1902 Encyclopedia > China > China as Known to Mediaeval Europe

(Part 2)


China as Known to Mediaeval Europe

CATHAY is the name by which the Chinese empire was known to mediaeval Europe, and is in its original form (Kitai) that by which China is still known in Russia, and to most of the nations of Central Asia. West of Russia the name has long ceased to be a geographical expression, but it is associated with a remarkable phase in the history of geography and commerce, of which we purpose under this head to give some account.

The name first became known to Europe in the 13th century, when the vast conquests of Jenghiz and his house drew a new and vivid attention to Asia. For some three centuries previously the northern provinces of China has been detached form indigenous rule, and subject to northern conquerors. The first of these foreign dynasties was of a race called Khitán, issuing from the basis of the Sungari River, and supposed (but doubtfully) to have been of the blood of the modern Tunguses. The rule of this race endured for two centuries, and originated the application of the name Khitât or Khitâi to Northern China. The dynasty itself, known in Chinese history as Liao, or "Iron," disappeared from China 1123, but the name remained attached to the territory which they had ruled.

The Khitán were displaced by the Nyûché or Chûrché race, akin to the modern Manchus who now rule China. These reigned, under the title of Kin, or "Golden," till Jenghiz and his Mongols invaded them in turn. In 1234 the conquest of the Kin empire was completed, and the dynasty extinguished under Okkodai, the son and successor of Jenghiz Khán. Forty years later, in the reign of Kublaï, grandson and ablest successor of Jenghiz, the Mongol rule was extended over Southern China (1276), which till then had remained under a native dynasty, the Sung, holding its royal residence in a vast and splendid city, now known as Hang-chow, but then as Ling-ngan, or more commonly as King-sze, i.e., the Court. The southern empire was usually called by the conquerors name which Western Asiatics seem to have identified with Mâchîn (from the Sanskrit Mahâchîn), one of the names by which China was known to the traders from Persian and Arabian ports.

The conquests of Jenghiz and his successors had spread not only over China and the adjoining East, but westward also over all Northern Asia, Persia, Armenia, part of Asia Minor, and Russia, threatening to deluge Christendom. Though the Mongol wave retired, as it seemed almost by an immediate act of Providence, when Europe lay at its feet, it had leveled or covered all political barriers from the frontier of Poland to the Yellow Sea, and when Western Europe recovered from its alarm, Asia lay open, as never before or since, to the inspection of Christendom. Princes, envoys, priests,—half-missionary half-envoy—visited the court of the great Khán in Mongolia; and besides these, the accidents of war, commerce or opportunity carried a variety of persons from various classes of human life into the depths of Asia. "Tis worthy of the grateful remembrance of all Christian people," says an able missionary friar of the next age (Ricold of Monte Croce), "that just at the time when God sent forth into the Eastern parts of the world the Tartars to slay and to be slain. He also sent into the West his faithful and blessed servants, Dominic and Francis, to enlighten, instruct, and build up in the faith." Whatever on the whole may be thought of the world’s debt to Dominic, it is to the two mendicant orders, but especially to the Franciscan, that we owe a vast amount of information about mediaeval Asia, and, among other things, the first mention of Cathay. Among the many strangers who reached Mongolia were (1245-47) John de Plano Carpini (see CARPINI) and (1253) William of Rubruk (Rubruquis) in French Flanders, both Franciscan friars of high intelligence, who happily have left behind them reports of their observations.

Carpini, after mentioning the wars of Jenghiz against the Kitai are heathen men, and have a written character of their own… They seem, indeed, to be kindly and polished folks enough. They have no beard, an in character of countenance have a considerable resemblance to the Mongols" [are Mongoloid, as our ethnologists would say], "but are not so broad in the face. They have a peculiar language. Their betters as craftsmen in every art practised by man are not to be found in the whole world.

Their country is very rich in corn, in wine, in gold and silver, in silk, and in very kind of produce tending to the support of mankind." The notice of Rubruk, shrewder and more graphic, runs thus:—"Further on is Great Cathay, which I take to be the country which was anciently called the Land of the Seres. For the best silk stuffs are still got from them… The sea lies between it and India. Those Cathayans are little fellows, speaking much through the nose, and, as is general with all those Eastern people, their eyes are very narrow. They are first-rate artists in every kind, and their physicians have a thorough knowledge of the virtues of herbs, and an admirable skill in diagnosis by the pulse…The common money of Cathay consists of pieces of cotton-paper, about a palm in length and breadth, upon which certain lines are printed, resembling the seal of Mangu Khán. They do their writing with a pencil, such as painters paint with, and a single character of theirs comprehends several letters, so as to form a whole word." Here we have not only what is probably the first European notice of paper-money, but a partial recognition of the peculiarity of Chinese writing, and a perception that puts to shame the perverse boggling of later critics over the identity of these Cathayans with the Seres of classic fame.

