Tang Dynasty Records About the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire: 东罗马记录
Before I began I would like to give a shout out to the wonderful "Voices of the Past" Youtube Channel. Their coverage of the Tang dynasty impression of the Byzantines really inspired me to make this article. Please go check out their channel and subscribe for more of their works. Although the passages are short, we can at least get a glimpse of how the Chinese thought of the empire on the other side of the world.
If we take a cursory look at the Chinese "Old Book of Tang" and "New Book of Tang," both books mentioned several embassies made by the distant state of Fu lin (拂菻; the Byzantine Empire), which the Chinese equated with their forebearers- the Daqin (Roman Empire.) Beginning in 643 a strange embassy was sent by a bearded Byzantine Emperor to Emperor Taizong of Tang, bearing exotic gifts such as red glass and green gold gems. It was the height of the Tang dynasty. From there, these histories began a short list of cursory descriptions of the city of Constantinople, its walls, and how it was besieged by the same implacable foes called 大食 "Ta-shi" that had just vanquished the mighty Sassanid empire.
BROAD RELATIONS WITH THE EAST ROMANS
From "The Old Book of Tang" and "New Book of Tang"
"The emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty always wished to open intercourse with Fulin 拂菻 (the Byzantine Empire/ Eastern Roman Empire.) In (643 AD) the King of Fulin Bo duoli (波多力; i.e. Kōnstantinos Pogonatos Κωνσταντῖνος ὁ Πωγωνάτος, "Constantine the Bearded", the nickname of Constans II). sent an embassy offering red glass, green gold gems, and other articles. The Taizong Emperor favored them with a message under his imperial seal, and graciously granted them presents of silk.
Constans II: Bo duoli (波多力; the name derived from the Emperor's fabled magnificent beard Kōnstantinos Pogonatos Κωνσταντῖνος ὁ Πωγωνάτος, "Constantine the Bearded."
Music: Ο Θεός ήλθοσαν έθνη (O God, the Heathens Have Come)
The young Constantine IV (Center left)- standing next to his co emperor and brothers. Mosaic from Sant'Apollinare in Ravenna, Italy
* "Ta Shih," the Tang loan word for Arabs is derived from the Persian تازی "Tazi" for Arabs.
* In the "New Book of Tang" - much of the above is nearly identical, however, in addition the book mentioned that:
"Fu-lin obtained peace by an agreement, but in the sequel became subject to Ta-shi."
In the second year of the period Qianfeng (乾封 qián fēng) (667 C.E. Middle of Emperor Gaozong of Tang's reign) they sent an embassy offering Ti-yeh-ka (a highly valued western medicine pill.) In the first year of the period Dàzú (大足) (701 C.E. Reign of Empress Wu Zetian, when she usurped her sons' throne and declared herself Empress of a new dynasty) they again sent an embassy to our court.
The Great Buddha at the giant Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang was carved
from Wuzetian's own likeness. The giant statue of the Buddha sits flanked by many
muscular Dharmapalas (Buddhist warrior guardians) and Arhats (Abbots)
In the first month of the seventh year of the period Kaiyuan (719 C.E. Early Reign of the Xuanzong Emperor of Tang Li Longji) their lord sent the ta-shou-ling (an officer of high rank) from T'u-huo-lo (Tokharestan: Modern Khazarstan) to offer lions and antelopes, two of each. A few months after, he further sent ta-te-seng ("priests of great virtue" *Possibly a Nestorian priest: commonly sent by the Syriac residents to China) to our court with tribute.
In the south it faces the great sea. In the east of the city there is a large gate; its height is over twenty chang (over 235 feet); it is beset with yellow gold (bronze) from top to bottom, and shines at a distance of several li (Chinese miles.) Coming from outside to the royal residence there are three large gates beset with all kinds of rare and precious stones.
On the upper floor of the second gate they have suspended a large golden scale, twelve golden balls are suspended from the scale-stick by which the twelve hours of the day are shown.
Mese, ἡ Μέση : The Main Avenue of Constantinople: The street was the main scene of Byzantine imperial processions. Its ancient course is largely followed by the modern Divanyolu Avenue today. The Mese was the route followed by imperial processions through the city at least until Komnenian times. The most characteristic was the triumphal entry of a victorious emperor, who entered the city through the Golden Gate and followed the Mese to the Great Palace, while jubilant crowds lined along the street would greet him and the imperial army back home.
