Geographical accounts and cartography
reconstruction of Ptolemy
's 1st projection, indicating the Land of Silk (Serica
) in northeast Asia at the end of the overland Silk Road and the land of the Qin
) in the southeast at the end of the maritime routes; 1450–1475 AD, attributed to Francesco del Chierico
and translated from Greek to Latin by
Emanuel Chrysoloras and Jacobus Angelus
Beginning in the 1st century BC with Virgil, Horace, and Strabo, Roman histories offer only vague accounts of China and the silk-producing Seres people of the Far East, who were perhaps the ancient Chinese. The 1st-century AD geographer Pomponius Mela asserted that the lands of the Seres formed the centre of the coast of an eastern ocean, flanked to the south by India and to the north by the Scythians of the Eurasian Steppe. The 2nd-century AD Roman historian Florus seems to have confused the Seres with peoples of India, or at least noted that their skin complexions proved that they both lived "beneath another sky" than the Romans. Roman authors generally seem to have been confused about where the Seres were located, in either Central Asia or East Asia. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330 – c. 400 AD) wrote that the land of the Seres was enclosed by great natural walls around a river called Bautis, possibly a description of the Yellow River.
The existence of China was known to Roman cartographers, but their understanding of it was less certain. Ptolemy's 2nd-century AD Geography separates the Land of Silk (Serica) at the end of the overland Silk Road from the land of the Qin (Sinae) reached by sea. The Sinae are placed on the northern shore of the Great Gulf (Magnus Sinus) east of the Golden Peninsula (Aurea Chersonesus, Malay Peninsula). Their chief port, Cattigara, seems to have been in the lower Mekong Delta. The Great Gulf served as a combined Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, as Marinus of Tyre and Ptolemy's belief that the Indian Ocean was an inland sea caused them to bend the Cambodian coast south beyond the equator before turning west to join southern Libya (Africa). Much of this is given as unknown lands, but the north-eastern area is placed under the Sinae.
Classical geographers such as Strabo and Pliny the Elder were slow to incorporate new information into their works and, from their positions as esteemed scholars, were seemingly prejudiced against lowly merchants and their topographical accounts. Ptolemy's work represents a break from this, since he demonstrated an openness to their accounts and would not have been able to chart the Bay of Bengal so accurately without the input of traders. In the 1st-century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, its anonymous Greek-speaking author, a merchant of Roman Egypt, provides such vivid accounts of eastern trade cities that it is clear he visited many of them. These include sites in Arabia, Pakistan, and India, including travel times from rivers and towns, where to drop anchor, the locations of royal courts, lifestyles of the locals and goods found in their markets, and favourable times of year to sail from Egypt to these places to catch the monsoon winds. The Periplus also mentions a great inland city, Thinae (or Sinae), in a country called This that perhaps stretched as far as the Caspian. The text notes that silk produced there travelled to neighbouring India via the Ganges and to Bactria by a land route. Marinus and Ptolemy had relied on the testimony of a Greek sailor named Alexander, probably a merchant, for how to reach Cattigara (most likely Óc Eo, Vietnam). Alexander (Greek: Alexandros) mentions that the main terminus for Roman traders was a Burmese city called Tamala on the north-west Malay Peninsula, where Indian merchants travelled overland across the Kra Isthmus to reach the Perimulic Gulf (the Gulf of Thailand). Alexandros claimed that it took twenty days to sail from Thailand to a port called "Zabia" (or Zaba) in southern Vietnam. According to him, one could continue along the coast (of southern Vietnam) from Zabia until reaching the trade port of Cattigara after an unspecified number of days (with "some" being interpreted as "many" by Marinus).
Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century AD Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Greek monk from Alexandria and former merchant with experience in the Indian Ocean trade, was the first Roman to write clearly about China in his Christian Topography (c. 550 AD). He called it the country of Tzinista (comparable to Sanskrit Chinasthana and Syriac Sinistan from the 781 AD Nestorian Stele of Xi'an, China), located in easternmost Asia. He explained the maritime route towards it (first sailing east and then north up the southern coast of the Asian continent) and the fact that cloves came that way to Sri Lanka for sale. By the time of the Eastern Roman ruler Justinian I (r. 527–565 AD), the Byzantines purchased Chinese silk from Sogdian intermediaries. They also smuggled silkworms out of China with the help of Nestorian monks, who claimed that the land of Serindia was located north of India and produced the finest silk. By smuggling silkworms and producing silk of their own, the Byzantines could bypass the Chinese silk trade dominated by their chief rivals, the Sasanian Empire.
