolemy’s description of
the Tarim Basin in his Geography is based on three different trading
itineraries, which he used as sources for his depiction of Central Asia, and
especially of Xinjiang.65 All this highlights the extent to which the nature
and the limitations of the surviving Western evidence are owed to written
material produced by long-distance traders.
Chinese Data
Sadly, all official records from the Roman world that may have contained
information on foreign peoples and countries have disintegrated. It is
therefore particularly fortunate that some ancient records with “official”
information on the other have survived in China.66 These documents offer
a unique opportunity to study the transmission of information from Rome
to China. Ever since Friedrich Hirth, in 1885, published his monograph
China and the Roman Orient with a selection of ancient Chinese texts
containing information on the Roman and Byzantine empires (including
translations and an extended commentary), these records have attracted
scholarly attention, though until recently primarily among Sinologists.67
The recorded Chinese interest in the Roman Empire was on the whole not
unlike Roman interest in China. For the Eastern texts provide information
on the routes to and the communication with Da Qin and other “Western
Regions,” on its geography, its capital, its administration and infrastructure, on
dependent kingdoms, on its agriculture and stockbreeding, on textiles,
perfumes and herbs, and on other natural resources, as well as on the
population and their appearance and daily life. Clearly, therefore, the data
transmitted by these texts needs to be checked against what is known
about the Roman imperial world from Western sources, if we want to
establish the value of the information on Da Qin that was recorded in
ancient Chinese accounts.
65 De la Vaissière, “Ptolemy’s Xinjiang.”
66 Translations are conveniently at hand e.g. in Hirth, China. Leslie and Gardiner,
Chinese Sources. Hill, Weilüe and Hill, Jade Gate. The present authors have
worked entirely from translations of the Chinese texts. We feel justified in this
only because the observations we present in this contribution are based primarily
on the gist of passages of which the available translations all appear to be in
agreement. Quotations are from the translations of John Hill.
67 Hirth, China. For bibliography see Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 3–6.
Hill, Jade Gate, passim. Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 266–269. Yu, “Survey,” 43–
127. See also Kordosis, China and Greek World, with Naerebout, “Review,” China
and Greek World, and Gizewski and Kolb, “Review,” China and Greek World. For
important remarks by an historian of the Roman Empire see Graf, “Silk Road.”
Imperial Rome and China
Two texts in particular need to be mentioned, the Hou Hanshu and the
Weilüe. Recent scholarship describes them as follows.68 The Hou Hanshu
is the official history of the Later (or “Eastern”) Han Dynasty (25–221 CE).
It was compiled mainly by a man named Fan Ye in the first half of the
fifth century CE from earlier works. It contains sections on theWestern
Regions” which are primarily based on a report by Ban Yong (the son of
Ban Chao) to the emperor An in c. 125 CE and replaced earlier accounts.69
This report included descriptions of the Roman Empire that stemmed from
information Ban Chao’s envoy Gan Ying had collected during his mission
to Da Qin in 97 CE. The other early historiographical text containing
important information on Da Qin, the Weilüe, is a chapter on “Peoples of
the West” from a now-lost “Brief Account of the Wei Dynasty,” compiled
at an unknown date in the third century CE by Yu Huan.70 The chapter has
survived as an extensive quotation in a work of the fifth century. It both
repeats earlier information on Da Qin (including much that can be found in
the Hou Hanshu) and also supplies valuable new material, which seems to
date mainly to the second and early third century CE.71
In short, these texts are, at least in part, of truly official nature and stem
from a period that is contemporary with the existence of the Imperium
Romanum. Nevertheless, various problems are connected with the Chinese
historical accounts and their interpretation, and there is no consensus on
how much real information on the Roman Empire they actually contain.72
The compilation of these texts in ancient China was a bureaucratic
procedure that involved much copying of earlier accounts and relied on
records and archives.73 Thus, the precise origins and date of the underlying
original pieces of information often remains unknown. At any rate, the
specific nature of these texts apparently reflects what was officially held to
68 For what follows see Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, xvi–xxiii, with Mansvelt Beck,
Treatises of Later Han, 1, and Bielenstein, Restoration Han Dynasty, 16–17.
69 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 1: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 13 and cf. p. 161–163).
