Chinese Contact With Rome Under Nerva

In connection with Christian Wildfeuer’s book on Trajan, we became curious about the reference to the Chinese in Persia under Nerva. This led to a search of Google Books where I found a couple of out of copyright passages that detail what the Chinese had to say about the Roman Empire. It appears that in the 19th century, it was assumed the Chinese actually visited Rome, but that it was later decided the area visited was east of Rome, perhaps Syria.

In his account of the Romans from the Chinese perspective, Wilfred Harvey Schoff (The Periplus of the Erythræan sea travel and trade in the Indian Ocean) quotes from China and the Roman Orient, by Friedrich Hirth. The Romans had little knowledge of the Chinese, but in 97 A.D., while Nerva was emperor, an ambassador from China, named Kan Ying, arrived in Roman territory and reported on what he observed. This was recorded in the fifth century “Hsi-yti-chuan” of the “Hou-han-shu”.

From Periplus of the Erythraean Sea

Hou han shu partly written during the 5th century AD and embracing the period AD 25 to 220 The first detailed account of the Roman empire contained in the Chinese annals this account describing Roman Syria and its capital Antioch and being based on the report of the Ambassador Kan Ying AD 97


Chapter 88

The first detailed account of the Roman empire contained in the Chinese annals:

this account describing Roman Syria and its capital Antioch, and being based on the report of the Ambassador Kan Ying, A. D. 97
(1) The country of Ta-ts in is also called Lichien (Li-kin) and, as being situated on the western part of the sea, Hai-hsi-kiio, (i. e. “country of the western part of the sea” ). (2) Its territory amounts to several thousand li; (3) it contains over four hundred cities, (4) and of dependent states there are several times ten. (5) The defences of cities are made of stone. (6) The postal stations and milestones on the roads are covered with plaster. (7) There are pine and cypress trees and all kinds of other trees and plants. (8) The people are much bent on agriculture and practice the planting of trees and the rearing of silk-worms [NSG: I’m not sure this really records the state of the Roman Empire in 97.]. (9) They cut the hair of their heads, (10) wear embroidered clothing, (11) and drive in small carriages covered with white canopies; (12) when going in or out they beat drums, and hoist flags, banners, and pennants. (13) The precincts of the walled cities in which they live measure over a hundred li in circumference. (14) In the city there are five palaces, ten li distant from each other. (15) In the palace buildings they use crystal to make pillars; vessels used in taking meals are also made. (16) The king goes to one palace a day to hear cases. After five days he has completed his round. (17) As a rule, they let a man with a bag follow the king’s carriage. Those who have some matter to submit, throw a petition into the bag. When the king arrives at the palace he examines into the rights and wrongs of the matter. (18) The official documents are under the control of thirty-six chiang (generals?) who conjointly discuss government affairs. (19) Their kings are not permanent rulers, but they appoint men of merit. (20) When a severe calamity visits the country, or untimely rain-storms, the king is deposed and replaced by another. The one relieved from his duties submits to his degradation without a murmur. (21) The inhabitants of that country are tall and well-proportioned, somewhat like the Chinese, whence they are called Ta-ts’in. (22) The country contains much gold, silver, and rare precious stones, especially the “jewel that shines at night,” the “moonshine pearl,” the hsieh-chi- hsi, corals, amber, glass, lang-kan (a kind of coral), chu-tan (cinnabar?), green jadestone (ching-pi), gold-embroidered rugs and thin silk-cloth of various colors. (23) They make gold-colored cloth and asbestos cloth. (25) They further have “fine cloth,” also called Shui-yang-ts’ui, (i.e. down of the water-sheep); it is made from the cocoons of wild silk-worms. (25) They collect all kinds of fragrant substances, the juice of which they boil into su-ho (storax). (26) All the rare gems of other foreign countries come from there. (27) They make coins of gold and silver. Ten units of silver are worth one of gold. (28) They traffic by sea with An-hsi (Parthia) and Tien-chu (India), the profit of which trade is ten-fold. (29) They are honest in their transactions and there are no double prices. (30) Cereals are always cheap. The budget is based on a well-filled treasury. (31) When the embassies of neighboring countries come to their frontier, they are driven by post to the capital, and on arrival, are presented with golden money. (32) Their kings always desired to send embassies to China, but the An-hsi (Parthians) wished to carry on trade with them in Chinese silks, and it is for this reason that they were cut off from communication. (33) This lasted till the ninth year of the Yen-hsi period during the emperor Huan-ti’s reign (= A. D. 166) when the king of Ta-ts’in, An-tun (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) sent an embassy who, from the frontier of Jih-nan (Anam) offered ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shell. From that time dates the (direct) intercourse with this country. The list of their tribute contained no jewels whatever, which fact throws doubt on the tradition. (34) It is said by some that in the west of this country there is the Jo-shai (“weak water”) and the Liu-sha (“flying sands, desert”) near the residence of the Hsi-wang-mu (“mother of the western king”), where the sun sets. (35) The Ch’ien-han-shu say« “from T’iao-chih west, going “over 200 days, one is near the place where the sun sets;” this does not agree with the present book. (36) Former embassies from China all returned from Wu-i; there were none who came as far as T’iao-chih. (37) It is further said that, coming from the land-road of An-hsi (Parthia), you make a round at sea and, taking a northern turn, come out from the western part of the sea, whence you proceed to Ta-ts’in. (38) The country is densely populated; every ten li (of a road) are marked by a t’ing; thirty li by a chih (resting-place). (39) One is not alarmed by robbers, but the road becomes unsafe by fierce tigers and lions who will attack passengers, and unless these be traveling in caravans of a hundred men or more, or be protected by military equipment, they may be devoured by these beasts. (40) They also say there is a flying bridge (fei-chiao) of several hundred li, by which one may cross to the countries north of the sea. (41) The articles made of rare precious stones produced in this country are sham curiosities and mostly not genuine, whence they are not (here) mentioned.


