CHINESE ACCOUNTS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, MAINLY ROMAN SYRIA
F Hirth wrote: “It is well known that Zhongguo [China] is fortunate enough to possess a series of historical works comparing most favorably, in some of its parts, with the historical literature of any nation in the West. Since the Han, each dynasty has had its own history, compiled from its court chronicles, or Jih-li, during the succeeding reigns. The Jih-li, lit. "Daily Chronicles," must be considered the prime source of all the information contained in these histories. Whether these latter were impartial in the treatment of historical characters, whether they did not "turn black into white, or right into wrong, would, of course, depend greatly on the entries made in the Jih-li; but also upon the neutrality of the historian himself. If the assumption could be justified that a new dynasty, having by conquest gained the ascendency, regarded the succumbing dynasty as the enemy of its cause, we might perhaps expect but scant justice from those who had power over both the Chronicles and the compilers. There is, however, no ground for this suspicion when a lifetime has elapsed between the period described and that during which the history was written. [Source: F. Hirth, “China and the Roman Orient: Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records” (Shanghai & Hong Kong, 1885), pp. 35-96, East Asian History Sourcebook:, Chinese Accounts of Rome, Byzantium and the Middle East, c. 91 B.C.E. - 1643 A.D. washington.edu/silkroad/texts ]
“The Erh-Shih-ssu Shih or "Twenty-four Dynastic Histories," contain in all over 3,000 books, and a European scholar who would think of extracting from them notes on a subject similar to ours, would find this to be a Herculean labor were it not that the methodical mind of the Chinese writers had carefully put aside all he wants into special chapters regarding foreign countries. Thus we find chapters on the Hsiung-nu; on the South-Western barbarians (Man); on the country of Ta-wan, generally identified with the present Ferghana, in the Shih-chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, whose work opens the series of the Erh-shih-ssu Shah. Ssu-ma Ch'ien (d. c. 85 B.C.E.) did not attempt to carry his geographical notes farther than the countries with which Zhongguo had then come into immediate contact. His successor, Pan Ku, who, with his sister Chao, compiled the Ch'ien-han-shu [ "History of the Former Han Dynasty,"] and who died 92 A.D., knows considerably more about the countries of Central and Western Asia. His geographical chapters, of which we possess a translation, betray the interest which had been taken in geographical enterprise since the death of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, and which must have naturally been increased in the author from the fact of his being the elder brother of Pan Ch'ao, the famous military traveller of that period. Pan Ku may have heard of his brother's expedition to the foreign territories in Western or Central Asia but he was no longer alive when Pan Ch'ao returned to Zhongguo in 102 A.D.. This may account for the fact that much of the information for which the Han must have been indebted to Pan Ch'ao's last expedition found its way into the Hou-han-shu, or "History of the After Han Dynasty," and not into Pan Ku's work.
“The Hou-han-shu, compiled by Fan Yeh of the earlier Sung Dynasty (420-477 A.D.), is the first authority which gives us a certain number of details regarding the countries in the extreme west of Asia. The Hsi-yu-chuan, i.e., "Traditions regarding Western Countries," then became a regular feature in the dynastic histories, and is found under this or some similar designation in most of the subsequent Shih.
“The Hsi-yu-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 Han literature previous to the Ming dynasty, the country of Ta-ts'in. 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 Far West, must necessarily be the Roman Empire in its full extent, with Rome as its capital.
For the complete article from which this much of the material here is derived see East Asian History Sourcebook:: Chinese Accounts of Rome, Byzantium and the Middle East, c. 91 B.C.E. - 1643 C.E. Internet History Sourcebooks Project depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts
Shih-Chi, ch. 123, 91 B.C.
From the Shih-Chi, ch. 123, (91 B.C.): “When the first embassy was sent from Zhongguo [China] to Ar-hsi [Arsacids, or Parthia], the king of Ar-hsi ordered twenty thousand cavalry to meet them on the eastern frontier. The eastern frontier was several thousand li distant from the king's capital. Proceeding to the north one came across several tens of cities, with very many inhabitants, allied to that country. After the Han [Chinese] embassy had returned they [the Parthians] sent forth an embassy to follow the Han embassy to come and see the extent and greatness of the Han Empire. They offered to the Han court large birds'-eggs, and jugglers from Li-kan [Syria].
Ch'ien-han-shu, ch. 96A, (written c. A.D. 90) for 91 B.C.
