Did Plato and the ancient Greeks know about China?


This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora and updated on January 19, 2019:

Would Plato have known of the existence of the Far East (China)?

With the caveat that an absence of evidence from extant historical sources doesn’t necessarily mean Plato (or any other highly educated man of the 4th century BCE Greek world) wouldn’t have known of the existence of China, it’s unlikely he did. Historians are in broad agreement that Plato’s works have all come down to us, and there are no stray references to works he might have written that would give credence to a claim that he knew of China.

Herodotus or those who came before him in the 5th century (Anaximander, Hecateus of Miletus) don’t make reference to specific lands to the east of the Central Asian steppe. In fact, even though Herodotus himself clearly knew of the existence of India and writes of it explicitly it in The Histories, he says (4:40) that “Asia is inhabited as far as India, but the territory east of India is uninhabited, and no one can say what sort of land exists there.” (From the Landmark Herodotus, p. 297).

Plato was born either in 428/427 or in 425/424 BCE, and Herodotus died somewhere in the years between (about 425 BCE), so it’s possible that in the roughly 80 years of his life he may have encountered others with more advanced knowledge of geography further afield. But remember that the Peloponnesian War was the major formative event of his life, occupying his whole young adulthood, and that for the rest of his life the Greek world was occupied primarily with matters in the Aegean, not far beyond the coastal settlements of Asia Minor.

“China” — or, rather, the numerous, fragmented feudatories that remained after the old Zhou state’s crisis in 771 BCE — was in the time of Plato already in what historians call the Warring States Period: warfare had intensified and become more totalistic, the stakes higher as technologies of slaughter (and willingness to deploy them) improved. China, too, was very inward-focused.

It’s not until the 3rd century BCE, after the unification of Qin, that we have evidence of the Greek world — now Rome’s world, really — being fully aware of the existence of a civilization in what is now China. In the 2nd century, a Han Dynasty emissary named Zhāng Qiān 张骞 ventured quite far west after many misadventures but does not appear to have reached the frontiers of Rome. He did, however, encounter people likely of Hellenistic descent who lived in the Ferghana Valley of modern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. But this is long, long after Plato’s death.

Kuora is a weekly column.