Section 11 – The Kingdom of Da Qin 大秦 (the Roman Empire)

1. Da Qin 大秦 [Ta Ch’in] = Rome or Roman territory, depending on the context. The use of such a name (literally, ‘Great Qin’ = Great China) for a foreign state probably reflects the common process of mythologizing distant and unfamiliar cultures. Pulleyblank (1999), p. 77 notes that it “ clearly not a transcription of a foreign word” and that the “...earliest datable occurrence seems to be with reference to Gān Ying’s mission of 97 C.E.”
          There are several whimsical stories about Da Qin in this section of the text. This was a common process – in more recent times Europeans fantasized about ‘noble savages’ and searched for the fabled golden city of El Dorado in the jungles of South America. A similar process is clearly reflected here in the astonishingly naive etymology for the name Da Qin in this section of the Hou Hanshu:

“The people of this country are all tall and honest. They resemble the people of the Middle Kingdom and that is why this kingdom is called Da Qin.”

Yü Ying-shih (1986) p. 379 remarks:

“Moreover, as their geographical knowledge of the world grew with time, the Han Chinese even came to the realization that China was not necessarily the only civilized country in the world. This is clearly shown in the fact that the Later Han Chinese gave the Roman Empire (or, rather, the Roman Orient) the name of Great Ch’in (Ta Ch’in). According to the Hou-Han shu, the Roman Empire was so named precisely because its people and civilization were comparable to those of China.”

          Mark Passehl, in a personal communication (7 July, 2003) writes: “I’m not sure the “noble savage” analogy is the right one with regard to Chinese attitudes to the Romans – although the tallness of the imperial bodyguards (mainly Germans and Galli) may well have impressed Chinese traders. As I read it the trade was all-important and the Romans impressed the Chinese by the rigour of their organisation and a weights and measures system equal in sophistication to their own.”
          Hirth, and many other scholars who followed him, have taken Da Qin to refer specifically to the ‘Roman Orient.’ I have, however, found that the term is often used in a broader sense than this to mean the Roman Empire in general, and is even sometimes applied to any territory under the control of Rome. 
          Even today we find this sort of usage. For example, it is commonly said that one is “entering China” when one enters territory inhabited by other people, but controlled by the Chinese, such as Tibet, or Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang).
          It is true that most of the dependencies mentioned in the Weilue are probably to be found in the ‘Roman Orient,’ but the text specifically says that it only lists a few of the many countries dependent on Da Qin. These are presumably the ones visited by the Chinese, or reported about to the Chinese because of their importance for east-west trade. Quite naturally, they tend to be territories in Rome’s easternmost territories, in other words, the ‘Roman Orient.’
          Sometimes the name is used more specifically. The Weilue gives directions across a ‘Great Sea’ (the Mediterranean) to “that country” (i.e. Da Qin) from Wuchisan in Haixi, which is undoubtedly Alexandria in Egypt. See note 10.12 above.
          It is clear from the account given here of Da Qin that it was very large and controlled many dependencies. The Weilue adds: “At present (the Roman Empire) can be summed up as follows: the number of people and families cannot be given in detail. It is the biggest country west of the Bai Congling (‘White Pamir Mountains’). They have installed numerous minor kings so only the bigger dependencies have been noted.”
          So, I believe I am fully justified to translate Da Qin as either ‘Rome’ the city, ‘Roman territory,’ or the ‘Roman Empire,’ as the context demands. The reader should remember, however, that in each case the original Chinese text will have only Da Qin.

2. Lijian [Li-chien – sometimes written Li-kan] is given here as another name for Da Qin or the Roman Empire. There have been so many competing theories as to the derivation of this name in its various forms, I am at a loss to make a choice between them. I will, therefore, quote several of the main ones here and give references for those who would like to examine the various theories in more detail. 
          Hirth (1875), p. 159 ff., and 170, n. 1, thought it perhaps represented Rekem, an old name for Petra – both meaning ‘rock.’
          Several scholars have suggested that it must have been originally derived from ‘Alexandria’ or ‘Alexander.’ See, for example: Dubs (1957), pp. 2-3, and Sitwell (1984), p. 213, n. 22.
          Leslie and Gardiner (1996), pp. XVIII-XXVI and 253-254 argue that Li-kan (Lijian) referred originally to the Seleucid Empire. See also under GR, Nos. 6963/6864 where it is said to be a transcription of ancient Greek: Seleukidai – “1. The Hellenistic Persian Empire of the Seleucids (from present Afghanistan to the Aegean Sea; 305-64
CE); more particularly the Hellenistic Syria of the Seleucid kings (c. 359-93 BCE). It was at this period, after the conquest of Bactria by the Yuezhi, about 100 BCE, that exchanges between China and the West across the Pamirs began….” Translated and adapted from GR, No. 6864.
          Pulleyblank (1999), pp. 73-77, argues strongly in favour of the theory, first proposed by Brosset in 1828, that Lijian represented the ancient state of Hyrcania (Old Persian Wrk
āna), at the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, by an editorial error or a slip of the pen, Pulleyblank places it at the southwestern corner of the Caspian Sea on p. 73, but correctly locates it on the southeastern side of the Caspian Sea on p. 74.
          For detailed reviews of the many theories about the origin and various forms of the name, see CICA: 117, n. 275, and Dubs (1957), pp. 24-26.

3. Haixi 海西 [Hai-hsi] = Egypt. See note 10.12 above.

4. cansang = silkworm-mulberry trees. This mention of the silkworm-mulberry tree, or the White Mulberry, Morus alba, a native of China, growing in Roman territory has caused some scepticism, as it is not thought to have been introduced to the region until much later. However, it is quite possible that the native, and rather similar, Black Mulberry, Morus nigra, was mistaken for it by the original informant. It was widely cultivated from very early times for its excellent fruit throughout the Mediterranean region and as far east as Iran. 
          It should be noted that silkworms can also be successfully raised on Black Mulberry leaves although there is no evidence that this was being done at the time. The few references we have of silk actually being produced in the Mediterranean and the Middle East at this period seem to refer to the small-scale production of cloth from varieties of wild silk.

5. ziping 輺輧 can be translated as, a coach with curtains on all four sides for carrying women (GR Nos. 11951 and 9206. See also Williams, p. 650 under pien). It is likely, therefore, that the reference is to the Roman carpentum:

“People of wealth, particularly ladies of the court, frequently used the carpentum. This was a heavy two-wheeled de luxe carriage with a substantial roof supported by ornamental columns; the sides could be closed off with draw curtains, often gaily decorated, often of expensive fabrics such as silk.” Casson (1974), p. 179.

baigai xiaoche 白葢小車 = ‘small white-roofed one-horse carriages.’ See GR, No. 4239.

6. See note 11.1 above.