70 See Chavannes, “Wei lio,” 519–571. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 65–
78. Hill, Weilüe. “About the Text” and “About the Dating and the Background of
the Text.” Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 268–269.
71 For other (later) ancient Chinese accounts relevant to the ancient Mediterranean
world see Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 3, 33, 57, 80. Cf. also Hoppál,
“Chinese Sources,” 268–269.
72 See for instance the opposing views of Kordosis, China and Greek World, and
Naerebout, “Review,” China and Greek World, or Gizewski and Kolb, “Review,”
China and Greek World.
73 Cf. e.g. Loewe, “Introduction,” Cambridge History of China, 2–6. Loewe, “Early
Empires,” 75–77. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 19–31. Hoppál, “Chinese
Sources,” 269, all with further bibliography.
Chapter Two
be true at the time of their redaction (which, of course, does not exclude
the possibility that other knowledge of the West existed simultaneously). It
is interesting, therefore, that the Hou Hanshu characterized the Romans as
“honest in business: they do not have two prices, for this appears to
betray Chinese interest in the people of Da Qin as being primarily
commercially motivated. 74 The Liang-Shu (54) even characterized the
inhabitants of Da Qin as a trading people.75 Long-distance trade is indeed
a very prominent and recurring topic in the Chinese historical accounts of
the Far West. In particular, long lists of desirable goods are characteristic
of the description of Da Qin in the Hou Hanshu and even more so in the
Weilüe, as similar lists do not appear to recur with the description of other
Western countries in these texts.76 Thus they are clear evidence for the
very pronounced commercial interest of the Chinese in Da Qin. Moreover,
these texts characterize both Roman and Chinese long-distance trade (to
which they apparently refer as “communication” between countries) as an
essentially “national” affair, in which diplomacy opens trade routes and
markets.77 This is perhaps not simply to be taken as a specifically Chinese
representation of transnational trade, for Roman sources also imply that
diplomacy and international agreements were involved in facilitating long-
distance trade.78
The Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe describe Da Qin as a large (and, by
implication, powerful) state with many dependencies.79 They praise its
inhabitants as “tall and honest,”80 but they have nothing at all to say about
its armed forces or their battlefield successes. There are no descriptions of
Rome’s army, military capacity or martialness. 81 Given the general
Chinese interest in military matters this is perhaps surprising, as China
74 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 27). Ying, “Ruler,” 339.
75 Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 100.
76 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 25. Weilüe 12: Hill,
Weilüe, sect. 12.
77 E.g. Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 27): “The king of this
country [scil. Rome] always wanted to send envoys to Han [scil. China], but Anxi
[scil. Parthia] wishing to control the trade with multi-coloured Chinese silks,
blocked the route to prevent [the Romans] getting through [to China].” Hou
Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 15: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 31): “This region [scil. Northwest
India] … communicates with Da Qin.” Weilüe 12: Hill, Weilüe, section 12: That
is why this country [scil. Rome] trades with Anxi [scil. Parthia].”
78 Speidel, “Wars, Trade and Treaties,” and Speidel, “Fernhandel.”
79 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 23). Weilüe 11 and 14:
Hill, Weilüe, sect. 11 and 14.
80 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 25).
81 Cf. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 260.
Imperial Rome and China
was in occasional direct contact with the Parthians, who were at war with
the Romans on several occasions. Perhaps Parthian informants were
unwilling to provide the Chinese with such information. At any rate, the
Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe portray the Romans as a peaceful and just
