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We have no evidence that either in the 13th or 14th century Cathayans, i.e. Chinese, ever reached Europe, but it is possible that some did, at least in the former century. For, during the campaigns of Hulagu in Persia (1256–1265), and the reigns of his successors, Chinese engineers were employed on the banks of the Tigris, and Chinese astrologers and physicians could be consulted at Tabriz. Many diplomatic communications passed between the Hulaguid Ilkhans and the princes of Christendom. The former, as the great khan’s liegemen, still received from him their seals of state; and two of their letters which survive in the archives of France exhibit the vermilion impressions of those seals in Chinese characters—perhaps affording the earliest specimen of that character which reached western Europe.

Just as the Polos were reaching their native city (1295), after an absence of a quarter of a century, the forerunner of a new series of travellers was entering southern China by way of the Indian seas. This was John of Monte Corvino, another Franciscan who, already some fifty years of age, was plunging single-handed into that great ocean of paganism to preach the gospel according to his lights. After years of uphill and solitary toil converts began to multiply; coadjutors joined him. The Papal See became cognizant of the harvest that was being reaped in the far East. It made Friar John archbishop in Cambaluc (or Peking), with patriarchal authority, and sent him batches of suffragan bishops and preachers of his own order. The Roman Church spread; churches and Minorite houses were established at Cambaluc, at Zayton or Tsuan-chow in Fu-kien, at Yang-chow and elsewhere; and the missions flourished under the smile of the great khan, as the Jesuit missions did for a time under the Manchu emperors three centuries and a half later. Archbishop John was followed to the grave, about 1328, by mourning multitudes of pagans and Christians alike. Several of the bishops and friars who served under him have left letters or other memoranda of their experience, e.g. Andrew, bishop of Zayton, John of Cora, afterwards archbishop of Sultania in Persia, and Odoric of Pordenone, whose fame as a pious traveller won from the vox populi at his funeral a beatification which the church was fain to seal. The only ecclesiastical narrative regarding Cathay, of which we are aware, subsequent to the time of Archbishop John, is that which has been gathered from the recollections of Giovanni de’ Marignolli, a Florentine Franciscan, who was sent by Pope Benedict XII. with a mission to the great khan, in return for one from that potentate which arrived at Avignon from Cathay in 1338, and who spent four years (1342–1346) at the court of Cambaluc as legate of the Holy See. These recollections are found dispersed incoherently over a chronicle of Bohemia which the traveller wrote by order of the emperor Charles IV., whose chaplain he was after his return.

But intercourse during the period in question was not confined to ecclesiastical channels. Commerce also grew up, and flourished for a time even along the vast line that stretches from Genoa and Florence to the marts of Cheh-kiang and Fu-kien. The record is very fragmentary and imperfect, but many circumstances and incidental notices show how frequently the remote East was reached by European traders in the first half of the 14th century—a state of things which it is very difficult to realize when we see how all those regions, when reopened to knowledge two centuries later, seemed to be discoveries as new as the empires which, about the same time, Cortes and Pizarro were conquering in the West.

This commercial intercourse probably began about 1310–1320. John of Monte Corvino, writing in 1305, says it was twelve years since he had heard any news from Europe; the only Western stranger who had arrived in all that time being a certain Lombard chirurgeon (probably one of the Patarini who got hard measure at home in those days), who had spread the most incredible blasphemies, about the Roman Curia and the order of St Francis. Yet even on his first entrance to Cathay Friar John had been accompanied by one Master Peter of Lucolongo, whom he describes as a faithful Christian man and a great merchant, and who seems to have remained many years at Peking. The letter of Andrew, bishop of Zayton (1326), quotes the opinion of Genoese merchants at that port regarding a question of exchanges. Odoric, who was in Cathay about 1323–1327, refers for confirmation of the wonders which he related of the great city of Cansay (i.e. King-sze, or Hang-chow) to the many persons whom he had met at Venice since his return, who had themselves been witnesses of those marvels. And Marignolli, some twenty years later, found attached to one of the convents at Zayton, in Fu-kien, a fondaco or factory for the accommodation of the Christian merchants.