From the Ch'ien-han-shu, ch. 96A, (written c. A.D. 90 for 91 B.C.): “When the emperor Wu-ti [140-86 B.C.E.] first sent an embassy to Ar-hsi [Arsacids, or Parthia], the king ordered a general to meet him on the eastern frontier with twenty thousand cavalry. The eastern frontier was several thousand li distant from the king's capital. Proceeding to the north one came across several tens of cities, the inhabitants of which were allied with that country. As they sent forth an embassy to follow the Han [Chinese] embassy, they came to see the country of Zhongguo [China]. They offered to the Han court large birds'-eggs, and jugglers from Li-kan [Syria], at which His Majesty was highly pleased. The king of the country of Ar-hsi rules at the city of P'an-tou [Parthuva, or Hekatompylos]; its distance from Ch'ang-an is 11,600 li. The country is not subject to a tu-hu [governor]. It bounds north on K'ang-chu, east on Wu-i-shan-li, west on T'iao-chih [Babylonia]. The soil, climate, products, and popular customs are the same as those of Wu-i and Chi-pin. They also make coins of silver, which have the king's face on the obverse, and the face of his consort on the reverse. When the king dies, they cast new coins. They have the ta-ma-ch'uo [ostrich]. Several hundred small and large cities are subject to it, and the country is several thousand li in extent, that is, a very large country. It lies on the banks of the Kuei-shui [Oxus River]. The carts and ships of their merchants go to the neighboring countries. They write on parchment, and draw up documents in rows running sideways. In the east of Ar-hsi are the Ta-yueh-chih.
Hou-Han-Shu, chs. 86, 88 (written in the A.D. 5th Century about A.D. 25 - 220)
From the Hou-Han-Shu, chs. 86, 88 (written in the A.D. 5th Century about A.D. 25 - 220): “During the 9th year [of Yung-yuan, 97 A.D.] the barbarian tribes outside the frontier and the king of the country of Shan [Armenia], named Yung-yu-tiao, sent twofold interpreters, and was endowed with state jewels. Ho-ti [Emperor, 89-106 A.D.] conferred a golden seal with a purple ribbon, and the small chiefs were granted seals, ribbons, and money. During the 1st year of Yung-ning [120 A.D.] the king of the country of Shan, named Yung-yu-tiao, again sent an embassy who, being received to His Majesty's presence, offered musicians and jugglers. The latter could conjure, spit fire, bind and release their limbs without assistance, change the heads of cows and horses, and were clever at dancing with up to a thousand balls. They said themselves: "We are men from the west of the sea; the west of the sea is the same as Ta-ts'in [Roman Syria]. In the south-west of the country of Shan one passes through to Ta-ts'in." At the beginning of the following year they played music at court before An-ti [Emperor, 107-126 A.D.], when Yung-yu-tiao was invested as a Ta-tu-wei [tributary prince] of the Han [Chinese] empire by being granted a seal and a ribbon with gold and silver silk embroidered emblems, every one of which had its own meaning.
“The city [Hira] of the country of T'iao-chih [Babylonia] is situated on a peninsula; its circumference is over forty li and it borders on the western sea [Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean]. The waters of the sea crookedly surround it. In the east, and north-east, the road is cut off; only in the north-west there is access to it by means of a land-road. The country is hot and low. It produces lions, rhinoceros, feng-niu [Zebu, Bos indicus], peacocks, and large birds [ostriches?] whose eggs are like urns. If you turn to the north and then towards the east again go on horseback some sixty days, you come to Ar-hsi [Arsacids, or Parthia], to which afterwards it became subject as a vassal state under a military governor who had control of all the small cities. The country of Ar-hsi has its residence at the city of Ho-tu [Hekatompylos], it is 25,000 li distant from Lo-yang. In the north it bounds on K'ang-chu, and in the south, on Wu-i-shan-li. The size of the country is several thousand li. There are several hundred small cities with a vast number of inhabitants and soldiers. On its eastern frontier is the city of Mu-lu [Avestan "Mouru", modern Merv], which is called Little Ar-hsi [Parthia Minor]. It is 20,000 li distant from Lo-yang. In the first year of Chang-ho, of the Emperor Chang-ti [87 A.D.], they sent an embassy offering lions and fu-pa. The fu-pa has the shape of a lin [unicorn], but has no horn.