The Mese was 25 metres wide and lined with colonnaded porticoes which housed shops. The Mese started at the Milion monument, close to the Hagia Sophia, and led straight westwards. It passed the Hippodrome and the palaces of Lausos and Antiochus, and after ca. 600 meters reached the oval-shaped Forum of Constantine where one of the city's two Senate houses stood. This stretch of the street was also known as the Regia (ἡ Ῥηγία, "Imperial Road")
Clepsydra- or waterclock: Below: a more elaborate version based off the invention of Ctesibius, a Greek inventor and mathematician who lived in Alexandria Egypt during the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
In the palaces, pillars are made of lapis lazuli, the floors of yellow gold (probably bronze,) the leaves of folding doors of ivory, beams of fragrant wood. They have no (Chinese styled) tiles, but rather powdered plaster is rammed down into a floor above the house. This floor is perfectly firm and of glossy appearance like jade-stone.
From "New Book of Tang"
In making the pillars of palaces they use se-se, and in making the kingposts of their roofs they use rock crystal and opaque glass; in making floors they use beams of fragrant wood and yellow gold; the leaves of their folding doors are of ivory.
ON ROMAN LIFESTYLE AND GOODS
Early Byzantine Ivory, depicting general Areobindus presiding over the games
It is customary for men to have their hair cut and wear robes leaving the right arm bare. Women have no lapels on their dresses, they wear turbans of embroidered cloth. The possession of a great fortune confers superior rank on its owner.
From "New Book of Tang"
The men there cut their hair; they wear embroidered clothing in the shape of a gown that leaves the right arm bare.
Biblical Gift Bearer- in the Eastern fashions of the 6th century. Mosaic from Sant'Apollinare in Ravenna, Italy, in the iconographic style, dating from the 6th century. She wears an elaborate turban festooned with a bejweled ribbon.
From "New Book of Tang" Cont'd,
Married women wear embroidered tiaras. The millionaires of the country are the official aristocracy. The inhabitants enjoy wine and have a fancy for dry cakes. There are amongst them many jugglers who can issue fire from their faces, produce rivers and lakes from their hands, and banners and tufts of feathers from their mouths, and who, raising their feet, drop pearls and jadestones.
They have clever physicians who, by opening the brain and extracting worms, can cure mu-sheng (a sort of blindness.) The inhabitants are in the habit of cutting their hair and wearing embroidered clothing; they drive in small carriages with white canopies; when going in or out they beat drums and hoist flags, banners, and pennants.
Early Byzantine mosaic depicting a richly bejeweled woman appears in a mosaic as a personification of the then prosperous metropolis of Edessa. 5th-6th Century C.E.
Scantily clad Central Asian and Middle Eastern dancers, they still bear strong
Indo- Hellenistic influences.
There are lambs which grow in the ground; the inhabitants wait till they are about to sprout, and then screen them off by building walls to prevent the beasts which are at large outside from eating them up.
Tree Wool? In this section, the author shared the then prevailing conceptualization of cotton, a legendary zoophyte of Central Asia, once believed to grow sheep as its fruit. It was believed the sheep were connected to the plant by an umbilical cord and grazed the land around the plant. Underlying the legend is the cotton plant, which was unknown in Northern Europe before the Norman conquest of Sicily. The Europeans of the Early Middle Ages depicted the cotton plant ^as sheep that are grown in clusters from a plant stalk. Incidentally, the German word for cotton is literally Baumwolle, which translates as "Tree Wool."
Art by Cmy Cai
The country contains much gold, silver, and rare gems. There is the jewel that shines at night; the the moon-shine pearl; the chicken-frightening rhinoceros stone; large conches; mother-of-pearl, carnelian stones; jadeites; corals; amber; and all the valuable curiosities of the West are exported from this country.
18th century Cabinet of Curiosities
* "Chicken-Frightening Rhinoceros Stone" may be the legendary Lapis alectorius~ alectoria or capon stone. It is a non-precious stone found in the gizzard of capons (young, castrated roosters). In medieval magic it is believed to be an effective amulet, granting the wearer a heightened sense of courage and boldness.
During the long reign of Justinian I, his allies, the Gokturks reported to him that they had succeeded in campaigns against 1 of the northern Chinese states (Northern Zhou or Northern Qi) in the Far East. For this, Justinian congratulated them on their success. At the time, the steppe- spanning Gokturk Khaganate almost monopolized trade along the overland Silk Road. However- when China was reunified under the Sui, the Chinese emperors sought out ways to reconnect with "Daqin" (Rome) in the west. With the meteoric ascension of the Arab Muslims, the Byzantines also attempted to cultivate close relationships with the Tang in order to counter balance the Umayyad Caliphate.
