Category Archives: China

The Chinese Spring Lantern Festival


Myself . 

By T. V. Antony Raj

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Chinese Lantern Festival at night at ChiangKaiShek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan (Photo: PhiloVivero)
Chinese Lantern Festival at night at ChiangKaiShek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan (Photo: PhiloVivero)

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Nowadays, lanterns are used as general light sources outdoors. Low light level varieties are used for decoration. The term is now commonly associated with Chinese paper lanterns.

The Chinese Emperor Wu of Han the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China, ruling from 141–87 BC, employed poets and musicians in writing lyrics and scoring tunes for various performances. He patronized choreographers and shamans for arranging the dance movements and coordinating the spiritual and the mundane. He was fond of lavish nighttime ritual performances under brilliant lighting provided by of thousands of torches. The Emperor directed special attention to the Spring Lantern Festival. In 104 BC, he proclaimed it to be one of the most important celebrations and the ceremony would last throughout the night.

Though there are many different beliefs about the origin of the Lantern Festival, one likely origin is the celebration of “the declining darkness of winter” and community’s ability to “move about at night with human-made light,” namely, lanterns.

According to Taoist tradition, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, Shàngyuán, corresponds to the “Official of light” who enjoys colourful and light objects.

As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), the Chinese Lantern Festival or the Spring Lantern Festival (元宵节)] that marks the final day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations had become a festival with great significance.

Emperor Wen of Han (202–157 BC), the third emperor of the Han Dynasty of ancient China after subjugating the insurgency of Zhulu declared the fifteenth day of the first lunar month as the Lantern Festival. It usually falls on some day in February or March in the Gregorian calendar.

The Chinese emperor Wu of Han the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China, ruling from 141–87 BC, employed poets and musicians in writing lyrics and scoring tunes for various performances. He patronized choreographers and shamans for arranging the dance movements and coordinating the spiritual and the mundane. He was fond of lavish nighttime ritual performances under brilliant lighting provided by of thousands of torches. The Emperor directed special attention to the Spring Lantern Festival. In 104 BC, he proclaimed it to be one of the most important celebrations and the ceremony would last throughout the night.

So, Han Dynasty takes credit for the celebration of the Spring Lantern Festival.

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Chinese Lantern Festival at night (Source: chinatravetour.wordpress.com)
Chinese Lantern Festival at night (Source: chinatravetour.wordpress.com)

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During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night to temples carrying paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns.

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Yu Yuan Snake lantern installed at Yu Garden, Shanghai (Source: httpschoolhouse.com.)
Yu Yuan Snake lantern installed at Yu Garden, Shanghai (Source: httpschoolhouse.com.)

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In ancient times, the lanterns were fairly simple, and only the emperor and noblemen had large ornate ones. In modern times, lanterns have been embellished with many complex designs many in the shape of animals. The lanterns are made almost always in red to symbolize good fortune.

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People let go the lanterns on Chinese Lantern Festival (Source: schoolhouse.com.tw)
People let go the lanterns on Chinese Lantern Festival (Source: schoolhouse.com.tw)

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When the people let go the lanterns it symbolises their letting go of their past selves and getting new ones, which they, in turn, will let go the next year.

In modern days, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Chinese Spring Lantern Festival is commercialized as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

In Singapore and Malaysia, it is simply known as the “Lantern Festival” and is becoming popular in Western countries also.

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RELATED ARTICLES

Lantern (en.wikipedia.org)

History of Lanterns (1708gallery.org)

Lanterns in Han Dynasty (traditions.cultural-china.com)

Emperor Wu of Han (en.wikipedia.org)

Lantern Festival (en.wikipedia.org)

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The Chinese Double Ninth Festival


Myself 

By T. V. Antony Raj

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Once upon a time a man named Huan Jing believed that a monster would bring pestilence to his country. After asking his co-villagers to hide on a hill he went alone to defeat the monster.

Later, people celebrated Huan Jing’s victory over the monster on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month as the Double Ninth Festival (Chung Yeung Festival).

Since then, the Double Ninth Festival observed on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese calendar has become a traditional Chinese holiday. The Chung Yeung Festival is mentioned in writings even before the East Han period (25–220 AD).

yin-yang

Duality is found in many belief systems, According to the Chinese I Ching, or Classic of Changes, yin and yang describe how opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interdependent, and interconnected, in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other since they interrelate to one another. So, Yin and Yang are parts of a Oneness equated with the Tao.

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The 24-hour-yin-yang-cycle
The 24-hour-yin-yang-cycle

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In the above diagram, Yin is the black side with the white dot in it, and yang is the white side with the black dot in it.

The relationship between yin and yang is often described in terms of sunlight playing over a mountain and a valley.

Yin (meaning the ‘shady place’ or ‘north slope’) is the dark area occluded by the mountain’s bulk, while yang (meaning the ‘sunny place’ or ‘south slope’) is the brightly lit portion. As the sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.

According to the I Ching, nine is a yang number. Since the ninth day of the ninth lunar month (or double nine) has too much yang the date is considered potentially dangerous. Hence, the Double Ninth Festival is also known as “Double Yang Festival” (重陽節).

To protect against danger, it is customary for the Chinese to climb a high mountain, drink chrysanthemum tea, and wear the zhuyu (茱萸) plant, Cornus officinalis, a species of dogwood known also as Japanese cornel or Japanese cornelian cherry. Both chrysanthemum and zhuyu are considered to have cleansing properties and are used to air out houses and cure illnesses.

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Chai Wan Cemetery Hong Kong on the Double Ninth Festival (Photo: Susan Gerbic)
Chai Wan Cemetery Hong Kong on the Double Ninth Festival (Photo: Susan Gerbic)

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On the Double Ninth Festival day, the Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their homage and respects by cleaning and repainting inscriptions. Incense sticks are burned. They lay out food offerings such as roast suckling pig and fruit, before the graves which are then eaten later after the spirits have consumed the spiritual element of the food. Chongyang Cake is also popular.

In mainland China, the festival offers an opportunity for the young to care for and appreciate the elderly.

In 1966, Taiwan rededicated the holiday as “Senior Citizens’ Day”.

Though Double Ninth Festival may have originated as a day to drive away danger, over time it has become a day of celebration like the Chinese New Year. In contemporary times it is an occasion for hiking. Mountain climbing races have become popular and the winners get to wear a wreath made of zhuyu.

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The Tao Te Ching and Its Many Translations


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Sage Laozi (or Lao Tzu, Chinese: 老子) literally meaning “Father” or “Old Master” wrote the Chinese classic text, Tao Te Ching (道德經;) or Daode jing (道德经), translated as “The Classic of the Virtuous Way.”