But though these travelers say Cathayans in the bazaars of the Great Khan’s camps, the first actual visitors of Cathay itself were the Polo family (see MARCO POLO), and it is to the book of Marco’s recollections mainly that Cathay owed the growing familiarity of its name in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. It is, however, a great mistake to suppose, as has often been assumed, that the residence of the Polos in that country remained an isolated fact. They were but the pioneers of a very considerable intercourse, which endured till the decay of the Mongol dynasty in Cathay, i.e., for about half a century.

We have no evidence that either in the 13th or 14th century Cathayans, i.e., Chinese, ever reached Europe, but it is possible that some did, at least, in the former century. For, during the campaigns of Hulaku in Persia (1256-1265), and the reigns of his successors, Chinese engineers were employed on the bans of the Tigris, and Chinese astrologers and physicians could be consulted at Tabriz. Many diplomatic communication passed between the Hulakuid Ilkhans and the princes of Christendom. The former, as the great Khan’s liegemen, still received from him their deals of state; and two of their letters which survive in the archives of France exhibit the vermilion impressions of those seals in Chinese characters,—perhaps affording the earliest specimen of that character which reached Western Europe.

Just as the Polos were reaching their native city (1295), after an absence of quarter of a century, the forerunner of a new series of travelers was entering Southern China by way of the India seas. This was John of Monte Corvino, another Franciscan who, already some fifty years of age, was plunging single-handed int oteh great ocean of Paganism to preach the gospel according to his lights. After years of uphill and solitary toil converts began to multiply; coadjutors joined him. The Papal See became cognizant of the harvest that was being reaped in the far East. It made Friar John Archbishop in Cambaluc (or Peking), with patriarchal authority, and sent him batches of suffragan bishops and preachers of his own order. The Roman Church spread; churches and Minorite houses were established at Cambaluc, at Zayton or Tswan-chow in Fuh-keen, at Yang-chow, and elsewhere; and the missions flourished under the smile of the Great Khan, as the Jesuit missions did for a time under the Manchu emperors three centuries and a half later. Archbishop John was followed to the grave, about 1328, by mourning multitudes of Pagans and Christians alike. Several of the bishops and friars who served under him have left letters or other memoranda of their experience, e.g., Andrew, bishop of Zayton, John of Cora, afterwards archbishop of Sultania in Persia, and Odoric of Pordenone, whose fame as a pious traveler won from the vox populi at his funeral a beatification which the church was fain to seal. The only ecclesiastical narrative regarding Cathay, or which we are aware, subsequent to the time of Archbishop John, is that which has been gathered from the recollections of John de’ Marignolli, a Florentine Franciscan, who was sent by Pope Benedict CII, with a mission to the Great Khan, in return for one from that potentate which arrived at Avignon from Cathay in 1338, and who spent four years (1342-46) at the court of Cambaluc as legate of the Holy See. These recollections are found in a singular position, dispersed incoherently over a chronicle of Bohemia which the traveler wrote by order of the emperor Charles IV., whose chaplain he was after his return.

But intercourse during the period in question was not confined to ecclesiastical channels. Commerce also grew up, and flourished for a time even along the vast line that stretches from Genoa and Florence to the marts of Che-keang and Fuh-keen. The record is very fragmentary and imperfect, but many circumstances and incidental notices show how frequently the remote East was reached by European traders in the first half of the 14th century,—a state of things which it is very difficult to realize when we see how all those regions, when reopened to knowledge two centuries later, seemed to be discovered as new as the empires which, about the same time, Cortes and Pizarro were conquering in the West.

This commercial intercourse probably commenced about 1310-1320. Monte Corvino, writing in 1305, says it was twelve years since he had heard any news from Europe; the only Western stranger who had arrived in all that time being a certain Lombard chirurgeon (probably one of the Patarini who got hard measure at home in those days), who had spread the most incredible blasphemies about the Roman Curia and the order of St Francis. Yet even on his first entrance to Cathay Friar John hand been accompanied by one Master Peter of Lucolongo, whom he described as a faithful Christian man and a great merchant, and who seems to have remained many years at Peking. The letter of Andrew, bishop of Zayton (1326), quotes the opinion of Genoese merchants at that port regarding a questions of exchanges. Odoric, who was in Cathay about 1323-1327, refers for confirmation of the wonders which he related of the great city of Cansay (i.e., King-sze, hod. Hang-chow), to the many persons whom he had met at Venice since his return, who had themselves been witnesses of those marvels. And John Marignolli, some twenty years later, found attached to one of the convents at Zayton, in Fuh-keen, a fondaco or factory for the accommodation of the Christian merchants.

