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Weilue: The Peoples Of The West
September 1, 2013 8:20 AM   Subscribe


 
This is amazing, I didn't know that such a document exists.

My knowledge of the ancient western world is limited. I would love to see someone go through and note what is correct and incorrect, and where the misconceptions probably came from.
posted by jrsnr at 8:46 AM on September 1, 2013


Man, I had plans for today, dude. *sigh*
posted by cthuljew at 8:47 AM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Damn that's cool.

Now I need an atlas to go with it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:59 AM on September 1, 2013


Interesting, but it's so vague and inaccurate that the size of the empire is almost the only thing that provides any real assurance it really is Rome being described.
posted by Segundus at 9:03 AM on September 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Great link. (But why add the apostrophe?)
posted by Philofacts at 9:04 AM on September 1, 2013


I would love to see someone go through and note what is correct and incorrect, and where the misconceptions probably came from.

It's a thoroughly mixed-up jumble. It reads really similar to other travelers' narratives, from Herodotus down to the Crusades. Just a couple of examples:

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.

Fair enough, although that would describe about 90% of ancient Mediterranean cities.

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.

Not true at all, although the text is pretty close in time to the one Roman emperor who did retire. This kind of ideal or virtuous kingship pops up all the time in ancient literature, though; Herodotus has similar stories.

The common people can write in hu (‘Western’) script. They have multi-storeyed public buildings and private; (they fly) flags, beat drums, (and travel in) small carriages with white roofs, and have a postal service with relay sheds and postal stations, like in the Middle Kingdom (China).

Literacy wasn't quite that widespread, but otherwise this is accurate.

The people (of these countries) are connected to each other. Every 10 li (4.2 km) there is a ting (relay shed or changing place), and every 30 li (12.5 km) there is a zhi (postal station).

More or less true.

This country (Rome) has installed dozens of minor kings. The king’s administrative capital (Rome) is more than 100 li (42 km) around. There is an official Department of Archives. The king has five palaces at 10 li (4.2 km) intervals. He goes out at daybreak to one of the palaces and deals with matters until sunset and then spends the night there. The next day he goes to another palace and, in five days makes a complete tour. They have appointed thirty-six leaders who discuss events frequently. If one leader does not show up, there is no discussion. When the king goes out for a walk, he always orders a man to follow him holding a leather bag. Anyone who has something to say throws his or her petition into the bag. When he returns to the palace, he examines them and determines which are reasonable.

This is the most interesting part to me, because the description of the network of imperial villas (down to the distance between them) is actually pretty good, although there were way more than five of them. The leather bag isn't something I've come across in Roman sources, but it wouldn't be out of place in a folk legend about how the emperor conducted business: petitions were indeed written (here's a link to a review of a recent book that deals with petitions to the emperor).
posted by oinopaponton at 9:06 AM on September 1, 2013 [23 favorites]


(13) ‘red hornless (or immature) dragons’ (which produced the famous “dragons’ blood” resin)


What would this be?

I have heard of a "lost" artist pigment called dragons blood.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:15 AM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the three heavenly bodies [the sun, moon, and stars] but, oh, how my thoughts fly to the eight foreign regions!
posted by Area Man at 9:23 AM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wooooow, that is cool. The 'list of products' is right out of Borges--

(7) ‘divine tortoises’ – tortoises used for divination
(8) white horses with red manes
(9) fighting cocks
(10) rhinoceroses
(11) sea turtle shell
(12) black bears
(13) ‘red hornless (or immature) dragons’ (which produced the famous “dragons’ blood” resin)
(14) ‘poison-avoiding rats’ = mongooses

And I did not know the Romans were so notably amazing at juggling!
posted by Erasmouse at 9:35 AM on September 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


But what about their military? This report is useless!
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:43 AM on September 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's pretty cool. There's been a "global culture" (at least extending from Europe through Asia) for more than two thousand years. Japan's earliest architecture and sculpture have a lot of Hellenistic influences, imported by way of Korean and Chinese culture, by way of the Silk Road.

About a 30 minute drive from where I live in Japan there is an old burial mound (about 1500 years old) that features Turkomen jewelry. Likely a prince from central Asia made his way to Japan via the Silk Road (Obama, in Fukui Prefecture, was at one time Japan's "gateway to Asia"), liked what he found, and decided to stay!
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 AM on September 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


The people's what, exactly?
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:48 AM on September 1, 2013


Hey, Wikedia has a whole page on Romano-Chinese Relations.
posted by FJT at 9:53 AM on September 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


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.

Maybe this is a garbled account of the Republican era? Or maybe they came across somebody who described the fiction rather than the reality the way most people today would call America a meritocracy or something.
posted by DU at 9:56 AM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Huh. I just heard about this when noted sf fan James Nicoll asked whether any fantasy writer had ever set a story in this Chinese version of the Roman Empire. Must be something in the water.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:04 AM on September 1, 2013


From the wiki mentioned above on Roman-Chinese relations:

"The Seres are famous for the woolen substance obtained from their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves… So manifold is the labour employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public.
—Pliny the Elder, The Natural History VI, 54"

posted by Bwithh at 10:18 AM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


They thought centaurs were real.

