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Monday, June 26, 2017

China and Rome

This is a fascinating, if brief, account of a 3rd century Chinese view of Rome.
Yu Huan was a respected scholar and historian, held in high regard in the Chinese society of the 3rd century. Huan published a long text called Weilüe, or “Brief Account of Wei”, which was originally lost. Some chapters, however, survived and were published in 429. Among others, a part of the surviving text discusses the Roman Empire, which was known as Da Qin — literally, The Great Qin.

It seems that the Romans actually made contact with the Chinese. Chinese sources describe several ancient Roman embassies arriving in China, beginning in 166 AD and lasting into the 3rd century. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests this — archaeologists even found Roman coins in the distant, southeast parts of Asia — though the Chinese themselves weren’t really aware just how big and powerful the Roman Empire really was. No depictions of Rome survive, and many historians believe Chinese scholars were only aware of the areas the Romans controlled in Asia — largely, today’s Syria. However, this text seems to contradict that idea. While Yu Huan never left China himself, he carefully gathered descriptions and stories from Roman sailors. He wrote:

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

…The ruler of this country 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.

The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese, but wear hu (‘Western’) clothes. They say they originally came from China, but left it.

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

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52 Comments:

Anonymous Faceless June 26, 2017 8:50 AM  

We've inherited the Enlightenment prejudice that all people that came before were benighted and backwards. I was reading that great book you recommended about the myth of Al-Andalusia - the Visigoths had a sense of equality and the rule of law in the 6th century that would match the Magna Carta or the Eastern European version thereof (was that the Hungarian Golden Bull? There seems to have been many of them), but, just like how the Eastern European one disappeared from our understanding by actions of Turks, so did the Muslims steamroll the Visigoths, and the Enlightenment philosophers, hating Christ, always sided with the Muslims, who came to pillage Christendom as Berber barbarians.

So many of these discoveries of forgotten past items reinforces Solomon's statement that there is nothing new under the sun. I remember the first time I learned that the Greeks had steam power, but they only used it to power machines in their temples to be gods-in-boxes.

Anonymous Ominous Cowherd June 26, 2017 8:56 AM  

``The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese...''

... like the Chinese? Short and amoral, then? Sounds like an accurate description of mid-Empire plebes.

Folks probably got around more than we imagine back then. Marco Polo wrote the first travelog, but no reason to think he was the first traveler.

Anonymous Phantasmic June 26, 2017 8:59 AM  

WE WUZ HUANGDI N SHIEET!

Anonymous Harambe June 26, 2017 8:59 AM  

Pre-communist China is not the same as communist China. Although everything I know about China I've learned from Kung-Fu movies, so there's that.

Blogger JP June 26, 2017 9:09 AM  

"They say they originally came from China, but left it." How did this guy get China out of the description of Troy? Unless if the Romans had some interesting anthropological ideas at the time, which I doubt.

Anonymous Faceless June 26, 2017 9:14 AM  

@JP

Maybe they got the unit of measure wrong when told "from the East"?

Anonymous Takin' a Look June 26, 2017 9:15 AM  

There was a trade in byssus or sea silk between the Romans and the Chinese.it's considered the finest silk linen and only came from Mediterranean sea molluscs.

Blogger Chris Lutz June 26, 2017 9:15 AM  

@5 I wonder if it is Chinese chauvinism?

Chinese are civilized.
Everyone else is a barbarian.
These Romans are civilized.
Therefore the Romans must have come from China.

The interpreter probably liked having his head attached to his body.

Think of the confusion people in the future will have in piecing together our documents where stats say one thing and SJW's are crowing something else.

Anonymous Teapartydoc June 26, 2017 9:19 AM  

I've read a lot of Roman literature. I can't remember where, but somewhere saw mention of silk from the far east. There was contact.

Blogger Salt June 26, 2017 9:20 AM  

There's evidence, though disputed by some, of Chinese being on the US east coast prior to Columbus. The Romans were also a seafaring people who may as well been far from home.