But by far the most distinct and notable evidence of the importance and frequency of European trade with Cathay, of which silk and silk goods formed the stable, is to be found in the commercial hand-book (circa 1340) of Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, a clerk and factor of the great Florentine house of the Bardi, which was brough to the ground about that time by its dealings with Edwards III. of England. This book, called by its author Libro di divisanenti di Paesi, is a sort of trade-guide, devoting successive chapters to the various ports and markets of hid time, detailing the nature of imports and exports at each, the duties and exactions, the local customs of business, weights, measures, and money. The first two chapters of this work contain instructions for the merchant proceeding to Cathay; and it is evident, from the terms used, that the road thither was not unfrequently traveled by European merchants, from whom Pegolotti had derived his information. The route which he describes lay by Azoff, Astrakhan, Khiva, Otrar (in Kansuh), and so to Hang-chow and Peking. Particulars are given as to the silver ingots which formed the currency of Tartary, and the paper-money of Cathay. That the ventures on this trade were not insignificant is plain from the example taken by the author to illustrate the question of expenses on the journey, which is that of a merchant investing in goods there to the amount of some £12,000 (i.e., in actual gold value, not as calculated by any fanciful and fallacious equation of values).

Of the same remarkable phase of history that we are here considering we have also a number of notices by Mahometan writers. The establishment of the Mongol dynasty in Persia, by which the Great Khan was acknowledge as lord paramount, led (as we have already noticed in part) to a good deal of intercourse. And some of the Persian historian, writing at Tabriz, under the patronage of the Mongol princes, have told us much about Cathay, especially Rashiduddin, the great minister and historian of the dynasty (died 1318). We have also in the book of the Moorish traveler Ibn Batuta, who visited China about 1347-48, very many curious and in great part true notices, though it is not possible to give credence to the whole of this episode in his extensive travels.

About the time of the traveler first named the throne of the degenerate descendants of Jenghiz began to totter to its fall, and we have no knowledge of any Frank visitor to Cathay in that age later than Marignolli; missions and merchants alike disappear from the field. We hear, indeed, once and again of ecclesiastics dispatched form Avignon, but they go forth into the darkness, and are heard of no more. Islam, with all its jealously and exclusiveness, had recovered its grasp over Central Asia; the Nestorian Christianity which once had prevailed to widely was vanishing, and the new rulers of China reverted to the old national policy, and held the foreigner at arm’s length. Night descended upon the further East, covering Cathay with those cities of which the old travelers had told such marvels, Cambaluc and Cansay, Zayton and Chinkalan. And when the veil rose before the Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the 16th century, those names are heard no more. In their stead we have CHINA, Peking, Hangchow, Chincheo, Canton. Not only were the old names forgotten, but the fact that those places had ever been known before was forgotten also. Gradually new missionaries went forth from Rome—Jesuits and Dominicans now; new converts were made, and new vicariats constituted; but the old Franciscan churches, and the Nestorianism with which they had battled, had alike been swallowed up in the ocean of Pagan indifference. In time a wreck or two floated to the surface,—a MS. Latin Bible or a piece of Catholic sculpture; and when the intelligent missionaries called Marco Polo to mind, and studied his story, one and another became convinced that Cathay and China were one few continued to regard Cathay as a region distinct from any of the new-found Indies; whilst mapmakers, well on into the 17th century, continued to represent it as a great country lying entirely to the north of china, and stretching to the Arctic Sea.

It was Cathay, with its outlaying island of Zipangu (Japan), that Columbus sought to reach by sailing westward, penetrated as he was by his intense conviction of the smallness of the earth, and of the cast extension of Asia eastward; and to the day of his death he was full of the imagination of the proximity of the domain of the Great Khan to the islands and coasts which he had discovered. And such imaginations are curiously embodied in some of the maps of the early 16th century, which intermingle on the same coast-line the new discoveries from Labrador to Brazil with the provinces and rivers of Marco Polo’s Cathay.

Cathay had been the aim of the first voyage of the Cabots in 1496, and it continued to be the object of many adventurous voyages by English and Hollanders to the N.W. and N. E. till far on in the 16th century. At least one memorable land-journey also was made by Englishmen, of which the exploration of a trade-route to Cathay was a chief object,—that in which Anthony Jenkinson and the two Johnsons reached Bokhara by way of Russia in 1558-1559. The country of which they collected notices at that city was still known to them only as Cathay, and its great capital only as Cambaluc.

Cathay as a supposed separate entity may be considered to come to an end with journey of Benedict Goës, the lay-Jesuit. This admirable person was, in 1603, dispatched through Central Asia by his superiors in India with the specific object of determining whether the Cathay of old European writers, and of modern Mahometans; was or was not a distinct region from that China of which parallel marvels had now for some time been recounted. Benedict, as one of his brethren pronounced his epitaph, "seeking Cathay found Heaven." He died at Suhchow, the frontier city of China, but not before he had ascertained that China and Cathay were the same. After the publication of the narrative of his journey (in the expedition Christiana apud Sinas of Trigault, 1615) inexcusable ignorance alone could continue to distinguish between them, and though such ignorance lingered many years longer, the result of his exploration fitly brings this prefatory notice to a close. (H..Y.)

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