According to tradition, Laozi wrote the Tao Te Ching around 6th century BC, although the oldest excavated text dates back to the late 4th century BC, leading to the true authorship and date of composition or compilation of the text under debate.

Although a legendary figure, Laozi is usually dated to around the 6th century BC as a record-keeper at the court of the Zhou dynasty.  He is also reckoned as a contemporary of Confucius (September 28, 551 – 479 BC), the  Chinese teacher and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. However, some historians contend that Laozi actually lived during the Warring States period of the 5th or 4th century BC.

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A painting of the Daode Tianzun ('the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue'), the deified Laozi, one of the supreme divinities of Daoism. (Source: eng.taoism.org.hk)
A painting of the Daode Tianzun (‘the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue’), the deified Laozi, one of the supreme divinities of Daoism. (Source: eng.taoism.org.hk)

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Laozi deified as the Daode Tianzun (道德天尊 – “Moral senior” or  “the Grand Pure One”) and venerated in traditional Chinese religions as “the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue” founded Taoism, an ancient tradition of Chinese philosophy and religious belief profound in Chinese customs.

Throughout Chinese history, various anti-authoritarian movements embraced Laozi’s work. As a central figure in Chinese culture, the emperors of the Tang dynasty and modern people of the Li surname claimed Laozi as the founder of their lineage.

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A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. ( Source: Hunan Province Museum)
A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. ( Source: Hunan Province Museum)

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In 1973, archeologists unearthed a large number of silk manuscripts from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Changsha, Hunan Province, China. Among these were two versions of the Daode jing by Laozi, dated to around 200 BC. The two silk books are part of the Cultural Relics from the Mawangdui Tombs collection at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

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The Guodian Chu Slips (Source: terebess.hu)
Th(Source: terebess.hu)

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In 1993, archeologists discovered three bundles of 71 bamboo strips with the Daode jing text written on them in a tomb in Guodian in Hubei province (east central China). The “Guodian Laozi” that has survived intact since 300 BC, is by far the earliest version of the Daode jing ever unearthed.

The Tao Te Ching is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections composed of  two parts, the Tao Ching (chapters 1–37) and the Te Ching (chapters 38–81).

The ideas in the Tao Te Ching are singular and the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions.

Many western scholars with a foundation in the Chinese language and Chinese philosophy have attempted to translate the Tao Te Ching into their own native languages.

The Tao Te Ching written in classical Chinese relies in essence on allusions.  For many non-Chinese scholars, it can be difficult to understand the verses completely due to their inherent semantic meanings, nuances, subtexts and many words are on purpose vague and open to more than one interpretation.

In Laozi’s period, people  memorized this work. They reinforced the allusions by using  them in their writings. Today, even among the modern Chinese translators, there are only a few who have a deep acquaintance with ancient Chinese literature and many have lost sight of the many levels of subtext.

As there are no punctuation marks in classical Chinese, it can be difficult to determine where a sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a full-stop a few words forward or back or inserting a comma would completely change the meaning of  passages. So, it is for the translator to determine where the divisions are and the meanings.

Some editors and translators say that the original texts of the Tao Te Ching written on one-line bamboo strips linked with silk threads are much corrupted, and it is difficult to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.

Many popular translations are less erudite. They give an individual author’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching that deviate from the original text and incompatible with the historical thoughts of the Chinese people.

Holmes Welch (1924-1981), an American scholar of Daoism and early 20th century Chinese Buddhism remarked: “It is a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved.

Today, the perseverance of non-Chinese scholars to preserve and bring out the original meaning of the Chinese text  in every respect has spawned hundreds of versions of the Tao Te Ching in western languages that in certain instances even contradictory. To prove my point, I have quoted below a few attempts by some authors to translate Chapter 74 of Tao Te Ching:

Example #1

If people do not fear death why attempt to frighten them by capital punishment?

Supposing the people are made constantly afraid of death, so that when they commit unlawful acts I arrest them and have them killed, who will dare [afterwards to misbehave]? For then there will always be yiusze, or civil magistrates, to execute them. Now the execution of men on behalf of the inflictor of the death-punishment [by those not legally qualified to do so] may be compared to hewing on behalf of a master carpenter; and people who [attempt to] hew instead of a master carpenter mostly cut their hands.

– Translated by Frederic Henry Balfour, 1884

Example #2

It is futile to threaten people with death. If they are not afraid to die, they cannot be frightened by the death penalty; and if they are afraid to die, why should we kill them?

Only Nature knows the proper time for a man to die. To kill is to interrupt Nature’s design for dying, Like a blundering apprentice judging himself to be wiser than his master.

Whenever an apprentice thinks he is smarter than his master, he is very likely to hurt himself.

It is futile to threaten people with death. If they are not afraid to die, they cannot be frightened by the death penalty; and if they are afraid to die, why should we kill them?

Only Nature knows the proper time for a man to die. To kill is to interrupt Nature’s design for dying, Like a blundering apprentice judging himself to be wiser than his master.

Whenever an apprentice thinks he is smarter than his master, he is very likely to hurt himself.

– Translated by Archie J. Bahm, 1958

Example #3

It is not the leader’s role to play judge and jury, to punish people for ‘bad’ behaviour. In the first place, punishment does not effectively control behaviour.

But even if punishment did work, what leader would dare to use fear as a teaching method?

The wise leader knows that there are natural consequences for every act. The task is to shed light on these natural consequences, not to attack the behaviour itself.

If the leader tries to take the place of nature and act as judge and jury, the best you can expect is a crude imitation of a very subtle process.

At the very least, the leader will discover that the instrument of justice cuts both ways. Punishing others in punishing work.

– Translated by John Heider, 1985.

Example #4

If people don’t love life, they won’t fear death, and threatening them with it won’t work.

If people have lives worth living, then the threat of death is meaningful, and they’ll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province of the great executioner alone. Trying to take his place and kill is like cutting wood in the place of the master carpenter: The odds are you’ll hurt your own hand.

– Translated by Ren Jiyu, 1993.

Example #5

When the people are not afraid to die
Why then threaten them with death?

Even if they normally are fearful of death,
For worst offenders, we may seize and kill them.

But who dares to execute?

There is always an expert executioner who kills.

Substituting for an expert executioner,
Is like hacking wood in place of a master carpenter.

Whoever substitutes for the master carpenter,
He seldom escapes injury of his own hand.

– Translated by David Hong Cheng, 2000.

Example #6

The people do not fear death,
Why threaten them with death?

Suppose the people always fear death,
One who does strange things (ch’i),
I shall seize and kill,
Then who dares [to do strange things]?
Killing is carried out by the executioner.