Anonymous Sensei June 26, 2017 9:35 AM  

There is also a tribe in the West of China whose local language has words which sound like Hebrew. It is said (by Chinese Christians) that this is the same region where the tradition began of putting red on doorposts once a year to symbolize warding off death, which as it was adopted across China became the red door paper tradition of Spring Festival/CNY.

Getting a picture of the real history of the world (as opposed to the ideological version we're fed) would be fascinating. The oceans didn't stop Phoenicians or Polynesians, who knows who else was traveling around and who knew about whom.

Blogger Student in Blue June 26, 2017 9:36 AM  

@6. Faceless
Maybe they got the unit of measure wrong when told "from the East"?

If it was modern China, then it'd be clear that's one of the fibbing lines that they like to use to make their homeland look better than it is.

Since it's ancient China though, I'm not quite sure. But my gut instinct is that it's one of those lines they add in just to make it clear that while these foreigners are great, China is also just as great.

Anonymous Athor Pel June 26, 2017 9:36 AM  

"5. Blogger JP June 26, 2017 9:09 AM
"They say they originally came from China, but left it." How did this guy get China out of the description of Troy? Unless if the Romans had some interesting anthropological ideas at the time, which I doubt.
"



What you are seeing in that sentence is historically consistent Chinese high self regard. Imperial Chinese questioner would assume all others of sufficiently high culture would be from China at some point in the murky past. They don't call themselves the Middle Kingdom for nothing. It's a typical face saving and leading question to establish equal importance for the Roman ambassadors to justify Chinese willingness to treat with them.


But.

There are mummies in China. In the drier desert west anyway. They all look like europeans. Red and blond hair. Contemporary written evidence says they had blue and green eyes.

https://infogalactic.com/info/Tarim_mummies

And they predate the establishment of Rome.

Anonymous Roundtine June 26, 2017 9:39 AM  

Partha is collecting tolls on the Silk Road. They will not allow Roman and Chinese merchants to cut out the middle man. Hence Roman sailors. I didn't know the Romans sailed all the way around to China.

Blogger Dirtnapninja June 26, 2017 9:58 AM  

The Chinese word for the Roman Empire was 'Daqin', or "Great Western Qin". The Chinese knew there was a very powerful and sophisticated Empire on the other side of the world, but did not know much about it, and never got any envoys to it. They romanticised it the same way Europe romanticised the east.

Blogger Sam June 26, 2017 9:58 AM  

@14
Rome traded directly with India, going as far east as Bangladesh. From there it is only a couple more transits until you get to China.

https://infogalactic.com/info/Periplus_of_the_Erythraean_Sea

Blogger von Dotty June 26, 2017 10:15 AM  

If you look up Taklamakan mummies you'll find some interesting reading.

Also, the Romans made it to China often. One lost legion even fought as mercenaries there.

Blogger von Dotty June 26, 2017 10:16 AM  

If you look up Taklamakan mummies you'll find some interesting reading.

Also, the Romans made it to China often. One lost legion even fought as mercenaries there.

Blogger pyrrhus June 26, 2017 10:23 AM  

Parthia blocked Roman expansion, first in Crassus's disastrous expedition, in which Crassus was killed, then in the 3d century, when the Roman Emperor was captured and made a slave. Empires that can't expand and provide more loot are doomed.

Blogger pyrrhus June 26, 2017 10:25 AM  

Hence the American Empire has 1000 bases around the world and is constantly looking for new wars....

Blogger swiftfoxmark2 June 26, 2017 10:40 AM  

Slightly OT:

When people I've talked with about IQ and race, they constantly are only unable to explain why China has had a civilization for thousands of years but sub-Saharan Africans haven't had more than a mud hut and yam wine.

It is little wonder that modern Chinese regard their people and land as being the center of the world. We should look to China's past more as they probably much more historical records than the West does at this point.