From China and the Roman Orient
By Friedrich Hirth

The Hsi-yti-chuan of the Hou-han-shu contains for the first time a description, consisting of 589 characters, of the westernmost amongst the countries described in Chinese literature previous to the Ming dynasty, the country of Ta-ts’in1 (3^ fjfi HU). In this description we find quite a number of facts regarding the situation of the country, its boundaries, capital, people, products, and industries, which would, apart from any collateral information derived from later histories, have furnished a sufficient basis for the identification of the country, had not an unfortunate prejudice at once taken possession of those European sinologues who investigated the subject, for they held to the opinion that Ta-ts’in, being the most powerful country described in the Fat West, must necessarily be the Roman Empire in its full extent, with Rome as its capital. This theory has been especially defended by Visdelou and de Guignes, and recently by Bretschneider, Edkins, and von Richthofen. I must confess that I once shared that prejudice, and that when, two years ago, I commenced to collect the passages relating to this question, I did so for the purpose of supporting the arguments in favour of Rome and Italy. I soon found, however, that a close examination of the Chinese accounts, instead of substantiating my original views, induced me to abandon them altogether. In these records mention is made of the manufacture of stprax, which has been shown by Hanbury to have been at all times confined to the Levant; of the use of crystal (glass) and precious stones as architectural ornaments; of foreign ambassadors being driven by post from the frontier to the capital; of the milliary system of the country, which was based on the division of ten and three; of the dangerous travelling, the roads being infested with tigers and lions, thus compelling wayfarers to resort to caravans^/ A consideration of this among other testimony forcibly suggested the idea that Ta-ts’in was not Rome itself, but one of its eastern provinces.


1 Comment

  1. The Hirth book is worth checking out. Apart from the fact that it is beautiful there is a great deal more on contact between Rome and China. Hugely recommended


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