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What did ancient Greece know of China?

LUO AILING | 2022-12-22 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

In 2022, Chinese and Greek staff members prepared for an art exhibition in Shanghai in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Greece-China diplomatic relations Photo: CFP

Ancient Greek civilization had a great impact on world history. China is one of the four great ancient civilizations in the world. Both civilizations have thousands of years of cultural heritage and traditions that have been passed down through generations. More than 2,000 years ago, these two civilizations shone brightly on the Eurasian continent.

Early contact with Asia

The ancient Greeks and Chinese had no direct contact with each other due to the vast distance between them. From the 6th century to the 3rd century BCE, mainly through silk [trade], Chinese agricultural culture first came into contact with nomadic pastoral culture,  which was then spread westward. This marked the beginning of early communication between ancient Greece and China. 

Legends from the Eastern civilizations such as India and China may have reached the ancient Greeks as early as the 8th century BCE. However, without direct contact, the ancient Greeks’ knowledge and understanding of China mainly came from merchants and soldiers on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and the Persian Empire, founded in the 6th century BCE. The fact that ancient Greeks were more knowledgeable about India at the time can be attributed to the Persian ruler, Darius the Great, who annexed the valley northwest of the Indus River around 515 BCE. Soon after the annexation, Darius the Great asked a Greek official to explore and survey the easternmost regions of ancient Greece. This Greek official cruised the Indus River along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. However, like many ancient Greeks, he experienced difficulty navigating. 

From 326 to 324 BCE, the military campaign throughout Western Asia and Egypt led by Alexander the Great gave the ancient Greeks a chance to understand Asia. India’s trade in ivory and spices with countries around the Mediterranean Sea began during his expeditions. The trade between India, Egypt, and Greece continued afterwards. 

Silk as medium

The Greek peninsula came under Roman rule [in 146 BCE]. In the 1st century CE, China was known as “Sinae” or “Serica” by the countries along the Mediterranean Sea represented by Rome. “Sinae” was the name used by countries that traded with China by sea, who regarded China as the end of the marine route. “Serica” was used by countries that traded with China by land, and these countries regarded northern China as the end of the Silk Road. For example, both the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela and the naturalist Pliny the Elder called ancient China “Serica.”

Ancient Greece and the later Roman Empire had a vague understanding of China, but lacked cultural and geographical awareness. Their cognition of China basically stayed at a level commensurate with material exchange, and even this material exchange was mainly conducted via Persian and Indian intermediaries. Exquisite items such as silk from the East convinced the countries along the Mediterranean Sea that there were wealthy people living in the East, regarding China as the home of fine silk and India as the origin of spices.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus recorded the general position of China in his masterpiece, The Histories. In Book 4 of The Histories, Herodotus quoted a story related in a poem written by the Greek poet and traveler in the 7th century BCE, Aristeas: “This Aristeas, possessed by Phoebus, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspians, beyond whom are the griffins that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreans, whose territory reaches to the sea.” 

According to records, the Greek scholar Ctesias [who lived in the 5th century BCE] was the first to call China “Seres,” meaning “the country of silk.” Apparently, the Greeks used the Chinese silk they saw to refer to ancient China. Their notions of Chinese silk gradually approached the truth over time. By the middle of the 2nd century CE, in his Description of Greece, the Greek geographer Pausanias pointed out that “the threads from which the Seres make the dresses are produced from no bark, but in a different way as follows. There is in the land of the Seres an insect which the Greeks call ser, though the Seres themselves give it another name.” From that point onward, the Greeks no longer referred to silk as “the wool from the tree.”

Prior to the 6th century CE, China was the only country in the world that raised silkworms and produced silk. Chinese silk products had been sold overseas since the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE), at which time they were considered scarce luxuries. Around the 5th century BCE, Chinese silk had become a favorite clothing material for the upper class in Greece. Ancient Roman documents described Chinese silk as the gorgeous dawn glow from the East, and the ancient Romans adopted “Seres” in reference to China. Chinese silkworm eggs were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century CE, and Europe started to develop indigenous silk industries. Since then, the name “Seres” gradually fell into disuse.

Growing understanding

By the 3rd century CE, the Greek-centered Mediterranean world gradually developed a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the East and its people. Greece at this time had become the center of the Eastern Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire. In the 5th century CE, the powerful Eastern Roman Empire basically monopolized the silk trade along the Mediterranean coast. It needed goods from the East as gifts to bribe the “barbarian” tribes that constantly harassed its borders, or to reach compromise and cooperation with the relevant tribes. Considering the strong demand for silk from China and spices from India, the Eastern Roman Empire set up an official institution related to the trade of silk and spices. This institution was privileged and served the diplomatic policy of the Eastern Roman Empire. Therefore, from the 5th century CE, the rights of private traders to trade silk and spices were rescinded by the government of the Eastern Roman Empire and were monopolized by the government.

By then, the Mediterranean world had a clearer understanding of China’s geographical location. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant and traveler from the Eastern Roman Empire, gained a deeper understanding of the exact location of China than previous merchants upon arriving in India by sea and visiting Sri Lanka. He knew that after a long journey eastward by ship from India, and then northward, he would reach the coast of China. He also observed that Sri Lanka was a hub for goods traded between India and China. Theophylact Simocatta, an early seventh-century Greek historiographer who settled in Egypt, also described China in his work History. However, Europe at the time was busy dealing with the rapidly rising Arab Empire, the content of the book about “Seres” (Chinese people) did not receive the attention of the Greeks or other Europeans.

In the 13th century, following the opening of the Eurasian steppe route, European understanding of China changed fundamentally. In 1253, Friar William of Rubruck was sent to the Mongol Empire by King Louis IX of France. During his stay in the Mongol Empire, William indirectly learned much about China: Chinese silk was still the best, the Chinese doctors were outstanding at pulse diagnosis, people in China used a “common cash” made of “slices of cotton paper” in their commercial transactions, and wrote with a brush similar to what a painter used to paint. William’s observations and reports on China were wholly novel to Europeans at that time, and were consequently popular. The Greeks also came to know more about China through these reports. Later, Marco Polo ventured to China, where he lived for nearly 20 years. He returned to Venice in 1295 and published The Travels of Marco Polo. Information regarding Chinese culture, customs, social and economic development began to spread among the European public. China was no longer a distant mystery to Greece.

Luo Ailing is an associate research fellow from the Institute of International Relationship at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.