China and the Chinese according to 5-13th Century Classical Armenian Sources

by Robert Bedrosian

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This article was published in Armenian Review Vol. 34 No.1-133 (1981) pp. 17-24.


References to China and to the Chinese are found scattered throughout Armenian historical sources of the 5-13th centuries. The references, which are not numerous, are of two main types: those which provide geographical information about China, and those which mention China in connection with one of Armenia's most famous lordly families, the Mamikonean house. Several Armenists have examined the information on China contained in the sources. Among them are N. Adontz (1), M. Toumanean (2), C. Toumanoff (3), and most recently, H. Svazyan (4). Some of these scholars have focused their studies on determining the geographical location of the "land of the Chenk", others have addressed the relationship between the Mamikonean house and its alleged Chinese progenitors. The present study will examine both the geographical information on China, and the question of the Chinese origin of the Mamikoneans.

The first of the Armenian geographical references to China appears in the Geography written in the 7th century by the Armenian mathematician, Anania of Shirak. Though Anania's Geography is primarily concerned with Armenia, it also briefly describes other lands. A translation of entry #37 follows:

37. Siwnika, which is Chenk', is a land of Asia, to the east of Scythia. On the west it borders Scythia, on the north and east, the Unknown country; on the south, the lands of India and of the Siwnets'ik'. Chenastan is a land of vast plains inhabited by 29 peoples, one of which, [dwelling] by the Unknown country, practises cannibalism. There are six mountains. Cinnamon and cinnamon-bark are found there from Kasia mountain, as is skiwt'ikon (?) which is of a natural fiery-red color. There are monsters, musk, many peacocks and other edible birds. And unlimited amounts of saffron are available there, to the point that if someone went hunting, dressed in white, mounted on a white horse and with a white falcon, on his return he would be completely covered with yellow. A great deal of silk is found there, and it is of a better quality than silk from any other country. Thus the inhabitants of the country are rich in artfully made silks. Their king is the Chenbakur who resides in the city of Siwra, which is in the southeastern reaches of the land (5).
The second reference to the land of Chenk' appears in chapter eleven of the History of Ghewond (8th century), and describes a perhaps fanciful incident occurring during the period 705-715. According to Ghewond, an Arab general promised the Caliph that he would make the king of Chenk' tributary. The general Mahmet left Damascus and "headed east crossing Asorestan, through the land of Persia, through Khurasan, and he went on until he arrived at a portion of the land of Chenk'. He encamped by the banks of an extremely mighty river called Botis" (6).

The general then sent an insulting letter to the king demanding taxes and 30,000 virgins. Employing a strategem, the Chenk' ruler concealed 30,000 warriors in covered sedans. At the appropriate moment the soldiers sprang out and massacred the Arabs (7). Through an overly litteral interpretation of this passage, the Armenist H. Svazyan concluded that the land of Chenk' was not China, but the area between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers, centered at Samarqand (ancient Bactria) (8).

The third geographical reference is found in the 13th century Geography attributed to Vardan Arewelts'i (d. 1270/71). Describing the lands east of Iran, Vardan mentions a country called Chinumachin with the city of Xat'a where—very much in the tradition of medieval wonder-tales about Prester John—the population was Christian. East of Chinumachin was the country of the Kushans, and then the land of Chenk' whence, Vardan states, the Mamikoneans came (9). According to Vardan, the people of Chenk' were so wealthy that even the common people dressed in silk (10).

Another medieval Armenian geographer, Het'um the Historian, has a more elaborate and more colorful account. This appears in chapter one of his History of the Tatars, written in the early 14th century:

The kingdom of Cathay is considered the richest and most noble realm in the world. Full of people and incalculable splendor, it is located by the shore of the Ocean sea. There are so many islands in the sea bordering it that no one knows their number, since no one has visited all of them. Yet as far as the foot of man has travelled thereabouts, countless luxuries, treasures, and wealth have been observed. Olive oil is an item which fetches a great price there and is much esteemed, and kings and grandees have kept it with great care as a major medicine.

There are numerous strange animals in the kingdom of Cathay, which I shall not mention. People there are creative and quite clever; and thus they have little regard for the accomplishments of other people in all the arts and sciences. They claim that they themselves are the only ones to see with two eyes, while the Latins see with but one eye, and all other peoples are blind. And their word is confirmed by the fact that, generally, they regard other people as imbeciles. For such a quantity of varied and marvellous wares with indescribably delicate workmanship is brought from that kingdom, that no one is capable of matching such goods in the scales [g5].