people, not unlike descriptions of the Chinese in some ancient Western
texts. Despite Chinese attempts at collecting accurate and real information
on the Romans and their empire, even the term “Da Qin” is at the root of a
number of interpretative problems. For Chinese conceptions of Da Qin
were “confused from the outset with ancient mythological notions of a
utopian empire in the Far West.82 Such notions were at the very origins of
the term “Da Qin,” for it literally meant “Greater China” and was not a
transcription of a foreign name for the Roman Empire.83 Moreover, the
existence of a “Greater China” at the opposite end of the world conflicted
with the ancient Chinese conception of the real world, which held that
China (the “Middle Kingdom”) was its cultural centre. According to this
conception, the farther away a foreign people lived from the centre, the
more “barbarian” they were believed to be. 84 But of course it was
unthinkable that the people of “Greater China” should have been the most
uncivilized people on earth. Therefore they were portrayed as resembling
“the people of the Middle Kingdom, and that is why this kingdom is called
Da Qin.”85 The Romans were described as “tall and virtuous like the
Chinese, but they wear Western clothes. An explanation was also
provided: “They [i.e. the Romans] say they originally came from China,
but left it.”86 It is evident therefore that such utopian and fanciful notions
of Da Qin originated in China and need to be identified if we want to
investigate the extent of real information that reached China from the
Another particularly complex issue, which also affects our understanding
of the term “Da Qin,” concerns the notorious difficulties in identifying
82 Laufer, “The Name China.” Graf, “Chinese Perspective,” 199–216, esp. 199–200.
Pulleyblank, “Han China,” 78. Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 264. Yu, “Survey,” 69–
70. Walter, Entstehung früher Fremdbilder, 116–117.
83 Thus Pulleyblank, “Han China,” 71 and 77. Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 266–271.
Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 269–271. Yu, “Survey,” 1–43. Cf. also Naerebout,
“Review,” China and Greek World, 376, and Gizewski and Kolb, “Review,” China
and Greek World, 488.
84 Cf. e.g. Creel, Sinism. Wang, “History, Space, Ethnicity,” 285–305.
85 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 23).
86 Weilüe 11: Hill, Weilüe, sect. 11. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 70. Cf.
Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 267.
Chapter Two
topographical and geographical features in the ancient Chinese accounts.87
The main difficulty is that the transcription of foreign place names from
Chinese characters and the reconstruction of their phonological values in the
Han period requires a highly specialized knowledge of Chinese historical
phonology and, apparently, nevertheless often produces highly controversial
results. Moreover, it is not usually taken into account that many places in
the Roman East, in particular, had more than one name (depending mainly
on time and language: e.g. Yerushalaim, Hierosolyma, colonia Aelia
Capitolina and Iliya, to mention just a few ancient names for Jerusalem),
and that the Chinese authors may have transcribed pronunciations of place
names that (multiple) transmission by non-Greek and non-Latin speakers
had significantly distorted. The matter is clearly important if we want to
understand and make use of these texts. The introduction to the chapter on
the Roman Empire in the Hou Hanshu might serve as an illustration: “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 [=’West of the Sea’].”88 Nearly
the same statement was also included in the Weilüe.89 It is perhaps not
entirely surprising that the legendary empire of “Greater China,” as a real
state, also had other, less mythical names, which derived from existing
political or geographical entities. However, there is no consensus as to
which countries or regions Lijian and Haixi referred to, and it therefore
even remains unclear what parts the term “Da Qin” exactly denoted. Thus,
the equation of Da Qin, Lijian and Haixi, as well as other attempts to
identify place names in the sections of the ancient Chinese records on Da
Qin, has led to a confusing and still-ongoing debate, in which, however,
the number of options under discussion does not appear to have changed
much since those established by Friedrich Hirth and his immediate
successors. Essentially, the proposed solutions for the meaning of “Da
Qin” as an existing polity are the Roman Empire, the eastern regions of the
Empire (as already suggested by Friedrich Hirth), particularly Syria and
87 On the matter in general see esp. Pulleyblank, “Han China.” Hill, Jade Gate, vol.
I, xx–xxiii. Cf. also Kordosis, China and Greek World, 171. Naerebout, “Review,”
China and Greek World, 375–376, and Gizewski and Kolb, “Review,” China and
Greek World, 487–489.
88 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 23).
89 WeiLüe 11: Hill, Weilüe, section 11: “The kingdom of Da Qin is also called
Lijian. It is west of Anxi [Parthia] and Tiaozhi, and West of the Great Sea.” Cf.
also Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 67.
Imperial Rome and China
Egypt, the Arabian peninsula, or different things depending on the context
of the narrative.90
So much confusion and so many contradictory interpretations by
specialists of the relevant fields of Sinology might discourage scholars of
the ancient Mediterranean world to make use of the ancient Chinese
accounts of the Far West.91 Yet there is, perhaps, an approach that leads to
more reliable results.92 For the context implies that whatever the terms
“Lijian” and “Haixi” may have referred to, they were not fully
synonymous with “Da Qin” but rather designated parts or aspects of it.