To replace the executioner and kill,
Is like chopping wood in place of the master carpenter.

To chop wood in place of the master carpenter,
Rarely one does not hurt one’s own hand.

Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary by Elen Marie Chen

Example #7

If people don’t love life, they won’t fear death, and threatening them with it won’t work.

If people have lives worth living, then the threat of death is meaningful, and they’ll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province of the great executioner alone.

Trying to take his place and kill is like cutting wood in the place of the master carpenter:
The odds are you’ll hurt your own hand.

The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu by Brian Browne Walker

Example #8

If the people do not fear death,
For reasons of extreme poverty or suffering,
What is the point of threatening them with death?

If the people fear death,
And if the outlaws are captured and killed,
Who will dare to break the law?

Yet, the act of killing should always be
The exclusive province of the Great Executioner.

Therefore, to kill in place of the Great Executioner is
Like hewing wood in place of the master carpenter;
Few, if ever, will escape cutting their own hands.

– Translated by Yasuhiko Genku Kimura

Example #9

If people don’t fear death
How will you frighten them with death?
If people always fear death
And I seize and execute
Anyone who does anything new,
Who will dare to move?
There is a public executioner who kills.
Killing on behalf of the public executioner,
Is called cutting wood on behalf of the carpenter.
In cutting wood on behalf of the carpenter,
There are few who escape hurting their hands.

– Translated by A. S. Kline, 2003.

Example #10

If people are not afraid of death,
how can they be threatened by it?
But if they always live in fear of death,
and still continue in their lawlessness,
we can arrest and kill them.
Who then would dare?
And yet there is a Lord of Death whose charge it is to kill.
To take his place and kill would be like carving wood in place of the master carpenter.
Few would escape without injuring their hands.

– Translated by Tim Chilcott, 2005.

For more translations of the Tao Te Ching by other authors visit Terebess Asia Online (TAO) .

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Paintings of “Along the River During the Qingming Festival”


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The era of Song dynasty (宋朝) that succeeded the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in Chinese history began in 960 and continued until 1279. There are two distinct periods in the Song dynasty  – Northern and Southern.

During the Northern Song (北宋) period from 960 to 1127, the dynasty controlled most of China proper with the northern city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng) as its capital.

During the Southern Song (南宋) period from 1127 to 1279, the Song dynasty lost control of northern China in the Jin–Song Wars to the Jurchen Jin dynasty.

The Song dynasty was the first in world history to issue national bank notes or true paper money, the first Chinese regime to establish a permanent navy, and the first to use gunpowder. It was during the Song dynasty that the Chinese found the true north using a compass.

The Qing Ming Shang He Tu (simplified Chinese: 清明上河图; traditional Chinese: 清明上河圖) or “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” is a scroll painting created by the famous Chinese painter Zhang Zeduan (1085 – 1145) alias Zheng Dao who lived during the transitional period from the Northern Song to the Southern Song and was instrumental in the early history of the Chinese landscape art style known as shan shui.

This painting considered the most renowned work among all Chinese paintings dubbed as “China’s Mona Lisa” has a theme of the worldly commotion and the festive spirit during the celebration of the Qingming Festival. It encapsulates the landscape of the capital, Bianjing, today’s Kaifeng and the life of its people.

This scroll painting is 9.76 inches (24.8 cm) in height and 17.35 feet (5.287 metres) long. It depicts the bustling and lively life and beautiful natural scenery on both sides of the river that meanders through Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty during the Qingming Festival. The two main portions in the painting are the countryside and the market in the densely populated city. It has more than 170 trees, 30 buildings, 814 humans, 8 sedan chairs, over 60 horses and other animals, 20 vehicles, and 28 boats.

The painting reveals the lifestyle of all levels of the society from rich to poor in successive scenes and offers glimpses of the architecture and clothing of the Song period.

For centuries, the scroll painting was a pride of the personal imperial collections of the Chinese emperors.

Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the Last Emperor (Source - Japanese magazine 'Historical Photograph,' March 1934 issue published by Rekishi-Shasin Kai)
Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the Last Emperor (Source – Japanese magazine ‘Historical Photograph,’ March 1934 issue published by Rekishi-Shasin Kai)

The original Song dynasty painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” was a favorite of Puyi (February 7, 1906 – October 17, 1967), also known as Henry Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China and the twelfth and final ruler of the Qing dynasty. At the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945, he took it along with him when he left Beijing. It was then re-purchased and kept at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City.

The following video describes how the original “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” painting showcased the best of life in the Song Dynasty – one of the golden ages of China.

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Remakes of the painting

Revered as a work of art, the scroll painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” inspired the creation of several works of art during subsequent dynasties. Court artists made re-interpretive versions of the painting by reviving and updating the style of the original. Even though each of these later paintings follow the composition and the original theme, they differ in details and painting techniques.

The Yuan version
Zhao Mengfu (1254 - 1322)
Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322)

During the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) made a remarkable remake of the original,

The Ming version

Another notable remake painted during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) is 22 feet (6.7 metres) long and is longer than the original Song version.

Based on contemporary fashions and customs the Ming version replaced the scenery from the Song dynasty to that of the Ming dynasty with the costumes worn by the people updated and the styles of vehicles (boats and carts) changed.

The bridge scene in the original Qing Ming Shang He Tu painting - An oncoming boat is in danger of crashing into the bridge.
The bridge scene in the original Qing Ming Shang He Tu painting – An oncoming boat is in danger of crashing into the bridge.

In the original Song painting,  the crew of an oncoming boat have not yet fully lowered their sails and are in danger of crashing into wooden the bridge.

Men ashore guiding a boat by pulling ropes tied to it in the Ming version.
Men ashore guiding a boat by pulling ropes tied to it in the Ming version.

In the Ming version, a stone bridge with a taller arch replaced the Song wooden bridge, and men ashore guide the boat under the bridge by pulling ropes tied to it.

The Qing version

On January 15, 1737, the Qianlong Emperor received a present of a version painted by five Qing dynasty court painters (Chen Mu, Sun Hu, Jin Kun, Dai Hong and Cheng Zhidao). This Qing remake is much larger – 36 feet (11 metres) long and  1 ft 1.68 inches (35 cm) high – and has over 4,000 people in it.

While in the original Song version, the leftmost side contains images of the busy city, the leftmost third of this Qing version depicts life within the palace, with buildings and people appearing refined and elegant. Most people within the castle are women along with some well-dressed officials.

The Qianlong Emperor in his study, painting by Giuseppe Castiglione, (1688 - 1766).
The Qianlong Emperor in his study, painting by Giuseppe Castiglione, (1688 – 1766).

