authors much more frequently and at an earlier date, for the passages of Eratosthenes (in Strabo), formerly supposed to speak of a parallel passing through Thinae—διά Θινῶν—are now known to read correctly δι᾽Αθηνῶν. The name Seres indeed is familiar to the Latin poets of the Augustan age, but always in a vague way, and usually with a general reference to Central Asia and the farther East. We find, however, that the first endeavours to assign more accurately the position of this people, which are those of Mela and Pliny, gravitate distinctly towards China in its northern aspect as the true ideal involved. Thus Mela describes the remotest east of Asia as occupied by the three races (proceeding from south to north), Indians, Seres and Scyths; just as in a general way we might still say that eastern Asia is occupied by the Indies, China and Tartary.
Ptolemy first uses the names of Sera and Serice, the former for the chief city, the latter for the country of the Seres, and as usual defines their position with a precision far beyond what his knowledge justified—the necessary result of his system. Yet even his definition of Serice is most consistent with the view that this name indicated the Chinese empire in its northern aspect, for he carries it eastward to the 180th degree of longitude, which is also, according to his calculation, in a lower latitude the eastern boundary of the Sinae.
Ammianus Marcellinus devotes some paragraphs to a description of the Seres and their country, one passage of which is startling at first sight in its seeming allusion to the Great Wall, and in this sense it has been rashly interpreted by Lassen and by Reinaud. But Ammianus is merely converting Ptolemy’s dry tables into fine writing, and speaks only of an encircling rampart of mountains within which the spacious and happy valley of the Seres lies. It is true that Ptolemy makes his Serice extend westward to Imaus, i.e. to Pamir. But the Chinese empire did so extend at that epoch, and we find Lieut. John Wood in 1838 speaking of “China” as lying immediately beyond Pamir, just as the Arabs of the 8th century spoke of the country beyond the Jaxartes as “Sin,” and as Ptolemy spoke of “Serice” as immediately beyond Imaus.
If we fuse into one the ancient notices of the Seres and their country, omitting anomalous statements and manifest fables, the result will be somewhat as follows: “The region of the Seres is a vast and populous country, touching on the east the ocean and the limits of the habitable world, and extending west to Imaus and the confines of Bactria. The people are civilized, mild, just and frugal, eschewing collisions with their neighbours, and even shy of close intercourse, but not averse to dispose of their own products, of which raw silk is the staple, but which included also silk-stuffs, fine furs, and iron of remarkable quality.” That is manifestly a definition of the Chinese.
That Greek and Roman knowledge of the true position of so remote a nation should at best have been somewhat hazy is nothing wonderful. And it is worthy of note that the view entertained by the ancient Chinese of the Roman empire and its inhabitants, under the name of Ta-thsin, had some striking points of analogy to those views of the Chinese which are indicated in the classical descriptions of the Seres. There can be no mistaking the fact that in this case also the great object was within the horizon of vision, yet the details ascribed to it are often far from being true characteristics, being only the accidents of its outer borders.
The Medieval Cathay.—“Cathay” is the name by which the Chinese empire was known to medieval Europe, and it is in its original form (Kitai) that China is still known in Russia and to most of the nations of Central Asia. West of Russia this name has long ceased to be a geographical expression, but it is associated with a remarkable phase in the history of geography and commerce. The name first became known to Europe in the 13th century, when the vast conquests of Jenghiz Khan and his house drew a new and vivid attention to Asia. For some three centuries previously the northern provinces of China had been detached from indigenous rule, and subject to northern conquerors. The first of these foreign dynasties was of a race called Khitán issuing from the basin of the Sungari river, and supposed (but doubtfully) to have been of the blood of the modern Tunguses. The rule of this race endured for two centuries and originated the application of the name Khitât or Khitâï to northern China. The dynasty itself, known in Chinese history as Liao, or “Iron,” disappeared from China 1123, but the name remained attached to the territory which they had ruled.