This isn't the first time that I've wished that I'd majored in history instead of informatics/cs.
posted by double block and bleed at 11:05 AM on September 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


That link was to one of the footnotes, which are just as, if not more interesting than the main text.
posted by double block and bleed at 11:07 AM on September 1, 2013


Especially lovely, a corrected misconception:

In earlier times, it was also mistakenly thought that if you left Tiaozhi and travelled more than two hundred days to the west, you reached the place where the sun goes down. Now, (it is thought that) you travel west from Da Qin to reach the place where the sun sets.
posted by forgetful snow at 11:18 AM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I would love to see someone go through and note what is correct and incorrect, and where the misconceptions probably came from.

jrsnr there are pretty detailed notes linked that cover a lot of what you're looking for.

There are no bandits or thieves, but there are fierce tigers and lions that kill those travelling on the route. If you are not in a group, you cannot get through.

pretty accurate, even today. i haven't been to rome myself, but i had a friend who went on a walking tour of rome, the guide gave them all lances in case of tiger attack
posted by camdan at 11:40 AM on September 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Of course it's a mess and a jumble: travel accounts always are, and those from antiquity even moreso.

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.

To me, the interesting thing to me is how much of the misconceptions reflect the Confucian scholar writing the descriptions. I mean, the idea that the Roman emperors were selected for anything other than their ability to control (or be controlled by) the military is absurd. But, the idea that they'd be selected and deposed based on merit very much lines up with Confucian ideals that lead to a government run by educated and merit tested officials. The idea the Emperor is deposed by weather and natural events (aka "the gods") is basically the Mandate of Heaven without a dynastic cycle attached.


A lot of it is just lacking the vocabulary to describe things: he repeatably talks about "Roman Silk," even though Silkworms don't come to Rome (Byzantium, actually) until the 6th century AD. When you're really just describing descriptions, there is a huge margin for error.



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).

The common people can write in hu (‘Western’) script.

The fact that the ancient Chinese name for Rome was "Daqin" - "Great Qin (Other China, basically) - is important here. It may sit well with the Daoist sense of balance and counterbalance, but acknowledging some other Empire somewhere as being the equal or equivalent to the Middle Kingdom is a big deal, and doing so attaches a lot of baggage in the eyes of the chronicler, especially if all his sources are second and third hand accounts. He's going to see a lot of himself in the descriptions he's hearing because, in some ways, that's all he *can* see. So, the people are virtuous, powerful, and educated. Because that's what he is, or at least how he sees his people. Oh, and these Roman folks probably came from China originally, because where else would they have come from?

Geography wise, it's also probably worth noting that most of "Da Qin" being described would actually be the part the Parthians (who were largely the ones telling the stories) interacted with: Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The further west from from there, the descriptions will drift more and more towards becoming essentially nonsense.
posted by absalom at 1:05 PM on September 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I love the author's note at the end:

Moreover, as to the speculations of Zou Yan [...] alas, I am limited to travelling by foot, and living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox. Besides, I don’t have the longevity of Peng Zu.

It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the three heavenly bodies [the sun, moon, and stars] but, oh, how my thoughts fly to the eight foreign regions!


Across the centuries and the thousands of miles, I can totally empathize with that burning sense of curiosity about far regions, the farther the better.
posted by zompist at 1:48 PM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can't avoid comparing this to earlier today's "Weirdest Things About America" post.

Perspective.
Easier to claim than to get.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:15 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been working my way through Leslie and Gardiner's The Roman Empire in Chinese Sources which I recommend if anyone wants more information on this. It's pretty dense but fascinating. A professor once told me that the limits of Roman/Chinese interaction were often not studed because of a language between Roman scholars and Chinese texts-- I hope more research comes out, because it's fascinating.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:43 PM on September 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


It seems that Gan Ying, the author, never really made it to Rome, just the Parthian shore of the Persian Gulf. So, his report is indeed secondhand.
posted by ignignokt at 11:34 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


But what about their military? This report is useless!

More importantly, how would a state-of-the art Roman legion fare if teleported into Han China?
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:00 AM on September 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


Fantastic find. Thanks, Whelk!
posted by homunculus at 7:59 PM on September 2, 2013


absalom: "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.

To me, the interesting thing to me is how much of the misconceptions reflect the Confucian scholar writing the descriptions. I mean, the idea that the Roman emperors were selected for anything other than their ability to control (or be controlled by) the military is absurd. But, the idea that they'd be selected and deposed based on merit very much lines up with Confucian ideals that lead to a government run by educated and merit tested officials. The idea the Emperor is deposed by weather and natural events (aka "the gods") is basically the Mandate of Heaven without a dynastic cycle attached.
"

To what extant could this be a bit of the "noble savage" sort of myth? "These foreigners over in the west... they certainly are backwards compared to Glorious Us, but still... ya gotta admire the practical, virtuous nature of their governments. Yessir, we could learn a lot from them, what with our corrupt, citified ways and all..."
posted by IAmBroom at 1:21 PM on September 3, 2013


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