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In April 1742, a poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor was added to the rightmost end of the Qing remake.  The poem reads as follows:

蜀錦裝金壁   – A wall of gold has been mounted on Shu brocade.
吳工聚碎金   – Craftsmen from Wu collect spare change
謳歌萬井富 – To pay tribute to the abundance of a myriad of families.
城闕九重深  – The watchtowers of the city rise to great heights.
盛事誠觀止  – The bustling scene is truly impressive.
遺踪借探尋 – It is a chance to explore vestiges of bygone days.
當時誇豫大 – At that time, people marveled at the size of Yu,
此日歎徽欽 – And now, we lament the fates of Hui and Qin.

In 1949, the National Palace Museum in Taipei received the Qing version along with many other artifacts.

Over the centuries, many affluent Chinese treasured the original Qingming scroll. Eventually, it returned to public ownership.

The original Song dynasty painting now kept at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City and the Qing version in the Taipei Palace Museum, are both considered national treasures and are exhibited every few years for brief periods.

The following video with narration in Chinese shows the different versions of the remakes of the “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” but uses the Ming version to explain the life of the Chinese then, in the near past, and now.

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Digital version

Logo of Shanghai World Expo 2010.

From May 1 to October 31, 2010, China hosted Expo 2010, a major World Expo,  officially known as the Expo 2010 Shanghai China in the tradition of international fairs and expositions.

A 3D animated, viewer-interactive digital version of the original “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” titled “River of Wisdom“, screened for three months was the primary exhibit at the China Pavilion. This elaborate computer animated mural about 30 times the size of the original scroll had moving characters and objects that made the painting come to life. It presented the scene in a four-minute day to night cycles. Those who reserved in advance had to queue up to two hours to see the 3D animated version.

After the Expo, the digital version was on display at the AsiaWorld–Expo in Hong Kong from November 9 to 29, 2010; at the Macau Dome in Macau from March 25 to April 14, 2011; and at the Expo Dome in Taipei, Taiwan from July 1 to September 4, 2011.

From December 7, 2011, to February 6, 2012, a digital reproduction was exhibited at the Singapore Expo titled “A Moving Masterpiece: The Song Dynasty As Living Art“.

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The Silk Road


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy's Map of the "Old World" by Jacob d'Angelo.
A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy’s Map of the “Old World” by Jacob d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.

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Archeologists and Historians use the term “Old World” in the context of, and to contrast with, the “New World” (North and South America). The Old World, also known as Afro-Eurasia, consists of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Most countries of the Old World in the area of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Persian plateau, India, and China are in the temperate zone, roughly between the 45th and 25th parallels.

Herein emerged the cultural, philosophical and religious developments that produced the Western (Hellenism, “classical”), Eastern (Zoroastrian and Abrahamic) and Far Eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism) religious and cultural spheres.

The Qin Empire

Qin was an ancient state in China during the Zhou dynasty. On May 7, 247 BC, Ying Zheng assumed the throne of the Qin state at age 9. Upon his ascension, Zheng became known as the King of Qin or King Zheng of Qin.

The Qin state had a large, efficient army and capable generals. They utilized the newest developments in weaponry and transportation and had a superior military power than the other six warring states. By the 3rd century BC,  the Qin state under King Zheng of Qin emerged as one of the dominant powers of the Seven Warring States.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

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Instead of maintaining the title of king borne by the Shang and Zhou rulers, Ying Zheng created a new title of “huángdì” (emperor) for himself. This new title combined two titles – huáng of the mythical Three Sovereigns (三皇, Sān Huáng) and the dì of the legendary Five Emperors (五帝, Wŭ Dì) of Chinese prehistory.

Ying Zheng ruled from 220 to 210 BC as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty bearing the name Qin Shi Huangdi.

After the death of Qin Shi Huang in 210 BC, the Qin empire became unstable. Though the Qin empire was short-lived, it had a great influence over Chinese history.

The Han dynasty

Within four years after the death of Qin Shi Huangdi, the Qin dynasty’s authority collapsed. In the face of rebellion, the empire fissured into 18 kingdoms. Two rebel leaders, Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han, engaged in a war to decide who would become the next person to exercise hegemony in China. Each of the 18 fissured kingdoms claimed allegiance to either Xiang Yu or Liu Bang. In 202 BC, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu at the Battle of Gaixia.

Liu Bang assumed the title “emperor” (Huangdi), known as Emperor Gaozu after his death. Thus, Emperor Gaozu found the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China. He chose Chang’an as the new capital of the reunified empire under Han.

Spanning over four centuries, the Han period was a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script as “Han characters”.

To the north of China, the nomadic Xiongnu chieftain Modu Chanyu conquered various tribes inhabiting the eastern part of the Eurasian Steppe. Towards the end of his reign, the Xiongnu chieftain controlled Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin, subjugating over twenty states east of Samarkand.

Chinese merchants sold iron weapons to the Xiongnu along the northern borders. Emperor Gaozu imposed a trade embargo to stop the illicit sale of arms. Although the embargo was in place, the Xiongnu found Chinese traders willing to supply their needs. Chinese forces then mounted surprise attacks against the Xiongnu who traded at the border markets. The Xiongnu retaliated by invading what is now Shanxi province and defeated the Han forces at Baideng in 200 BC. After negotiations, the heqin (“peace marriage”) agreement in 198 BC held the leaders of the Xiongnu and the Han as equal partners in a royal marriage alliance. Yet, the Han was forced to send large amounts of items such as silk clothes, food, and wine as a tribute to the Xiongnu.

Emperor Wu of Han

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Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.
Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.

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Emperor Wu of Han (June 30, 156 BC – March 29, 87 BC), born Liu Che, was the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China. He reigned 54 years from 141 BC to 87 BC. His reign resulted in the vast territorial expansion. By reorganizing the  government, he developed a strong and centralized state.  He promoted Confucian doctrines. Emperor Wu, known for his religious innovations was a patron of poetic and musical arts. During his reign, cultural contact with western Eurasia increased.

As a military campaigner, Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion.  At its height, the Empire’s borders spanned from modern Kyrgyzstan in the west to Korea in the east, and to northern Vietnam in the south.

In 133 BC, Emperor Wu launched a series of massive military invasions into Xiongnu territory and captured one stronghold after another. The Chinese assault ended in 119 BC at the Battle of Mobei. The Han commanders Wei Qing (the half-brother of Emperor Wu’s favorite concubine) and Wei’s nephew, Huo Qubing expelled the Xiongnu from the Ordos Desert and Qilian Mountains and forced them to flee north of the Gobi Desert and then out of the Gobi Desert.

