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.


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)

Since the Ta-Shi大食 (Muslim armies of the Umayyad Arabs) had conquered these countries they sent their commander-in-chief, Mo-i (Muawiya I, founder of the Umayyad Caliphate) to besiege their capital city; the means of an agreement they obtained friendly relations and asked to be allowed to pay every year tribute of gold and silk. in the sequel they became * subject to Ta-shi. (likely stemmed from what the Arabs told the Tang since much of the overland Silk Road is incontrovertibly part of the Islamic Caliphate's domains.) 

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."

NOTE~  Arabs vigorously took one imperial Byzantine city after another along the coast of Ionia. Finally in 672, Muawiya captured the peninsula of Cyzicus, only 50 miles (80 km) from Constantinople- then ruled by the son of Constans II- Constantine IV. The Arabs had brought with them heavy siege weapons and began the siege of Constantinople in 674. Despite this, Constantinople was defended with equal zeal. The defenders, armed with Greek fire repelled every Arab assault. Finally in 678, after suffering massive casualties, the Saracens withdrew and Muawiya accepted an offer of peace. By 680, Muawiya was dead and Constantine IV, now at the height of his popularity. For the time being, the empire was preserved.

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.


The walls of their capital of Fulin (Constantinople) are built of granite, and are of enormous height (the Theodosian triple walls.) The city contains in all over 100,000 households (some 500,000 to 600,000 inhabitants.)

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")

A human figure has been made all of gold of the size of a man standing upright, on whose side, whenever an hour has come, one of the golden balls will drop, the dingling sound of which makes known the divisions of the day without the slightest mistake (a clepsydra- or water clock.)

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.

Inhabited places are close together. The eaves, pillars, and window-bars of their palaces are frequently made with crystal and opaque glass. 

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.

When, during the height of summer, the inhabitants are oppressed by heat, they lead water up and make it flow over the platform, spreading it all over the roof by a secret contrivance so that one sees and knows not how it is done, but simply hears the noise of a well on the roof; suddenly you see streams of water rushing down from the four eaves like a cataract; the draught caused thereby produces a cooling wind, which is due to this skillful contrivance (likely elaborate system of pressurized water pipes and rain gutters.)


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.

Vegetable Lambs (of Proto- Tartary)

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 navel of these lambs is connected with the ground; when it is forcibly cut the animal will die, but after the people have fixed the buds themselves' they frighten them by the steps of horses or the beating of drums, when the lambs will yield a sound of alarm, and the navel will be detached, and then the animal may be separated from the water-plant. 

Gems and Trade- able Goods 

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. 


To understand the context of the two empires, one must consider placing the timeline of the two empires together for comparison. As the inheritor of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire naturally pre-dates that of the Tang by several centuries. During this time, both the Chinese and the  late Romans (the Chinese called them "Daqin" meaning "Great Qin") still attempted to rekindle their prior relations in the exchange of silk via the Silk Road. However, due to the conflict in the Middle East- the two parties could only do so through powerful middlemen, be they the Sassanid Shahs, or the various steppe Khaganates (Rouran, Gokturk etc.)

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.

As a general point, the Tang could be tabbed to have risen contemporaneously as that of Islam in the early 600s. So sandwiched right after the heyday of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian and between the catastrophic decline the Byzantines suffered at the hands of the coming Arabs, Slavs, and Bulgars.

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.)

Music: Metropolis

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. 


Because of the continual Islamic incursions, it is in this context that the Byzantines tried to reach out to the Chinese by sending gift bearing missions, its priestly dignitaries, and trade missions. It would seem that great minds also worked alike- for when the Sassanids- the once mortal nemesis of the Byzantines lost their Iranian heartlands to the Arabs, the last Sassanian Shah Yazdegerd III (r. 632–651), sent diplomats to China for securing aid from Emperor Taizong (considered the suzerain over Ferghana in Central Asia,) which may have also prompted the Byzantines to send envoys to China amid their recent loss of Syria to the Muslims. By the 660s, the Tang clashed several times with the Umayyad Caliphate in Central Asia.

