Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.


The Seven Ages of Japan, Part 2: Shinobi and Sakoku and Japanese Ambition

A real ninja. Note the lack of teenage, mutant and turtle qualities.

Constant war. Divided families.  Larger armies than had ever been seen before. And that most famous of Chinese imports, the musket. I’m not going to make a huge, arching generalisation here (…even though that’s exactly the sort of thing I do here) but it’s fair to say that brilliant combination can lead a country to turmoil. It near-destroyed the idea of a unified Japan. It near-destroyed the Shogunate, as even the greatest of warlords was suddenly susceptible to assassination or backstabbing.  And it near-destroyed the samurai system, as warlords moved towards the gun-toting mercenary class’ antidote to the honour and brashness of the warrior class – the ninja. If there’s one symbol of the Sengoku era that works better than any other, it’s the ninja – for a start, they never existed at any other point in Japanese history. Their success was based around the pragmatism of the war, and the (temporary) abandonment of all that was noble about feudal Japan – the disguises, poisoning, espionage and often just plain arson would be unthinkable outside of those desperate times. And on the other hand, they also show what was to become the height of Japanese technology for centuries – amazing military philosophy and technology that would make them icons of a strong and innovative Japan in later years. They are also, it must be mentioned, fucking cool – some of the jut su (techniques) wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a James Bond film. But they were not a permanent change, and as the Sengoku Era reeled to a bloody stop under the military genius of Daimyo Oda Nobunaga and the economic genius of the Portuguese firearms trade, the ninjas disappeared just as they had lived – quietly.

European trade had saved Japan from endless civil war – the cheap and high-tech firearms from Portugal and Spain in return for Japanese finery allowed the Shogunate to speed ahead of its protectionist neighbours and reunite Japan.  But the good, peaceful times were not to last. Because with each trade, the Europeans brought more and more of a commodity that the new Shoguns would find more terrifying than any other…Christianity.

Japanese Christians

Excuse me, do you have a minute to talk about our lord Jesus Christ?

It’s often just plain weird where the biggest decisions in history originate from. Arguably the biggest decision in Japanese history was made by a small Basque man in the crypt of a small French church. The man was called Ignatius of Loyola (because you can’t go down in Spanish history without a damned cool sounding name) and he’d just created a society to spread Christianity around the newly-discovered world outside of Europe – the Evangelical-Catholic Jesuits. You’d think Christianity and Japan would never mix what with Japan not being Christian in the modern age and all, but the Jesuits were actually really successful in the East – in under two decades 200,000 new Catholics were counted in the Japanese population. To the Shogun, this was a threat – fearing invasion as much as some mystical figure called the Pope – Japan needed a way to destroy the supposedly corrupting monotheistic influence before the country fell into another hundred years of bloodshed. The solution was pretty much the most drastic foreign policy idea in history. Japan completely closed itself off from the world.

If I only get one message across to you with Holistic History, it’s that the world is built on connections – trade routes and warpaths and migration patterns and the spread of ideas along any and all of the other three. So when a country closes its borders so completely, makes the punishment for attempted emigration death, goes to far as to bore holes every ship in the navy so the boats can’t reach a certain depth of water…that was more than unusual, that was unprecedented. It was also…successful. Sort of. It protected Japanese trade and culture at a time when even China, the freaking workshop of the world and birthplace of most inventions ever, was beginning to be threatened by Western ambition. But it also meant that, wile the world moved on around them, introducing industry, colony, new nations and new philosophies, Japan was completely oblivious.

Then, after around 250 years of self-imposed isolation, entered a final foreigner who would shape Japan forever. He hailed from a country at the other end of the world – the far west, a strange democracy on the other side of the Pacific. The man was called Matt Perry. And no, he wasn’t that one.

Disregard flag accuracy! Acquire Westernisation!

Commodore Matthew Perry (sadly without First Mate David Schwimmer or Admiral Matt le Blanc) was sent to explore the unknown island of Japan, and open up its borders to foreign trade. Because of a loose understanding of diplomacy, America’s attempt involved cannons, ironclad warships and state-of-the-art rifles. Japan was still using katana. I guess it goes without saying that the Japanese conceded pretty quickly, so Japan opened up its borders for the first time in centuries. And then the full force of the Victorian Era flowed into Japan. Samurai had their swords confiscated. The Shogun was usurped, the actual Emperor installed. The Meiji Restoration – kind of the industrial revolution at double speed – began a wave of technology that rapidly put Japan on the world stage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the good ideas from the rest of the world that Japan picked up. As time passed, and Japan’s nationalism became ultranationalism, an insatiable desire amongst many Japanese people for the empire they missed a chance to get. Military power grew, but not foreign relations. Technology exploded in its power, but pacifism didn’t. During the 1920s and ’30s, one final European influence arrived in Japan. It was called fascism.

If it's not love

“Now we are all sons of bitches”

In 1937, fueled by a war economy and the pressures of nationalism, the Japanese experienced something that their Yayoi ancestors would have found unthinkable. They invaded China. In fact, they invaded China really successfully; they turned the north into their puppet before going on to take over Korea, Taiwan and a good number of islands in the Pacific. But it was not without cruelty that they did it – their attack of Nanjing in China, for example, has’t gone down in history as a conquest or a heroic victory. It’s commonly just referred to as The Rape. But as more and more nations joined a growing war, Japan lost its bearings. On the 6th August 1945, while the Imperial Government were discussing the terms of their surrender, one of those new nations delivered its ultimatum. It came in the form of two atomic bombs, and the loss of 200,000 civilian lives.

Post-war, Japan was given the choice between democracy and…well, there wasn’t another choice, which is kind of ironic when talking about democracy. Japan, while it kept its ex-fascist emperor, was rapidly reformed into one of the fairest political systems around today, while a succession of reconstructionist presidents created something now called the Japanese Economic Miracle. It was kind of a big deal. After its 2,000 years of existence, Japan had seen Seven Ages – a Prehistoric Backwater, a Chinese Vassal, a Feudal Idyll and then a Feudal Disaster, an Industrial Autocracy and a lasting Democracy. The new calendar is still young. The question now is where it will go next.