Chinese Christian Theological Association （CCTA）, Boston, August 31, 2012
* This was taken from Footnote 13 in Chapter 1 of Mark Chuanhang Shan’s History of Christianity in Xinjiang—with a brief history of the region, published in 2009 by this association.
Foreign and Chinese historians generally agree that the earliest written record of the ancient history of Xinjiang and Central Asia is found in the historical records of China’s Han dynasty. It was China’s Han dynasty court that dispatched Zhang Qian and later Gan Ying on separate missions to the Western Regions, thereby formally documenting the Silk Road that connected Europe and Asia and the local conditions of the different people groups in the Western Regions.
According to the History of the Eastern Han, by historian Fan Ye from Song of the Southern dynasties, in 97 A.D. (the 9th year of Han Emperor He), General Ban Chao, the Han dynasty satrap in the Western Regions (stationed near modern-day Kucha, on the north side of Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin) sent his deputy general Gan Ying as an envoy to Da-qin (also called Li Jian, that is, the Roman Empire). His delegation arrived on the eastern bank of the Western Sea (the Mediterranean Sea), at the city of Antioch, which was then the provincial capital of Syria in Roman Empire, went to its harbor Seleucia (from where the Apostle Paul had started his first missionary journey 51 years earlier), and then returned home.
But one of the traditional accounts among [Chinese] historians is that Gang Ying only went as far as the Persian Gulf before returning home. This is actually a misunderstanding. According to the account in the “Treatise on the Western Regions” in Fan Ye's History of the Eastern Han, “In the ninth Yong-yuan year of Han Emperor He, the satrap Ban Chao sent Gan Ying as an envoy to Da-qin. He reached Tiao-zhi. On the shore of the sea that he planned to cross, Gang Ying was told by the sailors of the western border of An-xi: ‘The sea is vast. With favorable winds, the roundtrip takes three months. If the winds are not favorable, it can take up to two years, so those making the journey must have food supplies for three years. On the sea, people quickly become homesick, and some die.’ Hearing this, Gang Ying stayed put.”
Here, An-xi refers to Persia, or ancient Iran; its First Persian Empire was the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 B.C.). At its largest, the Achaemenid Empire stretched west to the Mediterranean Sea, including the whole of modern-day Turkey in Asia Minor, also known as “the western border of An-xi.” The Achaemenid Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great of the Macedonian-Greek Empire, and after Alexander’s death, his four generals divided up the empire. One of the four generals, Seleucus, took over the territory from east of the Mediterranean Sea to central Asia, and declared himself king of the Seleucid Empire (312-63 B.C., which Han dynasty historical records called Tiao-zhi). This is the accurate account recorded in the History of the Eastern Han, that “An-xi after the war was part of Tiao-zhi and was ruled by a great general who also ruled all the neighboring small cities.” The period in which Gan Ying was sent as an envoy to Da-qin (Rome) was during the Parthian Empire of An-xi a.k.a. Persia (247 B.C. - 224 A D).
Furthermore, the History of the Eastern Han says, “The capital city of Tiao-zhi sits on a hill and its circumference is more than 40 li. It overlooks the Western Sea and is surrounded on the south and northeast sides by seawater; the only land route is in the northwest corner, there are no roads to the other three sides.” From the capital, the route back home “headed north then east, reaching An-xi after more than 60 days on horseback.” The geographic features described here match those of Antioch (the modern-day Turkish city of Antakya), the capital of the Seleucid Empire (Tiao-zhi), even though at that time it was part of the Roman Empire. Elsewhere, it says that when Gan Ying arrived, he “traveled west from An-xi…then south across the river, then southwest for 960 li to the Kingdom of Luo on An-xi’s westernmost border. From there, going south by ship across the sea, was the route to Da-qin.” The river mentioned here would be the Euphrates River. The location of the Kingdom of Luo would be the Roman province of Syria, of which Antioch was the provincial capital, although based on pronunciation Luo might refer to the Roman Empire. Therefore, putting all this together, we know that the location from where Gan Ying planned to cross the sea should be the Seleucia harbor in Antioch (or modern-day Turkey’s Samandağ).
According to descriptions of the Silk Road by a Macedonian trader also from the first century A.D., Antioch was the westernmost starting point of the Silk Road, which then crossed the Euphrates River at Hierapolis (Menbij), entering Persia’s Parthian Empire (see page 9 of the book). The route is the same as Gan Ying’s route as recorded in the History of the Eastern Han. That is to say, the route that Gan Ying took in his travels was the Silk Road, with Antioch─which was on the shore of the Western Sea (Mediterranean Sea)─as the end point of this route. Going further west was a route that the Chinese people were not familiar with. The History of the Eastern Han also described and praised Da-qin’s location, capital, customs, prosperity and greatness, political system, king and people, though this was not firsthand information obviously.
According to the Book of Acts in the Bible, the city of Antioch was of great significance in the history of Christianity. Not only was the first church of non-Jews established here, but this was also the church that commissioned the first great missionary: the Apostle Paul. The port of Seleucia was where Paul, accompanied by church networker Barnabas, boarded a ship on his first missionary journey (46-48 A. D., see Acts 13-14). In the autumn of 59 A.D., Paul crossed the Mediterranean Sea by ship for Rome, but on the way encountered “a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island.” The ship was destroyed and he floated at sea for 14 days. The passengers overcame many hardships and barely survived. In the spring of 60 A.D., he finally arrived in Rome (Acts 27-28). Forty years later, what the sailors in Seleucia told the Han envoy Gan Ying was certainly no exaggeration: ‘The sea is vast. With favorable winds, the round-trip takes three months. If the winds are not favorable, it can take up to two years …” So Gan Ying looked out over the Mediterranean Sea, heaved a great sigh, and turned back for the Han court, thus bringing to an end the furthest diplomatic mission to the West of Chinese history before the [Mongol] Yuan dynasty.
It was 1200 years later that the first successful visit was made to Rome, by the Uyghur Christian monk Bar Sauma, who was sent from Beijing by the great khan of the Mongol Empire and emperor of China’s Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, Kublai, and by the Mongol khan appointed to the Persian region of the Mongol Empire, the third Il-khan Arghun (1284-1291).
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