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The Byzantines in Chinese Eyes: Translation and Commentary of Relevant Ancient and Medieval Chinese Texts

Zhiqiang Chen, Nankai University, Fellow 2005–2006, Spring

Taking advantage of my investigation in recent years of Chinese texts about the Byzantines, I have concentrated my efforts during the period of my Dumbarton Oaks fellowship on the translation of Chinese texts into English and research for the commentary. Part I of my project consists of the translation of more than one thousand Chinese historical texts into English, resulting in 500 pages. The final result of the project will be a book in English with the original Chinese texts attached, entitled Chinese Texts on Byzantium. After meticulous editorial care in textual criticism, I translated them into English with notes to help readers identify the special terms in the texts. From the translation, readers can learn abundant information on Chinese records of the Byzantine political system, material life, economic activities, customs, geographical situation, local products, religious regulations, architectural style, native plants and animals, monks (one of them retreated to a cave in southern China), technique of damask and glass, precious stones, etc. Some of the descriptions of diplomatic events and commercial relations between the Byzantines and Chinese are also interesting,

The second part of my project was comparative research and writing of a commentary on these texts with the help of the valuable rare books in the Dumbarton Oaks Library, the Georgetown University library, and the Library of Congress. The manuscript tradition of 329 books, from which the Chinese texts are cited, needs to be analyzed, and more than 100 place names, about 200 names of plants and animals as well as local products, about 50 names of drugs, and over 100 names of persons and peoples mentioned by the texts need to be identified. Also many events described by Chinese writers need to be corroborated by other historical sources, both literary and archaeological.

My investigation and translation of Chinese texts about the Byzantines represents the first collection of historical sources since 1885, when F. Hirth published China and the Roman Orient: Researches into their ancient and medieval relations as represented in old Chinese records (Leipzig-Munich, Shanghai-Hongkong, 1885), with his translation of seventeen texts from Chinese chronicles. The achievements of the scholars of the earlier generations have established a sound basis for more recent research on the topic, but have shortcomings. First of all, their collection of the sources is incomplete due to the lack of extensive research, and their reading of the sources was imperfect due to insufficient understanding of the ancient Chinese language and writing. Hirth’s translation of seventeen passages of the Chinese texts about the Roman East, quoted often by western scholars, is marred by misunderstandings of key Chinese words and sentences. Furthermore, his book does not contain all the passages which we know on the subject, even though the collection of these passages claimed a considerable part of his time. The seventeen selected passages in his book come mostly from the official dynastic chronicles, whereas there are more than one thousand passages, not only from the Chinese dynastic histories, but also from government documents, folk literature, scientific books, etc. Until now, few Chinese scholars have made an investigation about the texts relevant to Byzantium and can give a reasonable interpretation of them. Some of them, such as Zhang Xinglang, mention fewer than one hundred and fifty texts, with some useful notes and identifications. His collection was not translated into any western language, however, but appeared only in Chinese. My English translation of over one thousand Chinese texts with commentary should have academic significance for Byzantine studies, as well as for medieval European studies.

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