This is, for instance, suggested by statements, recorded in the Hou
Hanshu, maintaining that one comes “into Haixi to reach Da Qin” or that
“in these territories [of Da Qin], there are many precious and marvellous
things from Haixi.”93 Another passage from a different chapter of the Hou
Hanshu mentions a group of musicians and magicians in 121 CE who
claimed that they were from Haixi, which the Chinese who recorded it
identified as Da Qin.94 Interestingly, the term “Lijian” does not recur in the
sections on Da Qin of the Hou Hanshu or the Weilüe. Haixi is the only
concrete geographical aspect of Da Qin these texts single out. John E. Hill
recently convincingly argued that “Haixi,” as a part of “Da Qin,” refers to
Egypt, principally because it complies with the geographical location
(“West of the Sea”), with the distances (from Parthia in particular) and
with the country’s most prominent topographical feature given by the
ancient Chinese accounts (a river that flows into another great sea), and
also because it apparently provides a reasonable phonetic representation of
the country’s Greek name Aigyptos.95
90 Laufer, “The Name China.” Weller, “Mahacina.” Kordosis, China and Greek
World, 160. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, xxi–xxvi and 232. Hill, Jade
Gate, vol. I, 266–271. Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 269–271. Yu, “Survey,” 1–42.
91 See e.g. Naerebout, “Review,” China and Greek World, 376. Fibiger Bang,
“Commanding,” 120.
92 For the following cf. also Kolb and Speidel, “Perceptions from Beyond,” 137ff.
93 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 27). Cf. Leslie and
Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 52. Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 10: Hill, Jade Gate, vol.
I, 23). Cf. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 47.
94 Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 42. Pulleyblank, “Han China,” 75. Hill,
Jade Gate, vol. I, 306. Cf. Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 270. Yu, “Survey,” 22.
95 Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 263–266. Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 276–282, at length
argues for the less convincing identity of Haixi with the cities of Rome or Syrian
Antioch, but concludes (282) that it is more likely that the Chinese did not have
enough information about the exact extension and the political system of the
Roman Empire,” and that “Da Qin referred to different things depending on the
Chapter Two
A closer look at the passages of the Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe
describing the government of Da Qin/Lijian/Haixi suggests that they are
not dealing with the Roman Empire at large. For the Hou Hanshu records:
“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.”96 The equivalent passage in the Weilüe reads: “The ruler of this
country (the reference appears to be to Haixi) is not permanent. When
disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace
him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does
not dare show resentment.”97 This statement is alternatively thought to
refer to the second century CE imperial practice of appointing a successor
to the throne by adoption (the Adoptivkaisertum), to the Republican
system of elected consuls or the Roman provincial governments of the
fourth to seventh centuries CE in the East, or to be nothing more than a
fanciful story of an ideal country far away.98 However, other parts of the
same passage suggest a different solution. In these, the king is said to have
regularly left his palace to hear cases, and, according to the Hou Hanshu:
“a porter with a bag has the job of always following the royal carriage.
When somebody wants to discuss something with the king, he throws a
note into the bag. When the king returns to the palace, he opens the bag,
examines the contents, and judges if the plaintiff is right or wrong.”99 The
parallel passage in the Weilüe reads: “When the king goes out, he always
orders a man to follow him holding a leather bag. Anyone who has
something to say throws his or her petition into the bag. When he [i.e. the
king] returns to the palace, he examines them and determines which are
reasonable.”100 The same passages in both texts also contain references to
governmental archives and to a group of counsellors.
96 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 25). Cf. Leslie and
Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 49.
97Weilüe 11: Hill, Weilüe, section 11. Cf. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources,
70. The same statement is also contained in the Hou Hanchi and the Chinshu.
Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 61 and 81.
98 Ferguson, “China and Rome,” 593. Kordosis, China and Greek World, 160ff.
Gizewski and Kolb, “Review” China and Greek world, 487. Leslie and Gardiner,
Chinese Sources, 49 n. 62 with further bibliography. Hill, Weilüe, notes 11.18.
Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 276–282. Yu, “Survey,” 619.