The Silk Road.

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Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an.
Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an.

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Zhang Qian was an imperial envoy to the world outside China under Emperor Wu of Han. He played an important pioneering role in the Chinese colonization and conquest of the region now known as Xinjiang. He was the first official diplomat to bring back reliable information to the Chinese imperial court about Central Asia. This helped the Han sovereignty in territorial acquisitions and expansion into the Tarim basin of Central Asia. Today, the Chinese revered and consider Zhang Qian as a national hero for the key role he played in opening China to the world of commercial trade.

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Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)
Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

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The Han sovereignty established the vast trade network known as the Silk Road or Silk Route, which reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea. The Silk Road or connected the various regions of the Old World. Extending 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers), the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out by Chinese merchants along its routes during the rule of the Han dynasty.

Around 114 BC, the Central Asian sections of the Silk Road routes were expanded. The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their merchants and their products. To ensure the protection of the trade route, Emperor Wu reinforced this strategic asset by establishing five commanderies and constructing a length of fortified wall along the border of the Hexi Corridor, colonizing the area with 700,000 Chinese soldier-settlers.

The Silk Road helped  establish political and economic relations between the various nations. Besides economic trade, the Silk Road served as a major factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Arabia, the Horn of Africa, and Europe and carrying out cultural exchanges among the nations along its network.

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians. From the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians joined the bandwagon. After the emergence of Islam, Arab traders became prominent users of the Silk Routes.

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A European in the Orient: Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Marco Polo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. Before his death, friends and readers of his book visited him and urged him to admit that his book was a fiction. Marco would not relent. He told them:

I have not told half of what I saw!

​Marco Polo has been long regarded as the earliest and most distinguished of European travelers of all times for traversing Asia from one extremity to the other. He surpassed every other traveler of his time in the extent of the unknown regions he visited, as well as in the amount of new and important information he had collected. His description of the Chinese imperial court and the Chinese empire under the most powerful of the Asiatic dynasties, and tales of the adjacent countries in the Far East, forms a grand historical picture not painted by any other traveler of his period.

Authenticity is important in any travel narrative, otherwise it altogether becomes a worthless romance. A profound ignorance veiled  Europe when the Polos returned from the East. Doubts of the authenticity of Marco’s tales arose since most of the regions he had traversed were wholly unknown at that time. And his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age. Also, many editions of Marco Polo’s travelogue proliferated in an age when printing was unknown. The narratives varied from one another, often corrupted to a great extent.

Even now, some argue that Marco Polo never reached China, but cobbled together secondhand accounts of what he had heard. They say there are inaccuracies in the tales. They point out that he never mentioned the basic elements of Chinese culture, such as drinking tea, the use of chopsticks, the Chinese characters, or the tradition of foot-binding.

Responders to such skeptics have stated that if the purpose of Marco Polo’s stories of travels was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his readers to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Marco lived among the elite Mongols. Foot-binding was almost unknown among the Mongols and was rare even among Chinese during Polo’s time.

Some observers, who have only a cursory view of the history of China, say he never mentioned the Great Wall in his book. These people are ignorant of the fact that the Great Wall, familiar to us today, is a Ming structure constructed, about two centuries after Marco Polo’s travels in China, to keep out northern invaders.

New Evidence

It is odd that Marco Polo never produced a single map to accompany his narrative accounts in the ghostwritten book. Hence, scholars have long debated its the veracity. Now, there is new evidence in favor for this historical puzzle of whether Marco Polo did indeed visit China and the Far East. The proof is in the form of a curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents purported to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo.

In the 1880s, Marcian Rossi, an Italian, immigrated to the United States. He brought along with him a collection of sheepskin vellum he said were of the 13th and 14th century. There were 14 little-known maps and related documents detailing Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East. These  documents bear the signatures of the three daughters of Marco Polo — Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.

The existence of these parchments came to light only in the 1930s, when Marcian Rossi contacted the Library of Congress. He explained that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian Admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family. But the collection did not undergo exhaustive analysis.

Are the maps forgeries or facsimiles?  They created a problem for the historians of cartography. Did Marco Polo’s daughters, whose names appear on some of these artifacts, preserve in them geographic information about Asia as told by their father? Did they inherit the maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to a Venetian admiral who had links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and for what purpose?

While some historians discounted the 14 parchments as mere fantasy, forgeries, or facsimiles, others wanted a balanced, detailed study of the documents.

Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, spent more than a decade studying the artifacts. He translated the Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions found therein. All but one of the original documents, a map Marcian Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft in Texas. Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those originals.

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Marco Polo's 'Map with Ship' (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Marco Polo’s ‘Map with Ship‘ (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

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The map donated by Marcian Rossi to the Library of Congress, dubbed “Map with Ship,” is a curious one. It has an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appears to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. The map was not a navigational aid because it lacks longitude and latitude reference lines.

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The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin
The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin

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Olshin has detailed the results of his intensive research in his book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps.” The book is the first credible book-length analysis of these parchments. It is a balanced, detailed, and a non speculative work of cartographic scholarship, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation. Olshin charts the course of the documents from obscure origins in the private collection of the Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s. He describes the investigations by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI for their authenticity. Olshin describes his own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps.

After a  thorough tracing of Marcian Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin asserts that Rossi’s explanation that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.

Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the document “Map with Ship,” depicts Alaska for certain although there are similarities. Olshin also admits, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is not settled. The ink on the parchments remains untested. A radiocarbon study of the sheepskin vellum of one key map, the only one subjected to such analysis, dates it to the 15th or 16th century, making it at best a copy.

Regardless of the origin of the documents, Olshin offers insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography. He then takes his readers on a fascinating journey to the early legendary lands of the Chinese.

Alessandro Scafi said in Times Literary Supplement (UK):

“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese … Fascinating material … Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open … A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”

The parchments in the Rossi collection may not only back up Marco Polo’s claim that he journeyed to the Orient, but also could reveal he might have set foot on the North American continent, 200 years before Christopher Columbus. It is purported that Columbus carried a well-worn copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his historic 1492 voyage. It is conjectured that the travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus to seek a westward sea route to the riches of East Asia, but instead landed in the New World.

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← Previous: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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A European in the Orient: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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When Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo,  arrived in Italy they found the Republic of Venice at war with the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, that had one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean.

Marco Polo joined the Venetians in the war. He commanded a galley equipped with a trebuchet, a type of catapult that used as a siege engine in the Middle Ages. The Genoans captured Marco in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta, and imprisoned him.

While spending several months in prison between 1298–1299, Marco became a friend of a fellow prisoner Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer of romance. Marco told Rustichello about his time in Asia. Rustichello soon committed his stories to paper in Old French. The romance writer also incorporated into it tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.

