1902 Encyclopedia > China > China as Known to the Ancients

(Part 1)


Part 1. China as Known to the Ancients

The great account of this great empire of Eastern Asia may fitly commerce with a brief notice, 1st, of China as known to the ancients (the land of Sinoe or Seres), and 2nd, of China as known to mediaeval Europe (Cathay).

China as known to the Ancients

The spacious seat of ancient civilization which we call China has loomed always so large to Western eyes, and has, in spite of the distance, subtended so large an angle of vision, that, at eras far apart, we find it to have been distinguished by different appellations according as it was reached by the southern sea-route, or by the northern land-route traversing the longitude of Asia.

In the former aspect the name has nearly always been some form of the name Sin, Chin, Sinoe, China. In the latter point of view the region in question was known to the ancients as the land of the Seres, to the Middle Agesas the empire of Cathay.

The name of China has been supposed (doubtfully) to be derived from the dynasty of Thsin, which a little more than two centuries before our era enjoyed a brief but very vigorous existence, uniting all the Chinese provinces under its authority, and extending its conquests far beyond those limits to the south and the west.

The mention of the Chinas in ancient Sanskrit literature, both in the laws of Manu and in the Mahâbhârât, has often been supposed to prove the application of the name long before the predominance of the Thsin dynasty. But the coupling of that name with the Daradas, still surviving as the people of Dardistan, on the Indus, suggests it as more probable that those Chinas were a kindred race of mountaineers, whose name as Shinas in fact likewise remains applied to a branch of the Dard races. Whether the Sinim of the prophet Isaiah should be interpreted of the Chinese is probably not at present susceptible of any decision; but the context it appears certainly to indicate a people of the extreme east or south.

The name probably came to Europe through the Arabs, who made the China of the further east into Sîn, and perhaps sometimes into Thîn. Hence the Thin of the author of the Periplus of the Erythroean Sea, who appears to be the first extant writer to employ the name in this form (i.e., assuming Müller’s view that he belongs to the 1st century); hencea also the Sinoe and Thinoe of Claudius Ptolemy.

It has often indeed been denied that the Sinae of Ptolemy really represented the Chinese. But if we compare the statement of Marcianus of Heraclea (a mere condenser of Ptolemy), when he tells us that the "nations of the Sinae lie at the extremity of the habitable world, and adjoin the eastern Terra Incognita," with that of Cosmas, who says, in speaking of Tzinista, a name of which no one can question the application to China, that "beyond this there is neither habitation nor navigation,"—we cannot doubt the same region to be meant by both. The fundamental error of Ptolemy’s conception of the Indian Sea as a closed basin rendered it impossible but that he should misplace the Chinese coast. But considering that the name of Sin has come down among the Arabe from time immemorial as applied to the Chinses, considering that in the work of Ptolemy this name certainly represented the furthest known East, and considering how inaccurate are Ptolemy’s configurations and longitudes much nearer home, it seems almost as reasonable to deny the identity of his India with ours as to deny that his Sinae were Chinese.

If we now turn to the Seres we find this name mentioned by classic authors much more frequently and at an earlier date, for the passages of Eratosthenes (in Strabo), formerly supposed to speak of a parallel parsing through Thinae — dia Thinon [Gk.], are now known to read correctly di' Athenon [Gk.]. The name Seres indeed is familiar to the Latin poets of the Augustan age, but always in a vague way, and usually with a general reference to central Asia and the further East. We find, however, that the first endeavours to assign more accurately the position of this people, which are those of Mela and Pliny, gravitate distinctly towards China in its northern aspect as the true idea involved. Thus Mela describes the remotest east of Asia as occupied by the three races (proceeding from south to north), Indians, Seres, and Seyths; just as in a general way we might say still that Eastern Asia is occupied by the Indies, China, and Tartary.

Ptolemy first uses the names of Sera and Serice, the former for the chief city, the latter for the country of the Seres, and as usual defines their position with a precision far beyond what his knowledge justified,—the necessary result of his system. Yet even his definition of Serice is most consistent with the view that this name indicated the Chinese empire in its northern aspect, for he carries it eastward to the 180th degree of longitude, which is also, according to his calculation, in a lower latitude the eastern boundary of the Sinae.

Ammianus Marcellinus devotes some paragraphs to a description of the Seres and their country, one passage of which is starling at first sight in its seeming allusion to the Great Wall, and in this sense it has been rashly interpreted by Lassen and by Reinaud. But Ammianus is merely converting Ptolemy’s dry tables into fine writing and speaks only of an encircling rampart of mountains within which the spacious and happy valley of the Seres lies. It is true that Ptolemy makes his Serice extend westward to Imaus, i.e., to Pamir. But the Chinese empire did so extend at that epoch, as it did twenty years ago, and we find Lieut, John Wood in 1838 speaking of "China" as lying immediately beyond Pamir, just as the Arabs of the 8th century spoke of the country beyond the Jaxartes as "Sin," and as Ptolemy spoke of "Serice" as immediately beyond Imaus.

If we fuse into one the ancient notices of the Seres and their country, omitting anomalous statements and manifest fables, the result will be something like the following:—"The region of the Seres is a vast and populous country, touching on the east the Ocean and the limits of the habitable world, and extending west to Imaus and the confines of Bactria. The people are civilized, mild, just, and frugal, eschewing collisions with their neighbours, and even shy of close intercourse, but not averse to dispose of their own products, of which raw silk is the staple, but which include also silk-stuffs, fine furs, and iron of remarkable quality." That is manifestly a definition of the Chinese.

That Greek and Roman knowledge of the true position of so remote a nation should at best have been somewhat hazy is nothing wonderful. And it is worthy of note that the view entertained by the ancient Chinese of the Roman empire and its inhabitants, under the name of Ta-thsin, had some striking points of analogy to those views of the Chinese which are indicated in the classical descriptions of the Seres. There can be no mistaking the fact that in this case also the great object was within the horizon of vision, yet the details ascribed to it as often far from being true characteristics, being only the accidents of its outer borders.

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