99 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 25). Cf. Leslie and
Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 48.
100 WieLüe 11: Hill, Weilüe, sect. 11. Cf. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 71.
The same statement is again also contained in the Hou Hanchi, an abbreviated
Imperial Rome and China
It is very tempting to understand these comments not as fantasies of
imperial rule but as fact-based references to Roman provincial
government. For it is not difficult to recognize a detailed description of
central aspects of a provincial governor’s duties: the round trip through his
province hearing cases, the well-known system of collecting petitions,
preparing responses and making use of archives, as well as discussing
matters of state with his consilium. Consequently, the former quote
concerning the replacement of kings may perhaps not refer to true kings
either. Rather, by conveying the notion that the country had no permanent
ruler but a system (which the Chinese who recorded it did not entirely
understand) by which “worthy” and “virtuous” men were selected to
replace their predecessors, these ancient Chinese texts again seem to refer
to Roman provincial government. That, in any event, goes well with John
Hill’s proposal that “Haixi” of the Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe referred to
Egypt. One might object that the Chinese accounts explicitly refer to a
“king,” not to governors, and therefore seem to be concerned with the
Empire at large and with its capital, Rome. However, reports of the powers
and splendours of Roman provincial governors, not least those of the
praefectus Aegypti who resided in the palace of the former Ptolemaic
kings and ruled the country in their stead (loco regum), might well have
led commentators from the Far East to mistake such governors for local
kings. Moreover, the Hou Hanshou and the Weilüe claim that Da Qin (not
“Haixi”) had established several tens of minor “dependent kingdoms,”
which might be understood as a reference either to the Roman Empire’s
provinces or to Rome’s eastern allies.101
If correct, these observations reveal some important insights into the
transmission of information from the Mediterranean world to the Chinese
Far East. Above all, they imply that some real and detailed information
concerning the Roman Empire indeed reached China during the first two
centuries CE. However, it appears that Chinese knowledge of the Roman
Empire (Da Qin) was both partially defective and largely restricted to
information on the provinces, Egypt in particular. That in turn implies that
version is to be found in the Chinshu. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 60
and 81.
101 Splendors: Tac., Hist. 1, 11, 1. Strabo 17, 1, 12. For a recent discussion and
further bibliography cf. e.g. Jördens, Praefectus Aegypti, 11–15. Pont, “Rituels
civiques,” 185–211. Dependent kingdoms: Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11: Hill,
Jade Gate, vol. I, 23). Cf. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 47. Weilüe 15ff.
Cf. sect. 11 and 14 (the reference here is to dependent kings): Hill, Weilüe, sect.
15ff., and Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 71 and 76–78. For Rome’s
eastern allies and their role in long-distance trade see Speidel, “Fernhandel.”
Chapter Two
the bulk of the information on the Roman Empire that was recorded in
ancient China originated from the eastern Roman provinces, Egypt in
particular. This goes well with the sea route that most Roman “envoys” of
the Chinese sources are reported or assumed to have taken. Finally, the
fact that the Chinese did not fully understand the governmental system
which they recorded can be taken to indicate that they had no further
advice at hand from anyone with first-hand knowledge of Roman
provincial administration, which again suggests that only few individuals
travelled the entire distance between the two empires.
Merchants were well known and major sources of information in the
ancient world.102 The news and data they offered from far-away countries
was often first hand, and in any event more recent than what could be
found in geographical treatises.103 Geographers from the Roman world
such as Strabo, Pausanias and Ptolemy acknowledged their debt to
merchants for information.104 Although traders were sometimes criticized
as unreliable sources, they even occasionally provided strategic
intelligence. 105 Some of this information was surely passed on orally
(particularly among fellow merchants) but much of it was also recorded in
now-lost documents. 106 As mentioned above, such documents also
provided most of the underlying data on the Far East contained in the
writings of ancient Western geographers and texts such as the Periplus
Maris Erythraei.107 It is remarkable, therefore, that the Chinese Hou
Hanshu and Weilüe contain paragraphs with contents and structures that
resemble those of the Periplus Maris Erythraei, but apparently are without
comparable counterparts in the sections that treat other countries.
