The traditional Chinese New year holiday is absolutely the worst time to travel anywhere in China when millions head home to spend the traditional Chinese New year holiday at their parental homes, and railway stations like Guangzhou in Guangdong, a province in South China, see around 175,000 passengers daily.
The phrase “All Men Are Same!” was coined after a Chinese woman lost her husband in a crowd during the festive season.
It was a nightmare for the Chinese woman and her husband to reach their cosy hotel in an alleyway off the main tourist thoroughfare. They had to push and shove their way through the thick crowd of people who all looked the same, and got separated.
She desperately searched for her husband and ultimately went with a man to his home who too had lost his partner in the crowd.
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.
During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night to temples carrying paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns.
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.
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.
I saw the following video posted on Facebook without any description, leaving viewers to speculate.
As of today, this video on Facebook has 4,310,649 views, 7.7K likes, 8,784 shares and 23 Comments.
The first comment that I saw at the top said, “What the hell is going on.”
This video of a woman stirring the contents in the pot over a fire was followed by a video that shows an easterner recycling plastic using machinery that produces rice-shaped plastic pellets for manufacturing plastic products.
After the above videos followed the image of a packet of Thai Milagrosa Scented Rice with Chinese letters displayed prominently .
Putting three and three together, almost 95% of the Facebook readers deduced that the woman in the first video was making plastic rice.
One wise person popped up the question, “What is happening in the world today?” and another, weak in geography said, “Read your labels at all times. If it was made in China leave it on the shelf.” And a ‘know-all’ person from Oba, Nigeria wrote a lengthy comment on “How to Identify Plastic Rice or Fake Rice“.
By the way, not all Facebook members are fools. A woman from Nassau City, New Providence, Bahamas, said, “There is fake plastic rice, however, that’s not what the lady is doing in this particular video… Yall so silly I would explain what that is but nah it’s so hilarious. ” But she never revealed what she knew. Maybe she herself did not know what it really was.
Finally, a comment by Shana Wiltshire from Brooklyn, New York who said, “Lol.. this is how rice goes from brown to puffed white rice… nothing wrong with this… and it’s an Indian method not Chinese“, assuaged my curiosity.
Yes. The woman in the first video was making popped puff rice.
Here is a video showing the indigenous method of making popped puff rice for sale in India.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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 yiu–sze, 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
“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
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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
“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
“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
“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.
“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.“
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.