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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Singer

The Far, Wide, Early Thirteenth Century, Chinese Maritime World

Originally Published on

Fifty years before the arrival of Marco Polo, a late Southern Song Dynasty government official based in a port city in Southern China compiled the Gazatteer of Foreign Lands detailing knowledge of several dozen faraway places known to the Chinese.

Photo by Max Andrey on Unsplash

Dr. Yang Shao-yun’s (Denison University) new online translation of Part 1 of the Gazatteer of Foreign Lands (Zhufan zhi — 諸蕃志) is well annotated and crossed referenced and, as he notes, “…deserves to be more widely known and studied as a source for medieval Chinese geographical knowledge and perceptions of the outside world.”

The Gazatteer is lengthy and often loops back on itself because of ambiguity of place names that change over time, gaps in knowledge, straight-up errors, and inarticulate transliterations by a Chinese person listening to Arab and other traders pronounce where they have been and what they have seen. There are numerous entries from cities and countries all over Southeast Asia, South Asia, Arabia, and Eastern Africa, of how Kings, officials, and commoners lived and traveled, wore their hair, ate, and acted, what products they are known to trade, and how long it takes to get there. We travel as far away as the Mediterranean Sea to see the shining Lighthouse of Alexandria and witness the mighty force of Sicily’s Mt. Etna.

The compiler of this knowledge, Zhao Rukuo, was a maritime official posted to the port city of Quanzhou. In 1224–1225 he published what he had learned and knew about the foreign lands outside the Central Lands (China). He himself never traveled, but he had access to so many who did. Quanzhou had been a center of commerce for centuries by this time.

As David C. Kang has written, quoting John Wills, “…[the] tenth-century Chinese city of Quanzhou was ‘especially known as one of the great cosmopolitan ports of these centuries; modern researchers have found tombstones in Arabic, Persian, Syriac, and Latin, and a fine lingam from a Siva temple. The front wall of a mosque dating from the Song is still to be seen’” [East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, Columbia UP, 2010, pp 110–111].

Marco Polo himself writes about Zaitun (Quanzhou) that, “[it] is impossible to convey any idea of the number of merchants and the accumulation of goods in this place, which is held to be one of the largest ports in the world” [The Travels of Marco Polo, Milton Rugoff, Ed., New American Library, 1986, Chapter 82, Page 199].

Approximate Maritime Trade Routes (Blue), Oceans, W. W. L. A. (2018, March 15). Map of the Silk Road Routes. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

In the following select passages, we learn of penalties and punishments (crocodile pools, for one); of exotic products and glittering gems; of myth, magic, and the mundane (imagine feces tasting); and of fire and light. We see how the Chinese viewed the wider world and what it had to offer.

From the Preface

“In the Tang dynasty, Maritime Trade Commissioners were first appointed to attract traders, and since then the way of commerce has expanded further. In our dynasty (the Song), sage emperors have reigned successively and viewed humaneness and frugality as their greatest treasures. Wherever their civilizing influence has extended, foreign countries have presented their prized products, their envoys’ languages so unintelligible to us that they must go through multiple stages of indirect translation. Therefore, our emperors established offices at Quanzhou and Guangzhou to manage the trade. This was only due to a desire to lessen the people’s burden and support our dynasty’s governance — in no way can this be likened to valuing exotic goods and indulging in extravagance.”

From the entry on Champa (along the east coast of what is now Vietnam)

“If a false and libelous accusation is made, and the officials cannot ascertain its veracity, they order both the accuser and the accused to pass through a crocodile pool. The crocodiles come out and eat whoever is lying but will stay away from one who has told the truth, even if they go through the pool more than ten times.”

From the entry on Sanfoqi (on the Indonesian island of Summatra)

“This land produces beeswax, lakawood, su agarwood, ebony, camphor, ivory, and rhinoceros horn. Foreign merchants who come to this country can trade with silk parasols, umbrellas, silk resist-dyed in the lily pond pattern, rice wine, rice, salt, sugar, porcelain ware, basins and bowls and other such bulky goods, and plates made of gold and silver.”

From the entry on Shepo (the Indonesian island of Java)

This is an annotation by the translator noting that, “Zhao’s mention of the weilü is derived from Zhou Qufei’s Lingwai daida, which contains a more detailed (albeit wholly imaginary) account of the oceans beyond Southeast Asia: ‘To the south of Sanfoqi (Srivijaya) is the Great Southern Ocean. There are over ten thousand islands in this sea, with people living permanently on them. The areas further south are unreachable. To the east of Shepo (Java) is the Great Eastern Ocean. The water surface gradually inclines downward, and the Country of Women is there. Yet further east is the weilü (tail door), where the water in the ocean drains out. One is then no longer in the realm of human beings. Heading slightly northeast, one gets to Goryeo and Baekje (i.e., Korea).’”