Anonymous Athor Pel June 26, 2017 10:44 AM  

"14. Anonymous Roundtine June 26, 2017 9:39 AM
Partha is collecting tolls on the Silk Road. They will not allow Roman and Chinese merchants to cut out the middle man. Hence Roman sailors. I didn't know the Romans sailed all the way around to China.
"



The Romans might have sponsored trading expeditions but it's more likely individual sailors made the trip for their own reasons working as crew for whoever would take them. Larger ships always need more sailors.

Crews aren't motley for nothing.

Blogger JP June 26, 2017 10:46 AM  

"What you are seeing in that sentence is historically consistent Chinese high self regard." I think that's what it is, and as some other commenters pointed out, it hasn't changed much.

"In the drier desert west anyway. They all look like europeans. Red and blond hair. Contemporary written evidence says they had blue and green eyes." That wasn't part of China in those days, and the Chinese would've considered them barbarians. By some accounts Genghis Khan had red hair, but most now consider him and other Mongols East Asian. The steppes have always been a smorgasbord of races, but those are precisely the peoples that China holds itself highest over.

Anonymous BBGKB June 26, 2017 10:51 AM  

There's evidence, though disputed by some, of Chinese being on the US east coast prior to Columbus. The Romans were also a seafaring people who may as well been far from home.

The story includes that after discovering America the Chinese decided to destroy most of their ships so the elites wouldn't lose control of the population.

Anonymous David-093 June 26, 2017 11:01 AM  

@BBGK

It also includes that the Chinese traveled only along established routes to places other people had been. They weren't explorers and didn't make any new discoveries along the way. Such was and still to a large extent is their culture.

Blogger Student in Blue June 26, 2017 11:07 AM  

@23. JP
The steppes have always been a smorgasbord of races, but those are precisely the peoples that China holds itself highest over.

Indeed.

Blogger modsquad June 26, 2017 11:23 AM  

4,000 year old white mummies from China:

https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-White-Tribes-of-Ancient-China

Blogger Wanda Sherratt June 26, 2017 12:06 PM  

There was a wonderful little scene in "I, Claudius", where Claudius gives his grandmother Livia a birthday present of a brass vase from India. She looks at it appreciatively, and says, "What a pity the Empire never got that far! We could have picked up so many nice things cheap."

Blogger Sillon Bono June 26, 2017 12:14 PM  

Fascinating, one can only wonder what would have the Romans done if the Chinese had discovered and shown the powder to the Romans.

Blogger Snidely Whiplash June 26, 2017 12:19 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Desdichado June 26, 2017 12:22 PM  

Teapartydoc wrote:I've read a lot of Roman literature. I can't remember where, but somewhere saw mention of silk from the far east. There was contact.
You're referring to what the Greeks (and Romans) referred to as Serica. It probably wasn't actually China, however—it was probably the Tarim basin oasis towns like Kucha, Karashahr, Khotan, Turpan, etc. They were mostly an eastern Iranian and Tocharian people; Sogdians and stuff like that, not Chinese. They would have been ethnically and culturally closer to Europe than to Asia as we think of it today.

Blogger Desdichado June 26, 2017 12:31 PM  

Those Taklamakan mummies are not in any position to be the forerunners of the Romans. The earliest of them were probable descendants of the Afanasevo culture, which split off from the Yamna guys somewhere around 3,500 BC. At the time, the Yamnaya would have been the ancestors of not only the Romans, but also the Celts, the Greeks, all of the Germanic peoples, all of the Slavic peoples, the white invaders of India, etc.

Later mummies were probably also Khotanese Saka and Sogdians; i.e., steppe peoples like the Scythians who were on the eastern edge of the steppe. Lots of the barbarian tribes like the Xiong-nu, Wusun, Yuezhi, etc. known to the Chinese would have been "white" and boasted genetics and linguistics that ties them to this far-flung Tocharian branch, or to steppe-Iranian branches, but they still wouldn't have been ancestors of the Romans in any way whatsoever.

