The Great Handclasp: The Han Empire and the Roman Empire

In the movie “Attila”, Flavius Aetius, the last great Roman general, who defeated “the Scourge of God” Attila, was very proud of his nation. He extolled his motherland and said that, during one thousand years, Rome was the center of the world civilization all along.

Zhou Mu-King (周穆王), the fifth king of the Zhou Dynasty (this dynasty was the third kingdom of ancient China which lasted from the 11th century BC to 256 BC), thought that, the east, the south and the north of his country were surrounded by the sea, and only the west was endless land. So the king tried to travel to the far Western world, but finally had to stop because of rebellion and health problem…

In 202 BC, Liu Bang (刘邦), the first emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220, the second empire of ancient China), defeated his strong opponent Xiang Yu (项羽), as Scipio Africanus the Elder defeated Hannibal. His Han Kingdom developed into a large empire – the Han Empire. There were much sameness between the Han Empire and the Roman Empire. As ancient Hellene and Roman, the people of the Han Empire thought their country was the center of the world, so they called their country “the Central Nation” (中国). As ancient Hellas and Rome influenced the Western Europe very deeply, ancient China greatly influenced the Eastern Asia. Great civilizations always can understand each other. As Roman, the people of the Han Empire always regarded foreign peoples as savages. But, Rome, Bactria, Persia (the Arsacid Dynasty of Parthia) and some other far Western countries were exceptions. The Han people didn’t give derogatory appellations to these countries. Rome was called “Da-Qin” (大秦), Bactria was called “Da-Xia” (大夏), and Persia was called “Anxi” (安息).

“Qin” (秦) was the name of the first empire of ancient China, and in the Han Dynasty other nations often called Chinese people “the Qin people”. “Xia” (夏) was the name of the first kingdom of ancient China, and the Chinese nation also called herself “Xia”. “Da” (大) means “great”. Why did Chinese call Rome “Da-Qin” and Bactria “Da-Xia”? A historical book “the History of the Later Han” (後汉书), which was written in the Song Empire (AD 420-479, one of the Southern Dynasties), describes the impression of Roman in the heart of the Han people, and says, “The people of this country are high in stature, elegant in manners, honest in morality, so they are similar to our Chinese people. This is why the country is called ‘Da-Qin’.” Bactria was a colonial country of the Greek. But, when Zhang Qian (张骞), a great Chinese explorer, arrived in Bactria, the country had been subjugated by the Yueh-chih (大月氏) who later built the Kushan (贵霜) Empire in the 1st century AD, so the Chinese people couldn’t communicate with the Greek people, but still felt the illustrious style of the Greek civilization, and then they were willing to give a laudatory appellation to this country. When Chinese visitors arrived in Persia, the country was ruled by the Arsacid Dynasty of Parthia, so Chinese people transliterated “Arsacid” as “Anxi”.

The book “the History of the Later Han” also mentions the political systems of Rome (Da-Qin), and says that, every day the king of Da-Qin read and replied the letters of the common people; the kingship of Da-Qin was not hereditary but was given to a person of virtue; if there was a natural calamity in Da-Qin, the king would be dethroned, but he had no word of complaint. The book says, the king of Da-Qin tried to establish the direct diplomatic relationship with the Han Empire, but Anxi intentionally obstructed the way because the people of Anxi wanted to monopolize the silk trade to the Western world. In AD 97, Ban Chao (班超), a famous ironhanded diplomat of the Han Empire, sent his assistant Gan Ying (甘英) to visit Da-Qin. But Gan Ying didn’t arrive in Da-Qin and returned midway. He told Ban Chao about his experiences, “I arrived in Tiaozhi (條支), and prepared to cross the sea. But the sailors from the west border of Anxi said, ‘The sea is very large. Generally it takes three months to cross the sea if the wind is propitious. But if the wind is not propitious, it even takes two years. So the persons who want to cross the sea always prepare the food for three months. The life on the sea is very melancholy, and many persons died of grief.’ So I had to stop.” Where did Gan Ying arrive in? The focus of attention is the area “Tiaozhi”. Where was “Tiaozhi”? The book “The History of the Later Han” describes Tiaozhi, “Tiaozhi is a city-state on a mountain, and it is forty Li (里, “Li” is a measure of length, and one Li in the Han Dynasty is equal to four hundred meters modern-day.) around. The city is near the West Sea, and the sea surrounds the east, the south and the north of the country. Only the northwest has an overland route. The land is hot and humid, and there are many lions, rhinoceros, bison, peafowl and big birds (“big birds” must be referred to ostriches). The egg of a big bird was big as a jar.” About the location of Tiaozhi, modern scholars have different ideas: a city on the Persian Gulf; a city on the Caspian Sea; a city on the Black Sea; a city on the eastern Mediterranean. All of these ideas have their bases, but all of them also have flaws. But there was a fact: Gan Ying didn’t arrive in Rome because Persian intentionally dissuaded him from sailing. Obviously, Persian didn’t want the direct relationship between China and Rome to be established. The timidity of Gan Ying was the other reason. The try that Chinese explored a road to Rome failed unfortunately, and since then, the government of the Han Empire didn’t try anymore. It was really a pity!

The Roman Empire also watched the far friend. In AD 166, a man from Da-Qin arrived in China through the Rinan (日南) Jun (“Jun”[郡] was a prefecture of the Han Empire, and this Jun was one of the Han Empire’s prefectures in modern-day Vietnam). He paid a visit to Han Huan-Emperor (汉桓帝, who reigned from AD 147 to 167), and said that he was the envoy of the Da-Qin. The man presented ivories, rhinoceros horns, and hawksbill shells to the emperor of China. Because these presents were not rare treasures, some Chinese started to suppose that the richness of Da-Qin has been exaggerated. Remarkably, the name of the Da-Qin’s king, who was mentioned by the man, was recorded as “Andun” (安敦) in the historical book of China. “Andun” sounds like the word “Antoine”. So, many scholars think that, Andun was Marcus Aurelius (reigned from AD 161 to 180), the famous philosopher-emperor of the Antoine dynasty of the Roman Empire.

The Han Empire and the Roman Empire, the model of the Oriental Civilization and the model of the Occidental Civilization, though they were remote in distance, they still could understand and appreciate each other. Great civilizations should be harmonious, no matter how far the distance is, no matter how different the races are.

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