All the people in that kingdom are called Cathayans, and among them are many attractive men and women. But by and large, they have tiny eyes and are beardless by nature. These Cathayans have very beautiful letters, in some respects similar in beauty to Latin letters. It is difficult to describe the [religious] doctrines of the people of this kingdom. For some folk worship idols made out of metal; some worship cattle (since they work the land which brings forth wheat and other produce); some worship gigantic trees; some, the natural elements; some, the stars. There are those who worship the sun and those who worship the moon. Yet others have no belief or doctrine and lead their lives like irrational beasts. Although they are full of genius with regard to making all sorts of material goods, no acquaintance with the spiritual exists among them.

[In warfare] the people of this country are very cowardly, and must be heavily armed. However, they are extremely skilled on the seas where they defeat their enemies more so than on land. They possess many types of weapons not found among other peoples. As for the money which this people uses, it is made of sedge, of square shape and bears the royal stamp, and it is based on this stamp that the money's value is determined, great or small. If the money becomes worn through age, they take it to the royal court and exchange it for fresh money. They make vessels and other ornaments out of gold and other metals.

Only in the west is Cathay bordered by another kingdom, that of Tars [g6]. In the north is the Belgean desert, and to the south are the aforementioned islands in the Ocean sea (11).

The geographical sources considered above are, relatively speaking, late sources (7th, 8th, late 13th, early 14th centuries). There exist several earlier Classical Armenian sources which contain references to China, or rather, to the Chinese origin of an important Armenian family. The sources in question are two 5-6th century compilations, the anonymous so-called Primary History of Armenia, and the History of P'awstos Buzand. According to the Primary History, in the early 200's A.D. two sons of an important Chinese noble rebelled against Chenbakur, the Emperor of China, who was their half-brother. When the rebellion failed, they fled for refuge to the Parthian king of Iran. But the Emperor of China demanded that the rebels be sent home to face justice. The Parthian king, not wanting to kill the fugitives, but wanting to mollify Chenbakur, sent the two rebels, named Mamik and Konak, to Armenia in the west (12).

The Chinese origin of the Mamikoneans is alluded to twice in the 5th century History of Armenia by P'awstos Buzand. In the first instance, the Armenian king Pap (A.D. 367-374) told prince Mushegh Mamikonean that the Mamikoneans were as respect-worthy as the Armenian royal house itself. For, he says, "their ancestors left the kingship of the land of Chenk', and came to our ancestors [in Armenia] (13). The second reference to the Chinese ancestry of the Mamikoneans appears later in the same History. In this episode, the Mamikonean prince Manuel boldly informed king Varazdat of Armenia (374-378) that the Mamikoneans were not the vassals of the royal house, but its equals. "For", he said, "our ancestors were kings of the land of Chen. Because of a quarrel among brothers, to prevent great. bloodshed we left [that land]. And to find rest, we stopped here [in Armenia]" (14).

Armenists have interpreted the information found in the Primary History and in P'aswtos in a variety of ways. For example, Nicholas Adontz in 1908 speculated that when the early sources spoke of "the Chenk"' they referred not to the Chinese, but to the Tzans, a warlike people of the Caucasus who lived near the Mamikoneans' hereditary lands in northwestern Armenia. He derived the name Mamikonean from Georgian mama (meaning "father") plus the Armenian deminuitive ending ik (15). Adontz was challenged by Michael Toumanean who, in an article published in 1911, sought to identify Armenian Chenk' with the house of Cheng which ruled south of Lo Yang in the 5-4th centuries B.C.

According to Toumanean, the Mamikonean emigration from Cheng took place around 221 B.C., at the time of the Qin conquests, when the Man people were expelled. To Toumanean, the name Mamikonean derives from Gun-Man or Xu-Gun Man which was the hereditary title of the head of the house of Cheng (16). The orientalist H. Skold in 1925 expressed the view that the Chenk' were not Chinese, but a Turkic group dwelling by the Syr-Darya river (17). H. Svazyan, who placed the Chenk' between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers, suggested that the Mamikoneans may have come from Bactria (18). Finally, Cyril Toumanoff pointed out that the Mamikoneans' claim of exotic royal origins was nothing unusual within the Armenian political reality. For other families too claimed distinctive foreign origins. The Bagratids, for example, considered themselves descendants of the Biblical king David of Israel, while the Artsrunids claimed descent from the ancient kings of Assyria (19). Nonetheless, Toumanoff notes that the Mamikonean legend does concern China, even though the legend may not be true (20).

The origin of the Mamikoneans remains an issue of debate which probably will not be definitively resolved—at least based on the presently available Armenian historical sources (21). As for the geographical sources, for them China was a land of fantastic wealth; acknowledged, but not well known.

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