Early Intercourse with China
The Chinese are mentioned by the Greeks as the Seres. This word is probably derived from the Chinese sze, meaning the silk fiber or thread. "The region of the Seres," says a Greek writer, "is a vast and populous country, touching on the east the ocean and the limits of the habitable world; and extending west nearly to Imaus and the confines of Bactria. The people are civilized men, of mild, just, and frugal temper; avoiding quarrels with their neighbors, and even shy of close intercourse, but not unwilling to dispose of their own products, of which raw silk is the staple, but which include also silk stuffs, furs, and iron of remarkable quality." At that time the Chinese were known for their honesty, and they are known so still among the other people of Asia.
Chinese writers state that there was trade between their country and one which they call Tat-sin Kwoh. This was probably the Roman Empire. Roman writers also mention China, and it is well known that silk was brought to Rome, where it sold at a high price. It is said that two monks brought the first silkworm eggs to Constantinople in the sixth century after Christ. They had hidden them in a hollow bamboo staff.
Although among Europeans trade was always the principal cause for exploring new countries, another reason was the desire to preach the Gospel. There is a tradition that a pious man went to China from the country of Ta-Tsin (Palestine) in the year 636 a.d. , and that he was kindly received by the Emperor. Not very long ago a stone was standing in the yard of a temple at Sian-Fu (see-ahn foo). It had an inscription in the Syrian and Chinese characters, and bore the date 781 a.d. It was the only trace left of the work of those old missionaries. The inscription, translated, reads as follows:
"A stone tablet commemorating the diffusion of the illustrious religion in China by a priest from the Church in Ta-Tsin (Palestine), with a preface, written by King Tsing."
The first really good description we have of China is given by two Arabians in the years 850 and 877 a.d. They describe their journey, the customs of the Chinese, what goods are most in demand, and how to carry on trade. At that time the city of Hang-chow, where the trade was conducted, was one of the largest and wealthiest in the world. It was destroyed in a.d. 877, from which year Canton became the market for foreign trade.
A well-known account of China is that given by Marco Polo. Nicolo Polo, a noble of Venice, and the father of Marco, left that city about the year 1250 a.d. , with his brother Matteo, on a trading voyage to the Crimea. From there they drifted eastward until they came to China, which had lately been conquered by Kublai Khan. They were kindly received, and after remaining some time, received permission to return home, on condition that they would come back to China. In 1274 they did so, this time accompanied by Marco, then a boy of sixteen. They arrived safely, and were again received in high favor. Marco took office under the Chinese and rose to the position of Tao-tai (tah-o-tie) or Prefect of Che-Kiang (chay-keeahng). This time Marco and his father and uncle remained in China for many years, and finally returned home by way of Southern Asia. But when they reached Venice they were so changed that nobody recognized them, and the Venetians at first refused to believe that they were really the three Polos.
Everyone was amazed at the number of diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones that they had brought back with them. When the news of their great wealth became known in Venice, all their former friends and acquaintances hurried to their house to congratulate them. Everybody wanted to know their adventures, and Marco was asked to give an account of what they had seen.
In his book he tells about the conquest of China by Kublai Khan and his fierce Mongols that had taken place only a few years before his arrival in that country. He visited the southern part of China, and says "that the number of inhabitants is so great that no person can count them, and if they were men-at-arms," (that is, soldiers) "those of the province of Manji (mahn-jee) would conquer the whole world; they are not so, however, but prudent merchants."
Marco Polo was afterwards captured in a war with Genoa and thrown into prison. This was several years after his return. As he had nothing to do, he began to dictate further accounts of his travels to a fellow-prisoner, who wrote them down in French. A famous German writer says of him: "If the name of Discoverer of Asia were to be given to any person, nobody would deserve it better than Marco Polo."
In strong contrast with Marco Polo's account of China is that of Sir John Mandeville, a Knight of St. Albans, who claims that "he passed the sea on St. Michael's Day of the year 1322," and that he wrote his adventures in English, "so that other noble and worthy men, if he err from defect of memory, may redress and amend it." It seems that Sir John's memory was very short indeed; or else, his imagination must have been remarkable. He says that in the Far East he learned of men and women who have "dogs' heads, and they are reasonable and of good understanding, except that they worship an ox for their god." He claims to have discovered a country where there is "a kind of snails so great that many persons lodge in their shells, as men would do in a little house;" and another where "are white hens without feathers, but they bear white wool, as sheep do here." He must have discovered some very curious islands, for in one of them "are people of great stature, like giants, hideous to look upon; and they have but one eye, which is in the middle of the forehead, and they eat nothing but raw flesh and fish." In another island "there were dwarfs who have no mouth, but instead of a mouth they have a little round hole; and when they eat or drink they take it through a pipe, or pen, or such thing, and suck it in."
In describing China, he says: "The greatest river of fresh water in the world is there, which, where it is narrowest is more than four miles broad. This remarkable river flows through the land of pigmies, where the people are only three span long. These men are the best workers of gold, silver, cotton, and silk, and of such things that are to be found in the world. They have sometimes a war with the birds of the country, which they kill and eat. They do not admire the men of our stature, any more than we do giants. Cathay is a great country, fair, noble, rich, and full of merchants." In the palace "all the vessels that men are served with, in the hall or in chambers, are of precious stones; and especially at great tables, either of jasper, or of crystal, or of amethyst, or of fine gold. And the cups are of emeralds, and sapphires or topazes, and of many other precious stones. Vessels of silver there are none, for they set no value on it to make vessels of; but they make therewith steps and pillars and pavements to halls and chambers."
Sir John tells many other stories even more marvelous than these. People at that time believed them, and so it is no wonder that they were anxious to find a short route to Cathay.
A more truthful story is told by Friar Odoric, who really did travel in China at about the time when Sir John Mandeville said that he was there. Odoric noticed the peculiar method of fishing with cormorants; that of allowing the finger nails to grow long, and he speaks of the custom of dwarfing the feet of women. His description of the division of the Khan's empire into twelve provinces with four viceroys is correct, as are also the names mentioned by him of the post stations. But he is, like most men of that age, very superstitious, and is apt to explain what he does not understand by magic or witchcraft.
How a Jewish colony came to settle in the heart of China will probably remain a mystery forever. It was located at Kai-fung (kie-foong), about 450 miles southwest of Peking. In 1850 some rolls or scrolls covered with Hebrew characters were bought from the descendants of former Jews. It was said that a synagogue had been built here in 1164, the ruins of which Dr. Martin discovered when he visited the place in 1866. At the present time there are a sufficient number of Jews in the province of Ho-nan to form a separate community.
Before the discovery of America, in 1492, no strong effort was made to trade with China. Venice, up to that time, had been the center of European commerce, and she was satisfied to purchase her stock from the Arabs, who brought their goods by caravans to the coast of the Mediterranean. At the beginning of the sixteenth century a daring spirit of exploration was aroused in Europe.