It is the first century AD. Han China and the Roman Empire are the two “superpowers” of east and west. They knew about each other – vaguely – but had never met directly. The Han Chinese knew the Roman Empire only by the mysterious name of “Da Qin” – literally Great China. This was because rumor had it that this mysterious place, far toward the setting sun, was the equivalent of China in wealth, size, and power. Were these rumors true, though? Gan Ying set out for Rome to find out.
China first encountered other civilized peoples during their struggle against the Xiongnu, the predecessors of the Huns, on the steppe to their north. Venturing west to seek alliances, they encountered the Greco-Bactrian city of Alexandria Eschate, the easternmost point in Alexander the Great’s Empire. Shortly afterward, China recognized what it knows to this day – that the lands to the west, in the Tarim Basin for example, weren’t just wilderness. Militarily, they provided a buffer to keep enemies out of the Chinese heartland. Economically, they were vital trade routes. Therefore, controlling these lands provided great leverage, and security. This has been a core Chinese policy ever since. We are seeing its ramifications play out today.
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The crucial moment came in The War of the Heavenly Horses, where the Han Dynasty defeated the “Dayuan,” or “Ionians,” the Greco-Bactrian successors of Alexander and their newer nomadic Yuezhi overlords, who adopted many Greek customs. The fall of Alexandria Eschate to Han forces established Chinese hegemony in the area, the “Protectorate of the Western Regions.”
This protectorate had the effect of opening the Silk Road routes to the Middle East and ultimately Europe for the first time. The wealth coming in demonstrated to the Han Dynasty that these western protectorates were worth defending. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t always easy. Rome was not the only great power to experience disaster in the year 9 AD. That year, a usurper named Wang Mang seized power in the Chinese heartland. The western protectorates refused to recognize his authority. Mang was quickly overthrown, but it took decades for the Han Dynasty to reestablish the western protectorate.
The experience shook China. After restoring order, the governor of the region, Ban Chao, needed to cement alliances which would preserve Chinese control. The nearby Kushan Empire accepted a favorable agreement. He also opened diplomatic relations with the Parthian Empire, but Ban Chao worried about the latter. What if it attempted to assert itself in Central Asia?
This had Ban Chao thinking about the far west – Da Qin, the presumed final destination of Chinese silk exports. Furthermore, the glass objects of Da Qin manufacture, which had been shipped east along the Silk Road, were highly prized in China. They were far superior to the products of China’s own glass industry. Ban Chao thought a favorable agreement could be made with this empire of the far west, which would not only open up further commerce, but check the Parthians.
So he selected Gan Ying to venture into the unknown. Would the ambassador reach that distant empire toward the setting sun?
Gan Ying Sets Out
In 97 AD, Gan Ying began his journey to Rome. The mission required bravery and a discerning mind. He only had rumors to work with – scattered reports across the sources of many nations along the Silk Road. Fortunately, the rumors boded well. According to the Book of Later Han:
The people of this country [the Roman Empire] are all tall and honest. They resemble the people of the Middle Kingdom [Han China] and that is why this kingdom is called Da Qin.
Furthermore, from what the Han Dynasty understood, Rome was eager for foreign trade and relations.
The people of this country are honest in business; they don’t have two prices. Grain and foodstuffs are always in good supply. The resources of the state are abundant. When envoys from a neighboring kingdom arrive at their border, they use the courier stations to get to the royal capital, and when they arrive, they give them gold coins.
And to make matters better:
The king of this country always wanted to send envoys to the Han, but Anxi (Parthia), wishing to control the trade in multi-colored Chinese silks, blocked the route to prevent [the Romans] getting through [to China].
So Gan Ying set out toward Rome. He went through Parthian territory up to the Persian Gulf, disguised as the leader of a merchant caravan. He didn’t know where to go from there, however. He intended to take a water route to Da Qin and so relied on local sailors to assist him. Their reports, however, were not encouraging:
The ocean is huge. Those making the round trip can do it in three months if the winds are favorable. However, if you encounter winds that delay you, it can take two years. That is why all the men who go by sea take stores for three years. The vast ocean urges men to think of their country, and get homesick, and some of them die.
Gan Ying’s Failure of Imagination
Apparently, Gan Ying was unaware of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, the sailors could have taken him around it and to Roman Egypt in a few months if conditions were good. The problem was, as the Chinese sources admit, that Gan Ying needed to communicate to these men through multiple different translators. Some of the sailors in the Persian Gulf apparently thought that Gan Ying wanted to sail to Rome itself, which would have required circumnavigating Africa itself. According to Herodotus, A previous voyage of the Egyptian pharaoh Necho had done that in about two years, exactly the time that these sailors claimed it would take. Carthaginian navigators may also have performed this feat, so it was not out of the question.
For Gan Ying, though, this was far too long and would come at far too great an expense. He concluded that Da Qin was simply too far away to reach, would be too expensive to reach, and could not be an important security partner for the Han Dynasty. He turned around and went back home.
Unfortunately for Gan Ying, he was far closer to Da Qin than he knew. Had he continued overland through Mesopotamia, further west along the well-known Silk Road route, he would have reached Roman Syria in a few more weeks. The very next year, Trajan became Emperor of Rome, and by the end of his reign, he would be standing on the same shores as Gan Ying after his conquest of the Persian Gulf.
Yes, Gan Ying faced the problem of having to deal with multiple different interpreters. These men were out for their own profit. He also could not seek assistance from the local rulers because of the secrecy of his mission. It was certainly true that Parthia would have wanted to prevent Rome and China from making an agreement, for two important reasons:
- A trade agreement would have undercut their enormously profitable role as middlemen in the Silk Road.
- An alliance would have pressured Parthia on two fronts.
Still, we should find some fault with Gan’s lack of imagination and willpower. Why did he not insist on seeking a land route? Though the Chinese sources imply it was over water, why did he think that Da Qin could only be reached by sea? He assuredly could have found more merchants on the Silk Road and inquired more about the Roman Empire.
It’s possible that Gan Ying may have thought about all of these things and about reaching Rome by land. We have no confirmation in the Book of Later Han that he tried, though. We can only conclude that he gave up too soon.
In his journey along the silk road toward Roman territory, we see that imagination is as important as bravery. In seeking the Roman Empire, Gan Ying and his commander Ban Chao showed vision and courage. We can admire the former for setting out into what must have been the unknown for him.
Still, he could not complete his mission because he couldn’t think of ways around his oceanic conundrum. A more imaginative adventurer may well have reached Roman territory, established direct contact, and changed the course of history.
Character makes fate. This silk road story is yet another example.
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