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Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo
Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo

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After his release in 1299, Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa together turned the written notes into a travelogue titled “Livre des Merveilles du Monde” (Book of the Marvels of the World) or “Devisement du Monde” (Description of the World). In Italian the account appeared as “Il Milione” (The Million) or Oriente Poliano and was published later in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China.

Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed popular chronicle of his experience in medieval China to the world, but he definitely was not the first European to travel to the Far East.

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John of Plano Carpini's great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the "Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the “Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)

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During the time of the great Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, the Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241, proved disastrous. The loss threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.

Four years later, with the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, dispatched the first formal Catholic mission to the Mongols. It was partly to protest against the latter’s invasion of Christian lands, partly to gain trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their intention for the future. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission.

The mission started on Easter day April 16, 1245, from Lyon, where the Pope then resided. Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.

Their journey was perilous. The Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.

Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. By the time they reached their destination Ögedei Khan was dead.

On August 24, 1246, Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear  their allegiance to him.

When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November, 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”

Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity. These early missionaries were largely inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes), Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and in the tradition of the 12th through the 17th century.

The accounts about this mythical king vary. They are just a collection of medieval popular fantasy. One such account depicts him as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. Polo mentions the fictional monarch in his book, and even asserts that Prester John fought a great battle against the Mongol ruler Genghis Kahn.

A Lombardian surgeon also had reached the city of Khanbaliq in 1303. A merchant named Petro de Lucalongo, had accompanied the monk John of Montecorvino to Khanbaliq in 1305.

In his work “Histoire de l’Empire Mongol,” Jean-Paul Roux,  a French Turkologue and a specialist in Islamic culture says that a person named André de Pérouse had mentioned that there was a small Genoese colony, in the harbor of Zaytun in 1326. Andolo de Savignone was the most famous Italian resident of the city. In 1336, Toghon Temür, the 15th Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the 11th Emperor of the Yuan dynasty sent him to the West to buy “100 horses and other treasures.

In 1339, a Venetian named Giovanni Loredanoto returned to Venice from China during the reign of  Emperor Toghon Temür.

A tombstone with the name of Catherine de Villioni, daughter of a Dominici, who died in 1342 during the reign of Toghon Temür was discovered in Yangzhou.

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An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo's fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)
An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo’s fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)

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Well-known master artists of the medieval times steeped the manuscripts like the one shown above in enchanting colors.

The Travelogue, “The Travels of Marco Polo” soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form.  It gave the curious Europeans in the Middle Ages craving to know more about the marvels of the Orient,  the first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan. Rarely have secular topics had such an intense echo.

The Travelogue is divided into four books:

Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco Polo traveled through on his way to China.

Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan.

Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, and the East Coast of Africa.

Book Four describes some of the then-recent wars among the Mongols, and some of the regions of the Far North, like Russia.

No authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book exists. The early manuscripts differ much from one another. Also, inadvertent errors and discrepancies crept in during the process of copying and translating.

The published editions of the travelogue either rely on single manuscripts, or a blend of many versions. For example, the popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 is the handiwork of R.E. Latham, who blended several manuscripts together to make a readable whole.

A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot based their  1938 English translation on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50 percent longer than other versions.

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Probable view of Marco Polo's own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)
Probable view of Marco Polo’s own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)

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Some published editions carry notes to clarify, as exemplified in the English translation by Henry Yule.

To date, approximately 150 manuscript copies exist in various languages.

After his release from prison, Marco Polo returned to Venice. He married and raised three daughters. During the next 25 years, he carried on the family business.

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Next → Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?

← Previous: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo.

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A European in the Orient: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.

The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.

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Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

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Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.

In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by  Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.

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Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

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Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them  the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout  his dominion.

Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.

In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.

Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.

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Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.
Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.

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In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.

The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars:  Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.

At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.

Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.

When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.

The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.

Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.

Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.

Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy.  He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.

The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.

In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.

The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”

The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive.  They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).  The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.

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Marco Polo's Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)
Marco Polo’s Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)

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Next → Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 6 – Did They Reach the Americas Before Columbus?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Did the eunuch admiral Zengh He set foot in America?

According to medieval Chinese sources the eunuch Zheng He, the favorite admiral of the Yongle Emperor, commanded six expeditions between 1405 and 1422. Again, between 1431 and 1433, at the request of the Xuande Emperor, Admiral Zheng He commanded a seventh expedition. The fleet he commanded was the largest maritime fleet in the world.

Zheng He sailed to Indonesia, India, Ceylon, Arabia, Africa and many other countries in the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean). Whether Zheng He or any of his associates set foot in the Americas is now open to debate. Nowhere in these Chinese accounts is even a hint that the 15th century Chinese made landfall in the Americas. Yet, a few modern writers conjecture that the Chinese sailed to lands as far as the Americas.

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1421, The Year China Discovered the World

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On January 1, 2002, Gavin Menzies, a British author and retired submarine lieutenant-commander,  published his controversial book titled: “1421: The Year China Discovered the World.

In his book, Menzies claims the Chinese reached America 70 years before the Iberian explorer Christopher Columbus. He says the Chinese not only discovered America first, but they also established many lost colonies in the Caribbean. He also asserts that the same fleet circumnavigated the globe.

China lost most of its historical records of the country’s explorative marine voyages during centuries of turmoil in the country. So, Gavin Menzies has cobbled together some plausible evidence supporting his controversial conjectures. He uses some suggestive and a little ridiculous grab bag of evidence. Experts in the field scoff at the theories suggested by Gavin Menzies. There is no real evidence.

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Does this map prove that the Chinese discovered America before Columbus (Harper Collins)
Does this map prove that the Chinese discovered America before Columbus (Harper Collins)

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According to Menzies, the Ibderian explorers: Ferdinand Magellan, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Francisco Pizarro, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Thomas Cook et al., had “discovered” lands the Chinese had already visited, and these renowned European explorers sailed with maps charted by the Chinese cartographers.

Almost all critics and historians have rejected and debunked Menzies’ theories, conjectures and assertions as grandiose and speculative re-creation of little-known voyages made by Chinese ships in the early 15th century. They have categorized Gavin Menzies as a “pseudo-historian”.

In the June 2004 issue of Journal of World History, Robert Finlay in his review  titled “How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America,” shows that Gavin Menzies’s book has no foundation.

One reviewer of Gavin Menzies’ book, Andrew, says:

There are books that break new ground with bombshell research and there are books that spellbind us with the skill of their deception. This book is the latter. Menzies takes a tremendous dump on the sensibilities of his readers, bombarding us with outrageous claims backed up with erroneous facts and arrogant speculation.

