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.