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.

And here is where our story first began, where the two Emperors exchanged greetings and gifts in 643. The greetings and exchanges would be a mainstay throughout the Tang dynasty and embassies with the Byzantines were conducted in 667, 701, 711, 719, and 742- all during the rule of several of early Tang's most capable monarchs. Unfortunately, with the Tang losses in the aftermath of the disastrous An Lushan Rebellion in 755-763, much of western Tang territories- those directly adjacent to the Silk Road was lost to the resurgent Tibetan Empire and various ambitious Khaganates in the region. Eventually the majority of Central Asia would be conquered by steppe polities with deep Islamic ties where they again acted as the middlemen in the trade along the Silk Road.


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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henrique said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Der said…

The Tang made contact with the Byzantine Empire. It's always been a cliche to say that the Chinese thought their country of China was the 'center of the world' being surrounded by Barbarians. Obviously since the Han knew about Rome, and the Tang knew about the Byzantines, Islamic Caliphate, Sassanids, Indians, ... then this can not be true. China DIDN'T think it was the center of the world, but rather perhaps the most advanced civilization in a world of civilizations, where advanced products like glass came from Byzantium, religions like Buddhishm/Zoroastrianism/Islam/Christianity came from India/Persia, etc, etc...

I wonder what Taizong of Tang thought about these civilizations? Did he know the great legacy of the Roman Empire embodied by Constantinople? was he wary of the rising power of the Arabs and Islam? did Taizong's successors feel sorry for the fall of Sassanid Persia and the rise of Abbasids? Did any of them know about the new civilization even more west than Byzantium, namely the Latin West ??
Dragon's Armory said…
The Tang were fond of the Byzantines, yes, in a sense that they are struck by curiosity.
As for the Islamic Caliphates, the Tang certainly preferred the Sassanids- the Chinese in general had always liked the Persians. After the Sassanids were displaced eventually the Tang had a see saw relationship with the Umayyads. They conducted diplomacy, but also played rival Turkic clans in Central Asia against each other. The Tang warred with the Umayyads at least twice and defeated them, but was in turn defeated by the newly risen Abassids in Talas.

Eventually the Tang and the Abbasids made up and became allies against the Tibetan Empire as Tang power waned. The rise of Islam and the rise of hostile steppe powers eventually stopped the Chinese's direct connection with the west. And the Byzantines suffered a similar fate from the loss of its territories in the Middle East.
Der said…
Chinese always like the Persians. I've always thought this too. Much of what is 'Chinese' culture, from fashion to dance to music comes from Persia. It's a pity they were conquered first by Alexander than by the Arabs and converted to Islam, although I think Islam adopted much from Persian government, culture and language.
Dragon's Armory said…
I always kind of had a soft spot for the Iranians- and the Persians (Persians are an important ethnic group inside Iran but there are many ethnic groups) beautiful people, culture etc. A rare bunch who governed big but were tolerant and in turn loved by their minorities and those they liberated even centuries later- remember that the Hebrews even thought of Cyrus as a Messiah. Not only that but they been around around the time we been around. Better yet, always had a pretty good relationship with the Chinese and respected each other's boarders and saw each other as the respective masters of their own domains.

I share your sentiment that because of their geography that they were overmatched by invaders. However I think we should go with the cliched but somewhat truthful statement: "Don’t Cry Because It’s Over, Smile Because It Happened." Their ancient empires were great, but the people and their native ways for the most part endured.
henrique said…
"Western regions" was used to refer to all regions to the west of China through the silk road and beyond, such as the Indian subcontinent (as in the novel Journey to the West). In other words, Central Asia, Xinjiang, Middle East and South Asia as "Persia". The ming treasure voyages by zheng he were known as 鄭 和 下 西洋, no? Voyages to the western oceans. Indian ocean/西洋.

Of all the Iranic tombs dating from the Sui Dynasty, it's almost all Sogdian.