From Turkic peoples of Central Asia during the Northern Wei (386–535 AD) period the Eastern Romans acquired yet another name for China: Taugast (Old Turkic: Tabghach). Theophylact Simocatta, a historian during the reign of Heraclius (r. 610–641 AD), wrote that Taugast (or Taugas) was a great eastern empire colonised by Turkic people, with a capital city 2,400 kilometres (1,500 mi) northeast of India that he called Khubdan (from the Turkic word Khumdan used for the Sui and Tang capital Chang'an), where idolatry was practised but the people were wise and lived by just laws. He depicted the Chinese empire as being divided by a great river (the Yangzi) that served as the boundary between two rival nations at war; during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582–602 AD) the northerners wearing "black coats" conquered the "red coats" of the south (black being a distinctive colour worn by the people of Shaanxi, location of the Sui capital Sui Chang'an, according to the 16th-century Persian traveller Hajji Mahomed, or Chaggi Memet). This account may correspond to the conquest of the Chen dynasty and reunification of China by Emperor Wen of Sui (r. 581–604 AD). Simocatta names their ruler as Taisson, which he claimed meant Son of God, either correlating to the Chinese Tianzi (Son of Heaven) or even the name of the contemporary ruler Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626 – 649 AD). Later medieval Europeans in China wrote of it as two separate countries, with Cathay in the north and Mangi in the south, during the period when the Yuan dynasty led by Mongol ruler Kublai Khan (r. 1260–1294 AD) conquered the Southern Song Dynasty.
Detailed geographical information about the Roman Empire, at least its easternmost territories, is provided in traditional Chinese historiography. The Shiji by Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC) gives descriptions of countries in Central Asia and West Asia. These accounts became significantly more nuanced in the Book of Han, co-authored by Ban Gu and his sister Ban Zhao, younger siblings of the general Ban Chao, who led military exploits into Central Asia before returning to China in 102 AD. The westernmost territories of Asia as described in the Book of the Later Han compiled by Fan Ye (398–445 AD) formed the basis for almost all later accounts of Daqin.[note 1] These accounts seem to be restricted to descriptions of the Levant, particularly Syria. Historical linguist Edwin G. Pulleyblank explains that Chinese historians considered Daqin to be a kind of "counter-China" located at the opposite end of their known world. According to Pulleyblank, "the Chinese conception of Dà Qín was confused from the outset with ancient mythological notions about the far west". The Chinese histories explicitly related Daqin and Lijian (also "Li-kan", or Syria) as belonging to the same country; according to Yule, D. D. Leslie, and K. H. G. Gardiner, the earliest descriptions of Lijian in the Shiji distinguished it as the Hellenistic-era Seleucid Empire. Pulleyblank provides some linguistic analysis to dispute their proposal, arguing that Tiaozhi (条支) in the Shiji was most likely the Seleucid Empire and that Lijian, although still poorly understood, could be identified with either Hyrcania in Iran or even Alexandria in Egypt.
The Weilüe by Yu Huan (c. 239–265 AD), preserved in annotations to the Records of the Three Kingdoms (published in 429 AD by Pei Songzhi), also provides details about the easternmost portion of the Roman world, including mention of the Mediterranean Sea. For Roman Egypt, the book explains the location of Alexandria, travelling distances along the Nile and the tripartite division of the Nile Delta, Heptanomis, and Thebaid. In his Zhu Fan Zhi, the Song-era Quanzhou customs inspector Zhao Rugua (1170–1228 AD) described the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. Both the Book of the Later Han and the Weilüe mention the "flying" pontoon bridge (飛橋) over the Euphrates at Zeugma, Commagene in Roman Anatolia. The Weilüe also listed what it considered the most important dependent vassal states of the Roman Empire, providing travel directions and estimates for the distances between them (in Chinese miles, li). Friedrich Hirth (1885) identified the locations and dependent states of Rome named in the Weilüe; some of his identifications have been disputed.[note 2] Hirth identified Si-fu (汜復) as Emesa; John E. Hill (2004) uses linguistic and situational evidence to argue it was Petra in the Nabataean Kingdom, which was annexed by Rome in 106 AD during the reign of Trajan.
The Old Book of Tang and New Book of Tang record that the Arabs (Da shi 大食) sent their commander Mo-yi (摩拽, pinyin: Móyè, i.e. Muawiyah I, governor of Syria and later Umayyad caliph, r. 661–680 AD) to besiege the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, and forced the Byzantines to pay them tribute. The same books also described Constantinople in some detail as having strong granite walls and a water clock mounted with a golden statue of man. Henry Yule noted that the name of the Byzantine negotiator "Yenyo" (the patrician John Pitzigaudes) was mentioned in Chinese sources, an envoy who was unnamed in Edward Gibbon's account of the man sent to Damascus to hold a parley with the Umayyads, followed a few years later by the increase of tributary demands on the Byzantines. The New Book of Tang and Wenxian Tongkao described the land of Nubia (either the Kingdom of Kush or Aksum) as a desert south-west of the Byzantine Empire that was infested with malaria, where the natives had black skin and consumed Persian dates. In discussing the three main religions of Nubia (the Sudan), the Wenxian Tongkao mentions the Daqin religion there and the day of rest occurring every seven days for those following the faith of the Da shi (the Muslim Arabs). It also repeats the claim in the New Book of Tang about the Eastern Roman surgical practice of trepanning to remove parasites from the brain. The descriptions of Nubia and Horn of Africa in the Wenxian Tongkao were ultimately derived from the Jingxingji of Du Huan (fl. 8th century AD), a Chinese travel writer whose text, preserved in the Tongdian of Du You, is perhaps the first Chinese source to describe Ethiopia (Laobosa), in addition to offering descriptions of Eritrea (Molin).