Perhaps, therefore, these seemingly unique formal features in the sections
on Da Qin are traces of the transmission of information by Roman
Be that as it may, as noted above, information on Rome rarely came to
China directly. This is also reflected by the fact that some of the
102 Lee, Information and Frontiers, 161–163. Austin and Rankov, Exploratio, 25–
103 Cf. e.g. Plin., NH 6, 31, 140. Paus. 3, 12, 4, 9, 21,4–5.
104 Strabo 2, 5, 12. Plin., NH 6, 31, 140. Paus. 1, 42, 5. Ptol. 1, 17, 3–4.
105 Unreliable: Strabo 15, 1, 3–4. Plin., NH 12, 42, 85. Ptol. 1, 11, 4 and 7–8.
Eunap. fr. 66, 2 / 13–14. Strategic intelligence: Xen., Hell. 3, 4, 1. Plin., NH 6, 24,
88. Tac., Agr. 24. Cf. also Plut., Nik. 30. Cf. Sánchez Hernández, “Pausanias,” 7.
106 For the loss of this literature in the West see above.
107 De la Vaissière “Ptolemy’s Xinjiang.” De Romanis, “Periplus Maris Erythraei.”
108 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 25–27: “Products of Da
Qin”). Weilüe 12 and 14–20: “Products of Da Qin” and “Dependencies of Da Qin.”
Hill, Weilüe, sections 12 and 14–20.
Imperial Rome and China
information included in the sections of the Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe on
Da Qin seems to have had Chinese rather than Roman origins. At least in
one instance it appears that cultural and administrative realities of the
ancient Chinese Empire contaminated the information from the Roman
Empire. Thus, knowledge of local Chinese institutions appears to have
affected the short descriptions of the Roman imperial system of transport
and communication. Both the Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe refer in
surprising detail to the rest stops of this system, to the distances between
them and to their appearance: “At intervals they have established postal
relays, which are all plastered and whitewashed Each ten li [4.2 km]
there is a postal stage, and each thirty li [12.5 km] a postal station.”109 The
purpose of this Roman institution was also recorded by the Chinese:
“Relay stations were established in strategic positions allowing orders to
travel quickly between the main postal stations at all seasons.”110 These
statements have been understood to refer to the vehiculatio or cursus
publicus of the Roman Empire, as it was indeed among the purposes of
this Roman institution to transmit official communications quickly, and as
the description of its infrastructure in the Chinese accounts appears to be
accurate enough.111
However, distances of 10 li (4.2 km) between postal stages and thirty li
(12.5 km) between the larger postal stations are not confirmed by Roman
sources. Although Roman itineraries do list small and large stopping
places, they are recorded at intervals of 6–12 miles (c. 9–18 km) and
25 miles (37 km), which correspond to around half a day’s and a whole
day’s journey by foot respectively. That amounts to two or three times the
distance indicated by the Chinese sources.112 In particular, the very short
distances of 4.2 km were not in use in the Roman Empire. Perhaps there
was confusion between postal stations and local inns, which probably lay
at rather close intervals in the vicinity of cities. Yet, another perhaps more
plausible solution might be that the Chinese authors’ knowledge of their
own postal system contaminated the account of Da Qin, for these texts
insist that the Roman and Chinese postal systems were practically
109 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 11 and 12: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 26 and 27). Cf.
Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 47 and 52. For the respective passage in the
Weilüe (sect. 11) see Hill, Weilüe, sect. 11, and Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese
Sources, 70. Cf. also Hoppál, “Chinese Sources,” 282.
110 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 28: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 55).