Another non-Persian:

True Persia is only a region along the Persian Gulf, which is not even the whole territory of Iran. Zoroaster lived and was born in what is today Afghanistan/greater khorasan area.
The history of Central Asia is one of the most neglected of all, almost always referred to as nomad or "Persian", the Chinese need wheat to make noodles and how wheat that was first domesticated in the Middle East could even exist in the Far East? if not through cultivation all the way between Mesopotamia and neolithic cultures of northern china. Oxus civilization, tarim mummies, gandhara, all these guys grew cotton, the cottonopolis of the Sassanid empire was merv. An Lushan was half Sogdian. It is very likely the smuggling of silkworm eggs into the Byzantine Empire by justinian I had come from sogdiana or bactria, "sogdian silk" on google images for some visual idea. Xinjiang was made up of 36 city-states and was the first region to cultivate bombyx mori silk outside of china proper.

Dragon's Armory said…
The ancient Persians called their state Ehran or Iranshahr though right? Wasn't Persia an exonym?

Also the images from the Sui tombs looks absolutely amazing. I have only found fragments of them here and there, and in lower quality, but I can't believe they now have articles about them. Looks like I am going to through some digging on those. Really fabulous and unique aesthetics. People have always fixated on the Tang and Tang's relations with Central Asia and the Middle East where as the Sui had been conducting affairs with them as well.

Speaking of which, since we are talking about figures with western blood. Another character who might have came from the far flung regions of the Sui bordering Central Asia or had Central Asian ancestry was Wang Shichong- the brief emperor of Henan and contender with Li Shimin on his Hulao Campaign.


I have ran into sources simply stating that he had Huren ancestry, but it's very vague, some sources claim he's simply Turkic, maybe Caspian Turkic, Graff might have mentioned that he had Sogdian ancestry. Since many Sogdians are traders along the Turkic Silk Road I am not surprised.
henrique said…
Hmmmm by persians i mean farsi-speaking people. The byzantine never called themselves byzantines, but romans, we all know they were greek-speaking people

Yes, i feel like a lot was going on since the han dynasty. Traditional Chinese narrative tells us the story of the Han Chinese princess Liu Xijun (劉細君) sent to marry a barbarian Wusun king during the Han dynasty, with the pipa being invented so she could play music on horseback to soothe her longings. The scholarly consensus is that Buddhism first came to China in the first century CE during the Han dynasty, through missionaries, who in turn just followed all the trade routes established by merchants. The Chinese glass objects from the Warring States period and Han Dynasty vary greatly in chemical composition from the imported glass objects. The glasses from this period contain high levels of barium oxide (BaO) and lead, distinguishing them from the soda-lime-silica glasses of Western Asia and Mesopotamia. War of the Heavenly Horses. Blah blah..

where it says "Pre-Islamic contacts with Central Asia":


China is part of the world just like anywhere else, i mean why not? It is hard to say if the Tang dynasty would have been exposed to foreign influence more than the yuan dynasty.... or if all dynasties of Chinese history were more or less equivalent in xenophobia and embracing what is outside. Tansen Sen asserts that more Buddhist monks from India travelled to China during the Song than in the previous Tang dynasty, tea horse and maritime silk roads the obscure silk road no one talks about or reverse chinese influence. To this day, just some Chinese influence remains visible in South Asia and southeast asia (forget central asia).
the ancient Chinese texts from han to tang speak of culture from "western regions", which wasn't persian culture under any circumstances until around the year 1000 AD. The central asian conversion to Islam was virtually complete by the end of the Samanid Empire in 999, coinciding with the decline of the Sogdian and other eastern iranian languages, as it was largely supplanted by Persian.
What I am trying to say is the Baiyue peoples weren't Chinese at first before their sinicization. I don't want to go into too much detail but Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam and compared to Christianity, literacy was not monopolization by a priestly caste centered on dead languages ( koine greek for the Greek Orthodox Church). Such was the situation before:



Persianization/persianate society/turco-persian tradition has saved Central Asian cultures from Arabization, but it has not been so much better in terms of cultural diversity.

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