Another reviewer, Adam, has commented:

I have to say that I enjoyed reading this book, if only because it made me so angry at the gross inaccuracies and completely imaginary scenarios that the author made up. He claims to have information from anthropology, archaeology, geology, geography, history, etc, but what he really has exists only in his own mind.

On page 103, Gavin Menzies claims that on the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic stands a large red sandstone rock, some three meters high, with inscriptions on it. Menzies claims the Chinese carved these inscriptions in the Malayalam language, spoken by the people of Kerala in India. He says he photographed the inscriptions. But he does not provide copies of the photographs, nor line drawings of the inscriptions or translations. In fact, red sandstone is not found on the Cape Verde Islands.

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Rock of Our Lady in Ribeira do Penedo, Cape Verde (Source: Pitt Reitmaier/bela-vista.net)
Rock of Our Lady in Ribeira do Penedo, Cape Verde (Source: Pitt Reitmaier/bela-vista.net)

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Dr. Pitt Reitmaier, a tropical doctor at the University of Heidelberg posted the above photo of the rock Pedra da Nossa Senhora (Rock of Our Lady) he found in Ribeira do Penedo, Cape Verde. Reitmaier says:

In 1421, the year when the Great Wall was finished, China sent out a fleet of more than one hundred ships to discover the world. Reports say they crossed the Indian Ocean from Calicut to the African East Coast – what was not new for Arabo-Swahili, Indian and Chinese captains in the Middle Ages.

They rounded the Cape of Good Hope and went North following the African West Coast. Then (as always when discoverers come to Cape Verde) a serious storm took them to the arquipelago, presumably to Santo Antão.  And here – as in other places they visited – they left behind “carved stones” (Creole: rocha scribida) in order to give proof for their presence to later generations of discoverors.

So far the fascinating story told by submarine captain Gavin Menzies in his book 1421 The Year China Discovered the World. He diagnoses the writings on this rocha scribida as Malayalam, the language spoken to date in Kerala, southern India – and in its harbour city of Calicut, where the fleet has started from. “

Later Menzies follows the fleet to Greenland, the North Pole (he claims), the Americas, the Strait of Magellan before it crossed the pacific ocean and found back home to China.

The name Pedra da Nossa Senhora stems from the Catholic interpretations of the writings as a first document of Portuguese sailors setting foot on Santo Antao Island. The central part with the cross documents the death of a portuguese sailor.

In the footnote to his post Dr. Pitt Reitmaier says:

If you go for historical evidence, most likely you will not believe Menzie’s story. Reknown historians argue that none of his findings are new and that his way to combine the facts in a thrilling story is highly speculative and cannot stand scrutiny by scholars. e.g.: The carvings were identified as something like “Malayalam” by an employee of the Bank of India, not by any linguist or historian. Why so? India has excellent historians and linguists by the hundred!

My personal opinion goes to two extremes:

– isn’t it wonderful food for thought, sweet and sour, full of phantasy, even if wrong?

– if this is the way, submarine captains draw conclusions in their leasure time … how dangerous are they at work?”

Linguist Christopher Culver says:

“I would like to offer a perspective from my own individual profession, linguistics. Menzies writes, for example:

Linguistics provide further evidence. The people of the Eten and Monsefu villages in the Lambayeque province of Peru can understand Chinese but not each other’s patois, despite living only three miles apart. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century inspector employed by the government of California to survey the native population, found linguistic evidence of a Chinese-speaking colony in the state.

The first assertion, on the Peruvian village, is not sourced at all and is either the personal fancy of the author or some minor crank idea. The second, however, is cited to an 19th-century bit of scholarship evidentally done without appropriate field methods. He goes on to claim that Chinese sailors shipwrecked on the East Coast of the United States would have been able to communicate with locals, as these would have included Chinese who had walked over the Bering Strait. Chinese walk across to Alaska and across all North America, but end up speaking Middle Chinese, and yet leave no trace of this dialect on neighbouring Native American languages? Risible fantasy. There’s even an assertion that Navajo elders understand Chinese conversation, and an assertion that the Peruvian village name Chanchan must be Chinese because it sounds (at least to him) like “Canton”. Perhaps the silliest Peruvian connection is between Chinese “qipu” and Quechua “quipu“; Menzies seemingly doesn’t understand that “q” represents a completely different sound in each language. So, I hope that the reader with some training in linguistics can see what kind of arguments are used in the book, and beware accordingly.”

On May 7, 2015, I came across an article titled “New Evidence Ancient Chinese Explorers Landed in America Excites Experts” written by Tara MacIsaac in the Epoch Times. She wrote:

John A. Ruskamp Jr., Ed.D., reports that he has identified an outstanding, history-changing treasure hidden in plain sight. High above a walking path in Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument, Ruskamp spotted petroglyphs that struck him as unusual. After consulting with experts on Native American rock writing and ancient Chinese scripts to corroborate his analysis, he has concluded that the readable message preserved by these petroglyphs was likely inscribed by a group of Chinese explorers thousands of years ago.”

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Cartouche 1 (Source -  theepochtimes.com - John Ruskamp)
Cartouche 1 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)

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Cartouche 2 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)
Cartouche 2 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)

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Cartouche 3
Cartouche 3 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)

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Whether Zheng He’s fleet circumvented the horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, and then sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas is speculative. More concrete evidence is necessary to convince the modern historians to rewrite history as “the Chinese reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus!“.

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← Previous: Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Zhu Zhanji, the Xuande Emperor

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The Xuande Emperor (Born as Zhu Zhanji ), the fifth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)
The Xuande Emperor (Born as Zhu Zhanji ), the fifth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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On June 27, 1425, the Hongxi Emperor’s son Zhu Zhanji (March 16, 1399 – January 31, 1435), at the age of 26  ascended the throne of the Ming dynasty as the Xuande Emperor, the fifth Ming Emperor. His era name “Xuande” means “Proclamation of Virtue“.

The Xuande Emperor continued the liberal policies of  his father, the Hongxi Emperor.

On May 25, 1430, the Xuande Emperor issued an imperial order for the arrangement of the necessary provisions for the dispatch of Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, Li Xing, Zhu Liang, Yang Zhen, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, Yang Qing and others on official business to the countries of the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean).

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The treasure ships of Zheng He (Source: heritageinstitute.com)
The treasure ships of Zheng He (Source: heritageinstitute.com)

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On June 29, 1430, the emperor gave Zheng He command over a seventh and final expedition (1431 – 1433). This was the largest treasure fleet assembled, with more than 300 ships and 27,500 men.