From the entry on Xilan (the island of Sri Lanka)

“[The King’s] palace is decorated with cat’s eye gems, blue and red jewels, agate, and other assorted precious stones. Even the floor he walks on is thus decorated. The palace has eastern and western halls, in each of which stands a golden tree. The trunk and branches are all made of gold, while the flowers, fruits, and leaves are cat’s eye gems and blue and red jewels. Under each is a golden throne with opaque glass screens.”

Bali Monkey, Photo by Silver Ringvee on Unsplash

From another entry on Shepo (Java) that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the neighboring island of Bali

“There are many monkeys in the mountains, and they have no fear of humans. When people call them with the sound “xiao, xiao” (i.e., whistling), they immediately come out. When fruits are thrown to them, then the biggest monkey comes out first. The locals call it the Monkey King. When it has finished eating, the other monkeys eat what it leaves behind.”

From the entry on Calicut (on the west coast of India)

“This country has much sandy ground, so when the king wishes to go out, he first sends out an official and over a hundred soldiers with water to sprinkle on the ground to prevent strong winds from blowing sand on his entourage. The king has a very refined diet and eats from hundreds of dishes that are changed once a day. They have officials called hanlin in charge of the king’s meals, who observe how much the king eats from each dish and regulate the amount to prevent him from over-eating. If the king falls ill from eating too much of anything, these officials taste his faeces [sic] and prescribe treatment based on whether it is sweet or bitter.”

From another entry on India

“Whenever a commoner commits a crime, a court official is appointed to oversee the penalty. Light crimes are punished by tying the offender to a wooden frame and flogging him fifty, seventy, or up to a hundred times. Severe crimes are punished by beheading or by being trampled by an elephant.”

From the entry on Arab lands (in this case probably Egypt)

“This country is militarily strong and its territory is large. The people are the most extravagant among all foreign countries. The climate is usually cold and snow accumulates to a height of two or three feet. That is why they prize felt rugs.”

From the entry on the Arabian Peninsula (though maybe Egypt again)

“The city’s streets are more than fifty feet wide. In the middle of each street is a roadway twenty feet wide and four feet deep that is used for camels, horses, and oxen carrying goods. On either side are sidewalks paved with bluish-black stone slabs of exquisite quality; these are for the convenience of pedestrians. The people’s homes are like those of the Central Lands, except for their roofs, which are made of thin stone slabs rather than tiles.”

From the entry on Somalia (east coast of Africa)

“This country has many sorcerers who can transform into animals or sea creatures to amaze and bewilder the ignorant. If they have a grudge against a foreign merchant ship passing through, they cast a magic spell and the ship cannot control (literally “cannot know”) whether it is moving forward or backward. Only after the dispute is mediated will the sorcerer release the ship. The country has a very strict ban on such practices.”

Lighthouse of Alexandria (Thiersch, P. H. (2012, April 26). Lighthouse of Alexandria Illustration. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

From the entry on Alexandria (in Egypt)

“They have a legend that in ancient times, an extraordinary man named Cugeni built a great tower by the sea. At its base, he had two vaults dug and reinforced strongly with bricks. One of these vaults is used to store grain, and the other to store weapons. The tower is two thousand feet tall and wide enough for four horses to ascend abreast up to two thirds of its height. In the tower’s center is a big well that is connected to the great river (i.e., the Nile) by canals to [supply water to the defenders] in the event of a foreign invasion. The whole country’s population can retreat into the tower to resist the enemy. From top to bottom, the tower can hold twenty thousand people, with some defending it and some going out to fight. On the tower’s summit, there used to be a very large mirror. If a fleet from another country came to invade, the mirror reflected their image in advance and the people could then begin preparing to defend themselves. In recent years, a foreigner came to serve this tower as a cleaner. Several years passed and people ceased to have any suspicions about him. One day, he suddenly found an opportunity to steal the mirror, threw it into the sea, and left.”

From the entry on Chabisha (a mythical Muslim land)

“This country is filled with light and is where the sun goes down. In the evening, when the sun enters the city, it makes a rumbling sound louder than thunder. So they always station a thousand men at the city gates to blow trumpets and beat gongs and drums to drown out the noise of the sun. If not, then pregnant women and small children would die of fright upon hearing the sun.”

From the entry on Sicily (the first mention of any part of Italy in Chinese)

“The country of Sijialiye (Sicily) is near the border of Lumei. It is an island in the sea, a thousand li across. Its clothing, customs, and spoken language are the same as those of Lumei. In this country there is a very deep cave that spews out fire in all four seasons. From afar one can see it emitting smoke in the morning and fire in the evening. When one gets closer, then one can feel how hot the flames are. Groups of people in this country use poles to carry large stones weighing five hundred to a thousand catties (700–1,400 lbs) to the mouth of the cave and throw them in. In just a short time, there is an explosion and fragments of stone fly out like pumice. Once every five years, fire flows out of the stone [of the cave], running down to the coast and then turning back. The forests that it passes through do not catch fire, but the stones that it touches burn up and become like ashes.”

. . .

The world was not an easy place to get around and chronicle eight hundred years ago, but the intrepid managed to do so.


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