Blog post

Explorers of China

We follow the tracks of great China explorers and revisit their accounts of life behind the Great Wall.

Julien Ménabréaz (Photoconsortium)

Nowadays a flight from Europe to China takes about 12 hours. But not that long ago travellers would have been on the road for weeks, months even. Heading for China used to be a risky undertaking, whether travelling over land or over sea. Still, quite a few daring women and men set out from Europe to the Middle Kingdom and reported back on what they experienced. In this blog, we follow the tracks of great China explorers and revisit their accounts of life behind the Great Wall.

Since Antiquity, the existence of lands beyond the Indus river and India was known in the West. Through the silk roads, goods and men travelled between the continents. Romans loved luxuries from the East - in particular silk - and certainly knew of China: a country they called “Serica” (the land of silk).

China, in turn, also knew of the existence of the Roman empire. They called it “Da-Qin” (Great China). Roman glass objects, such as vases, were found in Chinese tombs: proof of their contact with the West.

a blue-coloured glass goblet with mettalic rim, flecked with different colours throughout

A Chinese chronicle, the Book of the Later Han, reports that in 166 AD an ambassador from Rome arrived at the court of emperor Han Huandi (132-168). He was sent by a Roman emperor the Chinese archivists called An-Dun (安墩): possibly Marcus Aurelius or his predecessor Antonius. Conversely, several Chinese travellers tried to reach the West. They visited the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms (in what is now known as Central Asia), but it seems they never went as far as the Middle East.

Artefacts found in Chinese cities serve as proof of continued connections between West and East in the Middle Ages, including coins from the Byzantine Empire. The capital of China at this time, Xi’An, was the point of arrival of the Silk Road and was therefore inhabited by many foreigners.

European merchants made extensive use of the Silk Road. The most famous among them must be the Venetian Marco Polo (1254-1324), who wrote The Travels of Marco Polo, also known as Il Milione.

In this famous book, Marco Polo shares stories about his 17 years at the court of Kublai Khan (1215-1260), the grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of China.

Religious men, too, used the Silk Road to travel to China, either to serve as an ambassador for the pope or to spread their religion. Nestorian missionaries are known to have been active in China as early as the 7th century.

a stone monument, a rectangular high pedestal with two dragons on top flanking a stone tablet inscribed with Chinese characters.

In the 13th century, the Italian archbishop Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and the Flemish Franciscan friar William of Rubruck were sent to the Mongol court. The description of their travels didn’t have the impact of Marco Polo’s book, though, possibly because both had contact with the Mongols only and never went to China.

a manuscript page with red illuminations

Several other Italian missionaries did, among which Giovanni de Marignolli, who was sent to China in 1342, and Odoric of Pordenone. His account is the most important testimony about China after Marco Polo’s.

With the arrival of ships from Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, France and England on the coast of China in the 16th century, a new era of exchange began. Travelers, however, would find a China much different from the one Marco Polo experienced.

The country was no longer ruled by the Mongols, but under the Chinese dynasty of the Ming (1368-1644). The Ming decided to lock China for foreigners, allowing only merchants and Jesuit missionaries to enter.

In 1644 the Ming empire collapsed and was replaced by the Qing (1644-1912) : a foreign dynasty that would more or less provide China its current size and borders. Yet the country remained forbidden territory for visitors from abroad. Exceptionally, the Jesuits were allowed to stay at court because of their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Merchants, on the other hand, could only stay in the port of Guangzhou.

This blog post is a part of the PAGODE project, which explores Chinese cultural heritage in Europe.

China history travelling