Europeans in Medieval China

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
1342 tomb of Katarina Vilioni, member of an Italian trading family, in Yangzhou.

Europeans in Medieval China were those in China during the second half of the 13th century and the first half of the 14th century (from 1246 to around 1350)[citation needed], during the rule of the Mongol Empire, which ruled over a large part of Eurasia and connected Europe with their Chinese dominion of the Yuan Dynasty.[1]

It is thought that thousands of Europeans lived in medieval China under Mongol rule.[2] Mainly located in Eastern Central Asia, in places such as the Mongol capital of Karakorum, European missionaries and merchants traveled around the Mongol realm during a period of time referred to by historians as the "Pax Mongolica". The most famous European visitor to China during this period was Marco Polo.


Before the 13th century, instances of Europeans going to China or of Chinese going to Europe are virtually unknown[2] except for the Roman embassies in China in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Nevertheless, Byzantine Greek historian Procopius does state that two Nestorian Christian monks eventually uncovered the way of how silk was made. From this revelation monks were sent by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (ruled 527 - 565) as spies on the Silk Road from Constantinople to China and back to steal the silkworm eggs. This resulted in silk production in the Mediterranean, particularly in Thrace, in northern Greece,[3] and giving the Byzantine Empire a monopoly on silk production in medieval Europe until the loss of its territories in Southern Italy.

European merchants in China[edit]

Niccolò and Maffeo Polo leaving Constantinople for the East, in 1259.

The brothers Niccolò and Maffeo Polo left Constantinople for the East in 1259, arriving in China two years later: They are the first known European merchants to have visited the country.[citation needed] Niccolò's son, Marco Polo, and his family received an audience with Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire and founder of the Yuan Dynasty. They made a favorable impression on the Khan and were given maps and ideas of better places to trade.[citation needed] The Polos were also allowed to spend a year in China, something previously denied to Europeans.[citation needed] Because of the Polo family, the Khan considered inviting European missionaries into his empire.[citation needed]

Others were soon to follow. The Florentine Balducci Pegolotti compiled a guide about trade in China, based on the accounts of several merchants who were already knowledgeable of the country.[citation needed] A Lombardian surgeon is also known to have reached the city of Khanbaliq in 1303,[citation needed] and a merchant, Petro de Lucalongo, is known to have accompanied the monk John of Montecorvino to it in 1305.[citation needed]

In Zaytun, the first harbour of China, there was a small Genoese colony, mentioned in 1326 by André de Pérouse. The most famous Italian resident of the city was Andolo de Savignone, who was sent to the West by the Khan in 1336 to obtain "100 horses and other treasures." Following Savignone’s visit, an ambassador was dispatched to China with one superb horse, which was later the object of Chinese poems and paintings.[4]

Venetians were also present in China. John of Montecorvino had one bring a letter to the West in 1305. In 1339 a Venetian named Giovanni Loredano is recorded to have returned to Venice from China. A tombstone was also discovered in Yangzhou, in the name of Catherine de Villioni, daughter of Dominici; she died there in 1342.[4]

European missionaries in China[edit]

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine was the first Christian monk to reach Karakorum in 1246. Catholic missionaries soon established a considerable presence in China, due to the religious tolerance of the Mongols, due in no small part to the Khan's own great tolerance: He was a brilliant political leader and openly encouraged the development of trade and intellectual avocation.

The Franciscan missionary John of Montecorvino, who arrived in China in 1294, translated the New Testament into the Mongol tongue, and converted 6,000 people (probably mostly Alans, Turks and Mongols rather than Chinese). He was joined by three bishops (Andre de Perouse, Gerard Albuini and Peregrino de Castello) and ordained archbishop of Beijing by Pope Clement V in 1311. Following the death of John of Montecorvino, John of Marignolli was dispatched to Beijing to become the new archbishop from 1342 to 1346 in an effort to maintain a Christian influence in the region. These early missionaries to China faced a great deal of opposition and ultimately paid the price.[clarification needed]

The Franciscan Friar Odoric of Pordenone visited China.

A community of Armenians in China sprang up during this period.

In 1370, following the ousting of the Mongols from China and the establishment of the Chinese Ming dynasty, the Pope sent a new mission to China, comprising the Parisian theologian Guillaume du Pré as the new archbishop and 50 Franciscans. However, this mission disappeared, apparently eliminated by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of Ming.[5]

European captives in Central Asia[edit]

In 1253, the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck reported numerous Europeans in Central Asia. He also described German prisoners who had been enslaved in iron mines.[where?] In Karakorum, the Mongol capital, he met Parisian Guillaume de Buchier, and Pâquette, a woman from the French city of Metz, who had both been captured in Hungary during the Mongol invasions. He also mentions Hungarians and Russians, and it is also known that 30,000 Alans, a group of Sarmatian tribes, formed the guard of the Mongol court in Beijing.[2]

Other instances[edit]

Before the 13th century, instances of Europeans going to China or of Chinese going to Europe are virtually unknown.[2] Although there is the case of the Chinese general Ban Chao's exploring the West in the 1st century AD and his dispatch of one of his officers Gan Ying to Rome, and the invasions of Europe by the Huns under Attila in the 5th century, the only instances of Europeans going to China were Roman embassies there in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Rabban Bar Sauma was sent as ambassador to Europe in 1287.


  1. ^ The term ‘Medieval China’ is mainly used by historians of Universal History. The dates between 585 (Sui) to 1368 (Yuan) comprise the medieval period in Chinese history. Historians of Chinese history call this period the "Chinese Imperial Era", which began after the unification of the seven kingdoms by the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). With the Ming Dynasty, the early modern era began.
  2. ^ a b c d Roux, p.465
  3. ^ "Silk Road", LIVIUS Articles of Ancient History. 28 October 2010. Retrieved on 14 November 2010.
  4. ^ a b Roux, p.467
  5. ^ Roux, p.469

See also[edit]


• An Economic Analysis of the Protestant Reformation • Robert B. Ekelund Jr., Robert F. Hébert and Robert D. Tollison • The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 110, No. 3 (Jun., 2002), pp. 646–671 (article consists of 26 pages) • Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: