Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4.: ROUTES AND COMMERCE BETWEEN THE EMPIRE AND CHINA — ( P. 33 sqq. ) - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 7
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4.: ROUTES AND COMMERCE BETWEEN THE EMPIRE AND CHINA — ( P. 33 sqq. ) - Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 7 
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury with an Introduction by W.E.H. Lecky (New York: Fred de Fau and Co., 1906), in 12 vols. Vol. 7.
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ROUTES AND COMMERCE BETWEEN THE EMPIRE AND CHINA — (P. 33sqq.)
(Reinaud, Relations Politiques et Commerciales de l’Empire romain avec l’Asie orientale, 1863; Pardessus in the Mém. de l’Acad. des Inscr., 1842, see above p. 31; F. von Richthofen, China, i. 1877; Bretschneider in Notes and Queries on China and Japan, vol. iv.; F. Hirth, China and the Roman Orient, researches into their ancient and mediæval relations, as represented in old Chinese Records, 1885; R. von Scala, Ueber die wichtigsten Beziehungen des Orients zum Occidente. The work of Hirth is admirably done; he gives the literal translations of the Chinese texts, and explains their date and character, so that the reader knows what he is dealing with and can test Hirth’s conclusions. But Hirth seems to have no acquaintance with Cosmas Indicopleustes.)
The earliest certain mention of the Roman Empire in Chinese history1 is in the Hou-han-shu, which, written during the fifth century, covers the period 25 to 220. Its sources were the notes made by the court chroniclers from day to day, which were carefully stored in the archives and concealed from the monarch himself, and thus supplied impartial and contemporary material to subsequent historians. We learn from this history that, in the year 97, a certain Kan-ying was sent as an ambassador to Ta-ts‘in. He arrived at T‘iao-chih on the coast of the great sea. But when he was going to embark the sailors said to him: “The sea is vast and great; with favourable winds it is possible to cross within three months, but if you meet slow winds, it may also take you two years. It is for this reason that those who go to sea take on board a supply of three years’ provisions. There is something in the sea which is apt to make man homesick, and several have thus lost their lives.” Hearing this, Kan-ying gave up the idea of visiting Ta-ts‘in (Hirth’s translation, op. cit. p. 39).
It has been fully shown by Hirth that Ta-ts‘in does not mean the whole Roman Empire, but only the eastern part of it, especially Syria, and that the royal city of Ta-ts‘in always means Antioch. In the seventh century we first meet Fu-lin, the mediæval name of Ta-ts‘in. The appearance of this new name has been probably connected with the Nestorian mission in China (see below vol. viii. c. xlvii.); and Hirth thinks it represents Bethlehem — plausibly, if he is right in supposing that the old pronunciation was bat-lim.
The episode of Kan-ying shows that the trade route between China and the west in the first century was overland to Parthia; but thence from the city of T‘iao-chih (which Hirth identifies with Hira) by river and sea round Arabia, to Aelana, the port of Petra at the head of the Red Sea, and Myos Hormos on the coast of Egypt. We also see that the carrying-trade between China and the Empire was in the hands of the Parthian merchants, whose interest it was to prevent direct communications. The kings of Ta-ts‘in “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” (Hou-han-shu).
This arrangement was changed after the Parthian war of Marcus Aurelius in 166, and we now have the satisfaction of meeting the name of a Roman Emperor, in a shape that can be easily recognised, in the Chinese Chronicles. We read in the same document this important historical notice (ib. p. 42): —
“This [the indirect commerce] lasted till the ninth year of the Yen-hsi period during the Emperor Huan-ti’s reign [i.e., 166], when the king of Ta-ts‘in, An-tun, sent an embassy who, from the frontier of Jih-nan [An-nam], offered ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shell. From that dates the [direct] intercourse with this country.”
In view of the date, the most sceptical critic can hardly refuse to recognise in Antun the name of (Marcus) Antoninus. But it is not legitimate to infer that a formal embassy was sent by the Emperor. It is more probable (as Hirth points out) that merchants went on their own account and of course used the Emperor’s name. When the new direct route was established, Taprobane or Ceylon was the entrepôt, where the Chinese and Roman vessels met and the goods were transshipped.
How far the overland routes were still used is not clear. It is supposed that the road from Seleucia to Antioch is described in the Hou-han-shu (p. 43), where mention is made of a flying-bridge which has been identified by Hirth with the Euphrates-bridge at Zeugma. The road is described as safe from robbers, but dangerous from fierce tigers and lions. Nevertheless there is a difficulty in the interpretation of some Chinese words, which makes the identification of this route uncertain. But in the statement that “every ten li [in this country] are marked by a t’ing, thirty li by a chih [resting-place]” we can recognise the thirty stadia, and the three Arabian miles, which were equivalent to a parasang (Hirth, p. 223).
The chief products which went to China from the Roman orient were: precious stones, glass, the textile fabrics of Syria, including silk rewoven and dyed, storax, and other drugs. Syria was famous as a centre of traffic in precious stones. In the Hou-han-shu (p. 43) it is sceptically remarked: “the articles made of rare precious stones produced in this country are sham curiosities and mostly not genuine.”
Antioch, the capital of Ta-ts‘in, is described in several of these Chinese histories, and its name is given (in the Wei-shu, sixth century) as An-tu. We can recognise in this description (p. 49) the tetrapolis, or four cities, of Antioch, and Hirth has shown that the measurements given by the Chinese historians may not be far from the truth. The news of the conquest of Antioch and Syria by the Saracens reached China in 643 and is recorded in another history (tenth century; p. 55).
[1 ]Syria may be mentioned earlier in the Shih-chi (written about 91), under the name of Li-kan, which Hirth proposes to identify with Rekem=Petra (r is regularly represented by l in Chinese pronunciation, at least in certain dialects). Certainly the Hou-han-shu expressly identifies Li-kan with Ta-ts‘in.