Chinese description of Rome

Feb 2019
145
Thrace
#1
In 97, the Chinese military ambassador, Gan Ying gives the following description of Roman Emperors:

"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."

He never reached Rome and this account is allegedly based on second hand information from the Parthians, Rome's arch rivals.

I'm wondering if this is just an embellished representation of the Roman Empire's democratic aspects, or is it also propaganda to popularize meritocracy in China by idealizing their civilized counter part from the West?
 
Feb 2011
6,230
#2
The first Chinese description of Daqin is very inaccurate, so much so that it could just be describing some fantasy country geographically West of Anxi(Parthia). Later Chinese descriptions of Daqin became more and more accurate, but by that time they were describing the late Romans (Byzantine empire).

And of course there's Le Hoang who thinks Daqin is India :)

Here is the full text of Daqin from the Hou Han Shu:

The Kingdom of Da Qin (the Roman Empire)1 is also called Lijian.2 As it is found to the west of the sea, it is also called the Kingdom of Haixi (Egypt).3 Its territory extends for several thousands of li. It has more than four hundred walled towns. There are several tens of smaller dependent kingdoms. The walls of the towns are made of stone.

They have established postal relays at intervals, which are all plastered and whitewashed. There are pines and cypresses, as well as trees and plants of all kinds. The common people are farmers. They cultivate many grain crops and silkworm-mulberry trees.4 They shave their heads, and their clothes are embroidered. They have screened coaches (for the women) and small white-roofed one-horse carts.5 When carriages come and go, drums are beaten and flags and standards are raised.

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

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

The people of this country are all tall and honest. They resemble the people of the Middle Kingdom and that is why this kingdom is called Da Qin [literally, ‘Great China’].


Section 12 – The Products of Da Qin (the Roman Empire)

This country produces plenty of gold, silver, and precious jewels, luminous jade,1 ‘bright moon pearls,’2 fighting cocks,3 rhinoceroses,4 coral,5 yellow amber,6 opaque glass,7 whitish chalcedony,8 red cinnabar,9 green gemstones,10 drawn gold-threaded and multi-coloured embroideries,11 woven gold-threaded net,12 delicate polychrome silks painted with gold, 13 and asbestos cloth.14

They also have a fine cloth which some people say is made from the down of ‘water sheep,’ but which is made, in fact, from the cocoons of wild silkworms.15 They blend all sorts of fragrances, and by boiling the juice, make storax.16 [They have] all the precious and rare things that come from the various foreign kingdoms. They make gold and silver coins. Ten silver coins are worth one gold coin.17 They trade with Anxi (Parthia) and Tianzhu (Northwestern India) by sea. The profit margin is ten to one.

The people of this country are honest in business; they don’t have two prices. Grain and foodstuffs are always in good supply. The resources of the state are abundant. When envoys from a neighbouring kingdom arrive at their border, they use the courier stations to get to the royal capital, and when they arrive, they give them gold coins.

The king of this country always wanted to send envoys to the Han, but Anxi (Parthia), wishing to control the trade in multi-coloured Chinese silks, blocked the route to prevent [the Romans] getting through [to China].

In the ninth yanxi year [166 CE], during the reign of Emperor Huan, the king of Da Qin (the Roman Empire), Andun (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), sent envoys from beyond the frontiers through Rinan (Commandery on the central Vietnamese coast),18 to offer elephant tusks, rhinoceros horn, and turtle shell. This was the very first time there was [direct] communication [between the two countries]. The tribute brought was neither precious nor rare, raising suspicion that the accounts [of the ‘envoys’] might be exaggerated.

It is said that to the west of this kingdom is Ruoshui (the ‘Weak River’) and Liusha (the ‘Shifting Sands’) which are close to the place where Xiwangmu (‘Spirit-Mother of the West’) lives, and which go almost as far as the place where the sun sets.19

The Hanshu says: “Leaving Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana), if you head west for more than two hundred days, you approach the place where the sun sets.” This does not agree with the books of today. [The reason is that] the Han envoys under the first [Han] dynasty all returned after reaching Wuyi (Arachosia and Drangiana),20 and none of them went as far as Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana).

It is said, leaving Anxi (Parthia) by the land route, you circle through Haibei (‘North of the Sea’),21 and come into Haixi (Egypt), to reach Da Qin (Roman territory).22 The population there is dense. Each ten li (4.2 km) there is a postal stage, and each thirty li (12.5 km) a postal station.23 Finally, there is no trouble with bandits, but there are many ferocious tigers and lions on the road that obstruct and kill travellers. If the caravans don’t have more than a hundred men carrying arms, they will be devoured.

Also, it is said that there is a raised bridge,24 several hundred li long, which crosses over to Haibei (‘North of the Sea’). They [the vassal kingdoms of Da Qin] produce curious gems and so many other peculiar and bizarre things that I will not record what is reported.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2015
2,843
MD, USA
#3
Those are pretty hilarious descriptions! It reinforces the view that the Chinese and Romans really didn't know very much about each other, aside from a powerful nation far away in that sort of direction. You could replace the interpretation of those place names with just about anything, and have just as accurate a description of several regions that were not Rome.

Matthew
 

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