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.
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.
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 …