Anonymous Ezekiel Cassandros June 26, 2017 1:25 PM  

"4,000 year old white mummies from China:"

I can only conclude that China has always had white foreigners living among them, whites have always contributed great things to Chinese culture, this diversity is what made China great, and therefore China must accept as many White South African refugees as we force upon them.

Blogger Student in Blue June 26, 2017 1:36 PM  

We wuz Han Dynasty n sheeeeeeeit!

Blogger Snidely Whiplash June 26, 2017 1:38 PM  

The Taklamakan and Tarim Basin are not in China. Rather, they are within the legal current-day boundaries of the Chinese Empire, but they are not within the Middle Kingdom and have never been populated by Chinese.
The residents of the Trim Basin communities spoke a language closely related to Gaulish and Gaelic, as revealed by the translations of Buddhist scriptures found on the site of a monastery. It is thought that they were more-or-less closely related to the Galatians, who in pre-Alexandrine times, also spoke a p-Goidelic language.

Blogger Johnny June 26, 2017 2:00 PM  

Faceless wrote:the Visigoths had a sense of equality and the rule of law

When every man has recourse to the sword, regardless of institutional structure, the society will never be all that oppressive.

Anonymous Humpty Dumpty Parumpty June 26, 2017 2:00 PM  

The Romans were not at all a "Sea-faring people" by any fair definition; the Carthaginians were. Rome is an inland city and the Romans were primarily infantry specialists, using navies out of necessity.

Blogger TontoBubbaGoldstein June 26, 2017 2:06 PM  

Harambe wrote:
Pre-communist China is not the same as communist China. Although everything I know about China I've learned from Kung-Fu movies, so there's that.

Kicks out for Harambe!

Blogger Snidely Whiplash June 26, 2017 2:18 PM  

Full text here:
http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html

Anonymous Ominous Cowherd June 26, 2017 2:26 PM  

Ezekiel Cassandros wrote:I can only conclude that China has always had white foreigners living among them, whites have always contributed great things to Chinese culture, this diversity is what made China great, and therefore China must accept as many White South African refugees as we force upon them.

A better argument than has ever been made for bringing Somalis into the US.

Anonymous a deplorable rubberducky June 26, 2017 3:13 PM  

Humpty Dumpty Parumpty wrote:The Romans were not at all a "Sea-faring people" by any fair definition; the Carthaginians were. Rome is an inland city and the Romans were primarily infantry specialists, using navies out of necessity.

Agreed. I wouldn't be surprised if Romans made it to China. In fact I'd be surprised if they didn't. But this would be over land routes. If they got there via the sea, I'd be absolutely shocked.

Romans hated trusting fate to the sea. Sure, they did have major and decisive naval victories. The Battle of Actium, for example, hinged on naval action and it sealed the fate of Antony and Cleopatra. This set the groundwork for the rise of Augustus and Imperium, so the Empire itself owes its formation to fleet actions. But Romans still hated trusting the sea.

St. Paul's shipwreck is a quite fitting example of the average Roman affair with the sea.

Blogger Thomas Patecky June 26, 2017 3:14 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Thomas Patecky June 26, 2017 3:15 PM  

mihi Sinica, iocus ludere in me, et ego in Coke mingit

Blogger Snidely Whiplash June 26, 2017 3:40 PM  

a deplorable rubberducky wrote:Romans hated trusting fate to the sea.
When Rome invaded Britain, it was framed as a victory over Oceanus, the god of the Atlantic Ocean.

Anonymous DirkH June 26, 2017 4:23 PM  

@10. Salt June 26, 2017 9:20 AM
" There's evidence, though disputed by some, of Chinese being on the US east coast prior to Columbus."

