While researching my latest novel, SILK ROAD, I was struck by the irony of how people in medieval Europe thought of anyone who was not Christian as a ‘barbarian’. It is perhaps just human nature; most cultures, western and Oriental, think of foreigners who do not share their values and civilization as ‘primitives.’

When my Dominican monk, William, and his Templar bodyguard, Josseran Sarrazini, set out from the Kingdom of Jerusalem on their great journey eastwards they thought they were going to a land of savages.

William voices his fears: “Some say that in the land of Cathay there are creatures with heads like dogs who bark and speak at the same time. Others say there are ants as big as cattle. They burrow in the earth for gold and tear anyone who comes across them to pieces with their pincers.’

He could not have been further from the truth. The civilizations of the East were remarkably well developed. It was the west that was still living in its Dark Age. The Tatar Mongols and the Cathay Chin thought they were the barbarians.

And with good reason. My medieval travellers were astonished at what they found in Cathay; most especially – books. William carried with him a Bible, a rare and precious object in the Christian world. But in Khubilai Khan’s China everyone owned at least one almanac and perhaps an edition of the Tao. Moreover these books were not copied by hand, as they were in Christendom, but manufactured in large numbers using wood-cut plates which reproduced their calligraphy on paper. This was two hundred years before the Guttenberg printing press.

The Chinese were actually the first with many useful – and perhaps not so beneficent – inventions. They were the first to make gunpowder – ironically while looking for an elixir for eternal life.

And we’d all be lost without the compass. The original Chinese version used South not North as the cardinal direction. The prototypes were made of lodestone,  iron ore that becomes magnetized when struck by lightning.

Ancient Chinese soothsayers were the first to use them. Which is perhaps why they all pointed sooth.

And no Italy did not invent spaghetti. The Chinese had noodles two thousand years before anyone else. In 2006, archaeologists excavating a 4,000 year-old settlement at Lajia in the Qinghai Province near the Tibetian border uncovered an overturned bowl of stringy noodles buried beneath ten feet of earth. My local take-away uses the same ones, I suspect.

The Chinese also invented the wheelbarrow – but as a military weapon. A general named Jugo Liang, who lived during the Han Dynasty, used it in the second century for barricades as well as transportation. Although it put China ahead in the arms race he didn’t think of handles – they were added later. Closely guarded as a military secret the wheelbarrow did not appear in the west for another thousand years.

source: Yelkrokoyade

But perhaps the one invention that was most precious – and created the first steps towards the Global Village – was silk. Demand for the fabric was so voracious it helped link China to the outside world through trade and gave rise to the fabled Silk Road routes that eventually stretched from China to the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

women preparing silk

A scroll containing an article on silk production was found in a tomb from the Liangzhu period, two to three thousand years before Christ. The Chinese closely guarded their secrets; but it was a monk just like William who first got his hands on some silkworm eggs and smuggled them back to Europe and broke China’s strangehold on the trade.

But in 1260 when my two ill-matched malcontents set out on their epic journey, China was as mysterious to them as outer space is to us. They were still expecting man-eating ants. What they found was much better than they expected – just before it got much worse …


About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. Julia Indigo says:

    Love your blog, Colin. And you’re right – while the West was knuckle-dragging through the Dark Ages, the East was moving forward by leaps and bounds. I was exposed to the wonders of Chinese culture while studying acupuncture. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you have a 4,000 year-old culture.

    • Thank you, Julia. Acupuncture is amazing therapy – I had a tennis elbow I couldn’t shake until my doctor stuck some pins in me and voila! all gone. The sad thing about Chinese culture is the present day government doesn’t value it as much as the rest of the world!

  2. corajramos says:

    Great time in history to set a novel. Fascinating stuff.

    • Thanks Cora – I have always been fascinated by the Silk Road and research for the book just kept turning up surprise after surprise. I thought Xanadu was a product of Coleridge’s opium-fuelled imagination – and I knew shamefully little of one of Tatars, who created one of the world’s greatest empires.

      • corajramos says:

        I remember the first time I read the tales of Marco Polo. I was blown away that there were so many different life experiences “out there”. Sounds like you love/live the research as if you were traveling like him. I have Aztec waiting TBR on my desktop (wish it were on my Nook so I could get to it easier/faster).

      • I traveled about half the Silk Road – I would like to have done it all but a little thing called the Iraq war got in the way. Even what I did of it was rigorous travel. Gave me at least some idea of what an astonishing journey it must have been a thousand years ago. Few people did it all, most merchants just did a leg of it, then passed their trade goods on. PS Aztec is now finally available in Nook too! I do hope you enjoy it.

  3. corajramos says:

    I checked and Aztec doesn’t show up at all in Barnes and Noble.


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