The Byzantine Empire at its territorial height, after Belisarius had successfully recovered much of the lost western Roman Provinces for Justinian. However, after Justianian's death, the much weakened and battered Byzantines and the Sassanid would both suffer fatal defeats at the hands of the Arab Muslim armies under the ascendant Rashidun Caliphate (and later the Umayyad Caliphate.)
The Tang Empire at its greatest extent from 648-672. Orange represented provinces directly ruled by the centralized imperial court where as yellow represented the various protectorates and frontier military prefectures on the empire's frontiers.
The Byzantine Empire in 717 during the 20 Years Anarchy. Palace intrigues and invasions by flood of hostile Arab, Slavic, Bulgar, and Germanic enemies from all directions have drastically reduced the Byzantine empire in the 7th century. With the catastrophic loss of Northern Africa, the Levant, most of the Italian Peninsula and even much of Thrace and the Greek heartlands, the empire desperately clung on its Anatolian holdings and a sprinkling of fortified coastal cities. However, even in the most dire moments the massive series of walls surrounding Constantinople held on and they were able to survive for several more centuries.
Tang Chinese sources also recorded how Sassanid prince Peroz III (636–679) fled to Tang China following the conquest of Persia by the growing Islamic caliphate. The prince's descendants would eventually intermarry with the Li imperial clan of Tang.
What is also interesting is that the embassies correlated with the reign of 4 of the most powerful Tang Emperors. Emperor Taizong, his son Gaozong, Gaozong's concubine- turned wife Wu Zetian, and also that of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. Which meant that the Byzantines conducted affairs with the Tang during the height of its able early Emperors.
The Tang were not alone in recording the details of powerful empires. For just as the Tang was recording Fulin, the court scholars of Fulin did the same in kind as well.
The Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, writing during the reign of the warrior emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641,) relayed information about China's geography, its capital city Khubdan (Old Turkic: Khumdan, or Chang An)
Simocatta correctly pointed to its reunification by the Sui Dynasty (581-618) as occurring during the reign of Maurice, noting that China had previously been divided politically along the Yangzi River by two warring nations. This seems to match the conquest of the southern Chen dynasty in southern China by northern Emperor Wen of Sui (r. 581-604).
Simocatta also provided cursory information about the geography of China along with its customs and culture, deeming its people "idolatrous" (as in pagans) but wise in governance. He also noted the current Tang ruler Taisson whose name meant "Son of God" (Chinese: Tianzi, although this could be derived from the name of contemporaneous Emperor Taizong 太宗 of Tang.
AFTER THE TANG
However, despite this separation, exchanges between the Byzantines and that of the Chinese Emperors did not cease. From Chinese records it is known that Michael VII Doukas (Mie li sha ling kai sa 灭力沙灵改撒) of Fu lin dispatched a diplomatic mission to China's Song dynasty that arrived in 1081, during the reign of Emperor Shenzong of Song.
In the massive "History of the Song" written during the Mongol- ruled Yuan dynasty, more information about the Byzantine Empire was compiled in the records. With several antiquated and anachronistic segments directly lifted from Han dynasty passages quoting that of Daqin (Rome) while other passages were more contemporary, with descriptions of christian churches etc possibly from Yuan merchants.
One of the greatest piece of Chinese record about the Byzantine empire was actually written during the Mongol- led Yuan dynasty, Wenxian Tongkao, 文献通, written by the great Yuan scholar Ma Duanlin. There, he devoted a chapter and many pages to chronicle and sort out the diplomatic exchanges between the various Chinese dynasties and the Byzantine empire across the ages, beginning with Han and Roman Empire and ending with his Mongol dominated era. In the texts he listed many landmasses and peoples that were rediscovered in the Mongol conquests and connected these people with their ancestors that conducted affairs with the Chinese states.
Even in the 14th century, when the Yuan dynasty was toppled by the newly risen Ming dynasty. In 1371, the newly enthroned founding ruler of Ming- the Hongwu Emperor, attempted to rekindle relations with the kingdom of Fu lin 拂菻 in the west. Unfortunately, both the millennium- spanning empire of Fu lin and its capital would fall to the Turkish cannons in 1453.
Music: Ὁ Μονογενὴς Υἱὸς
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