IIRC, The Treasure Ship fleet under Admiral Qeng He, ca. 1200 AD, travelling down the coast of Africa to the West, and across the Paficic to the Californian coast to the East. Circular ankor stones off the coast of Cali were found. After the expeditions the emperor decided that there was nothing worthwhile outside China.

Anonymous Jack June 26, 2017 4:33 PM  

@33 I know a South African couple who moved to China from Capetown. They told me how nice it was to be able to walk down the street without a fear of crime. (Indeed, Chinese cities are among the safest in the world, especially for foreigners. Unless the Chinese decide they're going to have another Boxer Rebellion.)

Unfortunately, this couple also encountered some stiff resistance from the bureaucracy. It was very difficult for them to get a visa, whereas Americans and Canadians can get ten year visas with ease, and Serbs don't even need visas. A local bank told them they would not open accounts for South Africans. Apparently, black South Africans have a reputation for forming gangs and causing trouble, which results in bureaucratic problems for the whites from that country.

Nonetheless, in the end they were able to stay. (There are always workarounds in China.) The Chinese aren't going to take in South Africans en masse, but for individuals willing to make the journey, there are worse options than expat life in the middle kingdom.

Blogger Johnny June 26, 2017 4:51 PM  

Faceless wrote:

Enlightenment philosophers, hating Christ, always sided with the Muslims, who came to pillage Christendom as Berber barbarians.


Is there any way of documenting an opinion like this?

Blogger modsquad June 26, 2017 5:59 PM  

Humpty Dumpty Parumpty wrote:The Romans were not at all a "Sea-faring people" by any fair definition; the Carthaginians were. Rome is an inland city and the Romans were primarily infantry specialists, using navies out of necessity.

Anyone near water uses navies out of necessity. As superior as the Carthaginians were on water, it didn't take the Romans long to figure out a way to beat them. The corvus used by the Romans was so effective, many naval battles didn't happen at all because the Carthage ships turned and disengaged.

Anonymous HoosierHillbilly June 26, 2017 7:52 PM  

Well shoot. It is always an indescribable joy to find out these facts one had never even imagined. Thanks to all who bring these things to light on this site.

Blogger Ezekiel June 27, 2017 2:34 AM  

Salt wrote:There's evidence, though disputed by some, of Chinese being on the US east coast prior to Columbus. The Romans were also a seafaring people who may as well been far from home.
I don't know about the Romans, but when I was in Middle School my history teacher used to talk about the possibly of Phoenician, Carthaginian and Celtic explorers reaching America before Columbus. There's a rock formation not far from where I grew up that some believe was built by Celts.

https://infogalactic.com/info/Fort_Mountain_State_Park
https://infogalactic.com/info/Moon-eyed_people

Official historians have yet to weigh in one way or the other... but then it wasn't until L'Anse aux Meadows was discovered that they would definitively admit that the Vikings beat Columbus to America.

Blogger Ezekiel June 27, 2017 2:39 AM  

Chris Lutz wrote:@5
Think of the confusion people in the future will have in piecing together our documents where stats say one thing and SJW's are crowing something else.

VD himself has noted that the advent of the written novel is going to make it a pain in the butt for future historians to separate fact from fiction if humanity ever goes through another period of mass-illiteracy. Could you imagine reading through all the pre-dark age material related to Star Trek or Twilight and trying to figure out if people at the time really believed in vampires and klingons?

Anonymous The Eighteenhundredsman June 28, 2017 3:34 AM  

I remember reading about a possible incident where Roman prisoners taken after Carrhae were shipped to the other side of Parthian territory as border guards, subsequently fought the Chinese, and lost. This conclusion was based on contemporary Chinese military accounts which described what could be interpreted as Roman tactics, and local lore surrounding the encounter from a town in far western China. A significant number of the residents have blue eyes, and there was apparently to be DNA testing conducted, though I never followed up in it. There are, of course, a host of other possible sources for blue eyes in such a population, so the veracity of the claim is anybody's guess.

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