Zheng He’s mission, this time, was to announce the new emperor’s reign to the “distant lands beyond the seas”, to revive the tributary relations promoted during the Yongle Emperor’s reign, and to conquer far-lying foreign lands and bring them into polite submission.

The mission was also, in part, an attempt to restore peace between the two trading partners of China – Malacca and Siam. The ships for this voyage were named befitting their peace mission, such as Pure Harmony, Lasting Tranquility, Kind Repose, etc.

The emperor bestowed on Zheng He the title “Sanbao Taijian“.

On January 19, 1431, Zheng He’s fleet left the shores of Longwan in Nanjing, China.

On February 3, 1431, the fleet arrived at Liujiagang.

Some courtiers of the Ming emperors were apprehensive of the expensive treasure fleets. Zheng He and his associates concerned about being vilified after their death decided to document Zheng He’s previous voyages on a stone tablet. On March 14, 1431, they erected the following [Liujiagang] inscription at the Palace of the Celestial Spouse in Liujiagang, Jiangsu:

We, Zheng He and his companions [including Admirals Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Qing], at the beginning of Zhu Di’s reign received the Imperial Commission as envoys to the barbarians. Up until now seven voyages have taken place and, each time, we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels. We have…reached countries of the Eastern Regions, more than thirty countries in all. We have…beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away, hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, whilst our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing those savage waves.

On April 8, 1431, the fleet arrived at Changle, where they remained until mid-December. On the 11th month of the 6th year of the Xuande reign, they erected the Changle inscription.

Eunuch admiral Hong Bao

In the early 15th century, the Ming emperors Yongle and Xuande, sent a Chinese eunuch named Hong Bao, on overseas diplomatic missions.

In 1412, between the third and fourth voyages of Zheng He’s fleet, the Yongle Emperor sent Hong Bao as the envoy to Thailand.

In 1421, Hong Bao participated in the sixth voyage of Zheng He during which foreign envoys were transported back to their countries, as far as the kingdom of Ormus in the Persian Gulf.

Hong Bao’s name appears in the Liujiagang inscription made by Zheng He. According to the inscription, Hong Bao was one of the five Assistant Envoys.

Ma Huan (c. 1380 – 1460), was a Muslim voyager and translator. He was a Chinese who converted to Islam when he was young. He knew several classical Chinese and Buddhist texts. He learned Arabic to be able to translate.

Ma Huan accompanied Admiral Zheng He on three of his seven expeditions: 4th, 6th and the 7th, to the western oceans.

During the expeditions, Ma Huan took notes about the geography, politics, weather conditions, environment, economy, local customs, even the method of punishment meted out to criminals. After returning home after his first expedition, he began writing a book about it. The final version of his book titled Yingyai Shenglan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores) was ready around 1451.

The American historian Edward L. Dreyer (1940 – 2007) known for his works on the history of the Chinese Ming Empire analyzed the preserved sources about the voyages of Zheng He, in particular Ma Huan’s book. According to Dreyer, Hong Bao was the commander of one of the detached squadrons of Zheng He’s fleet during the Seventh Voyage (1431 – 1433).

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The 7th voyage of Zheng He's fleet. A possible route of Hong Bao's squadron is shown as a dashed line, based on analysis by Edward L. Dreyer. (Source: wikimedia.org)
The 7th voyage of Zheng He’s fleet. A possible route of Hong Bao’s squadron is shown as a dashed line, based on analysis by Edward L. Dreyer. (Source: wikimedia.org)

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Hong Bao’s squadron visited Bengal after separating from the main fleet in Semudera in northern Sumatra or in Qui Nhon in Champa. From Bengal, Hong Bao’s squadron proceeded to Calicut in southern India. On December 10, 1432, the main fleet came straight from Semudera across the Bay of Bengal.

Before leaving Calicut, Hong Bao sent seven of his personnel, including Ma Huan, to Mecca and Medina aboard a native Indian ship sailing to Jeddah. Hong Bao appointed Ma Huan as emissary to Mecca.

While the main fleet left Calicut towards the kingdom of Ormus, Hong Bao’s squadron went from Calicut to various destinations on the west side of the Arabian Sea in southern Arabia and Horn of Africa, including Aden and Mogadishu.

Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang dynasty (618–907) in Kenyan villages. These are  believed to have been brought over by Zheng He’s fleet during the 15th century ocean voyages. According to a local oral tradition, 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors, part of Zheng’s fleet, washed up on shore there hundreds of years ago. They converted to Islam and married local women.

An article titled “China’s Great Armada, Admiral Zheng He” written by Frank Viviano appeared in the July 2005 issue of National Geographic.  Viviano  described that on Pate Island, fragments of ceramic articles of Chinese origin had been found around Lamu. The administrative officer of the local Swahili history museum claimed they were of Chinese origin, from Zheng He’s voyage.

Viviano wrote that the eyes of the Pate people resembled the Chinese. The ancestors of the Pate people were said to be from indigenous women who married shipwrecked Chinese sailors of the Ming period. Famao and Wei were some of the names among them which were of Chinese origin. The ancient Chinese sailors had named two places on Pate as “Old Shanga,” and “New Shanga”.

A local guide who claimed descent from the Chinese showed Frank Viviano graves of Chinese sailors layered with coral. They were almost identical to Chinese Ming dynasty tombs, complete with “half-moon domes” and “terraced entries”.

 Death of Zheng He

On the return voyage, Zheng He became very ill. According to one theory, he died in 1433, shortly after the seventh voyage. Some believe that he died and was buried in Calicut. But there is a second conjecture that Zheng He continued being the defender of Nanjing and died in 1435.

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Zheng He's tomb in Nanjing (Author: Peter Pang)
Zheng He’s tomb in Nanjing (Author: Peter Pang)

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In 1985, a namesake Muslim-style tombwas built in Nanjing on the site of an earlier horseshoe-shape grave. The tombcontains his clothes and headgear as his bodywas buried at sea.In June 2010, Wang Zhigao, the Chief of Archaeology Department at Nanjing Museum announced that a Ming Dynasty grave recently found near Zutang Mountain in the Jiangning District of Nanjing was identified as that of Hong Bao and not of Zheng He as surmised earlier.
Cult of Zheng He
The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca. (Author: Gisling)
The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca. (Author: Gisling)

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Zheng He became the object of cult veneration among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. The influence he had over Asian culture was so strong that he is still considered a god by Indonesian Chinese. They have built temples to honor him in Jakarta, Cirebon, Surabaya, and Semarang. The temples of this cult known after either of his names, Cheng Hoon or Sam Po and are peculiar to overseas Chinese.

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Next →  Part 6 – Did They Reach the Americas Before Columbus?

← Previous: Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet

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