111 On the subject in general see Kolb, Transport und Nachrichtentransfer.
112 Kolb, Transport und Nachrichtentransfer, 212–213.
Chapter Two
identical: “They have … postal stations just as we have them in China.”113
It is particularly suggestive, therefore, that Chinese sources from the Qin
Empire mention short distances of 2.6 miles between the postal stops,
which precisely equal the distance of 10 li (4.2 km) as recorded in the Hou
Hanshu and the Weilüe. 114 The perceived identity of these important
institutions both in China and in “Greater China” (Da Qin/Rome) may
therefore have encouraged the Chinese authors and compilers, who could
neither find the correct information in the available documents on Da Qin
nor ask anyone who knew, to insert the missing data from their knowledge
of Chinese institutions.115
Despite their inclusion of utopian and defective data, Chinese
historiographical texts turn out to be surprisingly rich sources for the flow
of real information between the Roman and Chinese empires. Contrary to
what is generally held, a significant percentage of the information stored in
the Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe (and other texts) can be recognized as
based on real data from the Roman Empire. Chinese interest in the Roman
world thereby resembled Roman interest in China: both sides betray a
particular interest in aspects of trade, yet both also sought more than
commercially relevant information, for the respective accounts also
include geographic, political, administrative and cultural data. However,
the Chinese texts strongly suggest that (the bulk of the) detailed
information on the Roman Empire that reached China originated from and
mainly concerned the eastern provinces of the Imperium Romanum, Egypt
in particular. Remarkably, such information reached China recurrently
(though not frequently), yet mainly (but perhaps not always) indirectly,
and almost exclusively through the channels afforded by long-distance
trade. The one exception of which sufficient historical detail is on record
to render it credible, the mission of Ban Chao’s envoy Gan Ying in 97 CE,
had an unusually strong impact on the surviving Chinese accounts of the
Roman Empire, evidently because of the rank of the person who
transmitted it.116 But Gan Ying’s report on the Imperium Romanum, too,
113 Weilüe 11: Hill, Weilüe, sect. 11. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 70. See
also Hirth, China, 44 (Chinshu) and 70. Leslie and Gardiner, Chinese Sources, 81.
114 Chang, Rise of Chinese Empire, 54, who also mentions intervals of 5.2 miles
(8.4 km).
115 For the postal service of ancient China see Olbricht, Postwesen in China, 36.
Loewe, Qin and Han, 106–118.
116 Hou Hanshu 88 (Hill sect. 1: Hill, Jade Gate, vol. I, 13).
Imperial Rome and China
was indirect and ultimately rooted (at least in part) in accounts of
merchants. Language barriers and the methods to overcome them are not
described in our sources. Their effects on the status of the preserved
Roman and Chinese accounts are therefore not readily apparent. The
transmission of complex geographical, political, administrative and
cultural information through networks of long-distance trade not only
affected the quality and variety of the delivered information, it could also
impair the data and leave recognizable and characteristic traces in the
surviving written documents. Such defects appear to reveal the absence of
possibilities to verify the information before it was entered into the official
Chinese records. In any event, such lacunas were often simply filled with
either fanciful stories and stereotypes, or real data from elsewhere, before
the result was finally adapted to utopian visions of a “Greater China” (Da
Qin) at the other side of the inhabited world.
The enormous influence of written works and other reports by long-
distance merchants in the surviving Western accounts of China and the Far
East is also evident. However, the surviving Roman records on ancient
China differ from their Chinese counterparts in one essential aspect: no
official records from the West have survived. Nor are there any reliable
reports of official reconnaissance missions or embassies to the Chinese
court. If based on true facts, the Roman envoys mentioned in Chinese
historiography are most likely to have been merchants. Moreover, the once
abundant travelogue literature from the Western world (and texts derived
from it) that would no doubt have shed further light on Central Asia and
the Far East in Antiquity is entirely lost. That is all the more regrettable as
the surviving texts have not made full use of all of the data that was once
available in the Roman Empire (as the Periplus Maris Erythraei
illustrates). There is no reason, therefore, to believe that the information on
ancient China, as recorded by the extant works of Western geographers,
reflects the extent of the knowledge that was once present in the
Mediterranean Basin under Roman rule. Finally, there is nothing in the
written records of either the Chinese or Roman worlds to suggest that the
transmitted data from one world inspired innovation in the other. Details
are presented as curiosities, not as examples. Attitudes of cultural
superiority are apparent in the accounts from both worlds.
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This article studies Pausanias’ description of Chinese silk production and Chinese geography within the context of Rome’s eastern trade. China was the last stop of land and sea routes connecting Rome and the Far East through Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia, Persia and India. Although he never journeyed into the Far East, Pausanias provides vivid descriptions of these regions, their products and inhabitants, and the people involved in trade there. The article examines the sources he might have used to construct narratives about the Far East, China and Chinese silk and where such sources might have been made available to him.