The Khitán were displaced by the Nüchih (Nyûché or Chûrché) race, akin to the modern Manchus. These reigned, under the title of Kin, or “Golden,” till Jenghiz and his Mongols invaded them in turn. In 1234 the conquest of the Kin empire was completed, and the dynasty extinguished under Ogdai (Ogotai), the son and successor of Jenghiz Khan. Forty years later, in the reign of Kublai, grandson and ablest successor of Jenghiz, the Mongol rule was extended over southern China (1276), which till then had remained under a native dynasty, the Sung, holding its royal residence in a vast and splendid city, now known as Hang-chow, but then as Ling-nan, or more commonly as King-sze, i.e. the court. The southern empire was usually called by the conquerors Mantzi (or as some of the old travellers write, Mangi), a name which western Asiatics seem to have identified with Mâchîn (from the Sanskrit Mahâchîn), one of the names by which China was known to the traders from Persian and Arabian ports.
The conquests of Jenghiz and his successors had spread not only over China and the adjoining East, but westward also over all northern Asia, Persia, Armenia, part of Asia Minor and Russia, threatening to deluge Christendom. Though the Mongol wave retired, as it seemed almost by an immediate act of Providence, when Europe lay at its feet, it had levelled or covered all political barriers from the frontier of Poland to the Yellow Sea, and when western Europe recovered from its alarm, Asia lay open, as never before or since, to the inspection of Christendom. Princes, envoys, priests—half-missionary, half-envoy—visited the court of the great khan in Mongolia; and besides these, the accidents of war, commerce or opportunity carried a variety of persons from various classes of human life into the depths of Asia. “’Tis worthy of the grateful remembrance of all Christian people,” says an able missionary friar of the next age (Ricold of Monte Croce), “that just at the time when God sent forth into the Eastern parts of the world the Tatars to slay and to be slain, He also sent into the West his faithful and blessed servants, Dominic and Francis, to enlighten, instruct and build up in the faith.” Whatever on the whole may be thought of the world’s debt to Dominic, it is to the two mendicant orders, but especially to the Franciscans, that we owe a vast amount of information about medieval Asia, and, among other things, the first mention of Cathay. Among the many strangers who reached Mongolia were (1245-1247) John de Plano Carpini and (1253) William of Rubruk (Rubruquis) in French Flanders, both Franciscan friars of high intelligence, who happily have left behind them reports of their observations.
Carpini, after mentioning the wars of Jenghiz against the Kitai, goes on to speak of that people as follows: “Now these Kitai are heathen men, and have a written character of their own . . . They seem, indeed, to be kindly and polished folks enough. They have no beard, and in character of countenance have a considerable resemblance to the Mongols” [are Mongoloid, as our ethnologists would say], “but are not so broad in the face. They have a peculiar language. Their betters as craftsmen in every art practised by man are not to be found in the whole world. Their country is very rich in corn, in wine, in gold and silver, in silk, and in every kind of produce tending to the support of mankind.” The notice of Rubruk, shrewder and more graphic, runs thus: “Farther on is Great Cathay, which I take to be the country which was anciently called the Land of the Seres. For the best silk stuffs are still got from them . . . The sea lies between it and India. Those Cathayans are little fellows, speaking much through the nose, and, as is general with all those eastern people, their eyes are very narrow. They are first-rate artists in every kind, and their physicians have a thorough knowledge of the virtues of herbs, and an admirable skill in diagnosis by the pulse . . . The common money of Cathay consists of pieces of cotton-paper, about a palm in length and breadth, upon which certain lines are printed, resembling the seal of Mangu Khan. They do their writing with a pencil, such as painters paint with, and a single character of theirs comprehends several letters, so as to form a whole word.”
Here we have not only what is probably the first European notice of paper-money, but a partial recognition of the peculiarity of Chinese writing, and a perception that puts to shame the perverse boggling of later critics over the identity of these Cathayans with the Seres of classic fame.
But though these travellers saw Cathayans in the bazaars in the great khan’s camps, the first actual visitors of Cathay itself were the Polo family, and it is to the book of Marco Polo’s recollections mainly that Cathay owed the growing familiarity of its name in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. It is, however, a great mistake to suppose, as has often been assumed, that the residence of the Polos in that country remained an isolated fact. They were but the pioneers of a very considerable intercourse, which endured till the decay of the Mongol dynasty in Cathay, i.e. for about half a century.