But by far the most distinct and notable evidence of the importance and frequency of European trade with Cathay, of which silk and silk goods formed the staple, is to be found in the commercial hand-book (c. 1340) of Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, a clerk and factor of the great Florentine house of the Bardi, which was brought to the ground about that time by its dealings with Edward III. of England. This book, called by its author Libro di divisamenti di Paesi, is a sort of trade-guide, devoting successive chapters to the various ports and markets of his time, detailing the nature of imports and exports at each, the duties and exactions, the local customs of business, weights, measures and money. The first two chapters of this work contain instructions for the merchant proceeding to Cathay; and it is evident, from the terms used, that the road thither was not unfrequently travelled by European merchants, from whom Pegolotti had derived his information. The route which he describes lay by Azov, Astrakhan, Khiva, Otrar (on the Jaxartes), Almálik (Gulja in Ili), Kan-chow (in Kan-suh), and so to Hang-chow and Peking. Particulars are given as to the silver ingots which formed the currency of Tatary, and the paper-money of Cathay. That the ventures on this trade were not insignificant is plain from the example taken by the author to illustrate the question of expenses on the journey, which is that of a merchant investing in goods there to the amount of some £12,000 (i.e. in actual gold value, not as calculated by any fanciful and fallacious equation of values).

Of the same remarkable phase of history that we are here considering we have also a number of notices by Mahommedan writers. The establishment of the Mongol dynasty in Persia, by which the great khan was acknowledged as lord paramount, led (as we have already noticed in part) to a good deal of intercourse. And some of the Persian historians, writing at Tabriz, under the patronage of the Mongol princes, have told us much about Cathay, especially Rashiduddin, the great minister and historian of the dynasty (died 1318). We have also in the book of the Moorish traveller Ibn Batuta, who visited China about 1347–1348, very many curious and in great part true notices, though it is not possible to give credence to the whole of this episode in his extensive travels.

About the time of the traveller first named the throne of the degenerate descendants of Jenghiz began to totter to its fall, and we have no knowledge of any Frank visitor to Cathay in that age later than Marignolli; missions and merchants alike disappear from the field. We hear, indeed, once and again of ecclesiastics despatched from Avignon, but they go forth into the darkness, and are heard of no more. Islam, with all its jealousy and exclusiveness, had recovered its grasp over Central Asia; the Nestorian Christianity which once had prevailed so widely was vanishing, and the new rulers of China reverted to the old national policy, and held the foreigner at arm’s length. Night descended upon the farther East, covering Cathay with those cities of which the old travellers had told such marvels, Cambaluc and Cansay, Zayton and Chinkalan. And when the veil rose before the Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the 16th century, those names are heard no more. In their stead we have China, Peking, Hangchow, Chinchew, Canton. Not only were the old names forgotten, but the fact that those places had ever been known before was forgotten also. Gradually new missionaries went forth from Rome—Jesuits and Dominicans now; new converts were made, and new vicariates constituted; but the old Franciscan churches, and the Nestorianism with which they had battled, had alike been swallowed up in the ocean of pagan indifference. In time a wreck or two floated to the surface—a MS. Latin Bible or a piece of Catholic sculpture; and when the intelligent missionaries called Marco Polo to mind, and studied his story, one and another became convinced that Cathay and China were one.

But for a long time all but a sagacious few continued to regard Cathay as a region distinct from any of the new-found Indies; whilst map-makers, well on into the 17th century, continued to represent it as a great country lying entirely to the north of China, and stretching to the Arctic Sea.

It was Cathay, with its outlying island of Zipangu (Japan), that Columbus sought to reach by sailing westward, penetrated as he was by his intense conviction of the smallness of the earth, and of the vast extension of Asia eastward; and to the day of his death he was full of the imagination of the proximity of the domain of the great khan to the islands and coasts which he had discovered. And such imaginations are curiously embodied in some of the maps of the early 16th century, which intermingle on the same coast-line the new discoveries from Labrador to Brazil with the provinces and rivers of Marco Polo’s Cathay.

Cathay had been the aim of the first voyage of the Cabots in 1496, and it continued to be the object of many adventurous voyages by English and Hollanders to the N.W. and N.E. till far on in the 16th century. At least one memorable land-journey also was made by Englishmen, of which the exploration of a trade-route to Cathay was a chief object—that in which Anthony Jenkinson and the two Johnsons reached Bokhara by way of Russia in 1558–1559. The country of which they collected notices at that city was still known to them only as Cathay, and its great capital only as Cambaluc.