A country of “numerous minor kings” where fierce tigers and lions kill travelers. That doesn’t sound like your average description of Rome, does it?

The borders of the Roman Empire and Han China around 100 AD.

The borders of the Roman Empire and Han China around 100 AD.

It’s hard to forget just how connected the world is nowadays. In ancient times, most people would be blissfully unaware of the entire world outside their local community. The average Chinese, for instance, would have never known that elsewhere on the globe, a glorious people called the Romans ruled over a massive empire. But the Chinese scholars were well aware of the Romans.

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:

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This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions. The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). 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 (through to China).

Boundaries of the Qin dynasty in 210 BC. Image via Wikipedia.

We know this because, thankfully, the University of Washington’s John E. Hill drafted an English copy of the Weilüewhich features not only recollections of the Roman Empire, but also of other areas outside of China.

 “Although the Weilue was never classed among the official or ‘canonical’ histories, it has always been held in the highest regard by Chinese scholars as a unique and precious source of historical and geographical information,” says Hill.

Artistic depiction of ancient Rome. Image credits: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho.

The text moves on to describe the agriculture, as well as some of the more entertaining aspects of the Roman Empire. No doubt, the Roman parties made a tremendous impression on the Chinese.

This region has pine trees, cypress, sophora, catalpa, bamboo, reeds, poplars, willows, parasol trees, and all sorts of plants. The people cultivate the five grains [traditionally: rice, glutinous and non-glutinous millet, wheat and beans], and they raise horses, mules, donkeys, camels and silkworms. (They have) a tradition of amazing conjuring. They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.

Yu Huan even describes Rome, saying that it is “surrounded by stone” and that it is “more than 100 li (42 km) around.” He also goes on to create a list of the most popular products manufactured in Rome, including gold and silver, but also the numerous types of cloth that were available at the time. He even featured directions on how to get there — just cross the Indian Ocean, go straight through Egypt, sail the Mediterranean for about six days, and you’ll end up straight in the Roman Empire — though it’s doubtful that too many people followed them.

Sadly, China and the Roman Empire never got to establish a solid diplomatic relationship. Not long after Yu Huan’s time, the country was torn apart by civil war and other internal conflicts, and cut off from Western society for centuries.

I’ll leave you with this long description of some valuable Roman products which, let’s face it, seems just a bit jealous.

This country produces fine linen. They make gold and silver coins. One gold coin is equal to ten silver coins.

They have fine brocaded cloth that is said to be made from the down of ‘water-sheep’. It is called Haixi (‘Egyptian’) cloth. This country produces the six domestic animals, which are all said to come from the water.

It is said that they not only use sheep’s wool, but also bark from trees, or the silk from wild cocoons, to make brocade, mats, pile rugs, woven cloth and curtains, all of them of good quality, and with brighter colours than those made in the countries of Haidong (“East of the Sea”).

Furthermore, they regularly make a profit by obtaining Chinese silk, unravelling it, and making fine hu (‘Western’) silk damasks. That is why this country trades with Anxi (Parthia) across the middle of the sea. The seawater is bitter and unable to be drunk, which is why it is rare for those who try to make contact to reach China.

The mountains (of this country) produce nine-coloured jewels (fluorite) of inferior quality. They change colour on different occasions from blue-green to red, yellow, white, black, green, purple, fiery red, and dark blue. Nowadays nine-coloured stones of the same type are found in the Yiwu Shan (a mountain range east of Hami).

In the third Yangjia year (CE 134), the king of Shule (Kashgar), Chen Pan [who had been made a hostage at the court of the Kushan emperor, for some period between 114 and 120, and was later placed on the throne of Kashgar by the Kushans],9 offered a blue (or green) gem and a golden girdle from Haixi (Egypt).

Moreover, the Xiyu Jiutu (‘Ancient Sketch of the Western Regions’) now says that both Jibin (Kapisha-Gandhāra) and Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana) produce precious stones approaching the quality of jade.