Roman-Chinese Foreign Relations

The Romans and Chinese had long had vague contacts of each other and even some diplomatic missions. The ancient romans and Chinese had their own encounters, but here is a Chinese account of Byzantium below.

From the Chiu-t’ang-shu (written mid-10th Century C.E.), 618-906 C.E:

The country of Fu-lin [Byzantium] lies above the western sea [Indian Ocean]. In the southeast it borders on Po-si [Persia]. The eaves, pillars, and window-bars of their palaces are frequently made with crystal and opaque glass. There are twelve honorable ministers who conjointly regulate government matters. They ordinarily let a man take a bag and follow the king’s carriage. When the people have a complaint they throw a written statement into the bag. When the king comes back to the palace he decides between right and wrong. Their kings are not permanent rulers, but they select men of merit. If an extraordinary calamity visits the country, or if wind and rain come at the wrong time, he is deposed and another man is put in his stead. The king’s cap is shaped like a bird raising its wings; its trimmings are beset with precious pearls; he wears silk-embroidered clothing, without a lapel in front. He sits on a throne with golden ornaments. He has a bird like a goose; its feathers are green, and it always sits on a cushion by the side of the king. Whenever anything poisonous has been put into the king’s meals, the bird will crow. The walls of their capital are built of granite, and are of enormous height. The city contains in all over 100,000 households [some 500,000 to 600,000 inhabitants].”

“A human figure has been made all of gold of the size of a man standing upright, on whose side, whenever an hour has come, one of the golden balls will drop, the dingling sound of which makes known the divisions of the day without the slightest mistake [a clepsydra]. In the palaces, pillars are made of se-se [lapis lazuli], the floors of yellow gold [probably bronze], the leaves of folding doors of ivory, beams of fragrant wood. They have no tiles, but powdered plaster is rammed down into a floor above the house. This floor is perfectly firm and of glossy appearance like jade-stone.”

Here is a second Chinese account of Byzantium, it is clear that the Chinese considered the Romans to be a noble but also incredibly foreign and mysterious people. The Chinese clearly were curious about Roman customs from their writing about an encounter with Byzantium in the 11th century:

“The country of Fu-lin [Byzantium]. They have during former dynasties not sent tribute to our court. During the tenth month of the fourth year of the period Yuan-feng [November, 1081 C.E.], their king, Mieh-li-i-ling-kai-sa [Michael VII Doukas], first sent the ta-shou-ling [a high official] Ni-si-tu-ling-si-meng-p’an to offer as tribute saddled horses, sword-blades, and real pearls. He said: the climate of this country is very cold; houses there have no tiles; the products are gold, silver, pearls, western silk cloth, cows, sheep, horses’ camels with single humps, pears, almonds, dates, pa-lan [a kind of date], millet, and wheat. They make wine from grapes. The king dresses in red and yellow robes, and wears a turban of silken cloth interwoven with gold thread. In the third month every year he goes to the Temple of Fou-shih [ “Temple of Buddha”, meaning Muhammed or Christ; in other places the Qu’ran is Fou-Ching”.], to sit on a red couch which he gets the people to lift. His honored servants [ministers, courtiers, priests?] are dressed like the king, but wear blue, green, purple, white mottled, red, yellow, or brown stuff, wear turbans and ride on horseback. In their criminal decisions they distinguish between great and small offences. Light offences are punished by several tens of blows with the bamboo; heavy offences with up to 200 blows; capital punishment is administered by putting the culprit into a feather bag which is thrown into the sea. They are not bent on making war to neighboring countries, and in the case of small difficulties try to settle matters by correspondence; but when important interests are at stake they will also send out an army. They cast gold and silver coins’ without holes, however; on the pile they cut the words Mi-le-fou, which is a king’s name. The people are forbidden to counterfeit the coin. During the sixth year of Yuan-yu [1091 C.E.] they sent two embassies, and their king was presented, by imperial order, with 200 pieces of cloth, pairs of white gold vases, and clothing with gold bound in a girdle.”

Source: From the Sung-shih, ch. 490 (written late 13thC C.E.) for 960-1279 C.E

East Asian History Sourcebook: Chinese Accounts of Rome, Byzantium and the Middle East, c. 91 B.C.E. – 1643 C.E